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Herbert Reah Harper (1871–1956)

by Andrew Spaull

This article was published:

Herbert Reah Harper (1871-1956), electrical engineer, was born on 23 June 1871 in London, son of James Harper, commercial traveller and his wife Hannah, née Reah. He studied engineering at the City and Guilds Technical College, Finsbury, after attending Dulwich College. At 20 he was apprenticed to the Tyneside firm of Rennoldson and in 1893 he joined the Brush Electrical Engineering Co. In 1895 the company sent him to Malta to supervise the installation of an electricity supply system and he remained a second year as the chief engineer of the power authority. He returned to England to supervise the extension of town lighting and tramway systems. In 1899 the company sent Harper as assistant to F. W. Clements at its Melbourne subsidiary, the Electric Light and Traction Co.

In 1901 Harper replaced Arthur Arnot as electrical engineer to the Melbourne City Council. He extended and improved generation, establishing a new unit at Spencer Street, introducing three-phase transmission, and maintaining low production costs despite the rising price of imported black coal. Harper, a widely read and active professional (he was correspondent to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers), became convinced that cheap electrical power must be the corner-stone of Victoria's industrialization.

He now joined Hyman Herman of the Department of Mines in the cause of Victorian brown coal. On an overseas tour in 1911 Harper had been impressed by Germany's use of brown coal in power generation and, during the recurring interruptions to black coal supply, he experimented with the coal on a commercial basis. In 1917 he devoted his presidential address to the Victorian Institute of Engineers to the urgent need to build a modern electricity supply system fuelled from brown coal. He recommended the establishment of a public utility similar to the Ontario Hydro Electricity Commission (which he had also visited in 1911). Harper's address attracted widespread interest and he was appointed a member of the government's brown coal advisory committee chaired by Herman. This committee's report became the blue-print for the brown coal-mining and power generation scheme at Yallourn in the La Trobe valley.

In 1919 Harper successfully applied to become the first chief engineer of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. Much of his early work was in evaluating consultants' reports on proposed developments. He persuaded the commissioners to resist excursions into hydro power until after Yallourn had commenced operations. He also proposed extensions to the Newport power-station and the retention of city power-stations to provide an alternative base load, if Yallourn could not meet capacity. This proved sound advice because the Yallourn scheme ran into difficulties burning a wetter coal than expected. In later years Harper worked on projects to increase the generating capacity at Yallourn, the introduction of rural electrification and the first hydro-power scheme in the Rubicon valley.

In 1935 the S.E.C. sent him on a world tour. On retiring next year he continued to serve the community as before: as church-warden of twenty-eight years' standing to East St Kilda Anglican Church, and as member of the Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School council, the university's faculty of engineering, and Rotary. As a consultant to the New South Wales government in 1937-38 he endorsed the notion of a Snowy Mountains hydro-power project; he was also a member of the Army Mechanization Board in 1941-45. 'H.R.H.' was an inspirational figure, whether as the campfire aesthete, or as the energetic, loyal engineer despite being denied twice the S.E.C.'s highest post. A fitness enthusiast, he could be seen daily riding his bicycle to a polar swimming club or marching to the railway station dapperly dressed, 'head thrown back, cane swinging'. He was an active member of the Wallaby Club (president 1923).

A proud, old-school engineer, Harper was also an effective advocate and professional leader. He was elected first president of the Electrical Supply Association of Australia (1918), president of the Institution of Engineers, Australia (1933) and was a recipient of the Kernot and (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medals. The Harper Power Laboratory at Monash University was named after him. He rightly saw himself as one of the champions of Victoria's industrialization based on cheap power. He also knew that he was one of only two engineers (with Herman) who had turned personal dreams into permanent reality.

On 11 January 1902 Harper had married his English fiancée, Eva Beatrice Ellis, at St Alban's Church, Armadale, Melbourne. Although both clung to Old Country ways, they and their four children came to love the Australian bush. Harper died at Toorak on 27 July 1956, survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Edwards, Brown Power (Melb, 1969)
  • SEC Magazine, Sept 1936, Aug-Sept 1956
  • T. C. McCredden, The Impact of Electricity on Victoria 1880-1920 (B.Com. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1977)
  • Electricity Supply Dept, Melbourne City Council, Annual Report, papers and newspaper cuttings (held by Electricity Supply Dept)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Harper, Herbert Reah (1871–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 June, 1871
London, Middlesex, England


27 July, 1956 (aged 85)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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