The wireless

In their own words

A good day, plenty of sun, light variable winds … Aerial put up. Great troubles getting to the top of mast to fix broken strap. McLean twice frostbites his fingers. Bickerton fails to reach top, then makes climbing irons and gets there.

— Douglas Mawson’s diary, 31 August 1912

Getting the wireless to work was a constant background task for the Cape Denison group through most of 1912. The use of wireless was to have been one of the primary achievements of the expedition, so there was great pressure from Mawson to get the apparatus working.

Rare days of fine weather would see a team of men at work on the two radio masts, erecting, re-erecting or maintaining them, a constant struggle in the face of the ferocious wind. As Laseron noted in his later book about the AAE, South with Mawson:

No trouble had been anticipated, for instance in the erection of the wireless masts; now every minute of comparative calm was of the utmost value. The two masts each consisted of three segments, and secure anchorages had to be found for the wire stays to hold them. At every opportunity all hands were thus employed, collecting rocks as weights, boring holes in the hard rock, or digging foundations for the masts themselves. Suitable projecting corners of solid rock, where possible, were used to fasten the stays.

The work remained unfinished until September. High winds repeatedly damaged the masts and stays, and several times broke the aerial wire between the masts and the hut. The work was ostensibly completed by September, but with increasing daylight hours and continuing damaging winds prospects for two-way communication with Macquarie Island remained poor.

Hannam and Bickerton busily sent off messages to which they received no replies. Then came the final straw, as Mawson later recorded:

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.

It was a bitter blow. The fallen mast had taken months to erect, and two-way communication with Macquarie Island looked an unlikely prospect indeed. As it happened, through misfortune and the resulting decision to extend the AAE another year, they would get a second chance in 1913.