AUSTRALIAN BEAM WIRELESS - 75th ANNIVERSARY HISTORICAL SITE VISIT
By Bob Padula, Melbourne, Australia
April 2002

Ballan transmitting station in 1928
Transmitter building in 2002

Concrete blocks used for antenna guy-wires, still there in 2002!
Entrance from the Ballan-Geelong Road

Concrete foundations for the steel antenna towers, still there in 2002!
Commemorative plaque, "1927-1969", outside the main entrance

On April 7 2002, Mick Ogrizek and I visited the site of the former HF beam wireless transmitting station, some 80 km west of Melbourne, just south of the town of Ballan. The 154 Hectare site (450 acres) is now used by the Victorian Country Fire Authority for training and hospitality purposes.

The facility commenced transmissions on April 8, 1927, as the Australian transmitting station for the Australia-England beam wireless service, and was given rhe name Fiskville in 1933 in honour of its founder, Mr Fisk.

The beam wireless network povioded hith speed telegraphy and "radio pictures" between the UK and Australia, and a Canadian link was added in later years. The receiving station was at Rockbank, about 60 km west of Melbourne, and landline and wireless links were used interconnecting the main offices in Melbourne and Sydney with the transmitting and receiving stations.

The Fiskville centre still has many of the original buildings, which have been preserved and are now used for convention accommodation for visitors. The main entrance is in the form of a high brick archway, with the date of completion (1926) shown prominently in Roman numerals.

There is a small bronze plaque outside the entrance, commemorating the Beam Wireless service, and advising that the last transmission was on 31 May 1969. The CFA took over the site in 1971.

At its peak, the station had three 25 KW HF transmitters, with 94 antennas. There were three steel lattice masts, 75 metres high, 195 metres apart, each weighing 50 tons. The guy wires were supported by concrete blocks, 33 metres from the base of each tower. The entire antenna structure ran in an east west direction, and supported crossarms of 27 metres in length. The azimuth was about 330 degrees, which was short path to Europe. The same antennas were used at about
120 degrees, for longpath.

The operating frequency was in the 12 MHz region, using some interesting circuit designs! The generator actually produced the carrier, at around 12 MHz - there were no crystal controlled devices. The thing was essentially a huge AC generator.

Historical notes indicate that it had been originally proposed to set up the service on long-wave, as had been the practice in Europe and North America at the time, but that was abandoned due to constraints of space and power! The beam wireless was one of the first services to exploit HF propagation commercially, as SW had been thought to be unsuitable for global communications.

The number one transmitter continued ins service right up to 1969.

At its inception, the station used two 25 kW transmitters, with the call-signs VIZ and VIY. A third transmitter was added at a later stage, and the station continued broadcast high-speed telegraphy until its closure in 1969. In its later years, it was used also for carrying scanned "radio pictures".

One transmitter and antenna was used for broadcasting to the UK - the other for Canada. The English stations were located at Grimsby (transmitter) and Skegness (receiver). The transmitting station in Canada was at Drummondville, and at Yamachiche, for the receiver.

The Ballan station used three towers to support two curtain antennas with reflectors. Each transmitter consisted of a three-stage power amplifier, driven by a master oscillator. The transmitters were keyed from a control room in the Melbourne Central business district (Queen Street), via "landlines". Plate voltage was a mere 20,000 Volts!

Transmission speeds of up to 2000 words per minute were achieved, using automated signalling, and controlled by punched tape.

Commercial (mains) power was not connected to the Ballan site until 1941, and prior to that, power was generated locally by three 165 HP oil-engines coupled to direct-current dynamos. One generator supplied filament power, presumed to be AC. There were no batteries.

The receiving station at Rockbank also had three antenna masts, with two 16 HP oil engines for power, coupled to 110 Volts, 90 Amp DC generators, which were used to charge a bank of accumulators. The bank consisted of 60 230 amp-hour accumulators. There were two additional generator sets - one to charge the "A" batteries, the other for the "B" batteries. The "B" battery generator delivered 6 Amps at 300 Volts.

The actual operating frequency appeared to be around 12 MHz, for both transmitters, and output would have been a form of "narrowband" CW.

Incoming signals from Canada and the UK were converted to 8 kHz, and then modulated to a 1 kHz audio tone, and then sent on their way to the control centre via telephone lines.

The Ballan station was huge by the standards of the day, and the antenna towers were visible up to many km across the surrounding plains.

The technology was the best available at the time, and was the first commercial exploitation of HF DX work! The system was not designed for voice, and it's interesting to recall that the first HF voice transmission from Victoria was later in 1927, from a transmitter co-located at the site of the original 3LO mediumwave station, in the western suburb of Braybrook. This transmitter also operated around 12 MHz, and was very similar in design to the Ballan CW station, with the addition of a modulator. This transmitter took the callsign VK3ME and continued to operate (along with a sister station in Sydney - VK2ME) - until the start of World War 11, when it was taken over by the Government.

The Amalgamated Wireless of Australia company (AWA) was responsible for setting up the Ballan, Rockbank, and Braybrook stations.

Our visit revealed that the concrete blocks are still there protruding about 1 metre above the ground, and there were still the heavy iron rings attahed, which were used for the guy wires. The original transmitter hall remains, and has been extended with office facilities for the CFA. I have a photo taken in 1928 of that building, and it's interesting to compare it now, 75 years later!

The concrete foundations are in fact now part of the centre's golf course, and there is nothing else remaining of the feeder system or maintenance blocks. Neither was any trace to be found of the steel masts or guys, which I was told were dismantled by the CFA in 1971.

The Australian Beam Wireless service has been widely researched by many technical historians, and it has great historical importance to anyone in Australia having an interest in the development of radio in this country. There are interesting articles with pictures of the station and original antennas, and some of the antenna circuitry, both in Ballan and in the UK, at:

http://oldkevspage.tripod.com/awa/page_3.html
http://www.angelfire.com/de/vk3kcm/Fiskville3.html

Fiskville may be visited without appointment: it's about 5 km south of Ballan on the main road to Geelong, and one may enter via the 75 year old driveway under the arch, or via a side-road, which is well marked.

There were special experimental transmissions arranged by UK amateurs to commemorate the 75th anniversary. The British Radio Amateur Old Timers' Association organised a special event station at the site of the old Marconi station at Tetney, Lincolnshire, between the 5th and 8th of April, with the callsign GB75GBH.

Beam wireless technology was phased out in the 1960s due to the introduction of undersea cables and satellite circuits, and as far as I know, Fiskville never operated in voice mode.

The receiving station at Rockbank was closed down in 1969, and had been jointly used by the Australian Military for some time prior to that.

I acknowledge several articles and stories which had been published in the Melbourne weekly radio newspaper "The Listener In", in the 1920s and 1930's, and these may be viewed at the Melbourne Public Library. (BP)

Comments about this article may be directed to the author at this E-mail address:

bobpadula@bigpond.com