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John Gavey

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Sir John Gavey (1842-1923)


1923 Obituary [1]

SIR JOHN GAVEY, Past-President, died on the 1st January, 1923, in his eighty-first year, having been born on the 11th August, 1842, at Jersey, where he was educated at the Victoria College.

His active professional career commenced in 1861 when he entered the service of the Electric and International Telegraph Co., and his experience of 10 years in the development of the telegraphic business under private enterprise was always highly valued by him.

On the acquisition of the telegraphs by the State in 1870 Sir John became a civil servant, receiving the appointment of Superintendent of the South-Eastern division of telegraphs and subsequently of the Great Western sub-division of the Southern division of England with headquarters at Bristol.

In 1878 he removed to Cardiff, having been appointed Superintendent Engineer of the South Wales district.

He was transferred to London in 1892 on his appointment as Chief Technical Officer at headquarters. Promotion to Second Assistant Engineer-in-Chief followed in 1897 ; to Assistant Engineer-in-Chief and Electrician in 1898 ; and to the highest post in the Department, Engineer-in-Chief, in 1902, which office he held until 1907, when he retired under the age limit, but was appointed as a Consulting Engineer to the Department in the following year.

On his retirement from Government service he acted as Consulting Engineer of the Monte Video Telephone Co. and became a Director of the United River Plate Telephone Co. and subsequently President. This, office he resigned through failing health, but remained a Director, which appointment he retained until his death.

Sir John joined the Institution as an Associate in 1872, the year after its foundation as the Society of Telegraph Engineers, and became a Member in 1877. He was elected to the Council in 1899, became Vice- President in 1900, and President in 1905. He was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1899. He was created C.B. in 1902 and received the honour of Knighthood in 1907. Of fine stature and good physique, Sir John was the picture of health and strength and it was a surprise and shock to his friends to learn a year or two before his death of his being stricken with illness from which recovery was not to be expected and suffering was to be feared. Until this illness came upon him he remained active and alert in spite of the 60 years or more of strenuous work upon which he could look back. This work covered the technical and administrative features of wire telegraphy, experiments in wireless and the development of telephony. The span that he bridged was a wide one - from semaphore telegraphs to wireless speech; for, as he himself recalled on an interesting occasion, the last of the semaphore telegraphs, that working between Liverpool and Holyhead, was abandoned and the electric telegraph substituted in the same month of February 1861 as he commenced his professional career.

In 1874 he read a paper before the Institution on " Earth Boring for Telegraph Poles," in 1878 on "Insulators for Aerial Telegraph Lines," in 1896 on "The Telephone Trunk Line System in Great Britain" and in 1900 on "Telegraphs and Telephones at the Paris Exhibition," as well as his presidential address in 1905 devoted appropriately to telegraphic and telephonic subjects. But his contributions on technical subjects were not limited to the Institution. As early as 1873 he was writing to the Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review explaining an alleged " discovery in the science of electricity," and in 1875 contributed to *the same journal a series of articles " On Telegraph Construction " which had a characteristically practical purpose, the object laid down in the prefatory lines being the endeavour " to deal with the subject in a sufficiently elementary manner to enable those members of the telegraph staff who have little or no outdoor experience to lay the foundation of that knowledge which they may be called upon to apply practically at a later date."

In 1887 he read a paper before a Cardiff scientific society "On Some Investigations in Electrical Induction,'-' which recorded the success attending the Porthcawl experiment in wireless telegraphy. Before the same society he read a paper in 1890 on " Recent Advances in Electricity and its Appliances," and in 1910 delivered the James Forrest lecture at the Institution of Civil Engineers, choosing for his subject an account of the " Recent Developments in Telegraphy and Telephony." Though telegraphy covered a longer period it is his work in telephony that looms largest outside the Department. Of the numer us early telephonic enterprises of the Government two survived, Newcastle and Cardiff, and for many years Sir John was stationed at Cardiff. The system was a small one and the telephonic activities of the Department as a whole could not provide the experience needed for embarking on a great scheme. Sir John was marked out as the man to be in charge of the telephones. He was selected to value, on behalf of the Post Office, the trunk lines purchased from the National Telephone Co. in 1895, and, when it was contemplated that the Government should undertake telephone work on a large scale, Sir John made a study of the problems involved in America and Europe. He visited the United States in 1898 and in 1905, investigating thoroughly the technical and commercial features. The design and construction of the London telephone system of the Post Office was carried out under Sir John's supervision. It was a great work well done, but his services to the State in this connection are not limited to the engineering side. It will be recalled that public clamour called for a Post Office competition, whilst the Government eventually decided upon co-operation with the existing companies. It is safe to assume that Sir John's investigations had satisfied him of the undesirability of competition and the superior benefit to the State of a co-operation leading to the general absorption on the expiry of the National Telephone Co.'s licence. It was in some quarters a very unpopular decision, but it was very prudent, and it is without doubt that to Sir John's sound judgment the ultimate policy was largely due. His knowledge of French is doubtless.to be ascribed to his Channel Island birth and training, but this knowledge was of great advantage to the Department and to the companies with which Sir John was subsequently connected. He was a Juror in the Electrical Section of the Paris Exhibition in 1900, and a delegate to the International Electrical Congress in the same year.

In 1903 he represented the Post Office at the International Congress on Wireless Telegraphy held in Berlin, as also at the Wireless Convention held there in 1906.

He paid three visits to Argentina as a Director of the United River Plate Telephone Co., and the advantage to the Institution of his knowledge of French was made evident more especially in connection with the visit of kindred Institutions during his Presidency.

Sir John was a man of simple tastes and even temper, though capable of administering a severe rebuke to a subordinate who deserved it, and always ready to stand up to his superiors with an intelligent loyalty for.the Department which he controlled. He was a man upon whom responsibility did not sit lightly, but it was carried with equanimity when he had examined his problems and was satisfied as to their solution. Self-seeking in any form was contrary to his nature, and he took what seemed almost meticulous care to ascribe to a section or individual in the Department or outside any credit which might be their due in connection with the subject with which he might be dealing. Those in close touch with him regarded him with affection based upon, respect.


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