Pioneering Antarctic communications

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.Profile of a young man wearing headphones taking notes while seated next to a radio in a mechanics workshop.AAE 191213 Telefunken radio wireless hill

Australia was at the forefront of radio communications. Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 1911–14 was the first to establish an Antarctic radio link, at a time when radio was a relatively new technology. The stations operated wireless equipment, the German-made Telefunken 1.5 kilowatt 'spark' transmitter, using long wave and Morse code telegraphy.

The expedition established two stations: a main base at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, and a radio relay station at sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island to bridge the distance between Antarctica and Australia. Radio operation needed power, so the De Dion engine that powered the generator was housed a short distance from the radio shack on Wireless Hill at Macquarie Island.

After some experimentation in the hostile conditions, the Wireless Hill station on Macquarie Island successfully made the first outside communication via radio by signalling the SS Ulimaroa on 13 February 1912, and later other ships in the Tasman Sea vicinity. The following month, the expeditioners heard the news on Hobart Radio that Roald Amundsen had arrived in Hobart, after being the first to reach the South Pole.

Meanwhile, the Western Base party on the Shackleton Ice Shelf erected masts for a receiving-only station. However, expeditioners were forced to abandon the plan when it was discovered that detector parts were missing from the cargo, effectively cutting them off from news during the entire expedition.

At Commonwealth Bay, one of the windiest places on Earth, the base was subjected to hurricane force winds and sub-zero temperatures. After almost a year of failed attempts to erect the radio masts and aerials in difficult and hazardous conditions, finally in February 1913 Commonwealth Bay established communication with Australia via Wireless Hill. However, due to atmospheric static and auroral activity, the quality of signals that could be received and transmitted at Commonwealth Bay varied greatly. Battling these conditions, along with the constant howling of the wind and sledge dogs outside, radio operator S.N. Jeffreys would spend entire evenings trying to transmit or receive a single message! After the main radio mast was damaged by winds, expeditioners experimented unsuccessfully with kite aerials. Rebuilding the masts in a new configuration allowed the Commonwealth Bay base to re-establish contact with Wireless Hill. Telegrams sent to Australia were usually weather information, official correspondence, and also the occasional private message.

At the end of the 1913, the Wireless Hill station was transferred from the AAE to the Australian Meteorological Service and the radio equipment was left on Macquarie Island.

In December 1930, Douglas Mawson revisited Wireless Hill during the British and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). Although the De Dion engine house and wireless shack were still intact, Mawson wrote in his diary that '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, and a radio mast section the remaining artefact.