From the unpublished book Reminiscences of Radio (Chapter VI) by TR (Tom) Clarkson, Retired Assistant Engineer in Chief, NZPO, 1973
Although the first substantial radio stations planned for New Zealand were for fixed service purposes, provision was also made for working ships and this turned out to be the most active kind of service. With so few stations, and these being actually the only ones of any kind in New Zealand, they assumed a very distinctive identity.
As a schoolboy in 1920 I visited Auckland and was shown the radio equipment on the American ship West Mahwah at Queen’s Wharf. VLD was coming in strongly and the operator pointed out to me the aerial on the Auckland Chief Post Office, then one of the prominent buildings in Queen Street.
Subsequently, when amateur receiving licenses were first issued in 1921, I had one at my home in Hastings and used to observe VLD and contemporary stations and could recognise them by their characteristic notes and operating practices. I observed the handling of distress traffic with the Wiltshire GCST when she was a total loss on Great Barrier Island in 1923.
Individual stations developed or assumed a kind of “personality” and this was enhanced in the days of spark transmission, and the fact of participating in a unique kind of communication service. Years later, I came to understand that such identity in a station rests in the reliability and standard of its service, in turn relying on the individuals conducting it. Some splendid men made their contribution to Auckland Radio. Fortunately, others have carried the torch forward, or should I say taken the key in hand, with good effect.
The status of the coastal radio service has declined in comparison with what it was in the early days of Auckland Radio, but this is because of the growth of other services and not a loss in the significance of its essential functions. The more this is recognised the better. While new techniques and automation will eventually provide everything required for communication and safety at sea, it seems that the rest of this century will still have a need for a service something like the one we are accustomed to at present.
My following remarks are from personal recollections, based on long-term personal interest in the subject, and from my time as a junior engineering officer in the District Engineer’s Office in Auckland 1926-1935 and in the Engineer-in-Chief’s Office in Wellington 1935-1964.
First radio stations
Following a Conference in Melbourne in 1908 the New Zealand Government undertook to establish radio communication with Australia and Fiji. A contract was let with the agents for the Telefunken Company of Germany for all the equipment and the supervision of its installation. There were two high-power stations, Awanui to work Suva, and Awarua to work Sydney.
The contract included the supply of five low-power stations, similar to first-class ship stations and these were eventually used at Auckland, Wellington, Chatham Islands, and aboard the Government steamer Tutanekai plus one for spare parts. This was the start of the New Zealand radio service.
Auckland Radio 1912
The Auckland Chief Post Office was built in 1912 and the radio station was accommodated on the flat roof. The Queen Street frontage of the building has two towers with hemispherical domes, the tops of which are about 35 feet above the roof. On each of these, steel tube masts were erected to support the aerial. With a length of 40 feet this gave a height for the aerial of 75 feet. The masts were stayed to outriggers projecting from the corners of the towers. Looking from Queen Street you can see these steel projections, the only remnant of the 1912 VLD. These structures were designed by the Post Office draughtsman in Wellington, Mr J Richter.
The aerial was a T and had six wires in the flat top, supported by strong oak spreaders about 15 feet long. Each wire was terminated in a copper ball about half an inch in diameter, to reduce corona. The lead-in came straight down to the radio room, which adjoined the building lift machinery, and it had a lean-to to house the transmitting motor alternator.
The technical installation was the standard type of Telefunken 2.5kW ship set, Type D. The primary power came from the city supply at 460 volts DC. I will refer to details of this later. For receiving, a crystal detector was used until about 1922, and shortly after this the station was moved to another part of the building.
I never saw the station in its original location, but I have seen a photo of it, with Sigmund Harris in the operators chair. In the early twenties Mr GU Robins was officer-in-charge. I also heard about the station afterwards from Mr EHR Green, the engineer responsible for it, and from some who had operated it, notably F (Fog) O’Grady and W Howie.
Evidently the station performed well, and despite its proximity to the lift machinery there was not much trouble from interference. This may have been due to a rather insensitive receiver.
The duration of the station in its original state included the period of the first World War. Although watches were meticulously kept, little was to be heard.
