Wellington is home to WETA workshop who create weird and wonderful creatures for movies so it comes as no surprise that the city is also home to some other unusual exhibits.

The hydro-mechanical MONIAC is an eccentric machine made to evaluate the world economy using water and a labyrinth of tubes all housed in a water tight glass cabinet.

Born in 1914 and brought up on a New Zealand dairy farm, Bill Phillips is regarded today as one of the 20th century’s greatest economists. In 1937, he arrived in Britain via China and the Trans-Siberian Railway. After receiving an MBE for his wartime efforts and awarded a New Zealand Forces scholarship, he attended the London School of Economics studying sociology and then economics. In1949, he built a financephalograph, also known as the Phillips Hydraulic Computer but later called the MONIAC which stands for ‘Monetary National Income Analogue Computer’ (phew!) The weird apparatus was his clever way of demonstrating the macro economy to his students at the London School of Economics. He built his water powered computer for around £400 in his landlady’s garage with parts scavenged from a Lancaster bomber and other obsolete war equipment. Using water to represent money, the massive hydraulic model of a national economy was, in its day, the most complex, and wettest, economics computer in the world.


The MONIAC on display in the Reserve Bank Museum in Wellington is one of only 14 built and is one of the most popular exhibits at the museum.  The somewhat confusing looking machine is 2m (6.5ft) high and 1m (3.2ft) deep. It was originally owned by the London School of Economics and calibrated to represent the British economy. A second MONIAC, linked to the first, represented the rest of the world. In 1990, it was brought to Wellington by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research who refurbished and re-calibrated it to the New Zealand economy. The clever economics simulator is capable of making complex calculations that could not be performed by any other computer at the time. The calculations are based on Keynesian and classical economic principles, with various tanks representing households, business, government, exporting and importing sectors of the economy. Water pumped around the system can be measured as income, spending and GDP where fiscal policy, monetary policy and exchange rates can be carried out.

The machine was tidied up again in 2003 before being displayed as part of a New Zealand stand at the 50th Venice Festival of Contemporary Art, a significant international exhibition. On its return to Wellington in 2006, the Institute kindly loaned the MONIAC to the Reserve Bank Museum and it underwent further restoration before being put on display in 2007. It is now the only functioning MONIAC in the southern hemisphere. Even today, the machine remains an impressive demonstration of engineering and economic expertise. MONIACS can also be seen at the Istanbul University, Cambridge University and London’s Science Museum.

Let us now look at two more unusual exhibits Wellington offers the curious.


The Bank of New Zealand headquarters in Wellington fell into disuse in the 1990s and in1997, archaeologists sifted through mud in the basement of the building looking for artifacts. During the dig the hull of the ship Inconstant was discovered. In 1851 an earthquake had caused the Canadian ship to run aground. Businessman John Plimmer beached the wreck at the southern end of Lambton Quay and used it as a warehouse and it was soon dubbed Plimmer’s Ark. As an interesting aside, some of the ship’s timber was used to make the director’s chair in the former bank’s board room. The wreck was covered up in 1901 when the bank building was built on top of it. The bow section of the Inconstant is now on display under a glass cabinet in the Old Bank Arcade.


A more animated approach to the city’s history is also on display in the same arcade in the form of a mechanical musical clock. Suspended from the main chamber of the ex-bank, the Old Bank Clock as it is known, unfolds 8 large petals every hour to reveal colourful vignettes depicting important moments in the site’s past. In one, little soldiers raise a British flag. In another, a cooper with barrels moves back and forth along with a ship on the water, presumably reacting to an earthquake. The third shows Edwardian townspeople walking in front of the bank, while in the fourth display construction workers dig in front of the same building. Throughout all of these, French-horn music and a recorded narration compliment the show. The clock commemorates the history of the building, the ship, and the land surrounding it, prompting shoppers to stop to think about all that has happened in the place they currently stand.

Old Bank Musical Clock (Trip Advisor)

Wellington has always been a somewhat eccentric city embracing the unusual and fantastic, after all, it is where fantastical creatures are created for Hollywood movies so it’s no surprise to also be home to a water driven computer and a story telling clock.

Ceidrik Heward

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