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When I Think Back...

by Neville Williams

Ernest T. Fisk  - Pioneer, visionary and entrepreneur

Over the 90 odd years that have spanned the history of radio and electronics in Australia, there has been no more dominant figure than that of Sir Ernest Fisk. Arriving on the scene at a time when there was very little wireless equipment in this part of the world, he played a vital role in founding AWA and, as Managing Director and Chairman, piloted the comply through two world wars to the respected position it occupied when he returned to his native England.

There was nothing about the boyhood of Ernest Thomas Fisk to suggest that he would one day become famous far‑off Australia, in the then little- known realm of wireless/radio/electronics.

Born in 1886 at Sunbury-on-Thames, near London, in modest circumstances, there was apparently no thought that he should do anything but attend local schools ‑ and no misgivings when he started selling papers at the railway station to earn extra pocket money!

On leaving school, he took a job at a nearby engineering works and, in the normal way, would have become just another very small cog in Britain's huge turn‑of‑the‑century industrial machine. But events in the world outside Sunbury-on-Thames had decreed otherwise.

Before young Ernie had even learned his ABC, Hertz and other researchers had documented most of the principles on which wireless telegraphy could operate. It remained only, for entrepre­neurial inventors like Guglielmo Marconi to get it all together and transform it into a practical ‑ and much needed `wireless' communication' system.

Ernest Fisk was just 10 years old, in 1896, when Marconi moved to England, attracting considerable attention from the press by so doing along with somewhat controversial financial backing the British Post Office. In fact, the move from his native Bologna in Italy was not all that surprising, considering his mother's strong Scottish/lrish family connections. (Ref. Guglielmo Marconi by David Gunstan, Heron Books, 1970)

In 1897, a Marconi transmitter was installed on the Isle of Wight; others followed in 1898, including one in the Bournemouth/Poole area. In the same year, Marconi reported the Kingstown regatta by wireless while, in 1899, wire less showed its life-saving potential in the Elba and Goodwin Sands disasters. Wireless messages were transmitted across the Channel, Marconi reported the America's Cup race, and equipment was demonstrated to the US Navy and Army.

The Marconi International Marine Communication Company was formed in 1900, with wireless communication demonstrated across the Atlantic in the following year from a Marconi transmitter at Poldhu in Cornwall, UK. Wireless telegraphy equipment had been installed meanwhile, on ships of both the British and the German navy.

Operator & engineer

Fascinated by all this, and probably sensing an opportunity to see the world, Ernest Fisk joined the Marconi Company circa 1906 at age 20 and commenced training in wireless, engineering and operating procedures. In due course his dream became a reality when he took his place as an accredited Marconi operator on Cunard trans-Atlantic liners.

That was just the beginning. In 1909, Fisk undertook a special mission to the Arctic and successfully demonstrated the possibilities of wireless communication to the Newfoundland sealing fleet. In the following year, he was assigned to the Orient line, which took him into oriental waters and on several trips to Australia as Marconi operator on board the Otranto.

At the time there were no fully operational coastal stations in Australia with which to communicate - but on one such occasion the young, operator created something of a record when he managed to contact the British warship Powerful in Sydney Harbour, from a position 200 miles (320km) off Fremantle.                                       

In 1911, Ernest Fisk chose to settle permanently in Australia, as a representative of the Marconi Company. He set up a small office in Bond St, Sydney, transferring later to more pretentious premises in Challis House, in Sydney's Martin Place. On his own initiative, he organised a roster system, whereby ships in Australian ports kept watch during allotted hours, thereby acting as temporary coast stations.

His move to Sydney was well timed with both the Australian and New Zealand governments debating the necessity to provide permanent land‑based wireless stations, in order to communicate with shipping in, the region In. the normal course of events, the necessary technology and equipment would have been supplied by Telefunken, in Germany, through a local, company which had been set up some time previously: Australasian Wireless Ltd.

Back in Europe, rivalry between the Marconi and Telefunken group, which included the Siemens and the German General Electric Co., had become bitter in the extreme; dating back to around 1897. It had culminated, circa 1912, in what came to be known as the Marconi Scandal, centering around an allegedly shonky deal between Marconi and the British Government under Lloyd George. At stake was an ambitious proposal to provide a chain of wireless relay stations, some 2000 miles (3200km) apart, linking countries of the British Empire.  

Inevitably, the ramifications of the scandal and of worsening Anglo/German relations were felt in Australia. So also was the urgent need to provide improved maritime communications; highlighted by the loss of the Titanic in 1913 and other less publicised near-disasters in the same period.

