The power of electricity – Kemp tractor recalled

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By Maureen Bishop

The story of Ashburton’s inventor and builder of an electric tractor has long fascinated historian and author Michael Hanrahan.

After years of work he has now told the story of Herbert George (Pete) Kemp and his revolutionary machine to a much wider audience through the publication of his latest book, Power to the Land: The Man and the Machine.

As Mr Hanrahan says in the introduction, the book should have been written 30 or so years ago when there were more people about who remembered Pete Kemp and the electric tractors.

He did make a start – pre-computer days and before he had a typewriter – but the records he was using from the former Ashburton Electric Power Board were returned to the family.

In 2015, Pete’s son, John, donated the papers to the Ashburton Museum. Mr Hanrahan also obtained the electric tractor structural drawings and photo albums.

On his retirement from his role as manager of the Ashburton Museum and learning of a project to restore the last surviving Kemp electric tractor, he decided it was time to give Pete Kemp the recognition he deserved.

“It’s as much of a story about Pete as it is about his tractors,” Mr Hanrahan said. “He was a fascinating character.”

The book tells Pete Kemp’s story from growing up in Wairoa where his father, George was a telegraphist who was experimenting with sending electrical signals through earth, water and air, through his time as a dispatch rider for the Royal Engineers in Britain during the First World War, after paying his own way there.

But it was his work as an engineer with American-born John Templin which led to the position of engineer-secretary with the new Ashburton Electric Power Board in 1924, a position he held for nearly 40 years.

The electric tractor was developed out of a need to sell more electricity. Mr Kemp had the idea that if tractors could be made to run on electricity, the demand for power across the district would rise.

The book contains many photographs of the tractors, some of which have never been published. There are details on how they worked, the modifications and experiments.

There are also details of his efforts to promote the vehicles, including his approach to Mussolini offering to sell the Italian patent rights. He did not receive a reply.

Seven machines were built but none after April 1937, although some continued working until 1943.

Just one remains, which was owned by the late Bob Tarbotton.

The Tarbotton family, in conjunction with Ian Cullimore, plan to restore the tractor to going order, towing a generator so that it could operate perhaps at machinery rallies.

This model does not have all the modification of later models as it ran for only 18 months before it was retired from service.

Following retirement from the power board, Herbert George Kemp joined Mid Canterbury Transport, becoming its managing director.

He was heavily involved with the new Allenton Kindergarten, as well as scouting, spending 10 years as district commissioner, greatly increasing scout numbers during that time.

Mr Kemp was a member of the South Canterbury Catchment Board, a Justice of the Peace and the town’s coroner. He received an MBE in 1965, for his service to the electrical industry and his community.

The book was published with help from EA Networks. It is the sixth historical book Mr Hanrahan has published, along with involvement with another three.

It is available at Ruralco stores in Ashburton, Rakaia and Methven or by email at Ashburtontractors@gmail.com at a cost of $20.