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Sending a strong signal

19 September 2020 109 views No Comment

RADIO GIRL: The story of the extraordinary Mrs Mac, pioneering engineer and wartime legend by David Dufty. Publisher: Allen&Unwin, 2020, pp 302, $22.99

Florence Violet McKenzie, nee Wallace (1890-1982), usually known as Violet or Mrs Mac, is someone who, up to now, I’d never heard of.

But thanks to David Dufty, an expert in Australia’s military intelligence during World War Two, I now realise how crucial she  was in training our first women code-breakers (initially in signals, not in code-breaking as such) and also, as an early feminist, in persuading the navy to establish the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS).

Importantly, Mrs Mac was Australia’s first female electrical engineer. She was also the founder of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, which was initially dedicated to teaching Morse code to women. She was also the first female member of the Wireless Institute of Australia and the first woman in Australia to hold an amateur wireless licence

As a polymath with a flair for publicity, McKenzie published ‘The Wireless Weekly’; wrote a best-selling 254-page ‘All Electric Cookery Book’ which contained over 600 recipes; and was a pioneer presenter on ABC radio. A lifelong advocate of technical education for women, she was also a financially successful entrepreneur.

During the Second World War the petite, bespectacled McKenzie presided over a hugely important enterprise. As Radio Girl chronicles, upstairs in a large old woolshed in Clarence Street Sydney, under the supervision of young female instructors who she had trained, rows of men and women in uniform and wearing headsets could be seen loudly tapping away at their small machines. It is a measure of McKenzie’s contribution to the war effort that, by mid 1945, her signalling school had trained twelve thousand Australians and Americans in Morse code, international code, and visual signalling.

After learning that Albert Einstein had undergone gall-bladder surgery in New York, McKenzie wrote to Einstein wishing him well and explained how, when teaching Morse code “down under”, she often used passages from books about his scientific discoveries. In her correspondence, she signed off as F. Violet McKenzie (‘Mrs Mac’).

Thanking Mrs Mac for enclosing  a boomerang and a didgeridoo in her letters to her father, in 1950 Einstein’s step-daughter, Margo, invited her to stay in America with the great physicist. She was unable to visit Einstein before he died in 1955. But, a signed photo of himself which Einstein had previously sent her, had, as Dufty writes, “pride of place in Violet’s living room, and each year on his birthday she would decorate it with flowers.”

Having been sickly as a child, and thin and frail as a young adult, and later seeing her brother Walter, also an engineer, succumb to alcoholism, life wasn’t smooth sailing for Violet McKenzie . But in order to be the first female enrolled in an electrical engineering course in Australia, the resourceful McKenzie had, long before Walter’s death, bought his engineering business, undertaking a number of jobs that male engineers thought were beneath them. This was because, before being able to enroll in a diploma of engineering she had to first prove she was working as an engineer!

Dufty explains that the reason Cecil McKenzie, an electrical engineer, wanted to marry her was that, when he looked so miserable about a broken valve he had bought from her wireless shop in Sydney, she burst into tears. In a low-key Church of England ceremony at Auburn in suburban Sydney, they were married on 31 December 1924. On 9 July 1926, McKenzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Sadly, she had no other children. On 30 November 1958, her much-loved but chronically-ill husband Cecil died at their home of a heart attack. He was 59.

Radio Girl features some revealing illustrations. These include a photograph of McKenzie inspecting a parade of uniformed members of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps in 1940; a group shot of WRANS visiting the flight deck of a battleship during World War Two; and a photo of members of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps instructing service personnel in Morse code in 1944.

Thinking about the life and times of McKenzie, I’m reminded of Peggy Seeger’s song ‘Gonna Be An Engineer’, which begins:

“When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy, I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys. Everybody said I only did it to annoy, But I was gonna be an engineer.”

After reading Dufty’s finely-written, well-researched and usefully-indexed biography, I strongly believe that, as well as being an inspiration to women both young and old, F. Violet McKenzie deserves to be regarded as an Australian legend.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald, The Weekend Australian, September 19-20, 2020.

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