by Lloyd Butler VK5BR

First published in OTN March 2011
(The journal of the Radio Amateurs Old Timers Club of Australia)
Some photos have since been added.


I thought I would write a little about the early work of Transmission Section of the PMG's Department during the period of 1942 to 1947 where I worked as a technician. I joined the section at the age of 17 years having spent a previous short period in radio servicing and radio broadcasting.

The work of the Transmission Section opened up new fields of experience for me, not only in tele-communications, but in other work which the Section carried out for other Government owned organisations such as the RAAF, Dept of Civil Aviation (DCA) and the Commonwealth Railways. The Section was also responsible for the installation and maintenance of the National Broadcast Transmitters and the ABC Studios in Adelaide.

The Superintendent Engineer of the Transmission Section was Frank O'Grady who eventually became the national head of the Engineering Division of the PMG's Department and ultimately the head of the whole the PMG's Department.


In 1942, the war was still in progress and I figured that when I turned 18, I would be recruited into one of the armed services. However it didn't turn out that way as tele-communications was considered vital to the national security, including the link from Adelaide to Darwin on its way via undersea cable to overseas . The only way one could leave the department was to join air crew, if sufficiently qualified (which at the time I wasn't).

At the time I commenced with the Section, the state of the art in long line technology was the three channel carrier system and such a system had recently been installed between Adelaide and Darwin. Each channel operated single sideband (suppressed carrier) and could carry one speech circuit or a multitude of telegraph (teleprinter) sub-channels. It is interesting that the tele-communications people were using SSB long before it became universal in radio communication (such as amateur radio).

The carrier system operated within a band commencing just above the maximum voice frequency to around 30 kHz. The lower voice frequency band, separated from the carrier system with filters, was used for communication between terminal and repeater stations and to communicate with line parties maintaining the line.

The line pairs to Darwin were mounted on the steel tubular poles originally used for the early overland telegraph line, erected in 1872. As far as Alice Springs there were three line pairs which followed the old narrow gauge train line. There were two copper pairs one for the PMG carrier system and one for train control. The third pair consisted of one copper wire and the original galvanised iron wire used in the early telegraph. This unbalanced pair pair was used as a standby circuit by the PMG. From Alice Springs, where the railway ended, the lines continued northward, on to Darwin, as two pairs.
Put aside HF radio, the vital communication link via undersea cables to the other side of the world was dependent on a single pair of overhead wires which passed around 2000 miles over the centre of Australia.

For the carrier system, Repeater Stations were located around 200 miles apart at Port Augusta, Maree, Oodnadata, Alice Springs, Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek, Newcastle Waters, Larrimah and Pine Creek.

The Old Telegraph Station at Alice Springs
Photo taken in 1991
Old Telegraph Station Building at Newcastle Waters
Photo taken in 1991

A second three channel system was later installed between Tennant Creek and the East Coast of Queensland via Camooweal and Mt.Isa. I was part of the team involved in the establishment of the first repeater station out from Tennant Creek, (originally called 4A Bore and later Wonarah).

Typical repeater stations at isolated locations, such as 4A Bore and Newcastle Waters, housed separate rooms for the telecommunication racks and distributing frames, the batteries formed from many series connected lead acid cells and a 25KVA generator set. Two steel towers outside of the station each supported a wind powered generator, one for the low voltage DC supply and the other for plus and minus 130 volts. Batteries were float charged from either the wind generators or the fuel powered generator source.

Bernie Carr installed much of the wiring and control gear for the wind plants and I helped him at 4A Bore and Newcastle Waters. The repeater station at Newcastle Waters was adjacent to the original old telegraph station. When I re-visited the tiny community in 1991, the old telegraph building was still there (as shown in my photograph) but I could see no evidence of the carrier repeater station ( all phased out by modern communications technology).

In those early times of carrier technology, many towns in South Australia were linked by voice frequency circuits on open wire lines and signals were amplified with voice frequency repeaters. The repeaters had two early types of triode valves, one for each direction. I think the valves were an early type TMC16 which became difficult to replace. I had a hand in the replacement of many of these with triode connected 6J7G pentodes.

Further development of Interstate trunk lines led to 12 channel carrier systems with frequency bands up to around 150 kHz. The position of transposition of line pairs was apparently quite critical at these frequencies and poles carrying the transpositions were installed at what appeared to be quite strange spacings.

Line Pair Transposition

Overland Telegraph Pole
Replaced the first wooden
poles attacked by Termites

Repeater Station at 4A Bore

In my time in the PMG, the only radio telephone link was a single FM channel from Mt Bonython in the Adelaide Hills to Kangaroo Island. This was installed to maintain service when the undersea cable to the island was damaged.

