Honouring a Kiwi genius

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Modest, friendly and helpful, Dannevirke-born farm boy Bill Phillips was also "undoubtedly a genius", who deserved a Nobel Prize, Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard says.

Next month, Wellington will host at least 400 economists from throughout the world, including a couple of Nobel Prize winners, to discuss Dr Phillips.

The gathering may be the biggest yet of economists in the southern hemisphere, who will collectively present 300 papers across a variety of themes.

Some public lectures on Dr Phillips will be given by Dr Bollard, while the Reserve Bank’s museum will hold an exhibition honouring Dr Phillips from July 7.

It will include demonstrations of his creation, the ‘‘Moniac’’ machine. ‘‘You don’t rub shoulders with a genius many times in your life, hence my fascination with what he did,’’ says Dr Bollard, who met Dr Phillips at Auckland University in the 1970s. ‘‘He was a quiet, unassuming guy — he looked like an old-style civil servant.’’

Dr Bollard intends to write a book on Dr Phillips some day - "when I get sacked from here’".

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Little known outside the world of economics, Bill Phillips, who died in 1975, ranks near the top of New Zealand’s intellectual giants, perhaps in a small group only just behind the "father" of nuclear physics, Ernest Rutherford.

"Rutherford was a towering figure, who thought he was a hero - Bill did not think he was a hero,’’ Dr Bollard said.

Fifty years ago, Dr Phillips wrote what became the third most cited piece of economic work ever written, about the link between employment and inflation known as the ‘‘Phillips curve’’. He called it ‘‘a wet weekend’s work".

It was written in 1958 while Dr Phillips was an economics professor at the London School of Economics.

An inventor, Dr Phillips also created the Moniac in 1949, a groundbreaking ‘‘inside-out visual’’ computer-like machine using water to show how money moves around the economy. It was way ahead of its time.

"It is brilliant at showing what is happening [in the economy],’’ Dr Bollard said. In the 1950s Dr Phillips also worked out simple rules for government action to help flatten out the spikes and troughs of economic growth.

Dr Phillips grew up as a boy on a dairy farm near Dannevirke, where his innovative father set up a water wheel to generate the first electricity in the area so the family could read at night. The young Bill was an avid reader.

"He was technically adept with his hands, but also had a very keen mind, learning all the time,’’ Dr Bollard said.

As well as playing piano and the fiddle, Dr Phillips taught himself Mandarin and Russian, and learnt a bit of Malay, Dutch and German.

Despite leaving school at just 15, he later became an electrical engineer by correspondence including while travelling through Southeast Asia in the 1930s.

Leaving New Zealand before he was 21, Dr Phillips was at times a crocodile hunter and a cinema manager in Outback Australia.

In the late 1930s he was arrested as a suspected spy in Japan. He travelled through Russia and Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Reaching Britain, he became an RAF electrical engineer. He escaped Singapore before it fell to the Japanese.

Captured in Java, he spent three years as a prisoner of war. He worked at the London School of Economics till the 1960s but was in poor health after his time as a prisoner of war.

He was also addicted to cigarettes. After student protests at the university in 1967, Dr Phillips left for Canberra where he studied the Chinese economy during the period of the Cultural Revolution.

In the 1970s, he moved to Auckland University where he taught Dr Bollard’s wife, Jenny Morel.

"Was he a genius? Yes . . . he would have won a Nobel Prize," Dr Bollard said.

However, in those days there was no Nobel for economics.

The Reserve Bank is a sponsor of the symposium, along with economic research group Motu, Inland Revenue, Westpac bank, the University of Canterbury and the minister of economic development.

The Dominion Post