Radio Officer training at Wellington Polytechnic

Wellington Polytechnic radio training room
Radio training room, left side, including Marconi Commandant transmitter and Apollo receiver.

Words by Bill Cousins ZL3VZ, photos by David Smith ZL2WT 1

The 1st and 2nd class PMG courses2 were established at Wellington Polytechnic in the 1970s by Ron McDonald, a tutor at the Polytechnic. Initially the courses attracted trainee ships’ radio officers but they were later expanded to cater for NZPO Radio Inspector trainees, who were required to have the same qualification.

Ron was originally a merchant navy radio operator in the UK and had seen service on North Sea convoys to Murmansk. Emigrating to New Zealand, he initially worked in broadcasting but later transferred to the Polytechnic. He was therefore in an ideal position to institute such a course.

Wellington Polytechnic radio training room
Radio room, centre, including auto keying devices and Eddystone IMR54 receiver

As the qualification had a practical component, it was necessary to establish a replica of a ship’s radio cabin at the Polytechnic.

(Prior to this, the practical examination had to be done on a suitable and obliging ship which happened to be in port at the time. This was not an ideal arrangement partly because the examination candidate may not have necessarily seen the installation before the examination!)

The Polytechnic radio room included all the necessary components of a typical ship’s installation, and was allocated an experimental station callsign, which I think was ZLXA.

The main transmitter was a Marconi Commandant CW/SSB transmitter and the main receiver a Marconi Apollo – both brand new and current for the time.

Marconi Commandant transmitter
Marconi Commandant HS 400-watt transmitter (MF and HF, CW/MCW/AM/SSB)
Marconi Apollo receiver
Marconi Apollo solid-state main receiver (10kc – 28Mc)

Other components, including the emergency backup equipment, was largely donated by the Union Steamship Company and NZ Rail when the interisland ferries were refitted.

aerial switch
Marconi aerial switch
Receiver connections
Receiver connections
Marconi MF/HF Rejector
Marconi MF/HF Rejector

“I know that gear well having spent many hours figuring out how the Apollo receiver worked. Did my 1st class RTOC in 1981. George Matheson was our main tutor.”
– Andrew David Cutler (Oct 2019)

Marconi Monitor reserve receiver
Marconi Monitor reserve receiver (MF and HF)

We even had a mint specimen of a Marconi Oceanspan transmitter which I believe was common on larger coastal ships. This latter device was later donated to the Kapiti Communications Museum.

The Polytechnic radio cabin was also used by the NZPO Inspectorate for the re-examination of ships’ radio officers. This involved NZPO examiners creating faults in some of the equipment for the candidates to diagnose and rectify. This turned out to be not such a good idea, as the Commandant transmitter was never quite the same after one episode.

Marconi autokeyer and auto-alarm
Top: Marconi Autokey N solid-state emergency automatic keyer
Bottom: Marconi Lifeguard II automatic alarm receiver
Marconi Warden 3 auto-alarm receiver
Marconi Warden 3 auto-alarm receiver for 2182kc

The courses lasted several months and continued into the mid 1980s. Eventually, however, the need for such a course lessened greatly and they were eventually withdrawn.

My role was lecturing in radio theory, and the students were mainly a joy to work with.

Eric Dynan from the Wellington Radio Inspectorate was our contact with the NZPO and we were fortunate to have input from Ted Gawn, a legendary ex-sparky and a member of Ed Hillary’s Antarctic Expedition in the 1950s. He was awarded the Polar medal. Like Ron McDonald, Ted had also served in the merchant navy during WW2 in the hospital ship Maunganui.

Radio inspector trainees names that come to mind include Zawodny, Angela Cathro, Schollum, Shinnik, Stickings, Corkery and Millns.

ITT Marine transmitter
IMRC emergency set comprising (top to bottom) IMR61 transmitter, IMR60M receiver, autokeyer and charging panel

“The IMRC gear above was initially installed on the Cook Strait ferry Aranui. The cams on the autokeyer still have her callsign cut into them. Also from Aranui are an IMR87A R/T transmitter and IMR76C R/T receiver.”
– David Smith

IMR54 receiver
International Marine Radio Company IMR54 main receiver3

The Commandant and Apollo were retained after the demise of the PMG courses and used for demonstrations and lab work in other radio technology courses through the 1990s. I often wonder what eventually happened to them.

The untimely passing of Ron McDonald in the early 90s was a great loss personally and to the Polytechnic, but he is still fondly remembered by those fortunate enough to have known and worked with him.

Standard Electric panels
Modules for a VHF transceiver. They came from either one of the ferries or the bridge of some other ship when it was refitted.
Telefunken direction finder
Telefunken PE 397/1 radio direction finder

The amateur radio callsign ZL2AJZ, which can be seen in the top photo was allocated to the Wellington Polytechnic Radio Club sometime in the late 1960s. I think John Butt ZL2TKW, a tutor around that time, was instrumental in setting it up although by 1970 the trustee was Ron McDonald. I think they were mainly active on VHF. By the time I joined the Polytechnic the club was no longer functional but the callsign was retained for many years afterwards.

Not pictured

Marconi Alert automatic alarm receiver
Marconi Salvita lifeboat transceiver
IMRC IMR87A R/T transmitter
IMRC IMR76C R/T receiver


1. By the time these photos were taken by David Smith, on 2 December 2002, radio officer training had long been discontinued, and the equipment was about to be dispersed to various interested persons. Wellington Polytechnic had become part of Massey University in 1999.

2. Postmaster General’s 1st Class and 2nd Class Certificates of Competence in Radiotelegraphy

3. The International Marine Radio Company (IMRC), a subsidiary of STC (part of ITT) supplied many shipping lines (including the famous ‘Cunard’) with radio communications. In 1952 the installations of the ‘30s were still in use and badly in need of renewal. The company [IMRC] approached Stratton {maker of Eddystone equipment] and arranged for them to design and manufacture a replacement receiver. It was to be designated the IMR54 and would be an exact physical replacement for the pre-war IMR42. The result of this liaison was recognisably Eddystone, but 50% larger. It had 12 valves, 10 bands, switched IFTs for two frequencies and full coverage from 15kc/s to 31Mc/s without a gap! 110v AC/DC. Used on RMS ‘Queen Mary’ etc. Production run 205. After this, Stratton & IMRC fell out over the contract price. IMRC took back all the jigs, etc., produced (at their expense) by Stratton’s and started to make their own!
Wormald, G. (2002). Rapid reference guide to receivers and brief history of Eddystone Radio in Birmingham 1925-2005, (pp 33-34), Worcestershire, England.