Graphic: Traeger pedal radio
Today, emergency calls for help to the RFDS can be made from the palm of one’s hand. But in the mid 20th century, it wasn’t all that straight-forward.
Retired electronics engineer, Noel Traeger, knows too well the intricacies that went behind long-range communications tools before the likes of the phone and internet, having left school in the 1940s to join Alfred Traeger – inventor of the pedal-powered radio – at his electronics workshop in Adelaide.
“Alf was a distant relative to me – five Traeger brothers came out from Prussia and his line is one of those brothers and mine from another,” Noel said.
“When I finished college, I was interested in electronics and my dad said, ‘You should get a job with Alf.’
“I started working with Alf in 1950. I had no experience – I started as a lackey around the place… and then ended up designing two-way radios for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.”
By day, Noel worked in a team of up to 20 employees at the Traeger workshop in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs, doing everything from metalwork and cabinetmaking to the mechanical wiring of the radios.
Meanwhile, in the evening he sharpened his knowledge at the SA School of Mines and Industries (which eventually became part of the University of South Australia).
“When I started at the Traeger workshop it was an old tin shed, then later on they built a new factory on the same property,” he said.
“The building is still there today, and on the front door there’s a bronze plaque on the wall, dedicated to Alf and his work.”
By the 1950s, outback communities relied on Traeger’s communication technology, not only in medical emergencies, but to educate children via the School of the Air.
“We were purely making radios for outback stations, and then we started making mobile ones that would fit into vehicles, and then when School of the Air started in 1951, we started making a special two-way radio just for them,” Noel said.
Despite all of Alfred Traeger’s remarkable achievements, according to Noel he was an incredibly humble man who was content with working behind the scenes.
“I remember I was doing the sweeping one morning and cleaning rubbish in one corner, when I noticed a small case on the floor and thought, ‘What’s in here?’, and there was Alf’s OBE (Order of the British Empire) medal in there,” he said.
“When he originally got invited to receive his OBE, he was reluctant to go.
“Alf was a very nice man – a very humble and shy man, actually. He wasn’t one for glory.”
Noel remained in the radio industry for the rest of his career, eventually specialising in manufacturing crystal detectors – a key electronic component of early radio receivers.
He said it was an honour to contribute to the work of the Flying Doctor for so many years.
“I visited quite a few of the places and homesteads on the receiving end. I’ve been right up to Charleville and went around a lot of the outback up there. It was quite good to see it all – the RFDS Bases and operators,” he said.
“I met John Flynn a couple of times – he used to come into the workshop and speak to Alf and we’d say g’day to each other.
“It’s really great to see it all still going – especially after all the stories Alf and Flynn used to share about the Outback.”
The RFDS is currently working with local radio clubs to restore an old pedal radio, with hopes to once again have it communicate between RFDS Bases.