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Letters related to workplace suggestions, 1934 - 1956
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Object statement
Letters and photographs, suggestions to improve workplace design and safety in electricity substations, Ronald Ball and Sydney County Council, paper, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1934-1956
The letters in this group provide insight into the process of incremental innovation that occurs in many work places through the ingenuity of workers and the interest of managers. They form a case study of innovation by providing information on some of the suggestions put forward by electrical fitter Ronald Ball to his employer, the Sydney County Council (SCC), and the response of the SCC's Suggestions Board and senior management.

Innovation that is visible in the public sphere is mostly related to the invention, design and marketing of new products, or the radical re-design of old ones. However, much innovation is incremental, aimed at improving products, processes or working life, and is hidden from the outside world. Such continuous improvement is a key principle of quality management.

Like many work places in the twentieth century, the SCC had a formal method for dealing with suggestions: each was recorded and given a number; they were considered by the Suggestions Board; letters of thanks were signed by the organisation's most senior officers; and workers received monetary rewards. The major aim of many such schemes was to improve worker morale and workplace relations.

The SCC deployed staff in many inherently dangerous sites: power stations, substations, and electricity transmission and distribution lines. Its suggestions scheme aimed to elicit from workers ideas that could improve workplace safety, reduce costs, or reduce the number and duration of system outages. The scheme recognised that the insights of tradesmen who worked with equipment every day could usefully complement those of the professional engineers who had carried out the initial design work.

The suggestions made by Ronald Ball, a talented man who worked for the SCC for more than 25 years, were mostly aimed at improving safety by modifying the design of substation equipment. Some of his suggestions would have contributed more to reducing costs or improving the reliability of electricity supply. All were taken seriously by management, and experiments were carried out in at least two cases to test the efficacy of Ball's ideas; this shows that the suggestions scheme was not used by the SCC merely to boost worker morale. Given his thoughtfulness and concern to improve workplace safety, it is poignant that Ball died in a substation fall onto live wires, nearly six years before he would have been compulsory retired (at 65 years of age) from serving the SCC and the people of NSW.

Debbie Rudder, Curator, May 2009


Anderson G, 'Fifty years of electricity supply', the Sydney County Council, Sydney, 1956

Wilkenfeld G and Spearritt P, 'Electrifying Sydney', Energy Australia, Sydney, 2004
Ronald George Ball was born in the UK in May 1904. The family migrated to Australia when he was 5 years old. He was educated to Intermediate Certificate at Kogarah High School and was then apprenticed to an electrical contractor while studying for a diploma at Sydney Technical College, Mary Ann Street, Ultimo.

He obtained his electrical fitter's licence in 1925. By the time he married in 1932, he was self-employed. His business met with tough circumstances during the Depression, and on 10 December 1937 he was accepted as an electrical fitter by the Sydney County Council. The letters document that he worked in substations at Camperdown, Marrickville, and Canterbury.

A very talented person, Ronald presented many innovative ideas to his employer, and most were accepted. Sadly, he was electrocuted on the job on 23 October 1963, when he fell onto live wires while his offsider was absent fetching some tools.

As seen from the other letters in the group, Mr Ball made more suggestions than those documented in the letters from SCC management. The first suggestion referred to in the SCC letters was made in 1940 and numbered 737. The last was accepted in 1956 and numbered 2152. Thus over those years the Suggestions Board received an average of more than 90 suggestions per year.

The Sydney County Council was constituted on 17 August 1935 to take control of the electricity supply system of the Sydney County District, comprising the City of Sydney plus 25 municipalities to the south of Sydney Harbour and seven municipalities to the north. The electricity undertaking was actually transferred from Sydney Municipal Council to the County Council on 1 January 1936, having been run by the Municipal Council since Pyrmont Power Station was switched on in 1904.

The SCC lost control of electricity generation (at Pyrmont and Bunnerong Power Stations) and bulk electricity supply to the NSW Electricity Commission on 1 January 1952. It remained in existence as a distributor of electricity until 1 January 1991, after which its role was assumed by a new entity, Sydney Electricity.
The letters and photographs were retained by the Ball family until the donor, Ronald H Ball, son of Ronald George Ball, offered them to the museum in 2009.

 This text content licensed under CC BY-NC.