Today the open wire trunk lines have been replaced by multi-channel bearers in the form of micro-wave links, fibre optic cables and satellite systems which support thousands of wide band individual channels. Travel the country roads today and it is difficult to find any trace of the old telephone lines.


As stated in the first paragraph, the Transmission Section was also responsible for the technical side of national broadcasting in SA and NT which included operation and maintenance of the studios and the transmitters and installation of new facilities. I have included two photos of transmitters as they existed at the time. Technical staff from the Transmission Laboratory group carried out broadcasting installation projects and sometimes used to fill in as maintenance staff.

National Transmitter 5CL at Brooklan Park
around 1946
AWA 2KW Standby Transmitter being
commissioned at 5CK Crystal Brook


I was stationed in the Transmission Laboratory in Adelaide but our staff carried out work in many remote localities. One of my first trips to the Country was to install a Train Control Console for the Commonwealth Railways at Oodnadata. Before the War, rail service to Alice Springs was about one train per week (essentially the old Ghan) on the old narrow gauge route via Quorn, Hawker, Marree and Oodnadatta. The system operated on train orders, but suddenly there were multitudes of trains each day carrying Service personnel and equipment. This could not be handled by that old system and the PMG's Department was contracted to install a new electrically controlled system.

The old Railway Station Building at
Oodnadatta in which the Train Control
Console was installed

I travelled by train on the old line to Alice Springs many times and many stories can be told about what happened on the way. One day the steam locomotive blew a boiler tube. The driver and fireman jumped to get away from the steam and the train travelled on for miles and miles with no driver until the steam ran out. The guard attempted to get help with his portable telephone hung on one of the line pairs. I tried to tell him that he was on the PMG carrier pair and was probably putting the vital link to Darwin out of action. But he wouldn't listen. Hours passed before he finally tried the pair which I knew was train control.

The Transmission Section took on a lot of work for the RAAF including HF-DF stations, transmitter and receiver stations and signals centres. I was personally involved in a large transmitter and receiver installation at Gorrie and a signals centre at Coomalie Creek in the Northern Territory. Gorrie is about 80km south/west of Mataranka and Coomalie is on the Stuart Highway 12 km from Bachelor. I never returned to Gorrie but my photograph shows where the airstrip at Coomalie used to be.

VK5BR in 2005
at what used to be the
Coomalie Creek Airstrip
Gorrie Transmitters

Gorrie Transmitter Station
and Antenna Field

Prior to around 1947, the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) didn't have the technical staff to build up items of their own radio equipment or carry out radio installation. During my period in the PMG, this work was being done for DCA in SA and NT by our Transmission Section. Towards the end of my stay, I mainly concentrated on work for DCA and other radio work including Broadcasting. A separate sub-section was eventually formed for radio after I left the PMG for employment directly within DCA.

On the DCA contractual work, I worked closely firstly with Cliff Moule (VK5CX) and then Bert Lampe who both led some of the installation projects. Cliff was a well known radio amateur in pre-war days and Bert served as a President in the early historic Blackwood Radio Club. We carried out installation at Aerodromes including Parafield, Oodnadatta, Ceduna, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Daly Waters and Katherine.

For example at Katherine: Bert, myself and the Line Party installed a new transmitter station at the Katherine airport. I installed an STC 14S transmitter and an Airaco 500C beacon transmitter but it wasn't all plain sailing. The 14S was new from its packing case but the rough roads had taken their toll. Numerous ceramic insulators associated with the electro-mechanical switching system had fractured and I spent a lot of time making replacements from sheets of loaded ebonite.

One odd event occurred one night when I was at Katherine. Two Spitfire pilots, bound for nearby Tindal airstrip, made a mistake and attempted to land on the Katharine airstrip. Unfortunately the runway was under construction and a large machine was left in the middle of the strip. One aircraft finished on top of the machine and the other in a ditch at the end of the runway. One lost both wings and the other split in two where the pilot sat. We didn't see the pilots but I understand that they were able to walk away.

I returned to Katherine in 1991 (some 45 years later) and tried to find the aerodrome and the transmitter station but found the airstrip had been replaced by houses. I did find the old Terminal & Aeradio building and the remains of the concrete tarmac around it. It had been turned into a museum.

DCA Visual Aural Range (VAR) loaded for
installation at Ceduna Airport
PMG staff include: Chris Comas (in cab), Bert Lampe (cab top)
and Aub Johns & Lloyd Butler (up on box)

STC 14S Multi-channel Transmitter

During the war period, another off-shute of the Transmission Section tele-communications work was the installation of Air Raid sirens throughout Adelaide and other parts of the State. I am glad I never became involved in this. Our Laboratory supervisor lost a finger in one of these sirens.


