Dr John Campbell from the Department of Physics and Astronomy recounts a particularly memorable moment during the 1970s about the VC (at the time) and the testing machine.
In 1978 the Civil Engineering department began installing its state-of-the-art testing machine. It cost $275,000 (today about $2,000,000) and a formal ceremony was planned for its first test.
Elena Trout, a Civil Engineering student, thought some theatrics were also warranted. She approached a good friend, Steve Krenek, a PhD student in upper atmospheric physics with a theatrical bent. He agreed. After the speeches, when the Vice-Chancellor pushed the button to initiate the first test there would be one hell of a bang and smoke everywhere.
Elena took Noel Prebbles, the Chief Technical Officer in the department, into her confidence. He and Steve worked through the details. To avoid an instant laundry problem and/or a simultaneous heart attack, she also visited the VC to forewarn him. The key person not forewarned was Nigel Priestly, the academic in charge of the machine, on the grounds that he would never allow the stunt had he known.
Below the machine passed a large duct in the concrete floor, for pipes and wires. Into this was placed a small plastic bag, containing the correct proportions of acetylene and oxygen for the bang. For the smoke, a can containing blasting powder. The duct was covered with steel plates. In Steve’s words “I was a bit concerned that the force of the acetylene blast might fire a plate or two into the air and cause some damage or injury, but being a young male at the time, I thought a bit about it and decided we should take the risk”.
On the 2nd of October 1978, Steve entered the duct and crawled unseen to where a motorbike battery and wires, around the corner at a respectful distance, connected to the electrical igniters. His cue to set off the igniters was on hearing the hydraulic motor start up. This motor compressed or stretched the sample as the case may be.
The Vice-Chancellor, Bert Brownlie (the last of our academic vice-chancellors), stepped forward and pushed the starter button. A second later, as Steve’s hand was still moving towards the igniter switch, the motor stopped. Inadvertently, Burt had pushed the Down button rather than the Up button so the safety limit switch quickly turned it off. (Bert was an economist, not an engineer.) Steve had an agonising delay until the motor started again. This time he allowed three seconds before connecting the wires.
The effect was spectacular, as planned. Nigel Priestly went as white as a sheet, but fortunately the technician had thoughtfully stationed himself at Nigel’s side, and in a hoarse stage-whisper was heard repeating, “It’s all right Nigel… It’s ALL RIGHT, Nigel…”
Steve swept up his gear, backed out of the tunnel, and made his escape. Bert was OK. Probably it was Nigel who had the instant laundry problem.
Elena Trout graduated M.E (Civil) in 1979. She has held leadership roles in transport, infrastructure and energy companies and has had significant experience in management, planning and delivery of major projects. She is today an independent company director and is also the current President of the Institution of Professional Engineers of New Zealand.
Steve Krenek’s Ph.D. thesis hand-in (1978) has gone down in University history as the most spectacular ever (see Chronicle Oct 1978). Being forewarned, I was an eye-witness to that. Steve and Anthony Lealand, our lecture demonstrations technician and later the Lucifer Firework Company and today the Firework Professionals, were noted for their fantastic stunts organised for various university events, most notably “The Science Fiction Night” in 1977. Steve went to England to work on designing satellite-based electronics for the European Space Agency. In 1983 he returned to Christchurch where he now works for Streat Instruments. Truly one of the department’s great characters.