Reviewed by Sarah Ell
Auckland University Press, RRP $39.99
It’s the classic Kiwi-bloke stereotype: the man of few words, armed with a roll of number eight wire and a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, taking on the world and beating the experts at their own game.
This biography, by former Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard, tells the story of a true Kiwi battler. The name Bill Phillips will be unknown to many. However, in the mid-20th century he became a pioneer in the burgeoning fields of economic theory and early computing.
The first part of this surprisingly readable, well-written, and thorough book tells the story of Phillips’ family history and early life on a backblocks farm. His desire to see and experience the world took him to London in the 1930s, and eventually to war service, and his imprisonment in the East by the Japanese. The story of his survival, including building a secret radio through which he and his fellow prisoners gained valuable news of the outside world, is remarkable in itself.
But on his return to London, Phillips set his extraordinary mind to even greater things. Working at the prestigious London School of Economics, he developed one of the world’s first analogue computers, designed to simulate various economic models and outcomes. The initial prototype of this was made out of pipes, water tanks, pulleys, and sheets of Perspex, and Phillips went on to refine the machine.
He also defined the Phillips curve, demonstrating the relationship between unemployment and inflation, and in doing so making a significant contribution to the field of economics.
Phillips was a true Kiwi of the old school. He was a quiet achiever who had to leave New Zealand in order to find success. He only returned to his home country when his health – greatly affected by his incarceration by the Japanese – began to fail and led to his premature death in 1970. But the legacy of Phillips, and this book, is of interest and significance to a much wider audience than those interested purely in economics.