Before the Second World War, power generation in Australia was limited to a small number of plants. A modest grid of timber powerlines distributed electricity, mainly to key cities and townships. The conflict changed all that. The war effort compelled Australia to reassess its power needs and to prepare a blueprint for future expansion.  



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Riggers celebrating the completion of a transmission

Riggers celebrating the completion of a transmission.

Chapter One

During the Second World War, electricity generation and distribution proved to be strategically crucial to factories and plants involved in producing goods and services for the war effort, such as the light arms factory at Lithgow, NSW, manufacturing the famous Owen submachine gun.

In 1944, the Department of Post-War Reconstruction released a study highlighting the increasing importance of this source of power. It advocated a fully developed electric economy, the interconnection of power systems on a broad scale and the exploitation of the large potential supplies on the Snowy River in NSW, the Tully in Queensland and the Ord River in Western Australia. It was the blueprint for the pursuit in future of Australia's energy policy.

Video: Beginning of Snowy Mountains Scheme

Chapter Two

In July 1949, construction began on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, Australia's largest ever project. At that time, Australia had not even one steel tower transmission line, and the existing timber ones, distributing power over a limited part of the country, were periodically burnt down by summer bushfires.

During the ensuring fourty years, a network of steel tower transmission lines would be built, to link even the remotest outpost to the national grid.



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The complex web of a tower’s crossarms.

The complex web of a tower’s crossarms.

Chapter Three

The first steel tower transmission line, between Homebush and Tallawarra, in NSW, was built in 1951 by Electric Power Transmission Pty Ltd (EPT), a subsidiary of the Italian multinational Societé Anonima Elettrificazione SpA (SAE), with steel imported from Italy and with Italian labour sent to Australia specifically to this purpose. Franco Belgiorno-Nettis and Carlo Salteri, then employed by SAE respectively in Milan and Bologna, were despatched to Sydney, on five year contracts to manage the project as a start.



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Franco Belgiorno-Nettis inspecting the footing of a tower. Parallel transmission lines at the end of the stringing phase.

Chapter Four

For many years, EPT continued to import steel from Italy, while it was setting up its production plant in Marayong, NSW. Following the establishment of Transfield in 1956, for the first time steel transmission line towers were manufactured in Australia. Transfield, (whose name arose from "transmission lines in the field") was also the first company in Australia to test towers at its purpose-built testing station in Seven Hills.

Together with Ascom, a company founded in 1957 in Victoria and Multicon, established in 1973, EPT and Transfield dominated the manufacture and erection of powerlines in Australia. All four companies were formed by Italians and at their inception employed predominantly Italian labour.


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Riggers on top of a 55-metre high tower string a 550kv powerline in New South Wales. 1967. Seven Hills Testing Station. Assembly of a tower to be tested.

Chapter Five

For the following forty years, they would also build power stations, steel mills, radio, microwave and television towers, satellite tracking stations, rail lines, tunnels, roads, bridges, dams, coal mining equipment, oil rigs, pipelines and other structures associated with the energy and telecommunications industries throughout Australia.

Whenever they did not have the necessary technology, or whenever it was not available in Australia, Transfield, more than most, imported it from more advanced countries. In this way, Japanese companies such as Kumagai Gumi and Obayashi, Italian ones such as Saipem and Snam-Progetti, French such as Bouygues and Thales, Germans such as Blohm+Voss found in Transfield the complimentary local engineering contracting capacity the foreigners in turn sought.


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Riggers on balance on a jib, working on an insulator chain.  Terminal tower of the 500kw Eraring-Hawkesbury - Sydney West transmission line. 1986. Pipeline construction near Alice Springs, for N.T. Gas Pty Ltd. 1985. Construction of the of the Gateway Bridge, Brisbane.

Chapter Six

The list of powerlines erected by Transfield during this period is impressive. Starting in 1958 with the first line from Magill to Port Augusta, in South Australia, the company continued building much of Australia's transmission grid.  



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1950s. Transfielders on one of the first transmission lines constructed by the company.

Chapter Seven

Transfield employees lived in the hostels set up by the company along the routes of the transmission line. Conditions for the young Italian riggers were trying. As Robert Serventi, an Associate Director put it, the situation "was what you might describe as womanless - absolutely womanless. Work, work and more work... They liked having access to Italian food... if they had to work overtime, so did the cook, and dinner would be ready for them. The majority were single or married with wives overseas. They were young and without responsibilities. Turnover was very small and so was absenteeism. The will to work was there, and to work overtime. Our policy was to work 6 days a week. Earnings were substantial enough to convince people they were on a good thing".    


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Riggers installing insulator chains on top of a tower.

Riggers installing insulator chains on top of a tower.

Chapter Eight

Work was dangerous, as it involved climbing steel structures over hundred metres high or perilously dangling, sitting in flimsy chairs, from conductor cables during the tensioning process. At times, union delegates complained "when they saw Transfield men swinging off steel girders like "orang-utangs", but to no avail.

Transfield men did not want to use ladders or wear safety belts. That is how this sort of work was done all over the world, because riggers wanted to have control of a fixed structure. Ladders are always moving. Serventi commented that "you can put 50 ladders up, but the men will climb the tower on the other side like monkeys, using hands".

As a Transfield rigger put it, "the first rule for a rigger is to stay alive. He always thinks in terms of safety first. He analyses every problem according to how he can maximise two factors, safety and speed. I must admit that in the beginning with Transfield, we took risks by doing a lot of work that ought to have been done by cranes. We didn't have the cranes".  


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May 1982. Riggers at work on a tower of the 500kw Eraring-Hawkesbury-Sydney West T/L Riggers tightening bolts on top of a tower. No evidence of the use of safety belts! Telescopic crane lifting on site the pre-assembled crossarms of a tower. Telescopic crane lifting on site the pre-assembled crossarms of a tower.

Chapter Nine | Gallery

In order to meet the rising demand for steel fabrication, Transfield set up workshops, similar to the one at Seven Hills, at Newcastle and Port Kembla in NSW, Brisbane and Mt Isa in Queensland, Whyalla in South Australia and Kwinana in Western Australia. By 1978, Seven Hills was producing nearly 20,000 tonnes of fabricated steel a year, and 80,000 by 1988.

As Franco Belgiorno-Nettis claimed in 1987, "Transfield has been helping in building transmission lines and power stations. That is the nerve of any civilised community in Australia".  


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1971. Transfield's workshop at Kwinana, Western Australia. 1970. Construction of the Captain CookBridge, Brisbane. Merivale Bridge, Queensland. 1985. Construction of the Gateway Bridge, Brisbane. Constructing the foundations for a tower. Riggers lowering a jib at the completion of a tower. View from the top of a tower. Telescopic crane lifting on site the pre-assembled crossarms of a tower.