Canberra park honours signals pioneer

Australia’s first female electrical engineer was so brilliant, she was pen pals with Albert Einstein.

CAPTIONFlorence Violet McKenzie in her Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps uniform. Story by Private Nicholas Marquis.

After discovering the world’s greatest mind was recovering from gallbladder surgery, Florence Violet McKenzie sent him a ‘get well’ letter and boomerang as a gift.

Einstein, in return, sent her an autographed photo of himself and their communication lasted until he died in 1955.

A park in Campbell, ACT, will be named after the woman fondly known as ‘Mrs Mac’ this month to recognise her dedication to service including the creation of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS).

This pioneer was a driving force behind the early innovative work in signals, wireless and radio, even opening the country’s first wireless spares shop – the Dick Smith of the time.

Head of Navy History and Heritage Miesje de Vogel said without Mrs McKenzie’s work, Australia wouldn’t have been prepared from a signals perspective for WW2.

“Without starting her school for Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) before the war, Australia would never have had enough trained Morse code operators,” Ms de Vogel said.

“At the time, the services did not intend to employ women at all in technical work – until Mrs Mac successfully petitioned Navy to establish the WRANS.

“She led the way in getting people trained, with her graduates finishing quicker, and at better speeds than those being trained by the Army.”

The school provided more than 2000 women to the WRANS and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and an additional 12,000 men from Navy, Army and Air Force with the ability to transmit Morse code.

This included American forces who were under-trained on arrival.

In 1950, she was awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for ‘voluntary service to the WESC’.

“She really stepped in and, as a civilian, made a huge difference to the war effort and to training returning service personnel for a decade after,” Ms de Vogel said.

“And she didn’t charge the students or the Commonwealth for the incredible service that she provided, asking only for a photo from each of her students for her wall.”

Mrs McKenzie died at Greenwich, in northern Sydney, on May 23, 1982.

In late 2022, the local community was encouraged to nominate names for an existing park area in Campbell.

The theme agreed on by the ACT government was ‘female Defence personnel’.

From 21 candidate submissions, although only an honorary WRANS, Mrs McKenzie appeared several times and the ACT Place Naming Committee selected her name.

Violet McKenzie Park will be open to the public and can be found behind the Campbell shops between White Crescent and Blamey Place.


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