AWA formed

Despite all this, in landmark negotiations; in which Ernest Fisk played an active role, a totally new Australian company was set up in 1913 `to acquire the rights to the patents, technical information, results of scientific research and the business of the world's leading wireless systems, and to develop them in Australia and New Zealand'

With, the initial support of the major parties - Marconi, Telefunken and the Australian government - the company so formed was Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd (AWA) with Ernest Fisk as its General Manager, and a member of the founding Board.

Three years later, at age 30, he was appointed Managing Director. From then on, the story of Ernest Fisk becomes inextricably interwoven with that of AWA and of many other prominent figures who are part of AWA's history. (Ref: `1913-1938, A quarter Century of Radio Engineering in Australia' by A. S. McDonald; `Australian Radio Communication Services' by L. A. Hooke; and others in the report of the IRE Work Radio Convention, 1938).     

The new company set about its prime task of developing‑maritime communi­cations in the region, and of training operators in the Sydney/Melbourne Marconi Schools of Wireless. But hardly had they opened when war was declared. Fisk himself sought to enlist in the AIF but was persuaded to remain in office, to coordinate the wartime activities of AWA.

From being a perceived need, maritime wireless communications suddenly became the focus of what has been described as `frenzied activity', directly involving the Marconi Company, Fisk, AWA and its recently recruited technical staff. It was essential to establish and maintain as many ground and shipboard wireless stations as possible - and equally essential for the armed forces to destroy, wherever feasible, those oper­ated by the enemy!

AWA-trained operators were identified at short notice and seconded to monitor transmissions from the German Pacific fleet, initially from the HMAS Australia; but subsequently from listen­ing stations set up around Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea. A wire­less link replaced the severed Australia/­Noumea undersea cables and steps taken to provide back‑up for other cables, all of which were vulnerable to enemy action.      

Last year, in his Patron's Lecture to the IREE, His Excellency Sir Ninian Stephan, then Australia's Governor General, observed: "Fisk took a leading role in all this". Whimsically, he added: "...while also finding time to marry; in 1916 he married his Australian bride, Florence Chudleigh, at St John's Church, Gordon, NSW". (Ref: IREE Monitor, December 1988)

After WW1

Following the war, AWA under Fisk resumed its commercial involvement with national and international maritime communications, in close association with the Marconi Company. Full‑page advertisements in publications such as Sea, Land and Air for 1921/22 sought variously to:

But while this was a `bread and butter' area, with which Fisk was very familiar, he was keen to pursue the proposition which had earlier been scuttled by political scandal and the war - an Empire-wide wireless communications system.

Although a champion of Crown and Empire, Fisk had never favoured the British Government's 'chain relay' scheme. He considered that London/Darwin messages, in particular, handled through relay points 2000 miles (3200km) apart, would be much too vulnerable. The cumulative delay would be unacceptable and the costs would be so high as to be non‑competitive with cable circuits. As far as Fisk was concerned, the only practical approach was one‑hop transmission and reception.

In September 1918, with the cooperation of Marchese Marconi and the Admiralty, he had demonstrated the point when he received and transcribed messages transmitted from the Navy station at Carnarvon, UK, to his own experimental station at Wahroonga, Sydney. This was at a wavelength of 14,300 metres or at the very low frequency (VLF) of 20.98kHz.

The occasion and the messages, from the Prime Minister the Rt.Hon. W. M. Hughes, and Navy Minister the Rt.Hon. Sir Joseph Cook, were widely publicised - which was a major objective of the exercise! `Billy' Hughes was suitably impressed, and kept suitably aware of subsequent tests which demonstrated that, over long periods each day, wireless signals could also be received from USA, Italy, France and Germany.

At the 1921 Imperial Conference, on the advocacy of the Australian Prime Minister - advised by Ernest Fisk - Empire communications were reviewed and Britain agreed to cooperate in the Australian proposals, with other dominions following suit.

New AWA charter

In Australia; the direct result of all this was the appointment of a Federal Parliament Select Committee which recommended, inter alia, that the Government acquire a majority shareholding in AWA and, further:

`The company was to construct and maintain in Australia stations capable of direct commercial services to Canada and the United Kingdom; to provide for a suitable corresponding station in the United Kingdom; and to take over coastal radio stations which were operating at a considerable loss.'

