Mawson and Wireless Radio in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration

Article | Issue: Sep 2023

From sea-stained dispatches to data sent back from deep space, Southern Signals is the story of Australia’s use of communications to bridge vast distances through war and peace, exploration and growth.

Communications have been vital at every stage of Australia’s history. From the time the First Fleet transport ship Prince of Wales limped back into port eight months after leaving Sydney Cove, to the breakneck rush during the 1970 Apollo 13 crisis to bring Parkes’ famous radio telescope on line, this book shows how adoption (or not) of emerging communication technologies has influenced key events, and formed the. backbone of Australia’s development as a society and relationship with the world.

In the extract we travel back to 1911–1916 to discover wireless radio in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. 

Seeking Awarua Station

Chapter topics include: dispatching mail to Britain from a convict colony, and then around a big country; the arrival of telegraph, telephone, and television; wireless radio and Antarctic exploration; wireless radio entering Australian homes; the coming of airmail; Australia’s role in televising the moon landing; communications in search and rescue, Australian newspapers; the internet and the opportunities and risks of the future.

On 1 January 1901, the colonies of Australia were federated by an Act of the British Parliament, becoming a single nation. After many years of bickering and negotiating, the colonies had finally reached agreement on a way forward.

By 1901, the country had a population of 3,773,801, not including Indigenous Australians.1 The young nation was eager to prove itself in the international arena and, in 1912, the Commonwealth Government supported scientist Douglas Mawson’s proposal for an Australian expedition to Antarctica.

Mawson was born in Yorkshire, England, but emigrated to Australia as a young boy with his family. He studied geology at the University of Sydney and was working as an academic when he joined Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic Nimrod expedition of 1907-1909. In 1911, he secured private and government backing for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, with a strong focus on scientific research.

Mawson decided to make use of a relatively new invention, wireless radio, to establish direct communication from his base in Antarctica back to the world, via remote Macquarie Island and Hobart, Tasmania.

His decision to try and establish wireless communication was a bold one. There were four expeditions heading to the Antarctic during the period 1911–1912. They represented four countries. Two parties – those of Captain Robert Falcon Scott (Britain) and Roald Amundsen (Norway) – would be in a race to reach the South Pole. The Japanese Antarctic Expedition headed south for scientific purposes, as did the Australians.


Southern Signals image 3

Douglas Mawson’s decision to link his expedition back to Australia by wireless was a bold experiment which eventually proved its worth.

The role of wireless technology

Wireless technology, which had been invented in the late 1890s, allowed messages to be communicated by electromagnetic waves to (potentially, mobile) points, at first by Morse code, but then, as radio evolved, by voice. It works through the use of an electrically charged transmitter, which sends a signal through the airwaves. The signal is picked up and interpreted by a receiver.

The theory of electromagnetic radiation was first proposed by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. But two key men – Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi – have been identified as responsible for applying that theory to invent the first wireless radio. In 1893 in St Louis, Missouri, Tesla demonstrated the first wireless radio. However, Marconi filed the first patent for wireless telegraphy in Britain (in 1896) and was the first person to transmit radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean (in 1901). In 1899, when he equipped two ships with wireless radio to report on the America’s Cup yacht race, the take-up of this invention grew exponentially.

Wireless radio was critical to shipping, allowing a moving craft to communicate to a fixed station (ship to shore) or to another ship. When the Titanic struck an iceberg on 14 April 1912, it sent out Morse code emergency distress (SOS) signals that summoned ships to pick up survivors.

For the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Mawson purchased a German-made Telefunken 1.5-kilowatt ‘spark’ transmitter, which used long-wave and Morse code telegraphy.4 The expedition would land a party at Macquarie Island to maintain the radio station to be constructed there. There were to be two radios used in Antarctica, the first at Mawson’s main base at Commonwealth Bay, and the second at Western Base, which was led by veteran Antarctic explorer Frank Wild.

What advantages would the wireless bring? It would allow Mawson’s party to communicate key findings or issues with Australia, encouraging interest in the expedition. It was also an important tool in the case of an emergency. Unfortunately, things did not start smoothly with the wireless.


Southern Signals image 2

Mawson’s journey into the unknown, 1911–1914

Macquarie Island is a subantarctic island, lying about 1,500 kilometres south-east of Tasmania. It is 34 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide at its greatest breadth. The island teems with penguins, seals and birds, most seeking a nest in the earth to have their offspring.

