Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Phillip O'Grady (1900–1981)

by Peter Putnis

This article was published:

Francis Phillip O’Grady (1900-1981), engineer and public servant, was born on 9 December 1900 at Thebarton, Adelaide, eldest of seven children of Irish-Catholic parents, John Micheal O’Grady, labourer, and his wife Hannah, née Hiskey. Frank’s family lived in a small whitewashed, mud-brick cottage, shared with his father’s four brothers. As a boy he developed an interest in practical electronics, a passion that became both his profession and his hobby.

Educated at St John the Baptist School, Thebarton, and Christian Brothers’ College, Wakefield Street, O’Grady won a scholarship to the University of Adelaide. Because of family circumstances, however, he joined the Postmaster-General’s Department in 1917 as a temporary messenger-boy, but soon became a junior mechanic. Retrenched in 1919 as permanent staff returned from World War I, he worked for private electrical firms before rejoining the PMG as a mechanic in 1924. He studied at night to gain engineering qualifications and moved to Melbourne, where he was engaged in the design of automatic telephone equipment. Returning to Adelaide in 1928, he established the PMG’s transmission section, which developed and installed long-distance telephone and radio systems. He was promoted to divisional engineer in 1934. On 9 June 1930 at Holy Cross Catholic Church, Goodwood, he had married Dorothy Mary Walsh.

Having served (1916-21) in the Citizen Military Forces, O’Grady enlisted for full-time service in the CMF on 23 April 1942. He was promoted to major in June and employed as a signals officer in the South Australian Lines of Communication Area. O’Grady helped to engineer improvements to the Australian Type ‘R’ carrier telegraph system, directed the installation of radio navigation aids for the Royal Australian Air Force and led a major upgrade of the overland telegraph to Darwin. On 17 April 1944 he was placed on the Retired List. Back with the PMG as supervising engineer in South Australia, he developed a trunk-line system, years ahead of other States, which enabled operators to dial subscribers directly. He was seconded in 1949 to the Weapons Research Establishment at Salisbury, rising to become chief engineer. From 1953 his duties included engineering work on the Emu Field and Maralinga atomic tests.

Returning to the PMG in 1957, O’Grady was appointed deputy engineer-in-chief, Melbourne, later that year. As deputy director-general, posts and telegraphs (1959-61), he made the controversial (but subsequently justified) decision to adopt the crossbar telephone switching system developed by the Swedish company Ericsson, contrary to an expectation that British equipment would be used. In September 1961 he became director-general, an appointment that signalled recognition of the importance of engineering expertise in an age of fast-moving technology.

O’Grady’s long-standing commitment to automation (and his Catholic-inspired anti-communism) brought him into conflict with trade unions. However, his approach to union concerns was conciliatory compared to that of the Menzies government. During the 1964 Sydney mailroom strike he strongly opposed government moves to invoke the penalty clauses of the Public Service Act that provided for the fining and dismissal of striking employees, earning him the praise of the general secretary of the Amalgamated Postal Workers’ Union of Australia, George Slater. Appointed CBE in 1964, O’Grady retired in December 1965 and returned to Adelaide three years later.

 A gifted teacher, early in his career O’Grady instructed mechanics on carrier telephony and contributed to a widely used manual on the new system. He was made a fellow in 1965 of the Institution of Radio and Electronics Engineers, Australia, and was a member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. Publishing twelve articles between 1940 and 1965 in the Telecommunication Journal of Australia on trunk-dialling systems, broadcasting networks, automatic switching and satellite communication, he elsewhere stressed the importance of links between professional engineers and management. In 1972 he presented a paper, ‘The Overland Telegraph Line Technology of the 1870s’, to a symposium convened by the Institution of Engineers and the Australian Post Office.

Deeply religious, O’Grady was president of the Knights of the Southern Cross and of the Catholic Blind Association of South Australia. In 1969 he was appointed a knight commander of the papal Order of St Gregory the Great. He was the first co-chairman (1970) of Action for World Development when it was established as a joint body of the Australian Council of Churches and the Catholic Church. Modest and gentle-mannered, he delivered Meals on Wheels until shortly before his death. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, two sons and two adopted sons, he died on 6 May 1981 at Woodville, Adelaide, and was buried in North Brighton cemetery. At his funeral he was described as a man with a great sense of humour, and with a worn expression that usually gave way to a smile.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Baker, Communicators and Their First Trade Unions (1980)
  • A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (1984)
  • Telecommunication Journal of Australia, vol 11, no 2, 1957, pp 33-4, vol 31, no 2, 1981, p 136
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 9 Dec 1965, p 21
  • Southern Cross Newspaper (Adelaide), 14 May 1981, p 5
  • B884, item S48832 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Putnis, 'O'Grady, Francis Phillip (1900–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 October, 1900
Thebarton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


6 May, 1981 (aged 80)
Woodville, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.