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Column: Reminiscing with a Radio

by Adrian Petersen

Shows & Boats. Australia Gets Radio

image of Adrian Petersen

Adrian Petersen

The war was over, troops were returning home, families were re-uniting, difficult restrictions were progressively lifted, and technological development for peaceful purposes was resumed. This was the scene in Australia, and in many other countries also, at the beginning of the era when the development of radio broadcasting in the home countries began to escalate.

During the war, World War 2 that is, the annual Royal Adelaide Show, always held at Easter time, was temporarily discontinued, "for the duration". This popular event was re-introduced immediately after the war and it attracted huge crowds of eager spectators. On the occasion of the first post-war show, I walked around the Exhibition Hall and was pleasantly surprised to find that several of the radio broadcasting stations in Adelaide were on the air live from their glassed-in display booths. Radio was alive and well, thank you!

Another scenario.

The war was over, troops were returning home, families were re-uniting, difficult restrictions were progressively lifted, and technological development for peaceful purposes was resumed. This was the scene in Australia, and in many other countries also, at the beginning of the era when wireless became radio.

During the war, World War 1 that is, the annual Royal Perth Show, always held in the autumn, was temporarily discontinued, "for the duration". This popular event was re-introduced just before the end of the war and it attracted huge crowds of eager spectators. On the occasion of this first (almost) post-war show, wireless experimenter Wally Coxon staged a public demonstration of radio broadcasting with a transmitter in one pavilion and a receiver in another. He says that he remembers that the year was 1918, and it well may have been, for there was a Show in Perth that year. If his memory is correct, then this would have been the first public demonstration of radio broadcasting in Australia. If his memory should have suggested one year later, 1919, then his historic "first" was eclipsed by other radio events of a similar nature in the Eastern States.

image of the Riverina

The Riverina.
© Offshore Radio Guide

The first experimental radio broadcasting transmitter constructed in Australia (in the Eastern Sates at least) was made under quite hasty conditions. It was just four months after the first direct wireless communication from England to Australia, and the enterprising Ernest Fisk was the Managing Director of AWA, Australia's progressive radio company. Fisk invited William Bostock, a decorated war veteran who had recently returned to "civvy street", to head up the project. Work on this project began in early 1919, using the newly available Marconi "Q" valve imported from England. Bench tests were made from this new "home-made in-a-factory" transmitter, during the month of March I would suggest, and then it was ready for wider experimentation.

There was a fourteen-year old single-stack interstate passenger/cargo vessel plying the Australian coastline during this era; it was the "Riverina", owned by Huddart Parker of Melbourne. Arrangements were made for the "Riverina" to carry the new little "Q" transmitter during its regularly scheduled voyages for a three-week series of seaborne test transmissions. These test broadcasts took place during the month of April, 1919. We could guess that the output power was around 10 watts, and the operating frequencies were in what are now designated as the longwave and mediumwave bands. These experimental broadcasts were considered to be a success, though there were indeed very few receivers anywhere to tune in this informal programming.

There was another single-stack steamer plying the Australian coastline during this same era and it was the fifteen year old "Bombala" owned by Howard Smith, also of Melbourne. A second series of test transmissions using the same "Q" transmitter were carried out, and the evidence would suggest that these began in mid July of the same year, 1919. Clear signals were heard over the salt water pathway at a remarkable distance, even as far away as Gabo Island, more than 300 miles south of Sydney.

image of the Bombala

The Bombala.
© Offshore Radio Guide

OK, so the little "Q" transmitter performed well, and it demonstrated the fact that the broadcast of radio programming was a feasible practicality. So the next event needed was a genuine public demonstration, and that was soon in the making. Ernest Fisk announced that he would address the Royal Society of New South Wales on Wednesday evening August 13 (1919) and that he would present a live radio program as a practical demonstration of the new radio medium.

This event, as a historic first in Australia, was staged in the Royal Society's Hall at 7 Elizabeth Street in Sydney, A series of some twenty locally-constructed loud speakers, Baldwin headphones with locally made tin horns, were all connected to the same receiver and strung from the ceiling. The "Q" transmitter was installed at the AWA Wireless House (at 97 Clarence Street in those days) and the sixty ft long "T" type antenna was strung on the roof of the same building. The programming for this first auspicious occasion consisted entirely of gramophone recordings played into a carbon microphone. At the appropriate timing during the Fisk speech, the National Anthem came through suddenly and dramatically; a clear demonstration that radio without wires was indeed a reality. The transmitted signal had traveled in the heart of old Sydneytown from one main street to another covering a distance of about half a mile.

