Ingeborg van Teeseling

Ernest Fisk: The man who gave us wireless messaging, and also the heebie-jeebies

Ernest Fisk may have been the man that sent the first wireless message from England to Australia, but he was also a shameless self-promoter and wanted to open communication with the dead.

 

 

Ernest Fisk was a great engineer and an even better self-promoter. So the 22nd of September 1918 was probably the best day of his life. It was a Sunday, and in Carnarvon, Wales, they had worked through the night to make this happen. The day before, the long-awaited cable had come in with the messages, and at 3.15 am it was time to see if it would be possible to send them across the world.

Not long after, in Wahroonga, Sydney, one of Fisk’s technicians, Raymond McIntosh, was able to transcribe the Morse code. The first note was from the Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, who was in London to sell the British ‘copper, glycerine, tallow, butter, wheat, hides, leather, meat and rabbits’ and whip up support for the Australian war effort. And, of course, to inspect his troops. ‘I have just returned from a visit to the battlefields where the valour and dash of the Australian troops saved Amiens and forced back the legions of the enemy, filled with greater admiration than ever for these glorious men and more convinced that it is the duty of their fellow-citizens to keep these magnificent battalions up to their full strength’. His Minister for the Navy, Joseph Cook, agreed. In a missive that came in ten minutes later, he said that the ‘Royal Australian Navy is magnificently bearing its part in the great struggle. Spirit of sailors and soldiers alike is beyond praise. Recent hard fighting brilliantly successful but makes reinforcements imperative. Australia hardly realizes the wonderful reputation which our men have won. Every effort being constantly made to dispose of Australia’s surplus products’.

So here it was: the first wireless message ever sent from England to Australia. Or at least the first official one. Because this moment had been years in the making. Ernest Fisk, the son of a British builder, had very little education before he started work at the training school of Senatore Guglielmo Marconi in 1906. But he was a quick study and after qualifying as one of the very first radio engineers and wireless telegraphists, he was sent to America in 1909, where he demonstrated the possibilities of Marconi’s new invention, the wireless telegraph, to Newfoundland sealers and big ship owners. A year later, in 1910, he visited Australia, to show the wonders of the machine to the Orient Steam Navigation Co. The businessmen were impressed and invited him back to install the equipment and train their telegraphists the year after. Just in time to use it to tell Australia about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, in fact. It was great PR and in 1913 Fisk founded Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited (AWA). It had the exclusive rights to the patents of both Marconi and his rival, the German company Telefunken. It was time for Fisk and his family to migrate down under, and they did not long afterwards. First, he hired the best men he could find, offering them houses to live in and a good salary. One of those houses was in Pymble, a place called ‘Logan Brae’, and Fisk used it to put up an enormous aerial in the backyard, so it could also be used to receive signals from England.

 

So here it was: the first wireless message ever sent from England to Australia. Or at least the first official one. Because this moment had been years in the making. Ernest Fisk, the son of a British builder, had very little education before he started work at the training school of Senatore Guglielmo Marconi in 1906.

 

In the next year or so, Fisk and his staff kept hearing messages, but they came mostly from Germany, not so much England. They decided to move the equipment to Fisk’s own place, ‘Luciana’, in Wahroonga, where they also built a large wooden tower, 25 metres high, with two antenna wires, 30 metres long, which they connected to a mast on the western side of the property. Soon, Carnarvon was coming through loud and clear. The transmitting station in Wales had been built to communicate with Montreal in Canada and during WWI it was run by the British Admiralty. Although Canada was the other way, and much closer, it became quickly clear that the signal was strong enough to be received by the Australians. The other way around was a different matter: there was no two-way communication between Wales and Sydney. In reply, Fisk had to send an old-fashioned cable. Although, old-fashioned? Even sending messages by cable had not been possible before 1871, when Darwin was finally connected to Java, Indonesia, by a telegraph cable that had been laid by especially kitted out ships. A year later, Darwin was connected to Adelaide and the rest of the eastern seaboard, when the Australian Overland Telegraph Line was finally finished. That was a significant occasion too, because it meant that Australia was no longer isolated from the rest of the world. So on 22 September 1918, just after Fisk’s momentous moment, the Sydney Morning Herald brought this back to the minds of its readers: ‘Although the better part of a lifetime has elapsed since the laying of the first submarine cable between England and Australia, the days when the steamers brought the first news from Europe are still fresh in the memory of many of Sydney’s citizens’. That time was now firmly behind us. Australia had taken its rightful place in the world.

Or had we? Of course, not long after Fisk’s time in the sun, the war ended. Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who had spent an inordinate amount of it advocating conscription (and losing), was finally free to do something else. One of the things he decided to focus on was wireless technology. Before the war, the Germans already had a wireless chain with their colonies and other countries in the world. That had given them enormous advantages, militarily and otherwise, and Hughes was determined not to let that happen again. Not just with the Germans, but especially with the Japanese, who were turning into a powerhouse, very, very close to home. So first of all, at the 1919 Peace Conference, he insisted on two things: Australian ownership of what had been German New Guinea, so he could put wireless stations on it. And when the Japanese wanted to insert in the covenant of the new League of Nations that countries would be ‘equal’, regardless of race, Hughes did everything to prevent that. It didn’t match our country’s White Australia Policy, he told American president Wilson, and ‘on behalf of 60,000 dead’ (how many did you lose, punk?) we were entitled to get what we asked for. Australia did, but that was not where the problems ended. The British, who were still controlling our international communication network through the British Post Office, were not very happy with Fisk and AWA. Their biggest problem was that the technology was foreign, German and Italian in particular, and they didn’t trust it. AWA was half-owned by Marconi, and that, a private company controlling our links with the outside world, was not what either the British or the Australian legislators wanted.

Hughes played the political game brilliantly. He ordered an inquiry, that preferred to give the contract to the British, who had put in a complicated plan that involved relay stations in Egypt, India, Singapore and Darwin. It was slow, it was expensive and it was already old hat. Convinced that Fisk and AWA were his better bet, Hughes pulled off a masterstroke. He signed a contract with AWA, but only after the Government had bought 50% plus one share in the company, at a cost of 500,001 pounds. The British weren’t happy and for a year or so they refused AWA a licence to transmit, but after a while, it became clear AWA was just better at doing the job than anybody else. So, in 1927, the British gave up their resistance and that same year two Beam Wireless Stations were built, both in Victoria, accompanied by a little town for the staff. It was called Fiskville. In the 1930s, Fisk was the toast of the town. In 1935, his house, Luciana, received a commemorative monument, with a globe and the figure of the god Mercury on a marble plinth. Billy Hughes was there for the unveiling, and AWA published one thousand numbered booklets of the occasion, called ‘an epoch of Radio Communication’. That same year, Fisk was awarded King George V’s Silver Jubilee Medal, and in 1937 he was even knighted. AWA, in the meantime, went from strength to strength. In 1944, it had a turnover of 4 million pounds and 6000 employees, one of Australia’s largest organisations. By that time, Fisk was less cheerful. His only son, Thomas, had just died in WWII, and a new job, as director of EMI (His Master’s Voice) was not going very well.

His faith in the wireless was undiminished, though. He was convinced it would not only work, in future, to ‘cook the roast and drive cars’, but also to usher in an international language, and communicate with the dead. That might have been a bereaved father speaking. On the other hand: who knows?

 

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

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