Changes in 1923
A major change in the installation was made in 1923. This was to change the radio operations to a room on the first floor of the CPO, adjoining the Telegraph Office. An additional 75-foot steel mast was erected on the roof of the building to take one end of the aerial in such a position that the lead-in came straight down the light well to the new operating room. Mr Robins gave up his job with the station and became the first Auckland Radio Inspector. The radio staff came under the control of the Telegraph Superintendent. The District Engineer had technical oversight of the station. Traffic was conveniently handled directly by the telegraph distributors.
In the station was a simplex Morse set on the line to the North, which served Awanui Radio and permitted collaboration if necessary. The motor alternator set remained on the roof and out in the light well were storage batteries for the valve receiver introduced about that time.
The spark transmitter performed well during this period but the effectiveness of the station was handicapped by bad receiving conditions. In the telegraph office next door the Murray Multiplex telegraph was at the height of its popularity. It had recently replaced the hand speed quad as the workhorse for heavy telegraph traffic routes and was fully exploited in the Auckland office. This time division multiplex system used direct current on the line, the various channels being switched mechanically, which produced sparks and radio interference. This plagued reception at VLD and seriously reduced the range of working. It was frequently necessary to seek assistance from Awanui. Palliative measures were unsuccessful. It was even proposed to shift the station over to Narrow Neck.
However the next biggest change was not for reasons of convenience or efficiency, but for another reason altogether. In 1923 radio broadcasting was started in Auckland and no receiver could tune out VLD. So public pressure grew and eventually sounded the death knell of spark transmission. Mr Green made up a small valve transmitter and a general practice developed of not using the main spark during broadcasting hours, i.e. about 8 to 10pm. Head Office announced that valve transmitters were being purchased for VLW and VLD.
The Post Office purchased two valve transmitters made by the Radio Communication Company in England, makers of the “Polar” brand of radio equipment. These sets were not complete in themselves, being designed to work from the AC supply of a spark set. VLW had an RCC parent spark set and VLD the old Telefunken. There was a subtle difference – the RCC had AC at 200 volts and the Telefunken 220 volts. VLD always outperformed VLW in transmission and this may have been one of the reasons.
At VLD the power wiring was modified and the valve set connected up, with the spark as a “stand-by.” This was about the end of 1926. I had the job of installing it under instructions from Mr Green.
The RCC set was a self-oscillator using a large Mullard triode with a dissipation capability of about 300 watts. Rectified but unfiltered supply from the 500 cycle alternator came via a pair of high vacuum rectifier valves. The three brightly lit valves gained for the set the nickname “The Three Lamps”, then a well known Ponsonby landmark. The oscillator was directly coupled to the aerial. That is the aerial capacity and inductance constituted the only high frequency circuit.
We soon discovered that the new set was ineffective at the required frequency of 500kHz. It was designed primarily for ships on the Atlantic, to use the “CW” frequency there, of about 170kHz (1800 metres). Aerial series capacities had to be improvised and then it started to produce good results on 500 and nearby frequencies. Later the circuit was modified to a conventional inductively coupled one, with good results. The input was about 750 watts and the aerial current 5-6 amps. The heavy old 6-wire aerial could not be pulled up tightly enough to avoid swinging in windy weather so it was replaced with a lighter 4-wire one, on galvanised pipe spreaders about 12 feet long.
Almost all calling traffic was done on 500kHz but VLD sometimes used 375kHz. The transmitter was also tuned up on 1800 metres and could call Apia VMG quite well and pass a few remarks or QSLs on behalf of Awanui. This would sometimes save the trouble of starting up the big engine at Awanui.
Most spark ships could work 450 and 300 metres, as well as 600, but hardly ever did so. In 1926 only a handful of ships had CW (or ICW). The Lyttelton ferries Maori and Wahine were equipped, owing to the spark interfering with broadcast reception on the coast. Aorangi GDVB had an RCC set similar to the one at VLD. Other prominent ships like Niagara, Ulimaroa, Tahiti and Makura were still on spark.
This was the heyday of the mate operators. Following the distress and tragic loss of the steamer Ripple, desperate efforts were made to provide a system for radio contact with small ships not carrying an operator. All vessels carrying 20 or more people then had to have a small installation operated by a certificated “wireless signaller” at low speed. So all deck officers had to qualify.
One of these installations worked well when the steamer Manaia was lost at Tauranga, but it did not actually prove the efficiency of the scheme as it turned out afterwards that the set was worked on that occasion by Steward Long, who had prior experience in the Navy.
