Traeger's radio breakthrough celebrates 90th birthday

Cloncurry celebrates 90th anniversary of first pedal radio message


Life & Style
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The bush has become used to sending and receiving emails to people all over the globe at the tap of a key so it's hard for people nowadays to imagine a world without instant communication at your fingertips.

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Alfred Traeger at his pedal radio set. Photos supplied.

Alfred Traeger at his pedal radio set. Photos supplied.

The bush has become used to sending and receiving emails to people all over the globe at the tap of a key so it's hard for people nowadays to imagine a world without instant communication at your fingertips.

It takes something like the 90th anniversary of the first pedal radio message for us all to stop and recall that first step, thanks to inventor Alfred Traeger in 1929.

It was then that the first pedal radio messages were exchanged between the Aerial Medical Service base at Cloncurry and Augustus Downs 240km to the north, creating a communications revolution and diminishing the loneliness of the inland forever.

It's an achievement that will be commemorated firstly at the Cloncurry Show on Friday, with a formal recognition at 6pm, followed by wine and cheese at John Flynn Place.

It was Flynn, the man who founded what became the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1928, who recognised the need for Traeger's pedal-powered radio invention to complement the aerial ambulance service.

Without it the service was limited and so Traeger was enlisted, travelling with Rev George Scott through 1929 to selected stations in north west Queensland to install the radios, erect the 18 metre steel aerial masts, and teach the women on the properties Morse code and how to operate the sets.

For whatever reason Gertrude Rothery, based at Augustus Downs, became the person to take the first message, with Traeger beside her, on June 19.

Mrs Gertrude Rothery, Augustus Downs, Cloncurry, ready to receive the first pedal radio transmission.

Mrs Gertrude Rothery, Augustus Downs, Cloncurry, ready to receive the first pedal radio transmission.

The message - 'This is VJI, the Aerial Medical Service station calling Augustus Downs' - came in loud and clear, as the base station was broadcasting by telephony and the connected stations could hear the operator's voice.

Mrs Rothery had to reply in Morse code, correctly identifying 8XF Augustus Downs and her message was received in Cloncurry. The rest of the exchange has come to be remembered for its unintended humour.

When Mrs Rothery was encouraged to send a personal unscripted message she became flustered so Mr Traeger suggested she type 'Hello Harry', as the Cloncurry operator was Harry Kingsborough.

At the first attempt the letters 'h-e-l-l' were jumbled together and unreadable but the 'o' was clear so she tried again. Once again the 'o' was still spaced too far from the rest of the word.

On a third attempt it was not much better but Traeger told her to send 'Harry'. Back came Harry's hesitant reply: 'I think I received the message OK'.

When Traeger returned to Cloncurry he discovered the message came through as 'O hell O hell O Harry'.

It wasn't until 1932 that he solved the problem of indecipherable messages sent by amateur operators with the invention of an automatic Morse keyboard.

Mr Traeger went on to install pedal radios at Lorraine Station, Gregory Downs Station, Turn Off Lagoon Station (Corinda), the Birdsville AIM Hospital and the Mornington Island Mission.

Friends of JFP member Christine McDonald described the event as a huge breakthrough, saying it finally meant the bush had a voice.

A user of a later version of the radio transmitter herself, she said it was the voice of the Gulf, especially the chat sessions.

"We were very reliant on it for our mustering messages, it was terribly important," she said.

To commemorate the occasion, she said the students at St Joseph's School had themed their show art entries on the anniversary.

"They are charming, and it means the next generation gets to know the story," she said.

Special Friends of JFP invited to attend the celebration on Friday include three members of Alfred Traeger's family, two members of the Rothery family and two members of Vern Kerr's (early radio officer) family.

Read more: Cloncurry's gift to the world turns 30

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