From wire to satellite
Near the abandoned 1936 homestead, a simple timber framed corrugated iron cottage, stands as part of a modern communication system: the tall mast, the metal box and solar cells of a radio telephone.
At the office and homestead are dishes for receiving microwave signals from satellites for the television and computer.
In the remoter areas of Australia where people are few and live far apart, communication has always been at a premium. Advances in the technology have been quickly adopted. Charles Darwin Reserve is now just a phone call, a fax or an email message away from almost anywhere in the world.
The interpretation of smoke from camp fires or hunting fires or perhaps signalling fires may have been Aboriginal practice here as in other parts of Australia. It was probably the earliest form of remote communication.
Smoke columns from bonfires were used to guide the marking of the routes for the Great Northern Highway in the late 1920s and the Wanarra East Road in the 1960s.
The telegraph system using wires strung between poles to transmit electro-magnetic impulses using the Morse key and code developed in 1837 was commonly used in Australia after the first service was opened in Melbourne in 1854. A telegraph line was constructed from Toodyay to Geraldton via Arrino and Carnamah in 1874, but it passed too far to the west to service the isolated pastoral leases of the Mongers Lake to Lake Moore area.
From the1870s and the gold rushes from the late 1890s, communication with the Yalgoo and Murchison goldfields to the north was via Geraldton and Yalgoo in the early years of pastoralism. There was insufficient happening in the region around Charles Darwin Reserve to warrant connection.
When White Wells was part of the thriving Ninghan pastoral enterprise held by Tom Elder Barr Smith from the 1920s to the 1940s, station outcamps were operating at Dowdsfolly Well and Whitewells. Telephones were installed from the Ninghan homestead to the outcamps, using the top wire of fences as the line. Where the fences crossed a track, the wire was run up and over the track on a tall pole fixed to each gate post. In rain, the circuit would earth and the connection fail.
‘Wireless’ radio broadcasting kept isolated communities in touch with the outside world. The Test Cricket between England and Australia was compulsory late night listening in the 1930s Bradman era. The game was telegraphed ball by ball from England and the commentator at the ABC in Australia extemporised from the tape and tapped a pencil to simulate the sound of bat on ball. Max Lockyer at White Wells and his boss, Lindsay Macpherson, the manager of Ninghan Station, followed the game, apparently sometimes keeping the family awake:
The tower was Dad’s wireless aerial. The wire came down from it and on the house we had this great big silver ball. So that was the shortwave radio, not a communications radio? It was a straight out ordinary radio, it was called a Mickey Mouse. It was only a little wireless. Of course they used to sit up half the night listening to the bloody cricket. They’d listen to the Tests? Those synthetic ones – it wasn’t direct. And Macpherson used to ring up: “Did you get that last score” and this was bloody two or three o’clock in the bloody morning. Ted Lockyer, 27 July 2006, interview by C.Nicholson
Ninghan Station’s communication with the outside world was by HF (high frequency) radio transmission, through the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s radio network which began in 1935 at Meekatharra. At first this was by pedal radio as most sheep stations lacked electrical power, and Morse Code was used to send messages. With the adoption of diesel powered electricity generators, the pedal radio was replaced by electrically powered radios. The daily morning and afternoon ''sched', the open sessions for communication between neighbouring stations available through the RFDS, was a feature of station life.
The digital telephone system was installed in the region in 1985. The private telephone and email systems now allow constant communication but have changed the nature of community interaction. No longer does everyone hear everyone else’s business over the radio.