Most of the mate operator ships had Hamilton-Wilson spark sets of 100 to 250 watts. (They covered the distance very well – I once worked VLD with one from Cape Terawhiti). Every ship had to contact a coast station every voyage, so coast station operators had a busy time giving the mates practice.
Another interesting item at that time was the position regarding Awanui. Since 1915 traffic had been exchanged between Wellington and Apia on 2000 metres. Shortwaves were brought in experimentally between Wellington and Apia in 1927, and the situation was reached that Samoa traffic could be handled without using Awanui, to which the long landline was not always reliable. But Awanui also augmented ZLD in the north owing to poor reception at times in the Auckland telegraph office location.
Improving Reception at ZLD
All kinds of methods were tried to get over the interference problem at ZLD. Mr Green had put a Faraday shield round the operating room and had put a counterpoise over the roof of the building to obviate using a direct earth connection. The Chief Engineer, Mr Gibbs, while in the USA had discussed the problem there and brought back a selective audio bandpass filter to tune out the interference, but it was quite ineffective. It seemed the station would have to be shifted. With the encouragement of the District Engineer, Mr EC Gage, I looked round the environs of Auckland for a possible new site, e.g. Mt Victoria, North Head and Pollen’s Island (Avondale).
When making some of these tests we fed signals back to ZLD over a telephone pair, for comparison. One good place was at the Avondale Post Office, where very good conditions were found. On hearing the signals from Avondale the operators were elated to pick out signals they had never heard before – VIS, VIM, VPD etc. – in daylight. So a receiver was left there, tuned to 500kHz and they started to make use of the signals. This was in November 1927 and was the beginning of the “remote reception” era at Auckland Radio.
It was highly desirable to consolidate and improve upon the initial success of remote reception. The late 1920s and early 1930s were a period of frugality in New Zealand and the atmosphere was not conducive to undertaking new and peculiar technical innovations.
I discovered some disused telegraph wires running up the old coast road north from Milford and attention was turned to having a receiving station in that locality. After preliminary tests and delays, a pre-fabricated hut was eventually erected for the purpose on a small property that was obtained on the top of Crown Hill, near Brown’s Bay. Two pairs of wires connected through to the Auckland CPO, and another was used to trickle charge the filament battery from the Takapuna telephone exchange.
Fine tuning round about 500kHz was provided by a step-by-step push-button device which allowed the frequency to be varied in very small discrete jumps. This gave good control over a few kHz. This had been used at Avondale and was improved at Brown’s Bay. It was the world’s first regular use of a remotely controlled radio receiver.
In 1929, following the Washington Conference, there were big changes in call signs. New Zealand gave up the V, so New Zealand stations became ZLA, ZLD, ZLW etc. and Apia changed from VMG to ZMA.
General effectiveness of the station from 1928
Using the remote receiver and the RCC transmitter, ZLD put on a very good performance. Some remarkable odd experiences come to mind. One very distant station logged was STP (Port Sudan, in the Red Sea). North American stations were regularly logged up to Esteven, Vancouver, and signals were exchanged on 500kHz with WPA, Port Arthur, Texas.
While travelling on Aorangi in 1934, I worked ZLD on the last two nights before reaching Vancouver. But the main criterion was in normal contacts with average ships using average gear, and this became customary three days out, a big contrast to previous standards.
The operators of this period took a great interest in upholding the standard of service. They had no Superintendent to back them up in this and were sometimes even blamed for aspiring to improvement. Some personalities I recall were F O’Grady, W Howie, J Hornblow, Harry Putt, Wallie Scott, S McAven, Fred Voyle, J Helean, N Wishart, Bert Meehan, J Scott and Bill Kirk.
In 1935 I visited VIS (Sydney Radio) and VIM (Melbourne Radio) and it was then that I heard unsolicited remarks indicating the high regard that ZLD had built up.
The rules of the period were that ZLW and ZLD should have responsibility south and north respectively, of Cape Egmont and East Cape. This was alright as a general guide, but it was sometimes applied in a way that caused strife between the coast stations. ZLD was in a weak position, as ZLW had a Superintendent; moreover he had the duty of composing the daily circular to all Post Offices Ships within Range, and influencing the ambit of the several stations. When later I got to know the likeable personality, Jimmy Hampton, I couldn’t reconcile him with the ogre who used to put things across the staff at ZLD.
