The Wireless of Wireless Hill

Wooden mast with wire stays holding it upright.
The AAE wireless masts on Wireless Hill 1912 (Photo: probably Charles Sandell)
Room of old fashioned radio reels and head sets.Power supply hut for radio operations.Wooden stump of the mast looking weathered and worn.

Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911-1914 was the first to establish an Antarctic radio link, at a time when radio technology was just over ten years old.

The expedition established two stations, one at the main base of Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, and the other at Macquarie Island on what became known as Wireless Hill, wireless being the more often used term for radio in those days. There was also a receiving-only station established at the Western Base station on the Shackleton Ice Shelf.

The wireless equipment chosen by the expedition was the German-made Telefunken 1.5 kilowatt 'spark' transmitters. The Macquarie Island telegraphists, Charles Sandell and Arthur Sawyer, used Morse code operated on high frequency.

The Wireless Hill station made the first transmission of the expedition to another receiver on the island on 17 January 1912, the day Captain Scott and his party reached the South Pole. The first 'outside' communication was on 13 February 1912, with Sydney radio and the ships Ulimaroa and Westralia of the Huddart, Parker Line, and HMS Drake.

Hobart Radio came into service in March 1912, and the team at Macquarie Island learnt the disappointing news that Amundsen had arrived in Hobart, after being the first to reach the pole.

The Wireless Hill station was quite successful sending nightly weather reports to Wellington, New Zealand, but it was not until April 1913 that communication with Commonwealth Bay was finally established.

Radio operation needed power, so an engine house was built a short distance from the radio shack on the top of Wireless Hill. This was known as 'De Dion House', as the engine that drove the generator was a French water-cooled De Dion-Bouton. The De Dion engine was the world's first internal combustion engine to be manufactured in large numbers from 1895, and set the design standards for the first motorcycle and car engines.

At the end of 1913, the Wireless Hill station was transferred from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition to the Australian Meteorological Service and the station equipment was left on the island, possibly with the intention of the station being reopened.

Douglas Mawson himself visited the Wireless Hill station during the British and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) visit of December 1930. At this time the De Dion engine house and wireless shack was still intact. Mawson's diary entry for 2 December, 1930 states 'There was little of the equipment inside of any use, and such as still useable is antiquated, so of no practical value' Today nothing remains except the stumps of the radio masts on Wireless Hill, plus a long section of one of the radio masts in the collections of the Australian Antarctic Division headquarters in Kingston, Tasmania.

References:

  • Doug Twigg (December 1994) Polar Radio 1912 Style, Aurora Magazine
  • Allan Moore (December 1997) Fifty Years of Australian Radio Communications in the Antarctic 1947-1997, Aurora Magazine
  • Jacka & Jacka, Editor Mawson's Antarctic Diaries
This page was last modified on 27 November 2009.