Fritz Langbein (known as Fred to the family) was born in Nelson on 15 March 1891, the son of Frederick John Langbein, a commercial traveller and farmer, and his wife, Mary Ross. Educated at Nelson College, he joined the Public Works Department in 1909 and served his engineering cadetship on the construction of the Midland railway between Broken River and Arthur’s Pass. In 1913 he was appointed assistant engineer, working at Otira on the construction of the Arthur’s Pass tunnel, and then in Central Otago on railway construction and irrigation work.
During the First World War, in February 1917, Langbein enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and served abroad with the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company. His German name and ancestry, which he was sensitive about, may have prevented him from rising above the rank of sergeant. After his discharge in May 1919 he was appointed engineer in charge of the Arthur’s Pass tunnel construction. On 15 June 1920, at Christchurch, Fritz Langbein married Ellen Rose Leckie. They were to have four children. In 1933 Ellen died, and the following year, on 13 June at Christchurch, Fritz married Maude Susan Curtis, with whom he had one son.
In August 1920, at the age of 29, Langbein had been appointed to take charge of the Canterbury district for the Public Works Department (PWD); he remained in that position until 1940. This was a period of major infrastructure development in the province, and he was particularly noted for his involvement with improved roading projects after the formation of the Main Highways Board. His major achievements were the Lewis Pass road and bridges over most of the major Canterbury rivers on the main north–south road.
Langbein was also involved in major developments of irrigation and power schemes in Canterbury. The Lake Coleridge power station was doubled in size and the feasibility of the Rangitata diversion race and the associated Highbank power station were investigated and construction work started. In addition, with the start of the Second World War, he had the extra responsibility of organising aerodrome construction and defence works in the province.
In April 1940 Langbein was appointed highways engineer to the Main Highways Board in Wellington. Here he was involved in the completion of two major centennial projects: the new four-laned Ngauranga Gorge road and the Plimmerton to Paekakariki road.
Meanwhile, major changes were occurring in the departmental structure. The Ministry of Works had been formed in 1943, and in December that year Langbein’s former staff member, T. G. G. Beck, was appointed acting second assistant engineer in chief in the department. This made him senior to Langbein and other long-serving engineering staff and aroused considerable resentment. Langbein and 11 other senior staff members (including W. L. Newnham, engineer in chief of the PWD) wrote to the prime minister, Peter Fraser, to oppose the decision, but the appointment remained. In July 1943 Langbein was appointed acting inspection engineer and then in June 1945, when Beck’s health deteriorated, he was promoted to acting second assistant engineer in chief. He became engineer in chief in July 1946. In May 1948 the PWD was absorbed by the Ministry of Works.
As well as the organisational changes occurring at this time, the war’s end brought substantial demands, particularly in roading, hydroelectric power and housing. These critical shortages were compounded by the loss of engineers from the department as they moved to better paid employment overseas. As a result, at the end of 1950 Langbein was sent abroad to recruit staff and to interview prospective consultants to assist with the design process for some of the major projects. Engineers from Britain and Holland were recruited and a consulting firm engaged for hydroelectric work.
When Langbein retired in May 1951 he was president of the New Zealand Institution of Engineers. In his presidential address, given in February 1952 at the end of his term of office, he reviewed the work of the Public Works Department over the previous 24 years. Between 1927 and 1951, for instance, ‘dustless’ road had increased from 430 to 4,700 miles, and installed capacity in the state’s power stations from 46 to 570 megawatts.
On his retirement he became a director of Wilkins and Davies Construction Company, serving until 1961. His hobbies included gardening, fishing and shooting. Fritz Langbein died on 28 April 1967 in Lower Hutt. He was survived by his second wife, Maude, four sons and a daughter. Fritz was the first of five Langbein brothers to make their mark as engineers in New Zealand. Two of his sons also joined the profession, one of whom, Fred, became director of roading in the Ministry of Works.