ZLD used to find out about ships and put them in the list, even if they were not from or to a New Zealand port. This meant the handling of numerous TRs (travel reports) from time to time, and this practice was regarded as a demerit by Head Office. Bill Kirk was the recipient of a “blister” for following up some distant TR, though there were some occasions when such information came in very handy.
One such occasion was the loss of RMS Tahiti when, through having logged information previously, it was possible to “find” the Norwegian freighter Penryhn and bring her quickly to the scene of the disaster. I recently discussed this with SA Heginbotham who was Superintendent at Rarotonga at the time, and he reckoned his people found Penryhn. However he was largely concerned with the arrangements for the Matson vessel that actually eventually took off all the passengers and crew, and I am satisfied that it was Bill Kirk’s initiative that brought the first assistance.
Propagation would also upset the rules of determining the areas of the stations. For instance, vessels off the West Coast of the South Island could best work ZLD. This happened at the time of the Murchison earthquake, when ZLD handled all the initial emergency traffic with ships at Westport. By the same token, ships near Cape Maria could work ZLW more easily than they could work ZLD.
ZLD had a little transmitter we made up, with an input of 5 watts, using the nearby 240-volt telegraph battery for power. It was an independent emergency transmitter and handy for calling ships in the harbour. Its range, under favourable conditions surprised everyone. One ship conducted tests. This was the tanker Brunswick, RXAP. The operator and mate was Arne Gronnenzetter (he was afterwards a prominent Norwegian master – see mention in writings of F Chichester). He copied this little transmitter as far as 1800 miles away.
In the 1920s and 1930s the medium frequency radiotelegraph service such as that of ZLD had quite good technical efficiency. All services with ships used 500kHz and the New Zealand coast was covered well. Morse operating was still a thing of importance in the public communications services, and telegraphy in general had a high status in the nation, this being before the arrival of various compromising influences. The Post Office coast stations caused that Department to be “the” high authority on all significant utterances concerning important maritime topics.
On such occasions the Press Association would attribute its news to a releasa by the “Secretary, Post and Telegraph Department, Wellington”. I think these things had an uplifting influence.
The operations of the coast stations were closely controlled by the Chief Engineer. A dominant personality in the early days was Mr EA Shrimpton, Chief Engineer from about 1920 to 1926. He had a keen appreciation of this subject (he had operated a radio demonstration plant shown by the Marconi Company at the Christchurch Exhibition of 1906) and showed it by writing personally to any operator whose performance resulted in the proper handling of a distress call.
It is regrettable that, through most of coast station history, operators, and indeed Superintendents, have to report to superior officers having authority to determine policy matters, but having no real knowledge or experience of this particular subject. Another regret is that officers in this important, vital, service have not found it a good avenue for advancement to higher ranks. Oh I overlook an exception: Alf Pellow, after Awanui was closed, did become Chief Postmaster, Napier.
In 1934 some ingenious adaptations of automatic telephone switching by Mr AF Smith were incorporated in the ZLD remote control receiver. Up to that time almost all traffic was handled on 500kHz but the new system enabled the ready use of alternative frequencies, most ships being fitted for 425kHz. There were some ideas of having ZLD shifted completely to Brown’s Bay but these did not develop, being influenced by aviation requirements in the late thirties.
The efficient coverage by ZLD had rendered Awanui “out of a job” and that station was closed and dismantled in 1930. (This economy, welcomed in the depression era turned out to be a mistake. Not so many years later wartime demands were for proper coastal coverage in the far north and a new station had to be planned and constructed at Waipapakauri.)
The clear identity of Auckland and its service became slightly obscured about 1938, as after that date the needs of radio for aviation had to be considered, and there was the up and coming service for small ships by telephony.
Effects of Aviation Development
When aviation services started in the 1930s all communications and radio navigation aids were run by the Post Office. There was no Civil Aviation Department, and Post Office personnel did everything required at civil aerodromes, e.g. Mangere.
There was a proposed flying boat service with Government sponsorship between Auckland and Sydney. Pan American Airways were exploring a trans-Pacific route, including Noumea to Auckland.
