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Captain Jack's Century

Mackie at 100, with Professor Rick Sibson (Otago), 2010 Wollaston Medallist.

Emeritus Professor John Mackie FGS, Father of the Society, is 100 this year. He joined the Society in 1936…

Geoscientist 20.10 October 2010

Former mining student, Malayan tin prospector, prisoner of war and head of the Otago School of Surveying, Professor John Mackie has led a full and fascinating life. Now retired to Nelson, he doesn’t get around much any more, but still has a mind like a steel trap - especially when it comes to remembering colleagues and students.

As founder and head of the National School of Surveying at the University of Otago, Mackie was responsible for training a whole generation of surveyors. “I got on well with the students because I felt I was one of them – they were my friends” he says. Wellington’s Peter Burgess, who trained as a surveyor under Mackie in the early 1970s agrees. “Jack Mackie is one of those truly memorable guys. He was always dapper, but quite at home at student parties. I remember one party, when I was a little worse for wear and relieving myself on the lawn, Jack was doing the same - while reminding me of his geodesy lecture the following day.”

On the advice of his science teacher at Otago Boys’ High School, John Williams, he attended the Otago School of Mines and achieved a first class master’s degree in Geology and a Bachelor of Engineering. Great emphasis was placed on practical mining, with the students obliged to spend a year underground as part of the course. So, during the summer vacation of 1929/30 Mackie worked in the Liverpool State Colliery, on the West Coast, pushing trucks to keep up with the miners as they blasted and hewed the coal. “It’s hard work down there. You’d come up from underground dirty and thirsty and share the big bathhouse... It was quite an experience for a young student” he says.

On completion of his degrees at the end of 1934, Mackie was offered a job tin prospecting in Malaya and, within a few months, was exploring extremely remote parts of that country (in those days a British protectorate). He got to know the country and the people, including the Sakai, who hunted with blowpipes. There was a huge amount of tin mining: on the west coast alone there were, he estimates, over a thousand alluvial gravel mines and two hundred dredges. After just 18 months’ prospecting, Mackie then joined the Colonial Service as a mine inspector. His main concern was with mine safety – collapses were quite common – and control of the tailings. “There’s a lot of tailings from alluvial mining and, if you don’t keep a lid on this, there’s one hell of a mess.”

Mackie was keen to carry on his student hobby of rifle shooting but, in the absence of a rifle club, the best way to pursue this was to join the army volunteers and rose to the rank of captain. “The most hazardous part of training” he recalls “was firing the Vickers machine gun. It would sit on a tripod and you’d sit behind it. The hot shell cases would fire out the back - and up your shorts. You should have heard the swearing.”

Captain Jack - autobiographyIn 1941 Mackie was with British forces trying to defend the Malay Peninsula. After the fall of Singapore, he joined 100,000 others at the notorious Changi Prison before being transferred, after a year, to Borneo. His weight fell from 70 to 41kg. They kept a secret radio under the hearth of the cookhouse fire. “This was enormously risky for the penalty for this, like that for trying to escape, was beheading” Mackie recalls. That the tide was turning in the Allies’ favour was confirmed in early 1945 when four bombers flew over. After considerable delay they were eventually set free by the Australian Ninth Division. “One thing I shall never forget – fresh-baked crust bread with butter – it was manna from heaven.” he says.

After the war Mackie returned to his old job. The war had caused a great shortage of tin and he felt honour bound to help to clean up the mess left by the Japanese. However, mindful of his father’s failing health, Mackie resigned from the Colonial Service once the tin mining was rehabilitated. He was pleased he did because his father died just a few days later. In 1947 he married Sue Bacon (now deceased) and they had two children: Andrew and Marguerite.

Mackie was drawn back to the School of Mines as a lecturer in surveying. An ambitious attempt to turn the School of Mines into a much bigger Faculty of Technology collapsed when it was decided that New Zealand lacked the home-grown industry to warrant it.

This spelt the end of Otago’s School of Mines, which Mackie describes as a great shame because their graduates were sought worldwide. Some surveyors could see that the old cadetship system was out of date and a university path into the profession was needed, Mackie says. Conversely, there was resistance from some surveyors, who didn’t want to lose the cheap labour! Nevertheless, the National School of Surveying was launched in 1963, initially with Mackie as the sole lecturer. Starting with only two diploma students, the school now has more than 1100 alumni around the world.

Since then Mackie has witnessed a revolution in technological advances, such as the use of computers and equipment such as GPS. “Surveying used to be a very mathematical profession, requiring a tremendous number of calculations using logarithms” he recalls. His book on field astronomy, Astronomy for Surveyors, became a standard text throughout the English-speaking world and ran to nine editions.

In recognition of his contribution to the University and the surveying profession, Mackie received an Honorary DSc from Otago in 2000. The the Institute of Surveyors set up a trust in his name to encourage teaching and research in cadastral surveying. He was awarded an OBE in 1995. Clearly, Mackie’s experiences were the key to his rapport with students: “When I started teaching, some of the students were ex-war blokes. I’d been in a war too. We used to wear our battle dress in the field because it was warm. That’s how I got my nickname – Captain Jack.”

 "Captain Jack" is the title of John Mackie’s autobiography, published late in 2007 and available from the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors’ national office, PO Box 831, Wellington.

Article edited from an original by Nigel Costley, published in the Otago University Alumni Magazine. Reproduced by permission.