Consequences of communications control-freaks: Wireless-less tragedy of the SS Yongala

SS Yongala, before 1911

It is difficult to wade through the history of communications technologies in Australia without entangling oneself in the weeds of technological nationalism. These promise glory, but for the uninitiated, tragedy lurks beneath their murky camouflage.

Despite the introduction of the Wireless Telegraphy Act in 1905, Australia was a wireless backwater for a decade longer than it should have been.

Before the introduction of the Wireless Act, it is quite clear that the Postmaster-General's Department (PMG) ‘wanted absolute control’ over wireless. However, from 1902 to 1910, the Australian Government deliberately delayed the introduction of wireless technologies in Australia (Moyal 1988: 110). And while the Australian Government was influenced by ‘a British post office hostile to Marconi’, it rejected a decade of offers from a variety of other companies including Telefunken and De Forest (Moyal 1988: 110).

Despite setting aside £10,000 in forward estimates to establish a coastal wireless service after the Marconi company conducted a demonstration of wireless telegraphy from Queenscliff, Victoria in 1906, nothing happened until the first coastal station was built at Melbourne's Domain in 1912.

But by then it was too late to prevent one of Australia's worst maritime disasters. The SS Yongala disappeared off the coast of Queensland during a cyclone in 1911. The most unfortunate part of the tragedy is that the ship was still in sight of land when a nearby signal station received a telegram warning of the cyclone but without a ship-to-shore wireless capability observers could only watch as the ship sailed into the storm (Maritime Museum of Townsville 2008).

The Australian Government was criticised for its cavalier attitude towards wireless but the control-freak nature of things didn't end there. Although a number of coastal wireless stations opened in Australia in 1912, the coastal station in Melbourne's Domain was established using what the Commonwealth claimed was its own equipment (Deloraine and Westbury Advertiser 1912: 1; Barrier Miner 1912: 3; Given 2010: 60.3-60.5).

It appears that the government went to extraordinary lengths to maintain complete control of the coastal wireless stations by attempting to avoid the use of the Marconi system. 

After an introduction in London, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher appointed John Balsillie, the Australian-born founder of the British Radiotelegraph Company, as the PMG’s engineer for radiotelegraphy.[1] Balsillie established twenty stations by 1915 (Cleland 1979), the first of which used his own ‘invention’.

The Barrier Miner (1912: 3) reported on the Commonwealth’s reluctance to reveal any details about the first coastal station in Melbourne:
The Commonwealth Government, in fitting up its wireless stations, is using what it claims to be a system of its expert (Mr. Balsillie). Nobody knows what this system is. The Commonwealth claims that it is one which does not infringe any existing patents, but in almost the same breath as this it was announced by the Postmaster-General [Charles Frazer] that if any other system was being pirated the Government would be prepared to make suitable reparation to the owners of the patents…
When the Melbourne station was opened certain persons connected with the wireless companies in Australia sought permission to inspect the plant with a view to seeing if it was really all that was claimed by the Postmaster-General. Mr. Frazer, however, declined to allow such inspection, at the same time reiterating his statement that no patents were being infringed.
The representatives of the Marconi company in Australia are not content to take the Postmaster-General's assurance about the exclusiveness of the system of his expert.
Further, the contracts to build the major coastal wireless stations at Sydney and Perth did not go to the Marconi system. Instead, these contracts were granted to Australasian Wireless Ltd, a Sydney firm with the patent rights to equipment developed by the German company Telefunken (Goot 1991).

A series of patent disputes with Marconi commenced in 1912 and the Commonwealth settled out of court with Marconi in 1915. In the meantime, Marconi's Australian operations had merged with Telefunken's Australian operations to form AWA.

By 1922, the Commonwealth entered into a public-private partnership by purchasing a bare majority in AWA (for £500,001) to extend the international beam wireless service. This arrangement would last for thirty years (sound familiar?) because neither the Commonwealth nor AWA had any idea how to dissolve it.

The arrangement also meant that the Commonwealth was locked into the radio broadcasting industry because, at the time of making the arrangement with AWA, it had been unable to guess what might have happened in the future.

None of this helped the 122 poor souls who lost their lives on the SS Yongala in 1911. The location of the wreck wasn’t confirmed until 1958.

But one can only imagine the helplessness felt by the lighthouse keeper on Dent Island as he ‘watched Yongala steam past into the worsening weather. It was the last sighting’, knowing full well that the technology to save them could have been installed nearly a decade earlier.

[1] The Australian Government decided to use circuits designed by Balsillie exclusively in an attempt to avoid patent problems with Marconi (Goot 1991). However, the 'Balsillie System' of wireless telegraphy had been found to be ‘an infringement of the Marconi patent’ in 1911 (Cleland 1979).