Ernest Fisk and the first wireless messages from the UK to Australia

In 1918, a suburban house in Wahroonga was the unlikely setting for a world first in the history of communication. The first wireless radio message sent from the UK to Australia was received here, making it the longest distance wireless message ever sent, beating all previous distance records for a radio message.

The house, Lucania, on the corner of Cleveland and Stuart Sts, Wahroonga, was the home of Ernest Fisk (1886 – 1965). Fisk, a Marconi wireless engineer, had arrived in Australia from England in 1911 to market Marconi wireless telegraph equipment to shipowners. A great boon to business was the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, which was fitted with Marconi radio equipment. This technology enabled the stricken ship to call nearby ships for help immediately, and the UK Postmaster-General later said that the survivors owed their lives to Marconi’s ‘marvellous invention’.

By 1913, the Australian government and the Marconi company had joined forces to form a new company based in Australia to sell Marconi and (German firm) Telefunken communication equipment. Three years later, Ernest Fisk was managing director of this company, Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd, or AWA. In the same year, Fisk married Florence Chudleigh in St John’s church, Gordon and the couple settled in Wahroonga.

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At the height of the First World War, it was becoming clear that quick and effective communication over long distances was vital for political, economic and defence purposes. At this time, all telegraphic communication between Australia and overseas was done via underwater cables, but long wave radio transmissions were now possible over longer and longer distances. With government permission, Ernest Fisk set up a radio receiver in his home, and, on September 22, 1918, the first wireless message between Australia and the UK was received in Wahroonga.

The groundbreaking message from Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes was sent from a long wave radio station in Caernarvon, Wales. The message said:

‘I have just returned from a visit to the battlefields where the glorious valour and dash of the Australian troops saved Amiens and forced back the legions of the enemy. Filled with greater admiration than ever for these glorious men, and more convinced than ever that it is the duty of their fellow-citizens to keep these magnificent battalions up to their full strength.’

And the Minister for the Navy (and Hughes’ deputy) Sir Joseph Cook also sent a message:

‘Royal Australian Navy is magnificently bearing its part in the great struggle. Spirit of sailors and soldiers alike is beyond praise. Recent hard fighting brilliantly successful but makes reinforcements imperative. Australia hardly realises the wonderful reputation which our men have won. Every effort being constantly made here to dispose of Australia's surplus products.’

These first messages paved the way for quick, reliable communication between Australia and the rest of the world and in 1935 a commemorative statue – the Fisk Memorial – was unveiled outside the Wahroonga house.

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The first direct wireless messages from England to Australia (Epoch of radio communication), Sydney, N.S.W. : Amalgamated Wireless (A/sia), ([1935] ([Sydney] : Green Press)
Printed book (limited edition) DQ654.164/3

Ernest Fisk was knighted in 1937 and continued to lead AWA until 1944. He was involved in many developments in the communication industry, including the establishment of the beam wireless service between Australia and England in 1927 and the radio telephone service between Australia and England in 1930. Fisk left AWA in 1944 to become managing director of Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI), in London. He stayed until the mid 1950s, when he returned to Sydney.

Sir Ernest Fisk died in Roseville in 1965.