Pioneering sparky broke the mould

By Roger Moroney

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Diane Storey, the first radio "sparky" in the country, with the soldering iron she was using half a century ago. Photo / Duncan Brown
Diane Storey, the first radio "sparky" in the country, with the soldering iron she was using half a century ago. Photo / Duncan Brown

One quick glance at a certificate Napier woman Diane Storey possesses with pride tells you things were a lot different back in the 1960s.

For it was a time when men apparently did certain jobs and ladies did not.

Mrs Storey smiles as she reads it again - exactly 50 years ago today when she was awarded it.

It is a certificate issued by the Electrician's Registration Board of New Zealand - a Certificate of Registration as a Radio Serviceman, and the fine print beneath that title declares that it "authorises 'him' to carry out the servicing of radio apparatus".

"They didn't have girls doing that back then," Mrs Storey said.

When she went to school servicing radios and doing electrical work was something boys did.

"I did the girls things."

But that changed when she was in the 5th form at school and her father, Alan Harris who operated Harris Sound Systems, informed her she would be leaving school.

"You're doing an apprenticeship," he simply told his daughter.

She would be entering the business alongside him and on July 22, 1960, she began her apprenticeship - forging a place as the first woman in New Zealand to embark on such a trades journey. As a youngster she had never harboured any desire to take on such a job, working with valves and electronics and audio equipment, but did enjoy helping out her dad in the shop from time to time.

So she began a correspondence course as well as carry out some initial practical jobs in her dad's workshop.

She also attended the Central Technical College in Petone for three years, which she said was "interesting".

"I was the only girl in the whole building," she said, and she shared her radio electronics training with 12 boys.

So when it came to lunchtimes she would call over to the principal's house on site and have lunch with his wife.

"Oh I was definitely treated differently," Mrs Storey said.

Some made it clear it was "no job for a girl" but she was undaunted and learned the craft of fixing audio equipment and even toasters and electric jugs and anything electrical "from the three-pin plug on".

However, a couple of the teachers were impressed at her resolve and would tell her to show people that girls were better than boys.

It was hard work, she said.

Working 40 hours a week for her dad and every night studying for her papers - which when the time came to complete went fine for the first two, although she needed a couple of cracks at the third to get it successfully sorted.

"I was getting around 3 a week then - and they took a pound a week for board."

Getting her certificate, after six years, was a very special moment and she loved the challenge of a job which she said was filled with variety - and the occasional challenging moment.

Like the time she was doing some work for Russell Pettigrew when he was running his transport company.

A photo of Diane Storey at work, published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune in June 1964.
A photo of Diane Storey at work, published in the Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune in June 1964.

She was doing some cable work and was about to clip one when someone yelled "oi!" - the cable was live.

And there was an occasion she did get a jolt when she picked up an electrical chassis while working in Auckland.

But she managed to throw it down.

It resulted in "all the guys" running up to give her mouth to mouth - until they realised she was still conscious.

Working with her dad's audio business involved helping set up sound systems for visiting acts and she got to meet people like jazz man Acker Bilk and Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. "Great times."

She eventually took up jobs with firms like Pye and GEC in Auckland and Wellington, and in 1974 was admitted as a member of the New Zealand Institute of Electronics, but with family commitments effectively hung up the soldering irons and assorted tools in the early 1980s when she worked with Falcon Electrical.

Although not quite. "I kept all my tools because I still kept using them, doing bits and pieces."

Mrs Storey said she watched with pride through the years as more young women entered the trades, although she said the electrical front had changed hugely since she entered it.

Valves had morphed to transistors and they in turn had gone the computer way.

"My grandson now teaches me how to learn the computer," she said with a smile.

And today, at the age of 72, she still gets a couple of tools out from time to time if there's a small job to be done.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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