Mawson’s expedition left Hobart on 2 December 1911, steaming south through heavy seas. Part of the bridge of their ship Aurora was destroyed on 5 December, when a huge wave struck the vessel. Mawson wrote:

The wind increased from bad to worse, and great seas continued to rise until the culmination about 4 a.m. on the morning of December 5, when one struck the bridge, carrying the starboard side clean away. Toucher, the officer on watch, had a narrow escape; fortunately, he happened to be on the other side of the bridge at the time.

They reached Macquarie Island on 11 December. The island already had inhabitants: shipwrecked sailors from the Clyde and half a dozen sealers who lived on the island for the summer months.

The men unloaded the equipment for the station, including a hut and supplies, and selected a site for the wireless masts:

It was decided that the best site for the wireless station was the summit of [an] isolated precipitous hill – Wireless Hill. We had then to face the serious difficulty of transportation of the heavy masts and engine parts from the beach to the summit – a vertical height of over three hundred and fifty feet.


Souther Signals image 4

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition made significant discoveries, but tragedy was about to strike.


Five men formed the Macquarie Island party, charged with managing the wireless station and undertaking scientific observations. Among them was telegraphist Arthur Sawyer, who was to be chief wireless operator. 

Mawson and the rest of the expedition continued south, and set up their main base at Commonwealth Bay, Adélie Land. Here they hurried to erect a purpose-built hut and prepared to see out the winter, before launching their key journeys of discovery in the spring and summer. 

With the help of others, radio officer Walter Henry Hannam, a wireless operator and mechanic, laid the strong foundations necessary for the petrol motor and the generator of the wireless installation. The floor of the workroom was then built around these, and the walls and roof added. Hannam continued to unpack and mount the wireless equipment. He sent a number of messages, some of which were heard by Sawyer at Macquarie Island. But on 13 October a hurricane struck, destroying one of the masts. Mawson wrote of the event: 

October 13 was known as Black Sunday. We were all seated at dinner and the Hut was quivering in the tornado-like gusts which followed a heavy ‘blow’ reaching a maximum hourly average of 91 miles. One mighty blast was followed by a crack and the sound of a heavy falling body. For a moment it was thought that something had happened to the Hut. Then the messman ran out to the trap-door and saw that the northern wireless mast had disappeared.8

For the next few months, Hannam constantly struggled to bring the radio back to life.9 The wireless was still not operating when, on 10 November 1912, Mawson set out with his colleagues Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis to explore the unknown section of the Antarctic continent known as King George Land.

It was a journey into the unknown. Mawson titled this group the ‘far-eastern party’, which was to ‘push out rapidly overland … mapping more distant sections of the coast-line’.

In a tragic set of circumstances, on 14 December, Ninnis, with his team of dogs and sledge, fell into a seemingly bottomless crevasse, and all were lost. Mawson and Mertz called for three hours, but there was no answer.

Mertz and Mawson had to immediately turn for home, as most of their supplies had gone with the sledge. Mertz became ill with poisoning from the dogs’ livers they had eaten. He died during the night of 7-8 January.11 In a feat of endurance, Mawson returned alone to Commonwealth Bay. 

As he stumbled towards the hut, on 8 February 1913 the Aurora, which had returned to Commonwealth Bay, departed, intent on leaving before the ice pack closed in again with the end of summer. With no sign of Mawson or his party, a group of volunteers was left behind for a second winter in the Antarctic. Later that day, they witnessed Mawson’s return, a ghostly figure emerging out of the ice.

While Mawson recovered, the new radio operator, Sidney Jeffryes, got the radio working. On 15 February, they picked up signals from Macquarie Island. The signals became more distinct until, on 20 February, a message from Commonwealth Bay reached Sawyer at Macquarie Island, who immediately responded by saying ‘good evening’.

On 21 February, they were able to exchange information. They spoke about the fate of their own party, and learned that Captain Scott and his party had perished returning from the South Pole. The signals went from Macquarie Island to Hobart, and then were shared with the world at large. Mawson sent the news of the tragic deaths of his two companions, with special messages to their relatives.

Mawson wrote: ‘The first news from the outside world was the bare statement that Captain Scott and four of his companions had perished on their journey to the South Pole’. Mawson had already heard from the returning Aurora that Amundsen and his party had reached and returned from the pole.

The joy of communication was clear:

It was now a common thing for those of us who had gone to bed before midnight to wake up in the morning and find that quite a budget of wireless messages had been received. It took the place of a morning paper and we made the most of the intelligence, discussing it from every possible point of view.


Connect with Hugh Tranter on Linked In

Author: Hugh Tranter

Category: information & interdisciplinary subjects, Reference

Book Format: Hardback

Publisher: National Library of Australia

ISBN: 9781922507563

RRP: $49.99

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