In 1938 a technical meeting was held in Melbourne to arrange collaboration for the Tasman service, covering operational, communication and navigational matters. Mr Green was the New Zealand representative in regard to radio. The conclusions were that there should be an Auckland station with high and medium-frequency telegraph, and medium-frequency telephony communication with aircraft, high-frequency and medium-frequency direction finders, and hand-speed Morse communication with the Sydney terminal. There was also a high-frequency direction finder at Awarua to give navigational assistance.
Possible sites for a station were investigated and a receiving and direction-finding site was located near Bucklands Beach with a transmitting site about 3 miles away. The land was publicly owned, but various difficulties had to be surmounted before access could be obtained.
Planning commenced for the construction of a comprehensive station. It was natural that it should be foreseen as providing everything for “the port of Auckland” – ships as well as flying-boats – and so a refurbished Auckland Radio was included in the plans. Most of the new work and expenditure was for aviation, and this was explained when financial approval was sought and obtained.
The British trans-Tasman service was scheduled to start in the middle of 1939. Pan-American Airways operated a small private station at St Heliers to service their survey flights and to communicate primarily with Noumea.
In 1938, just as planning for the radio station was getting underway, one of the celebrated survey flights across the Pacific came to a tragic end. The Pan-American Airways flying boat Samoan Clipper, commanded by Captain Edwin Musick, was lost with all on board near Apia.
In keeping with the general feeling of the country, Group Captain T Wilkes, Controller of Civil Aviation, put forward the idea that the projected station should constitute a memorial, and should be known as the Musick Memorial Radio Station, and this was approved by the Government.
Accordingly the main building and the lay-out was planned in keeping with this objective. The design of the building was the work of Mr J Blake-Kelly of the Public Works Department, Auckland in collaboration with Mr WL Fletcher, Post Office Chief Draughtsman, Auckland. (I should mention too the designation of the location as Musick Point.)
Despite efforts to expedite the project, it became clear that the main memorial and the transmitting buildings could not be completed in 1939, so arrangements were made to improvise for initial operations. Receivers were installed in a small “aeradio” type building near the residential area and transmitters in a large garage at the transmitting site. Operation of the MF direction finder was in a shed near the site of the memorial building.
During this interim period Auckland Radio continued to be based at the CPO Auckland.
With these improvised arrangements the station was ready for operation, with Mr LG Scull in charge, in August 1939. But almost immediately new demands of World War II took charge, and that is another story, particularly on the aviation side.
One wartime effect that should be mentioned in connection with ZLD was the availability of the elegant Marconi Adcock MF direction-finder which was immediately requisitioned for the coastal service, one of about 12 at which continuous watches were eventually maintained. This one did good work, an instance being when Ted Wilcox handled Niagara, sunk by a mine off Bream Head in June 1940.
Radio for small ships
Previously I mentioned the efforts to serve small ships by radiotelegraphy, and indicated that these were only moderately successful. The main weakness was that in a time of emergency on such a vessel deck officers were too busy to conduct a Morse service. In the 1930s radiotelephony was being used but not extensively, e.g. the Auckland Harbour Board had a telephony service linking King’s Wharf, Mt Victoria, Tiritiri Matangi Island, and the pilot vessel Waitemata. But there was no strong urge to introduce radiotelephony more widely.
The matter of a radiotelephony service for small ships came into prominence following the tragic foundering of the scow Rangi near Rakino early in 1937. Personal interest by the Minister of Marine, Peter Fraser, ensured government approval and a 250-watt telephony transmitter was purchased for each of the Post Office coast stations. (As the order for equipment for Musick Point was lumped in the “air Vote” the cost of the equipment was charged up to aviation – a strange quirk of accountancy!)
For ZLD, the objective was to offer a service to small ships on the completion of the new building. We laid out the towers at the transmitting site to provide for this. The operating frequency was 1840kHz, and the towers supporting the medium frequency aerial constituted the antenna. The northern tower was shunt fed as the radiator, and the southern one was in a suitable direction and spaced to act as a parasitic reflector, to augment radiation towards the north. Field tests showed this to be quite effective. (The T aerial on these towers was double-tuned at the base and by means of filters was used to transmit simultaneously on the two marine frequencies and also 333kHz for aircraft using telephony.)
