The historical significance of the “wireless monument” in Wahroonga.

The purpose of monuments is often to commemorate a particular moment in a government’s ascendancy and to impress on the visual senses of the subject. In general, they are difficult to imagine having in a place outside of the city. However, on a corner in leafy North Shore Wahroonga stands an unusual monument. It is on a roundabout with heavy morning and afternoon traffic, but motorists and passing pedestrians rarely notice it. Yet, the monument represents a highly significant milestone in Australian history, where politics, business issues, personal egos and communications technology converged into a remarkable achievement. The monument is the Fisk (or Wireless) Memorial and stands on a piece of donated land.

On the base of the monument, a bronze tablet is mounted and tells the story of the event:
The first direct wireless message from England to Australia, sent under the direction of the Marchese Marconi, from the Marconi wireless station, Carnarvon, Wales, was received by E. T. Fisk, in the experimental wireless station attached to his residence, Lucania, here on 22nd September 1918. (An Epoch of Radio Communication AWA (Sydney, 1935), p. 5)

This achievement represented Australia entering the scientific-technical world. But most importantly, it connected Australia not only with its mother country but with the rest of the world. All further developments of long distance radio communication, which have so effectively overcome Australia’s isolation, have grown from the scientific work carried out in 1918.
The three key people who co-operated in arranging the first wireless message from Wales to Wahroonga were Guglielmo Marconi, who developed the first system of radio communication, Ernest Fisk, best known in Australia as managing director of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), AWA and William Morris “Billy” Hughes, who was Prime Minister at the time.
Australia was a remote country whose primary need was communication to bridge its inland and overseas isolation and was the perfect country for Marconi to use his inventions to their full capacity. However, there was no action by the Australian Government, because the official attitudes continued to be influenced by the British Post Office. ( Philip Geeves, “Marconi and Australia”, AWA Technical Review, Vol 15, No 4. December 1974. p. 132) Another cause for the apparent disinterest in wireless technology was that Australia’s legislators had almost no understanding of radio potential in those early years and could not cope with the speed of electronic communication. (Geeves, “Marconi and Australia” p. 132). In addition, there was a fear of integration into a foreign system.
Australia’s defence was wedded to British sea power, concerns about defence grew steadily. Despite the steam ships and the submarine cable, opened in 1872, the government was very conscious of the long distance to London. (T. B. Millar, Australia in Peace and War (Botany,1991), p. 19). If enemy raiders had managed to cut undersea cables, Australia would have been isolated and in wartime, information and control could determine victory or defeat.
Prime Minister Hughes, in his inimitable style pushed to achieve the transmission. He fought single-handed at the Empire Conference for direct wireless communication between Empire and Australia and succeeded in overcoming opposition.
It was not until the First World War was in its closing stages, when experiments, lasting many months were conducted in the Wahroonga experimental station. Fisk had erected two radio masts in the backyard of Lucania, his residence, and the radio receiver was in the attic. The results were variable and it took until September 1918 before Fisk arranged for transmission of messages by Prime Minister Hughes and proved that direct wireless communication between Britain and Australia was feasible.
This historic event, of carrying voices across the ocean, something cables could not do until 1956, is testimony of Marconi’s and Fisk’s technical and commercial skills. (Daniel R. Headrick, The Invisible Weapon Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945 (1991) p. 116) This achievement marked both the culmination of a long period of research and the foundation of long distance wireless telegraph, telephone and broadcasting services which today link Australia with the rest of the world. That interaction between “technology” and “man” made history and the “wireless monument” encapsulates that achievement.

The monument was unveiled on 14th December, 1935, by Sir Ernest Fisk, following speeches from former Prime Minister Hughes and other dignitaries. In commemoration of the important incident, The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story, announcing the unveiling.
The historical significance of the wireless monument is that it commemorates a technological landmark, a birth of science integrated with the history of political power and information.
On September 22, 1993, monument was brought back into a line of vision, when dignitaries from AWA, Fisk family, Ku-ring-gai Council and Wahroonga Amateur Historical Society commemorated the 75th anniversary at the site, Lucania.
VK2DYM’S Military Radio and Radar Information Site. Available at http://www.qsl.net/vk2dym/radio/Marconi.htm
Monument as it is today.

picture

Monument now

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2 comments on “The historical significance of the “wireless monument” in Wahroonga.

  1. peterg says:

    Hi Leena,
    It is amazing that radio, in only five short years, went from this to commercial broadcasting out of the 2FC studios in Sydney!
    Thank you for this marvellous piece about the foundation of radio in Australia!

  2. What an interesting research project Leena! I could not imagine where Australia would be without the significance of this monument in effectively enhancing communication technology throughout Australia. I like how you point out Australia’s vast remoteness as an Island, and how we as a nation needed to improve communications in order to better link people from different cities and towns. Your reference to the the radio in overcoming the nation’s remoteness is fascinating, and I could not imagine how hard it would have been for the British post office to conduct this difficult job. In looking back over the past century I do not think Australia could have achieved what it has without the use of wireless technology to make communication more efficiently. You have certainly chosen and researched a topic which I think is not acknowledged as much as it should be.

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