I shouldn't forget to mention that a lot of antenna work and mast erection was required for broadcasting installations and for the RAAF and DCA contracts. To do this, we had a radio line party who became specialists in the erection of towers and antenna arrays. I became a close friend with one lineman of around my own age, Aub Johns. He worked on the outside antenna installations and I worked inside on the equipment. Aub eventually climbed the ranks to become Line Supervisor of the radio line party .


Transmission Laboratory staff and Clerical staff around 1945
Back Row: Kevin Wilson, Ralph Holmes, John (Jim) Mollison, Charlie Chadwick,
Ken Beinke, Claude Munn, Geo Wallace, Jack Sandry, Bill Doherty, Ted Reilly,
Eric Manoel, Laurie Zerbie, Don Noble, Al Smythe, Bill Powell.

Center Row: Jim Foster, Harold Emerson, Bob Burton, Bill Walker,
Laurie McCarthy, Molly Foord, Betty Redman, Mary Burnett, Chris Comas,
Jack Rotchford, Len Cooper, Les Fiedler.

Front Row: Ron Yard, Allan Whiting, Fred Cellier, Roy Buckerfield, Brian Blundell,
Bernie Carr, Ted Henderson, Jack Fimeri, Roy Langford, Bill McArthur,
Lloyd Butler.

Three in Front: Jack Ortlepp, Bill Whisson, Pat Broderick.

(Many were Radio Amateurs)

The attached photograph was taken of Transmission Laboratory staff and some of the Clerical staff around 1945. All of the staff members are identified and include the following who have held amateur radio licences: John (Jim) Mollison (VK5MF), Al Smythe (the previous VK5MF), Jim Foster (VK5TX/VK5LU), Bill Walker (VK5WW), Roy Buckerfield (VK5DA), Roy Langford (VK5LM), Lloyd Butler (VK5BR), Les Fieldler (VK5SL) and Ted Reilly (VK5AI). All are now silent keys except myself – I guess I am a survivor.

I can also think of a few other members of the Transmission Section staff, who had radio amateur licences and who are not in the photograph: Cliff Moule (VK5CX), Jack Strafford (VK5JS), John Haseldine (VK5JC), Ted Cawthron (VK5JE), John Lamprey (VK5JL), Ray Nottage (VK5MI), Ted McGraph (VK5MO), Murray Higgins (VK5QM) and George Luxon (VK5RX). I think the majority of those have also joined the silent keys.

It is interesting to observe from the photograph that despite having virtually no contact with the general consumer public, we all wore ties and in some cases, coats. Who wears a tie these days?

I think when WW2 got under way and techniques for long distance communications were rapidly expanding, Frank O'Grady must have put a lot of effort into recruiting staff to carry out the work I have described. Whilst many senior members came from within the PMG system, many of us younger recruits came from outside the Department. I know that some had previously worked in several of the small companies that manufactured consumer radios in Adelaide such as Bland Radio and National Radio. Others, like myself, had worked in commercial broadcast stations.


I have discussed functions of the PMG Transmission Section when I worked there around 1942 /1947. But what changes have occurred over the years? The telecommunication half of the PMG's Department was separated from the Postal half and became Telecom Australia. The Government of the day listed Telecom (exclusively the property of the people of Australia) on the Stock Exchange to become Telstra and gradually sold it back to those who wished to purchase its shares.

Telecommunications, once solely owned and operated by the public owned PMG Dept is now in the hands of several competing companies. Telstra still owns the original wired line system.

The engineering operation of the National broadcasting studios was taken over by The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) who has been (as long as I can remember) responsible for the programme presentation.

Telstra retained control of the broadcast transmitters ( and the later required TV transmitters) after Telstra was established. However the last time I visited the the National broadcast transmitters at Pimpala and the National TV transmitters at Mt. Lofty, maintenance and operation was in the hands of contractors.

DCA commenced establishment of its own radio technical staff around 1947 and gradually took over work previously carried out by the PMG Transmission Section. (In fact I moved to DCA for a period and supervised some of their installations and their Regional Radio Workshops at Parafield).

A new standard gauge train line to Alice Springs via Tarcoola , Marla and Kulgera was built, which avoided much of the flood damage and disruption to service experienced with the old narrow gauge line. More recently the line was extended to Darwin. The Ghan is now operated by Great Southern Railway. I understand that maintenance of the train line and provision of locomotives is also carried out by other contractors.

Back to HomePage