Macquarie Island

The AAE radio aerial on Wireless Hill in 1912

Wooden masts and radio aerial on Wireless Hill in 1912. Photo: probably Charles Sandell, antarctica.gov.au

Macquarie Island lies in the southwest Pacific Ocean, about half-way between New Zealand and Antarctica. Politically a part of Tasmania, Australia, since 1900, it became a Tasmanian State Reserve in 1978, and a World Heritage Site in 1997.

The island is home to the entire royal penguin population during their annual nesting season. Ecologically, the island is part of the Antipodes Subantarctic Islands tundra ecoregion.

From when it was first discovered, Macquarie Island was also of interest to scientists. The Russian expedition led by Thaddeus von Bellinghausen collected flora and fauna on the island in 1820. Charles Wilkes’s US Exploring Expedition and two New Zealand scientists, JH Scott and A Hamilton, followed. Joseph Burton spent three and a half years from 1896 collecting specimens while working with oiling parties on the island. Scientists with Captain Robert Scott in 1901 and Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909 also collected specimens on the island.

In 1911, Australia’s Sir Douglas Mawson established the island’s first scientific station. In addition to conducting geomagnetic observations and mapping the island, studies were made of the island’s botany, zoology, meteorology and geology. The Macquarie Island expedition also established the first radio link between Australia and Antarctica by setting up a radio relay station on Wireless Hill that could communicate with both Mawson’s main expedition group at Commonwealth Bay, and Australia.

antarctica.gov.au (emphasis added)

1912:

Controls for the Macquarie Island wireless station in 1912 or 1913

Controls for the Macquarie Island wireless station in 1912 or 1913. Photo: probably Charles Sandell, antarctica.gov.au

The telegraphists, Charles Sandell and Arthur Sawyer, used a German-made Telefunken 1.5 kilowatt spark-gap transmitter.

On the night of 2 February 1912, Sawyer was on duty. He heard a radio message from Wellington, New Zealand, calling Suva station. On 13 February 1912, the Wireless Hill station established communication with the SS Ulimaroa. By the following night signals were received from three other ships, one as far distant as Cape Horn. On 10 March 1912, Wireless Hill communicated with Suva, 2400 miles away. This was a remarkable performance for a 1.5 kilowatt wireless set. From 12 May 1912 onwards, Sandell and Sawyer sent a daily weather report to the meteorologist at Wellington.1

The first successful transmissions from Wireless Hill had been made on 17 January, the day Captain Scott and his party reached the South Pole, although the distance was not great, as the receiving station was also on Macquarie Island.

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.

antarctica.gov.au

The engine house for the wireless station on Macquarie Island.

The engine house for the wireless station on Macquarie Island. Photo: Charles Sandell, antarctica.gov.au

1913:

By 22 July 1913, the [supply ship] Rachel Cohen still had not arrived. She had been blown off-course and badly damaged. She headed for New Zealand, where she had docked for repair. Lack of food was now a serious concern. Wireless Hill eventually received a message that the New Zealand steamer, Tutanekai, would bring them the stores that had been aboard the Rachel Cohen.2

At the end of the year, the station was taken over by the Australian Government meteorological service, from the Mawson Antarctic Expedition.

1915: Macquarie wireless station closed on 14 October.

1930: In December, Douglas Mawson visited the Wireless Hill station during the British and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) and found the De Dion engine house and wireless shack were still intact. However, Mawson’s diary entry for 2 December states ‘There was little of the equipment inside of any use, and such as still useable is antiquated, so of no practical value’.

1952: Awarua Radio began working Macquarie Island VJM.

2016: The Australian Government announced it would close the permanent Macquarie Island research station, then reversed that decision a few days later following protests from scientists and Tasmanian politicians.

2018: Amateur radio operator Norbert Trupp VK5MQ operated from Macquarie Island as VK0AI.


Notes:

1. Morgan, A., The Wireless Crew, The Science Observer, vol 4, p 2.

2. ibid, p 4.

» More about communications with Macquarie Island