Meanwhile, down in Melbourne AWA was planning another series of dramatic radio events. It should be remembered at this era, that Sydney was the larger city, but Melbourne was assuming political importance as the de facto capital of Australia due to the fact that Federal Parliament was headquartered in this city. (The Australian Capital Territory, ACT, and the city of Canberra had not yet been surveyed.) Two Marconi speech transmitters were imported from England and one was installed in the Brighton home of the local AWA manager, Lionel Hooke, with a simple antenna in the family garden. This unit came on air with a special broadcast to Federal Parliament which was meeting in Queen's Hall Melbourne. The date was Wednesday October 13, 1920; the receiving aerial was installed on the roof of Parliament House; and the loud speakers were the tin horns from Sydney.

AWA conducted many promotional test broadcasts in the Melbourne area during this era. The 500 watt transmitter was transferred from Hooke's residence to another suburban residence, that of engineer Sydney Newman in Canterbury. At this location, the familiar callsign 3ME was introduced. In fact, AWA in Melbourne registered a series of callsigns ranging from 3MA 3ME. Station 3ME was installed at a fixed location, Canterbury, but no location is given for the other calls, and these were apparently in use at various temporary locations for demonstration test broadcast using the other 500 watt Marconi transmitter. These two transmitters, twins from Chelmsford in England, were rated at less than one "horsepower"!

At this stage, the AWA callsigns in Melbourne became quite prominent, in fact more prominent than the similar series in Sydney, 2MA 2ME. In particular, the Melbourne callsign 3ME was soon afterwards transferred for usage at Braybrook to identify a shortwave transmitter co-sited with 3LO. It was not until AWA began a series of international shortwave broadcasts from Pennant Hills near Sydney that the 2ME calllsign became better known than the southern sister 3ME.

Well, throughout the five year period running from early 1919 to late 1923, the number of radio broadcast programs, and the number of radio broadcasting stations, all experimental and mostly amateur, began to proliferate, mainly in Sydney & Melbourne, though also in other cities as well. In Sydney there were 2CM & 2MB; in Melbourne 3ME & 3DP; in Brisbane 4CM & 4CH; in Adelaide 5AH & 5BN; and in Perth 6AG; and there were a host of others as well. In fact, there were so many amateur broadcasters on the air in Sydney for example that the newly-launched "Wireless Weekly" established an evening roster for all amateur broadcasting stations in an effort to reduce interference.
image of 2FC QSL Card 1927

QSL card from station 2FC in the pre-ABC days in 1927 during the era when the station was operated as a commercial unit by Farmer & Co in Sydney.

As a result of all of this amateur broadcasting activity, it became evident that Australia needed a regular licensed broadcasting system. In 1923, two organizations in Sydney applied for broadcast licenses and construction work on both was carried out simultaneously. The first on the air was 2SB, followed soon afterwards by 2FC. Test broadcasts for 2SB began on October 19, 1923 with the use of another hurriedly constructed 10 watt transmitter. This unit was installed in the Smith's Weekly building in Phillip Street and the amateur callsign, 2HP, was transferred from William MacLardy's suburban location to the new facility in the city.

This new radio broadcasting station was officially opened on November 23, 1923, with a new 500 watt transmitter operating at lower power under its official callsign, 2SB. This call was changed early in 1924 to the more familiar 2BL. Similar officially licensed radio broadcasting stations were soon afterwards inaugurated in each of the other state capitals throughout Australia. Incidentally, sometimes a QSL card showing the callsign VK2HP is printed in radio magazines and identified as the original 2HP associated with the inauguration of 2SB-2BL. However, this is inaccurate. This VK2HP QSL card does not identify the original 2HP, but rather a subsequent 2HP that was issued with the re-cycled callisign.

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Adrian Petersen is a noted radio historian and broadcaster for many years with Indianapolis based Adventist World Radio, a global shortwave, AM, FM and satellite radio network. Originally from South Australia, Adrian has worked in radio across Asia and the Pacific and is well known worldwide for his long running Wavescan radio series. He has published an extensive number of radio heritage articles using his large database of historical information, and personally maintains the AWR heritage collection, one of the world's largest privately held memorabilia collections.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of the Radio Heritage Foundation. Send us your column comments and feedback.

See our Early Australian AM Radio story for a full list of the early amateur radio operators who also broadcast music and other entertainment on AM frequencies. The list includes the call sign, location, date of licence and name of the operator. The only list of its kind you'll find on-line.

'Bombala' and 'Riverina' images courtesy of The Offshore Radio Guide. More information about these vessels and many other early radio ships from around the Pacific and further afield are listed under 'The Broadcasting Fleet'. Lots of information for 'pirate radio' fans from Europe at this very unique website.


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