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Harold White (1914–1987)

by Peter Putnis

This article was published:

Harold White (1914-1987), engineer and public servant, was born on 4 May 1914 at Broughton, Greater Manchester, England, son of Perec Israel Vitofsky, artist (painter), and his wife Minnie, née Green. In 1918 his father, a naturalised British subject of Lithuanian descent, formally changed the family name to White by deed poll. In 1924 the Whites and their four children migrated to Australia and settled in Melbourne.

Educated at Elwood Central State School, Harold completed a diploma in civil engineering at the (Royal) Melbourne Technical College, while working for the State Electricity Commission of Victoria as an assistant-engineer. He later entered the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1941; M.Sc., 1943). On 15 August 1939 at the Synagogue, Toorak Road, Melbourne, he married Russian-born Sonia Phillips.

In 1938 White had joined the Citizen Military Forces but on 7 November 1942 was commissioned in the Citizen Air Force as a radar officer. He travelled extensively while serving with No.42 Radio Direction Finding Wing, Townsville, Queensland (1943-44), and at Royal Australian Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne (1944-45). Involved in the deployment of radar stations in the South-West Pacific Area, he displayed proficiency and leadership and rose to acting squadron leader (1944). His RAAF appointment was terminated on 25 January 1946.

After attempting to set up an electrical-goods manufacturing business with his brother Sydney, White joined the Commonwealth Department of Civil Aviation in Melbourne in 1950 as an engineer. Ambitious to get ahead, he actively sought promotion: in 1956 he became director of aviation buildings and property, and later of t­he airways engineering division. He was senior assistant director-general, navigational aids, electrical and mechanical engineering (1963-66). As one of Australia’s leading air-safety authorities he gained substantial experience in civil aviation through international negotiations. He oversaw the implementation of a five-year program to improve the navigation-aids network that defined Australia’s controlled airspace, including the introduction of very high frequency omni-directional equipment on busy air routes.

In December 1965 White was appointed general manager of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission in Sydney. His appointment coincided with the beginning of the satellite era and he became an influential advocate of satellite solutions to Australia’s communication challenges. He kept OTC in the forefront of world telecommunications, overseeing the completion of the Commonwealth coaxial submarine-cable network, the opening of Australia’s first satellite earth stations at Carnarvon, Western Australia (1966), Moree, New South Wales (1968), and Ceduna, South Australia (1969), and the establishment of international subscriber dialling telephone services (1976). With a reputation as a forceful negotiator in advocating Australia’s interests, he played a major international role on the Commonwealth Telecommunications Council, London, and on the board of the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium. In 1974 he defended OTC as a stand-alone, profitable, business-oriented organisation in the face of Labor government proposals to merge the organisation with the proposed Australian Telecommunications Authority (from 1975 Telecom Australia). After intense lobbying the proposals were defeated in the Senate and were later shelved following the defeat of the Whitlam government. He was appointed CBE in 1976.

White became chairman in 1977 of a task force to investigate the setting up of a national satellite system, a matter urged upon the government by the media proprietor Kerry Packer, who wanted a better system for live-television coverage. Controversially, White indicated his support for such a system during the course of the inquiry. The report’s recommendations led to the establishment of Aussat Pty Ltd in 1981 and the launching of Australia’s first domestic communications satellite in 1985.

Having retired from OTC in 1979, White was the inaugural chairman (1981-86) of the Australian Telecommunications Users Group (ATUG). His extensive community work centred on the Rotary Club of Sydney (president 1972-73). He was chairman of the council (1981-82) of Sydney College of Advanced Education. Survived by his wife and their twin daughters and son, he died on 31 July 1987 at Randwick, Sydney, and was buried in the Jewish Memorial Garden cemetery, Springvale, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Reinecke and J. Schultz, The Phone Book (1983)
  • A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (1984)
  • E. Harcourt, Taming the Tyrant (1987)
  • Contact, vol 2, no 1, 1973, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Aug 1987, p 10
  • A9300, item WHITE H, B4747, item WHITE/HAROLD (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Putnis, 'White, Harold (1914–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 June 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]

Alternative Names
  • Vitofsky, Harold

4 May, 1914
Broughton, Lancashire, England


31 July, 1987 (aged 73)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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