Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa
Scientists in Embryo
Scientists in Embryo.
It may not be generally known, but it is a fact, nevertheless, that some of the young men of Wairoa, working in the dark, as it were, but still working patiently, and without much official encouragement, only just missed being the pioneers of wireless in New Zealand. One such pioneer was Mr. George Kemp, formerly on the staff of the Wairoa Post and Telegraph Department. I am now referring to the years 1888-1891, when Mr. Kemp, Mr. Olsen and Mr. H. G. Webber were in the service of the postal department. The reason that actuated Mr. Kemp was due to an experiment which he had made when investigating the cause of polarisation in voltaic batteries. He thought if the conditions shown in this experiment could be duplicated on a large scale wireless connection would be possible, and so he set to work to try it out. His first experiment was made in the Wairoa river at a point below Te Uhi pa; he next tried between Turiroa wharf and the North Clyde wharf, Mr. Webber assisting by sending at Turiroa, whilst Mr. Kemp watched the instrument fitted up in the shed. Then the scene of operations shifted to Gisborne. Mr. Kemp tried to transmit signals across Poverty Bay, and also between Gisborne and Wairoa, Messrs. Webber page 120and Olsen assisting by sending from the Wairoa end. At that time, of course, no one believed it possible to telegraph without wires, and most people said that our friend Kemp had a bee in his bonnet, or perhaps more. This was rather an advantage to Mr. Kemp in a way, because the authorities did not trouble themselves with what he did. He ran a line, too, from Mrs. J. D. Strassburger's residence, in Queen Street, to the late Rev. W. Lambert's garden, in Kopu Road, to connect the wells at the two places (at this time he was making experiments on earth resistance); and his line was often tangled up and interfered with by Mr. T. McGowan's cows, for the flat was then a farm, and at times traffic was interfered with—but there were no traffic "cops" then, and no one seemed to mind: they took it as a matter of course, and gradually got used to "Kemp's foolery," as they dubbed it. It was reported at the time that Sir James Carroll, as he was later styled, was interested in the experiments, and Mr. Kemp certainly tried to transmit a message to the Ophir when passing Gisborne on her way from Auckland to Wellington. He made the attempt at the request of the late Mr. John Townley, Gisborne's "Grand Old Man," then Mayor of that town. Arrangements were to be made with the officer of the Ophir to look out for the signal, and the late Sir Joseph Ward arranged this with Sir James, but by some means or other the arrangements were not made, and so the officers on board did not know that the experimenters intended to try and send a message to them. In any case the message was sent on page 121chance, and Mr. Townley learned from the officers on board that their instruments were affected when passing Gisborne, but as some sheet-lightning was visible at the time they put it down to that, and as they did not know anyone was trying to get them did not trouble about it. This was the first attempt in New Zealand to transmit a message by wireless. The experimenters used the signalling mast belonging to the Wairoa Harbour Board, the harbour master also assisting in every way. Unfortunately, he was killed in a trap accident about three weeks afterwards, and the photo taken of the instruments set up and the assistant was the last taken of him and was highly prized by his relatives in consequence. Sir James Carroll and Sir William Russell did what they could in supplying instruments. About that time Edison was making experiments between condensers on masts of ships, and Mr. Kemp wrote to him asking him to look into his own plans, but never got beyond the great scientist's private secretary, who replied that his employer had something of the kind on hand, but was too busy to look into outside matters. A little more foresight, a little encouragement and Wairoa might have been the pioneer of wireless in New Zealand.
Then there is a record in the fields of wireless of later days that must not be omitted. One Sunday afternoon during September, 1918, two Wairoa lads sat on the front verandah of a house which may be located at the rear of Mr. W. J. Clark's grocery establishment. One had an old telephone receiver held tightly to his ear while page 122the other was feverishly fingering a Morse key—it was war-time don't forget—and presently the suspicious sounds of tapping ceased. "Now listen carefully, Arnold," said the juvenile telegraphist, with ill-suppressed excitement. Silence for a moment, then—"We've got 'em, John; we've got 'em!" cried Arnold. "Just listen."
"Yes, and I've got you!" Both lads wheeled round to find the District Inspector surveying the apparatus with an ominous frown, and not a little satisfaction as he visualized speedy promotion for having discovered the two culprits in the supposed act of communicating with the enemy! That was the end, or the beginning, when E. A. Perry and J. W. D. Stannage transmitted by radio the first message ever sent from Wairoa over the air. The station called was a marine commercial transmitter on a boat just passing at the time. All the reply they heard was "R.O.K." (received all correct), and on this the Inspector's remarks touched on such light subjects as gaols, prisonyards and exercises, reformatory schools and such like.
"Never mind," said Arnold, after they had been let off with a caution, which had its desired effect, as the local telegraph transmissions had been considerably jammed and the offenders had in reality broken one of the most strict of war-time regulations. "Some day," he added, "I'll have a big land-station, and you will have a big ship transmitter, and then we will talk to each other as long as we like." Ten years later the words came true. Mr. Perry had his station here in the shape of 2 Z.P. and Mr. Stannage got his page 123operator's ticket, and since then had the honour of taking part in the famous flights across the Tasman by the late Sir Charles Kingsford Smith in the Southern Cross. Mr. Perry, in January, 1931, built a powerful short-wave transmitter which operates on a wave-length of 80.8 metres, and on this, communication was kept up during the disastrous earthquake period, 1,500 messages being transmitted during the first three weeks, and for which services he was awarded a Certificate of Merit by Radio Transmitters, New Zealand.
In the annals of the Great War it is recorded that our lads rose to good positions, and the decorations ranged from the Military Cross, Military Medal and D.S.O. to the Star of Servia, whilst some came back as captains, majors and lieutenants, and one discovery won the F.R.G.S., and that was young Jim Mulins. Then there was A. C. Falconer, son of Mr. and Mrs. Lake Falconer, formerly of North Clyde, who gave his life on Gallipoli for the Empire. He was wireless operator on the transport Arawa, and was the only one out of forty-two ships in the fleet to pick up the Cocos Island call for help, and but for his keenness, alertness, and attention to duty, the German raider might have continued on her voyage of destruction, and many good ships and brave men have been sent to their doom before she was captured or sunk. "Aboard the transport," said the Sydney Bulletin, "he was sent to handle the spark, and while he was on listening duty had plenty of opportunities to experiment with a detector of his own contrivance, and it was page 124while using this device that he picked up the hurried call sent out by Cocos Island. Of all the listeners in the big fleet he was the only man who caught the cry, and he probably wouldn't have got it with anything but his own receiver, a crystal detector." So the Wairoa boy was able to send the Sydney on her way to smash the Emden. The young man was congratulated by Colonel Malone and Colonel Johnston, but beyond an incorrect statement in orders Falconer got no official recognition.
Another young man, Mr. Harold Beckett, of Frasertown, is likely to be heard of in the world of science later on. Practically self-taught, he has won his diploma of membership of the Society of Radiographers, London, and is now employed as radiographer at the Military Hospital, Hollywood, Belfast, and attached to the British Army Medical Corps.