Florence McKenzie

Florence Violet McKenzie (1892-1982), electrician, was born at Hawthorn, Melbourne, daughter of Marie Annie (born Giles) and George Wallace. From Thirroul Public School, New South Wales, she went on a scholarship to Sydney Girls' High School. In 1915 she passed chemistry I and geology I at the University of Sydney. Always interested in electricity, she became Australia's first woman electrical engineer after completion of the Sydney Technical College Diploma course in 1923. To meet the Technical College requirement for practical experience, in 1921 she took over a business which sold electrical engineering goods at No. 6 Royal Arcade, Sydney, and apprenticed herself. Although she worked as an electrical contractor installing electric light and power, she received so many requests at her shop for radio parts she allowed the electrical business to fade out and specialised in radio.

Informed by her customers who were experimenting with wireless broadcasting and receiving, she became passionately interested herself. She was Australia's first certificated woman radio telegraphist and, in 1924, the only woman member of the Wireless Institute of Australia, using morse code to broadcast on her own transmitter to operators all over the world. In 1924 she married Cecil Roland McKenzie who became a partner in her business. There were no children to the marriage.

Mrs McKenzie shared the then widely held belief that electricity could free women from much of the drudgery of housework. To this end, in 1934, she formed the Electrical Association for Women, a non-profit organisation to provide for women's electrical needs. For a modest annual subscription, women could use the club rooms in Clarence St, Sydney, attend lectures and excursions, receive advice on all electrical matters, and have their appliances tested for safety. The Association's showroom also allowed comparison of electrical appliances from different manufacturers. In conjunction with the Association's activities, Mrs McKenzie compiled a cookery book and electrical guide. Published in 1936, this went to seven editions, the last of which was released in 1954 under the auspices of the Sydney County Council.

She is more widely known for her formation in 1939 of the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps which became the nucleus of the WRANS. Anticipating the declaration of war, she offered evening classes to women volunteers at the rooms of the Electrical Association for Women. Once war began, her signalling corps school expanded to an adjacent warehouse with more various equipment. The classes attracted men wanting to qualify for the RAAF and the centre was subsequently used as a training school for soldiers and commercial aircraft pilots. Mrs McKenzie's suggestion, made in late 1940, that her trainees could contribute more directly to the war effort as members of a Women's Royal Australian Naval Service, was supported by the Commodore-in- Charge Sydney (tests proved her trainees were most proficient) but strength of tradition delayed ministerial consent until April 1941.

Altogether Mrs McKenzie trained over 10,000 servicemen in morse, visual signalling and international code, and 3000 women, a third of whom went into the Services. In 1950 she was awarded an OBE for her wartime services. She became a fellow of the Australian Institute of Navigation, an honorary flight officer in the RAAF, and a member of the Royal Naval Amateur Radio Society. Her contribution has been honoured by plaques in the chapels of the Flying Angel House and the Missions to Seamen.

A generous, enthusiastic woman, Florence Violet McKenzie lived a full life, following other interests in subjects as diverse as fine china, antique furniture and tropical fish. She corresponded regularly with Albert Einstein until his death in 1955. She herself retired in 1956 but continued to help occasional pupils with special difficulties in her own home. She died in 1982.

Rosemary Broomham