Certain guarantees regarding communication were also required, and the company was also to proceed with the development, manufacture, sale and use of, radio apparatus. (Ref: L. A. Hooke, IRE World Radio Convention, 1938).

During the ensuing discussions and negotiations, the initial agreement was modified in two important respects:

  1. The British government assumed responsibility for the terminal in Britain, which freed Australia from its commitment in that respect.
  2. In the light of new research by the Marconi company, it was decided to base the system on the use of short waves ‑ typically about 25 metres (12MHz) ‑ which would allow the use of lower power and less costly directional antenna arrays, while ensuring more constant signal strength and greater freedom from atmospherics.

In due course the Australian receivers and antennas were installed at Rockbank some 20 miles (32km) NW of Melbourne, with the transmitting system at Fiskville (later renamed Ballan) 40 miles (64km) beyond. By suitably interconnecting, the antenna elements, signals could be directed ­either way around the world to Britain or Canada, depending on propagation conditions.

 The so‑called 'Beam' service was opened: in April 1927 (L. A. Hooke's paper referred to earlier; illustrates the international services, coastal and Pa­cific air routes in 1938).

Ernest Fisk - the man

The heading 'The Man Fisk' appears at the top of an interesting article in Radio in Australia and New Zealand published by Wireless Newspapers, Syd­ney ‑ the same company that owned Wireless Weekly before it was taken over by Associated Newspapers. Kindly supplied to me by Neil Bonney of Bun­daberg, Qld, the article is dated August 15, 1927, and was probably prompted by the inauguration of the Beam Radio service.

Described in the introduction as 'an intimate pen‑portrait' of Mr E. T. Fisk, it was written by 'a friend and colleague' F. W. Larkins ‑ presumably the same Fred Larkins that I remember as AWA's General Advertising Manager, when I worked there in the mid 1930's.

The article traces the career of Ernest Fisk, along parallel lines to what has already been set out in the first of these articles. Larkins makes the point that maritime radiotelegraphy had made fairly rapid progress in the northern hemisphere in the decade 1900‑1910, with several thousand shipboard and land stations in operation.

By contrast, when Fisk first entered Australian waters, there were no permanent shore stations and accessible wireless equipped ships could be counted on the fingers of one hand: the P&O ss Malwa, the Orient ss Otranto, the Norddeuscher­Lloyd ss Bremen and the HMS Powerful.

Says Larkins: "As Marconi discovered wireless, so E. T. Fisk discovered a continent ‑ a continent without wireless, but a continent where he was destined to be one of its greatest pioneers".

In the article Larkins comments on The Man Fisk' in a manner more suited to the '20s than the late '80s:

"Yet he is by no means an impractical visionary. It is his grasp of everyday affairs which has enabled him to pursue his objective and to force men to recognise his genius".

In more down‑to‑earth terms, Larkins elsewhere refers to Fisk's 'abnormal capacity for work', whether at a technical or business level. Even when ostensibly relaxing, says Larkins, he was most content when experimenting, or reading, scientific books, or dreaming up ideas outside his immediate field of expertise.

An independent tribute to Fisk the amateur, the enthusiast, is provided by the fact that, in 1921, while he was hobnobbing with the Prime Minister and making his presence felt at an Empire level, he was still chairing meetings and `chewing the rag' with fellow amateurs as President of the NSW Division of the Wireless Institute of Australia (see panel last month).

Be that as it may, in August 1927, when Larkins' article was written, some 200 ships of the Australasian mercantile marine had been equipped with radio, manned by 250 operators ‑ largely the result of Fisk/AWA initiative. The company's radio‑electric works had expanded from an original dozen‑odd to around 150, employed in producing a wide range of receiving and transmitting equipment.

Questioned at the time as to what lay ahead, Fisk nominated international radio‑telephony and picturegram services and, further down the track, television. True to form, the first two became a reality in the early 1930s, with television being delayed by World War II.

Fisk & broadcasting

But Fisk didn't get everything right as, for example, his blueprint for broadcasting in Australia. He was certainly keen to promote it, along with AWA's ability to supply transmitting and receiving equipment.           

In 1919, in Australia's first public demonstration, a recording of `God Save the King' was broadcast from AWA's office in Clarence St, Sydney to a meeting of the Royal Society in Elizabeth St ‑ an organisation of which E. T. Fisk was a member.

In 1920, at Prime Minister Hughes' request, AWA transmitted a live program from the home of AWA's Melbourne Manager L. A. Hooke to politicians and others in Queen's Hall.

