Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The First Long Distance Wireless Message Across Water in the Southern Hemisphere

Exactly 110 years ago, the first long distance wireless message across water in the Southern Hemisphere was successfully and dramatically achieved with a public demonstration connecting continental Australia with its island state, Tasmania.  The date was July 12, 1906, and the event occurred between Queenscliff in Victoria and Devonport in Tasmania, a distance of a little more than 200 miles.

            Queenscliff is located on the Bellarine Peninsula in southern Victoria, drectly opposite to the island of Tasmania across Bass Strait.  The area was originally inhabited by Aborigines belonging to the 

Wauthorong Tribe.  The first European settler was an escaped English convict named William Buckley who lived in a cave with the local Aborigines between the years 1803 and 1835. 

            Under the European migrants during the early colonial era, Queenscliff became a fishing village, though soon afterwards it emerged as an important cargo port, servicing steamships trading in Port Philip Bay and the city of Melbourne.  These days though, Queenscliff is simply a small seaside town of about 1500 residents with a commercial centre of historic shop fronts and buildings on Hesse Street.  They also sport a tourist attraction made up of ten miles of restored railway track with a collection of heritage railway carriages from around Australia.

            Interestingly, Queenscliff has featured in not one, but two, very early wireless experiments way back more than 100 years ago.  This small seaside town was the location for a very early experimental wireless station that gave a message of welcome to a visiting royal family aboard a Royal Navy vessel, and it was the location for the first wireless communication between the Australian mainland and islandic Tasmania. 

            In April 1901, Mr. Henry Walter Jenvey, Chief Electrical Engineer with the PMG Department in the newly confederated state of Victoria, conducted a series of test transmissions between two suburban locations in the city of Melbourne.  Mr. Jenvey designed and constructed his own wireless equipment for transmission and reception, and these units were installed at Red Bluff St. Kilda and Point Cook, a distance of 20 miles across the waters of Port Phillip Bay.  According to newspaper reports in Australia and New Zealand at the time, these preliminary wireless transmission tests were successful.

             Comes the next month, (May 1901) and Jenvey set up his wireless equipment near the Black Lighthouse at Queenscliff on the western side of the  entrance to Port Phillip Bay.  There was no wind to fly a kite, so initially, the antenna wire was attached to a balloon.  However that was not successful either, so the antenna wire was then attached to a nearby flagpole. 

            Thus it was that communication was made in Morse Code with the two royal escort ships, HMS St. George and HMS Juno, on Sunday May 5, 1901.  Jenvey sent a message of welcome to the incoming visitors from His Excellency John Adrian Louis Hope, the newly appointed Governor-General of Australia.               

            This message of greeting was sent in Morse Code to the wireless operators on board the two escort vessels, St. George and Juno some 17 miles distant.  According to newspaper reports at the time, this message was then telegraphed by semaphore flags to the royal family aboard the Royal Yacht HMS Ophir.  As the Duke and Duchess of York, the royal couple visited Australia to participate in ceremonies to honor the federation of the separated colonies into the Commonwealth of Australia.  Nine years later, this royal couple became King George 5 and Queen Mary, at the death of the previous king, Edward 7.

            The second occasion when Queenscliff participated in a historic wireless event took place five years later.  On that second occasion, the Marconi Company in England sent its personnel to establish two wireless stations, one at the now historic Queenscliff and the other at East Devonport in northern Tasmania.  The PMG Dept issued a special license for these two temporary demonstration stations. 

            The twin temporary stations were constructed at a cost of  £5,000 each, and each had three small buildings.  There was a  small one roomed corrugated iron cabin at each location, within which the Marconi wireless equipment was installed.  Another smaller building housed a 2 kW power generator, and a third contained ancilliary equipment.  The antenna was strung between two masts 162 feet high and 210 feet apart. 

            A special train carried many government officials from Melbourne to Queenscliff for this grand occasion, including the current Governor-General, the Right Honorable Henry Stafford Northcote.  In addition, other local and national dignitaries came in by boat and ferry.

            Among the many participants in the official programming at Queenscliff were 200 school children who served as a mass choir; and some 300 official guests were provided with a special luncheon.  Over the other side of Bass Strait at East Devonport, 2,000 people witnessed this historic wireless event, and they participated in the official ceremonies of the day with as much gusto as was demonstrated at Queenscliff in Victoria.

            Several official messages were transmitted in Morse Code from the Queenscliff station to the Devonport station and these were written down and then conveyed by bicycle and ferry to the local post office for landline transmission to the state capital Hobart.  The Tasmanian governor, Sir Gerald Strickland responded with felicitous greetings to the large and dignified group gathered at Queenscliff.

            At the end of the grandeur and fanfare of the day, the crowds disappeared and returned to their homes, satisfied with the important historicity of this major wireless event, the first long distance wireless message across water in the Southern Hemisphere.  However, the two new wireless stations remaijned in service, carrying government and commercial communications between the island state of Tasmania and the Australian continental mainland.

            The Marconi company endeavored to sell the two stations to the Commonwealth government, but without success.  This reluctance on the part of the federal government was due mainly to fears about the growing worldwide monopoly that the Marconi company was demonstrating.  However, after three months of continued service, the two stations were closed and the equipment was removed.

            The temporary wireless station at Queenscliff in Victoria was located on the Cricket Ground between Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale, and today there is a stone cairn, a monument, honoring this historic wireless station.  The monument is located on the inland edge of the Cricket Ground.

            The Tasmanian counterpart in honoring the Marconi station at East Devonport is not a stone monument installed at the actual site on the northeastern side of the Mersey River Estuary at Bass Strait.  Instead, commemorative radio events have been staged at the Devonport Maritime Museum, which is located across the river, on the northwestern side of the Mersey Estuary at Bass Strait.  
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 385)