Friday, July 22, 2011

The Most Interesting Man in the World?

The January issue of Economica included a symposium in honor of A.W. (Bill) Phillips, marking the 50th anniversary of his original "Phillips Curve" article.  The first article is a biographical essay by Alan Bollard, which is fascinating reading:
The young Bill was clearly very talented, but his parents reluctantly decided that they could not afford to keep him at school, and any dreams of a university education were abandoned. Aged 15, Bill signed up as an apprentice electrician with the government's Public Works Department, which at that time was building infrastructure around rural New Zealand. He spent the next few years roughing it at working men's camps in remote rural sites, helping to build hydroelectric dams to generate electricity for the national grid. Bill had played with photography and seen early movies, and he was fascinated by the idea of ‘talkies’. He hired a hall in the Tuai camp and set up the first talkies cinema. Recreation involved playing his violin, riding an acquired motorbike and reading his treasured encyclopaedia of world religions.
But rural New Zealand was not enough. Phillips wanted to sample the world. In 1935, still aged only 21, he packed his swag and his fiddle, and shipped to Australia. Here he spent a couple of years travelling the outback, hitching rides on freight trains and working in mining camps. Money came from a range of jobs: picking bananas, working on building sites, mining gold, running a cinema, and even crocodile hunting. These were tough jobs in a rough country, but at the same time Phillips had set his intellectual sights higher. He enrolled in a correspondence course in electrical engineering and remembers learning his first differential equations under a harsh Australian sun at an outback mining camp.
Phillips had a lifelong fascination with Eastern cultures. In 1937, despite the worsening international situation, he boarded a Japanese ship to travel to Shanghai. While he was at sea, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, and the ship was diverted to Yokohama. Phillips took advantage of this by travelling around the newly militarized Japan; at one point he was detained by the authorities, who suspected that he might be a spy. Eventually he made his way out through Korea, Manchuria and Harbin, and crossed Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway. With Antipodean optimism, he looked for casual jobs across Soviet Russia, only to find them all taken by political prisoners. From Stalin's Moscow he travelled on through threatened Poland and Nazi Germany during the fragile last years of peace. He settled in London, where he found work as an electrical engineer. Having continued his correspondence course, Phillips now graduated from the Institute of Electrical Engineers, gaining his first formal qualifications. He also took classes in several languages.
Fortunately, Economica has given free online access, so you can read the rest, including his World War II adventures.  There is also the story of his famous machine - I posted a video of it in operation here.

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