Letters and photographs, suggestions to improve workplace design and safety in electricity substations, Ronald Ball and Sydney County Council, paper, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1934-1956

Dated 1934, photograph of Ronald George Ball, in suit and tie, with his wife and baby son outside a house.

Dated 10 December 1937, and addressed to Mr R G Ball at 35 Arthur Street, Carlton, letter of appointment to the position of electrical fitter with the Sydney County Council Electricity Undertaking (SCC), signed by General Manager H R Forbes Mackay and typed on letterhead that includes a drawing of the Queen Victoria Building, at 457 George Street, where the SCC had its offices. The rate of pay was to be six pounds per week, and conditions of appointment included provision of a birth certificate, to ensure that the employee would 'cease to be a member of the Council's service upon reaching the age of sixty-five years'. The letter instructed Mr Ball to present himself to the Medical Officer on 14 December for a medical examination; a hand-written annotation in the margin notes 'fit' followed by the date 14.12.37 and initials, presumably of the Medical Officer.

Dated 8 May 1950, handwritten letter from R Ball at West AC Sub Depot, Canterbury, addressed in formal style to the Chairman of the SCC Suggestions Board. The suggestion in the letter was designed to address the problem of emergency hand-operated winding gear in substations being compromised on occasion by theft of a chain that was necessary to its operation. The substations affected were part of the 33 kV distribution system containing 'F&P switchgear', which probably refers to equipment made by Ferguson and Pailin. The fix Ball suggested was to replace the chain with gears.

Letters dated 18 March 1941, 2 April 1942, 15 December 1942, 22 August 1944, 10 April 1946, 17 October 1947, 13 November 1953, 4 August 1954, 24 May 1955 and 29 February 1956, addressed to Mr Ball. All letters are typed on letterhead, most bearing the SCC badge, which consists of the words THE SYDNEY COUNTY COUNCIL around a circle containing representations of the Sun (with the word HEAT), a fuel torch (with the word LIGHT) and a rearing horse (with the word POWER) and the words PERACTIS POSTERA PRAESTENT (which can be translated as 'Let the future excel the past') on a ribbon. Most are signed by General Managers: R Vine-Hall (1941 and 1942), DJ Nolan (1944 and 1946), GS Boyd (1947) and CE Ranger (1953, 1954 and 1956). One is signed by Deputy General Manager JCA Fraser (1955). They thank Mr Ball for a total of 11 suggestions, 10 of which were accepted. They commend him for his interest in his work, and refer to monetary rewards varying from two to ten pounds and totalling 46 pounds. The suggestions were assigned numbers from 737 (for one made in 1940 regarding electrostatic reconditioning of transformer oil, which led to in-house experiments and seeking of advice from overseas before it was rejected in 1942) to 2152 for the one accepted in 1956 (screening of low voltage switchboards in substations).

Letter dated 19 June 1950, typed on plain paper and signed by substation engineer L V Molloy, thanking Mr Ball for his 'ingenuity and enthusiasm' in instigating a new approach to the application of end caps to busbars.

Dated 1951, photograph of Ronald Ball, dressed in casual clothes, with his grand-daughter.

Letter dated 29 February 1956, typed on letterhead paper, addressed to Mr Ball and signed by R Hahn, Secretary of the Suggestions Board. This letter acknowledges receipt of a suggestion for improved safety of apparatus earthing.

Undated small SCC envelope, neither stamped nor franked, addressed to Mr R Ball, Maintenance Fitter, Substation Branch. This may have contained the February 1956 letter, which has the same form of address. The white envelope bears, in green: the word ELECTRICITY written vertically the full length of the left hand edge; return address for SCC at bottom left; and at top left a sketch of the head and hand of an elderly bespectacled woman with a finger on the switch of a power point.
Production date
1934 - 1956

 This text content licensed under CC BY-SA.
Acquisition credit line
Gift of Ronald Ball's family, 2009
+ Electricity supply
+ Sydney County Council
+ Working life
+ Occupational health and safety
+ Personal safety
+ Safety
+ Workplace safety
+ Innovation
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{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/396755 |title=Letters related to workplace suggestions |author=Powerhouse Museum |accessdate=20 February 2017 |publisher=Powerhouse Museum, Australia}}

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