The comprehensive station was completed in 1941, followed by the ceremonial opening on the anniversary of Captain Musick’s death on the 12th of January 1942. Prime Minister Peter Fraser expressed his appreciation of the facilities incorporated for telephony for small ships. (Though actually war conditions prevented this from being used at the time). ZLD had a new transmitter, as well as the old one, and good receiving and DF facilities were provided in the main operating room in the memorial building. The engineer for the complete installation was EW de Lisle.
The plant for small ships telephony was fully occupied with services for the Navy. They had requisitioned numerous small craft for various duties round the coast and communication with them was conducted on 1840kHz and later more extensively on 3000kHz, both from Musick Point and from the Dockyard, Devonport.
When many of these vessels were released to civilian use after the war there was a natural urge to continue with radio communication. The organisation for it was not achieved immediately, and stability did not exist until after 1947 at which time the Atlantic City International Regulations established 2182kHz as the calling and distress frequency. About that time too, boat owners were able to purchase suitable war surplus equipment at moderate prices and this contributed to the rapid expansion of the telephony service.
Unfortunately, official quarters have not been prepared to recognise that a proper telephony service all round the coast cannot be provided on 2MHz by the three stations that can cover the coast using telegraphy on 500kHz.
I have been disappointed that the Post Office has not introduced phone-patch facilities for small ships, through the coast stations. It seems to me inexcusable that a passenger on a ship at Rangitoto Beacon cannot talk to a person in Auckland except by setting up a high frequency link through Wellington. When I was Superintending Engineer Radio about 1952 I had sufficient authority to enable the purchase of suitable terminal equipment for putting through phone calls. It was the same as I had seen at British coast stations where trawlers and other telephony vessels were put through. The equipment was of modest cost, about £600 for the three sets we purchased. On preparing to install this it was held up by the Director General, Mr Chas McFarlane on the advice of his Director Pat Doak. The introduction of such a service, based on their accountancy study, would be unprofitable they said. Well, would they object to putting it in experimentally at Auckland and giving it a try out? Nothing doing. The project was stopped, and the equipment stayed in the store, becoming corroded and obsolete.
On this particular topic my cup of bitterness filled up when a couple of years ago I was at a Government Stores Board Surplus auction, when I saw one of these units under the hammer. For old times sake I bid $10 and got it. Had ZLW had this installed in 1968, the captain of Wahine could have discussed his position with the Union Steam Ship Company office and saved delay, instead of relaying everything laboriously through Beacon Hill. This proposition of phone-patches on 2 MHz is probably a dead issue now, as an automatic system on VHF would be better, but it is a pity the service has been denied for the last twenty years in Auckland Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf.
When telegraphy on 500kHz was the only service for ships, the monopoly was very jealously maintained by the Post Office. The idea of a vessel transmitting while tied up was unheard of. The Union Steamship Company wanted a private station but this was denied. Extension of coast station facilities was always difficult as the service was an unprofitable one. Its importance as a national asset went unrecognised.
When demands arose for telephony services by public utility authorities and others, the Post Office was unwilling to assume the initiative to provide base facilities. So we have the untidy situation in the Auckland area, with ZLD the only real substantial station but with confusing operations by a multitude of separate organisations, who do not contribute much to desirable strength and co-ordination in the area. It must be frustrating at times to ZLD operators, having other near-by stations running a parallel service and sharing calling frequencies.
Despite difficult conditions it is obvious that any real small ship service must rest heavily on what is done at ZLD, and being given only moderate support officially it means that operators have to rely on their own force of character to do the proper thing as occasion arises. Fortunately the characteristics of patience, devotion, and efficiency seem to shine through.
Post war reorganisation
In wartime the station at Musick Point conducted numerous services under Post Office control. These included the normal coastal services for shipping, special services for shipping (such as the frequent regular broadcasts on one medium and two high frequencies simultaneously), Naval intelligence (medium and high-frequency DF watches) civil and military aviation, and hand-speed emergency telegraph services with Mackay Radio in the USA and Cables & Wireless in the UK.
When wartime demands subsided, some of these services ceased, but those for the coastal shipping service and for civil aviation remained, and for a couple of years continued under Post Office control.
After the war an “airways division” was set up in the Air Department and the Controller of Civil Aviation assumed executive functions in various fields.