1n 1921 ‑ AWA began a series of weekly demonstration wireless concerts for the Melbourne area, with similar concern is Sydney commencing shortly afterwards.

1923 saw the official commencement of public broadcasting, with AWA polled to dominate the production of receivers and transmitters, and to collect royalties on the many patents for which it held Australian rights. Under the Fisk `sealed‑wireless' scheme, listen­ers would nominate the station to which their receiver would be pre‑tuned ‑ and sealed ‑ and would pay the required fee to that station.

Despite intense public interest in broadcasting, the sealed set idea was a resounding flop. Listeners wanted all or nothing while at the commercial level, there was strong opposition to the scheme and to AWA's potential monopoly.

Under the heading `A monopoly in wireless will not be tolerated', the Australasian Wireless Review for March 1923 reported the formation of an Association to voice those objections. Involving a down or more companies, it was headed up by George A. Taylor, with O. F. Mingay as Hon Sec ‑ a man who featured large in the radio/electronics industry in subsequent years.

In November of the same year, AWR carried another story on thirteen wireless retailers in Sydney who had combined to form the Free Broadcasting Company. Their aim was to provide programs from 10am to 10pm daily, free of all charges, in return for a `fair share' of listeners' patronage.

The following year saw the end of the sealed set scheme and the introduction of `national' stations supported by licence fees, plus 'commercial' stations relying on advertising revenue. It was hugely successful.

Despite the setback, however, AWA still managed very nicely - thank you - as a supplier of transmitting equipment, and of receivers ranging from traditional wireless sets of the 1920s through to the popular 'Fisk Radiolas' of later years.

Talking to spirits

In terms of his image, Fisk also got it wrong (even if inadvertently) at a luncheon at the Millions Club during 1935. This was when he mentioned the possibility that, some day, radio technology might provide a means of communicating with the dead.

The remark was not out of character. As Sir Ninian Stephan observed in the lecture referred to in the first of these articles, Fisk combined with his technical knowledge and business acumen a free‑ranging intellect, not limited to current commitments.

Beyond the foreseeable future, with world­wide telephony facilities, picture services and television, he might as easily talk about the possibility of transmitting electrical energy in bulk by radio. He was deeply involved in the constructional features of the new head office that AWA was planning to erect in York St, Sydney. And he was interested in metaphysics, having been a member of a committee set up in 1932 to investigate spiritualism.

For good measure, he was a director of numerous companies and associated with the NSW Chamber of Manufacturers; a Freemason, a Rotarian, involved in the Boy Scout Movement, symphony concerts, physical fitness and, road safety ‑ the latter, despite his early reputation as a `demon driver', given to challenging Sydney‑Canberra-­Melbourne speed records! He was even involved in an advisory capacity to the Federal Government, during the early stages of World War 11.

For whatever reason, Fisk's remark in the Millions Club about communication with the dead featured so prominently in the press that it became an essential component of his image. Australia's senior radio pioneer had seemingly 'gone over the top', in the footsteps of Conan Doyle and Oliver Lodge!

Even in the company drawing office at Ashfield, a self‑styled `Dracula' prepared imaginary technical data on the 'Fisk Astral Spirit Raider'.

And, years later, after joining the staff of this magazine, I came across a drawing of a Frankensteinian Fisk, complete with fangs. I gather that, reacting to press reports, somebody in the old Wireless Weekly had asked their artist `Hotpoint' to produce an appropriate cartoon, which he did, endorsing it `E. T. Fisk, 1935'.

The cartoon produced gales of laughter in the WW office and was duly published. But the laughter was somewhat muted away when AWA reacted by officially cancelling all advertising in the magazine!

But enough said. It is appropriate that the last word on the incident should be an extract from a clipping from my files, itself an eloquent comment on the man. (See panel `Fisk the realist')

Personal memories

Ernest Fisk was knighted in 1937 and honoured by the various societies and groups of which he was a member.

It was about then that I transferred from the Valve Company lab in Ashfield to the new Head Office in 45‑47 York SL, ironically occupying exactly the same site where I had begun work with Reliance Radio in 1933. But whereas Reliance had been a struggling family company in a run­down building, AWA was a prosperous, formal semi-government institution in just about every sense of the term.

Christian names were the exception rather than the rule and top management, entering or leaving the building, were accorded private use of the lifts. Even out at Ashfield, the arrivals and departures of the 'great' from York St had been `occasions', witnessed from afar by we lesser mortals. My one close encounter with 'himself' was in less than happy circumstances.

