My Dad could see what was coming long before it came!

Date published

24 Jan 2019

As an “older” person, particularly when I’m with other “older” friends, we talk about the incredible changes that have occurred during our lifetimes, particularly the technological changes. We invariably reflect on how amazed and confused our parents, and especially grandparents, would be if they could come back and experience life today. I used to agree that my Dad, too, would be incredulous, particularly so because of his interests in all things scientific. Now I know I was wrong.

He was, I realise, way ahead of his time. Yes, he invented the pedal radio and I’ll talk more about that later, but even into his seventies and eighties he was thinking beyond what was popular at the time. For example:

*He recognised that this hot dry country with its growing population, would eventually exceed its water supply and so he was working on a solar powered water desalination plant which my children remember as “an impossible collection of glass and hoses”.

*Also, he worked on an orbital engine to improve fuel efficiency for what he saw was a limited resource.

He was concerned about the environment and sustainability decades before it became mainstream.

My Dad could see what was coming long before it came!

Unfortunately, Dad’s scientific/inventive gene was not active in me – I had to marry to help pass it on.

*My sister, Polly, was luckier. She obviously had it to pass on. One of her children is sitting in this room right now – Justin Salisbury, who runs Comwide with his wife. I think Dad would be enormously pleased with his grandson’s interest and success in electronics.

*In my case, our son Michael is a doctor in Tasmania and becomes a flying doctor when he is called out for medical retrievals. Again, Dad would be enormously pleased.

And there are encouraging signs in some of Dad’s quite young great grandchildren.

For Dad it all started when he was a child. He told me that his parents decided to move his family from Balaklava to Adelaide because of the better educational opportunities there. I suspect it was more likely that the neighbours begged them to move after Dad’s experiments resulted in, for example, explosions which caused mountains of dirt to blow from his back yard to the their verandas, and loud sirens that no doubt frightened said neighbours half to death. I think that the production of ‘rotten egg gas’, that drifted over the fence, could have been a problem too.

There were some more productive experiments though. One was the building and installation, from scratch, of a working telephone between the house and the shed, 50m away, using components made from a pitchfork, tobacco tin lids, farm fencing wire and carbon collected from the charcoal in ashes from the kitchen stove.

It was clear that Dad had no interest in carrying on the family tradition of farming. His interests lay elsewhere. So in Adelaide he was enrolled in the Mechanical & Engineering course at the “Adelaide School of Mines and Industry”, referred to by him as “The School of Mines”, and known to Polly, my sister, ever the grammarian as “The School of Yours, Daddy”.

The fun continued of course when one day the main fuse blew at the “School of Yours”, and the then professor commented, “Traeger must be here today”.

But Dad didn’t confine his experimentation to within the school. On one occasion he put a container of rotten egg gas next to himself at the Adelaide Oval so he wouldn’t be crowded in the cricket grandstand.

At about this time, Dad had a workshop at the back of his parents’ home, where he set up his own small electrical business, and later at a factory nearby. He worked, too, as an electrical mechanic at a workshop in Wakefield Street, winding and servicing generators for cars and trucks.

One day the Reverent John Flynn (Australian Inland Mission) walked in, advised by his contacts that Alf Traeger might possibly help him with his dream of establishing a medical service for people of the outback. The idea was that Flynn would organise the doctors and the planes, but at that time there simply was no way that the vast majority of people in remote areas could talk with one another, let alone call up a doctor when the need arose. Enter Dad, to provide good radio communications in the Outback.

And so began a long and productive relationship that resulted in “The Royal Flying Doctor Service”.

Now, I’m sure that the technical details and timing of how all of this was done is important and interesting to you, but as I have explained, I have no active technology gene and historical documentation on the timing is not clear. My understanding of these, however, is as follows:

First, think of a “pedal radio” having two parts – a pedal generator powering a two way radio.

I believe two way radios had been around much before the pedal generator was invented.

The early two way radios that did exist in the Outback had a short range for voice, but a little larger for Morse code.

As more powerful models were produced, covering larger areas, they needed greater ‘power’ (more correctly energy) – a problem in the Outback where energy was produced by wind and stored in batteries.

A pedal generator provided the instant energy needed directly to a radio.

The Flynn/Traeger idea was to set up Cloncurry as a base with a powerful base radio, and Outback stations to have ‘pedal radios’. After that, further expansions to the system could take place and they did.

I remember Dad talking to me about the early trials and confessing: “I didn’t say this to too many people at the time, but I was more surprised than anyone that the messages actually got through”.

The more powerful radios (and the pedal generators) meant greater distances for voice communication were being achieved, but the size of the Outback meant the need for Morse code was always present. In fact it become increasingly obvious that in case of urgency it was difficult for many callers to communicate effectively in Morse; and the messages were often misread. So Dad took a simple typewriter, added some electronics to the mechanism of each key, and then wired the resulting system to the radio; press the A key, for example, and Dot-Dash is transmitted. Genius! No need to learn Morse code.

Later on there was a widened use of radio and pedal radio beyond the original Flying Doctor concept. I remember Dad being particularly proud of the “School of the Air” innovation that enabled children from even the most remote parts of the country to have almost instant contact with their teachers. He was delighted too, with the “Galah Sessions” where mainly the women of the outback had contact with friends and acquaintances. I’m very proud of the fact that he installed many of the first pedal sets as outright gifts to needy people during the Depression, and that he developed sets for Nigeria without even recouping costs.

But as the service throughout Australia grew there were of course, problems along the way. There was always the inevitable beaurocratic red tape, one incidence of which was the Postmaster General not allowing licences for Station people to operate radio sets – eventually resolved. There was too the loneliness and danger of travelling the outback at that time, and it was these adventures of Dad’s that were the source of my bed-time stories when I was a child.

He told me of times when he confronted snakes, frequently got bogged and endured sandstorms. But he never admitted to being frightened.

My favourite story was about the one and only time he had a little too much to drink. He had finished dinner at an Outback Station. The Station house was on one side of a fence and his swag was in a building on the other side. With a puzzled look on his face he would tell me that no matter what he did, he always ended up on the wrong side of the fence. Fortunately, that was not the blueprint for his life.

My childhood memories are of him endlessly drawing circuit diagrams and when asked what the drawings were he would always answer “Just squiggles”.

And, just before I finish, I have here two pieces of original Traeger equipment from a collection we recently acquired. One is a Morse code key and headphones, the other a portable two way radio - perhaps better described as an early mobile phone? These have been given to Dad’s great grandson here in Adelaide, and the rest are now on display at the RFDS base in Tasmania, where an original pedal generator is also based. If you have never seen a pedal generator, most of you, right now, have an image of one in your pocket or handbag – just take out a $20 note a look closely at it! It has a side view of the pedals and is hard to find.

Finally, another enduring childhood memory is of learning and communicating in Morse code. Let me explain. At times, after my mother died, Dad and I were home alone and, like many children, I was always reluctant to go to sleep. There was a rule however – I could “talk” to Dad in the next room as long as I liked and he would answer, but all communications had to be in Morse code. Needless to say, these conversations didn’t last long, but I still remember:

_ _ .   _ _ _   _ _ _    _ . . _ .      . .      _ _ .      . . . .      _

For those who do not know Morse code – that was “Good Night”!

- Anne Smallwood (nee Traeger)

Learn more about the history of the Flying Doctor.