The Australian Space Academy is proud to present here some personal reminiscences of one who was present during the construction phase.
| MEMORIES OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE PARKES RADIO TELESCOPE
by ALEX S LIU
In the winter (June-September) of 1961, I was sent to Parkes to install an air-conditioning unit for the large CSIRO Radio Telescope then under construction. The conrtol room to be air-conditioned was on the 3rd floor of the round pedestal tower below the telescope dish.
The Telescope was on a sheep station with flat open grassy country , approximately 24 km (15 miles) from Parkes, and the construction company was MAN AG., a German multinational engineering construction company based in Munich. MAN shipped their entire construction crew, the prefabricated offices, storeroom, diesel generators, machine shop, power tools (including two large air compressors), all the prefabricated steel struts of the telescope dish, and a 100 metre construction crane. The only Australian sub-contractor work done was the pedestal tower, air-conditioning, electrical and plumbing.
MAN booked an entire pub (Parkes' Manhattan Hotel) for their workforce. The MAN construction team was headed by a fiercely domineering Engineer with a violent temper, a subservient foreman, machinists, welders, welders' helpers, crane driver, storeman and painters. The Engineer's office had two rooms with their walls paneled with polished veneer in the Alpine ski lodge style. The Engineer used the inner room which had a large polished desk with a chair and a filing cabinet. At the end of each working day the Engineer would assemble the completed parts of the Telescope on a balsa wood model mounted on top of his filing cabinet. In his office there were no chairs for visitors. The outer office was used by the foreman. It also had a telephone that I was permitted to use for calling Sydney.
I was at the site for more than 2 months and was very impressed by the German work discipline and thoroughness. They worked in 3-man teams. Every singole bolt and nut was re-threaded and greased before assembly, and every single weld was cleaned by the welder's assistant and painted by the painter who followed the welders. The foreman was seldom in his office, and watched his workmen from the ground with binoculars and talked to them with a two-way radio. Except for a half-hour lunch break of snadwiches, the workmen did not take any other breaks during the day, and worked above the ground a nearly 250 ft (80 metres) wihout any safety riggings. On one occasion I witnessed the Engineer violently berate his foreman and throw an ashtray at him.
This German crew worked hard and played hard. Every night the Manhattan Hotel would resound with raucous singing accompanied by a German piano player and a large amount of beer drinking. There were also several 'professional' girls from Sydney - good money was made and the hotel did very well. The locals did not venture into that pub.
We stayed at a small pub which was run by an elderly publican who drank run-sarsparilla toddies all the time. At the closing time of 10pm, the bar would still be open to the lodgers, and the publican would allow the guests to help themselves to the drinks and pay him the next day. As it was bitterly cold at night, the bar had a warm log-burning hearth, and we usually sat around that fireplace drinking until 2 or 3am. It was a very cozy and welcoming place.
The control room that was air-conditioned in the round pedestal tower was on the third floor just below the dish slewing machinery room. The Carrier 16-Ton air-cooled package unit was delivered by a Carrier truck driver, Mirv, who transported all Carrier's equipment and parts that can be loaded on a 2.5 ton Bedford flatbed truck. He had a glass eye, and his depth perception was remarkable. He could judge the backend of his truck to within inches. When I arrived at the Parkes job, all I had to do was to connect the discharge lines to the outside air-cooled condensers, charge the unit with refrigerant and get it going. For some reason, the CSIRO's engineers said the outside unit caused interference and wouldn't accept it. Carrier had to ship 2 small water-cooled condensers to be placed adjacent to the AC unit and a small cooling tower and 2 pumps which were installed about 1/2 km away from the dish. This modification was the reason why I spent nearly 2 months in Parkes.
The scaffolding used by MAN was the standard tubular steel pipes which was shipped with all their other equipment. The riggers were also German.
The practice of workers urinating from above was nothing new to me. On many of the multi-storey office building construction projects, Carrier's air-conditioning units (centrifugal compressors and water chillers) would be craned up onto the top of the building prior to the walls and windows being built. The roof was reserved for the cooling tower. At mid-level, air handlers and cooling coils and chilled water pumps were usually installed. At the basement, high pressure fire water pumps were installed. At the time, temporary toilets were placed at mid-level of the building. To get the to the top of the building, the workers either used the goods-lifting lift or the unfinished concrete fire-escape stairs. Generally, the workers wouldn't walk down to relieve themselves but just urinated wherever was convenient. On the 24 storey Commonwealth Offices Building near Circular Quay, some uncouth workmen urinated down to Pitt Street, and they thought it was funny. Usually, these sites had notices on every floor stating that workers caught urinating would be dismissed on the spot. At Parkes, the Germans always shouted warnings if someone was on the ground and in the line of fire. At Parkes, except for the crane driver, who took at least 45 minutes to climb up to his crane cabin, the other workmen just walked up the 3-storied pedestal and climbed up the dish, which during construction was in the horizontal position. My job was completed just as the wire-mesh segments were being installed.
The control room was quite small. It occupied only about a third of the 3rd floor. While I was there, the power provided on the site was by the MAN's diesel generators. There were plenty of sheep grazing around the site - but no kangaroos. In all my travels in the NSW countryside, I have never come across a kangaroo - even as far west as Wagga. The only kangaroos I saw (outside Sydney's Taronga Zoo) were in the fenced grounds of the University of New England, Armidale. As I remembered it, the NSW country highways were fenced on both sides to prevent sheep or cattle wandering onto the highways.