The new building had been equipped with Fisk anti‑noise windows ‑ this at a time when the merits of full‑scale air conditioning were still a matter for debate.

The Fisk windows involved the use of overlapping glass panes, which blocked much of the street noise but allowed a somewhat convoluted passage for air­ movement; assisted by small built‑in fans. The idea worked well enough on mild days, but certainly not in the heat of a Sydney summer.

On one particular day, with the sun full on the western windows, the tem­perature in the Valve Company offices on the 5th floor was intolerable. Street noise notwithstanding, I/we had opened wide the hinged‑panes in an effort to gain a breath of fresh air.

It was then that Sir Ernest, with a VIP in tow, chose to walk into the Valve Company office to boast about, the effectiveness of his pet idea. The half‑closed eyes blazed as he diverted into the departmental manager's office to deliver a brief oration that was never documented for posterity!

Return to Britain

In 1944, much to the surprise of industry journalists in both countries, Sir Ernest Fisk resigned his position in AWA, leaving the management reins in the capable hands of his long‑time deputy, Lionel Hooke. In fact, he had accepted the position of Managing Director of Britain's Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI).

Perhaps he saw it as a triumphant return to the land of his birth but, viewed from afar, it proved to‑be‑scarcely that  - due in part to the entrenched conservatism of the EMI/HMV group.

With the end of the war in sight, there had been mounting pressure from the audio‑hifi industry for a quantum leap in disc recording technology. Brit­ish Decca, in due course, released their 'ffrr' low noise pressings. In Australia Fisk's old company produced something similar. Then British Decca, American CBS, RCA, and smaller companies elsewhere began talking about radically new fine‑groove, ­low noise, long‑playing vinyl pressings, spinning at 33 or 45rpm instead of the established 78rpm.

The moves caused confusion in the record market, but few doubted that the long overdue technological revolution had begun. If it hadn't, the way would be wide open for magnetic tape.

But EMI's reaction was beyond belief, even to talk of retaining the 78rpm format so that it could continue to serve both electrical and mechanical reproducers!

The one statement that I can remember from EMI Chairman Fisk was a solemn assurance to record vendors and consumers alike that, as far as EMI was concerned, 78rpm records were still the industry standard and the company would not adopt any other without first giving 6 months clear notice of their intention.

With the microgroove tide already flowing strongly (Refer John Moyle's 'Off the Record' columns in Radio & Hobbies during 1951) Sir Ernest's widely publicised emulation of King Canute caused only an incredulous shaking of heads ‑ including mine.  But mention of King Canute is perhaps not entirely inappropriate.

Drawn from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Sir Ninian Stephan's final picture of Sir Ernest is of a man in his sixties, covering the 50 miles from London to Brighton on a bicycle during an English winter and, having arrived, plunging into the chilly waters for a swim. This in the cause of physical fitness.

Enthusiasm notwithstanding, it's perhaps little wonder that, following his ultimate retirement at 65, he chose to return to a more appropriate outdoor climate for the final years of his life. Sir Ernest Fisk died in 1965 at age 78.

Fisk the amateur!

During the lecture (on Loop Ariels and Amplification by J. G. Reed) Mr. Fisk the President, offered a valuable suggestion to members concerning additional amplification secured by causing a tuned column of air to vibrate in resonance with the telephone diaphragms.

A telephone receiver is supported directly above a deep narrow‑necked jar; and water slowly, poured into the latter until resonance occurs. A very suitable container is a graduated 250cc chemical measure.

This, phenomenon depends upon sound physical principles and is worthy, of the attention of all experimenters who are after real sigs.

(From Sea, Land and Air, April 1, 1921. The date is genuine!) .

Fisk the realist

Mr Fisk fixed us in a chair with the impenetrable mystic eye of many photographs and all our visions of a changed world were destroyed by his brief logic.

"Someone at the luncheon", he said, "asked me about radio communication with Mars."

"I said that if there were to be any such communication, it would be more likely to be with our own dead.  At least our own dead would be more likely to understand our communication for they WERE alive once, whereas we don't know if there are any people on Mars."

"It depends on whether people live after death;  I don't know anything about that.  If it were scientifically demonstrable, we could then attempt to arrange some form of communication.  I don't mean a seance in a dark room with neurotic women - I've never been to one."

"It would simply be a matter of cold reason on scientific principles, for I certainly think that, if the circumstances were as I have suggested, any communication would have been through the ether."