Most Aussie’s are aware of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and many of us have had need of this great service a few times in the bush. From humble beginnings the RFDS now has evolved into the most comprehensive aerial medical service in the world. More than 60 aircraft working from 21 bases care for some 300,000 people each year.

A chance meeting with a young electrician was to solve one of John Flynn’s greatest problems in creating the Flying Doctor Service. Flynn had raised enough money to start the service, he knew he could find suitable doctors and aircraft, but he could not overcome the problem of communication. What was the use of a Flying Doctor if the sick and injured of the outback could not contact him in a hurry? The answer was radio, but radio technology in the 1920’s was still very primitive. Flynn needed something that had not yet been invented; a simple sturdy radio transmitter-receiver with an in-built power supply. A device anyone could operate under all conditions.

John Flynn was able to enlist the services of radio enthusiast, George Towns, who helped assemble a bulky and complex outfit to be fitted to the back of a new Dodge buckboard (utility). While in Adelaide preparing for a test trip to the outback, Flynn and one of his experts, Harry Kauper, discovered that the two generators supplied with the radio were totally unsatisfactory. The radio-telephone was to be powered by a generator run from Flynn’s car engine, but the generators were unsuitable. Kauper remembered that a young electrician, Alf Traeger, might have a suitable replacement. Flynn hurried to Hannan Brother’s workshop, found Traeger and purchased a 600-volt generator.

The radio worked, and Flynn’s trip proved that mobile communication was possible. However, Flynn realised that a complicated radio powered by a car engine and a huge generator would be unsuitable for emergency service. Kauper persuaded him to settle for a less complicated radio using Morse code for communication and much less power to run. But even this type of equipment was not available, and Flynn returned to Traeger for help.

Alfred Hermann Traeger was born in the family home at Glenlee, about 25 kilometres from Nhill in the Wimmera district of Western Victoria. Alf, together with his two older sisters and younger brother, were brought up in the traditional German-based Lutheran manner which probably included a German-speaking teacher at the local school. When aged 12, Alf’s family moved back to the old Traeger farm at Balaclava in South Australia. Alf enrolled at the Adelaide School of Mines where he studied engineering. He eventually became an electrical engineer winding generators at Hannan’s Garage in Wakefield Street in Adelaide. It was here that he first met John Flynn.

John Flynn was an ideas man. He was a tireless worker with an immense vision of the needs of Outback Australia. He knew people died regularly and needlessly in the outback due to lack of  access to doctors. John Flynn had a vision of doctors flying quickly to all isolated parts of Australia to provide what he called a ‘Mantle of Safety’ over the bush. Flynn also knew that any idea of connecting isolated station properties by telephone were totally impractical. The cost of building and maintaining telephone lines could not be justified. John Flynn believed radio was the answer and he sensed that Alf Traeger had the ability, the quiet religious zeal and the youthful enthusiasm to help Flynn develop a suitable radio.

During the next two years Traeger helped Flynn with his experiments. One important step was to develop a radio powered from a 32-volt electric lighting plant. These units were becoming popular with farmers requiring power and many thousands were installed in Australia between 1930 and 1950. The first base station was installed at Alice Springs and smaller outpost radios set up at Hermannsburg and Arltunga. After some minor problems these sets worked satisfactorily for some years. However, the cumbersome radios with their heavy banks of batteries were only suited to stationary situations and Flynn badly wanted a simple portable radio.

Simple portable radio

Traeger continued to work on the problem and eventually invented a foot-powered generator, pedalled like a bicycle. Radio historian, Mervyn Eunson, claimed that ‘it was Traeger’s inventive genius, his down-to-earth engineering skills, and his experience in winding electrical armatures which set him apart in Australian history as the solitary individual mastermind behind the creation of the unique pedal wireless generator’. Traeger’s mobile pedal radio was ready to go into production.

Within six months Alf Traeger had arranged for an Adelaide engineer to do the difficult job of machining the pedal generator gears. Alf had also worked tirelessly to build ten ‘baby’ radio sets and the 5CL radio station in Adelaide built a base station to serve what was to be the first of John Flynn’s cluster of outpost radios. By mid-1929 Traeger’s pedal radios were being installed in outlying areas around the much larger mother set or base station installed in the church vestry in Cloncurry.

Traeger spent five months installing ten pedal radios and teaching people to operate the Morse-code system. Learning Morse-code was a time-consuming task and, in most cases, left to the women of the station. One radio was installed in the Birdsville Hospital and operated by the two nurses in attendance. Birdsville was one of the most isolated towns in the outback but the hospital was usually busy due to the number of drovers using the Birdsville Track and the reliance placed on Birdsville by station people. Unfortunately, the hospital radio failed at a critical time when Sister Maude Gilbert developed peritonitis and eventually died.

The beginnings of the RFDS radio network

Alf Traeger was constantly on the move either installing new radios in the bush or working on new modifications in his Adelaide workshop. He soon found that the sets needed to be built in a metal cabinet because white ants quickly ate the wooden ones. Improvements in radio technology also meant that radios constantly needed modification but one of his most difficult problems was to overcome the difficulty station people had with the use of Morse code.

Morse-code was required because the broadcasting of sound took too much power resulting in the need for a very large power supply and radio unit. Traeger also found that he didn’t have time to teach each individual operator, but the use of the correct number of dots and dashes was imperative to understanding messages. Traeger puzzled on this problem for some time before conceiving the idea of building a machine to send the code. His machine was ingeniously simple; use a keyboard similar to a typewriter and link each arm to a device which would send the appropriate signal. This new Morse keyboard was successfully used until sound technology became viable in 1935.

Improvements to radio technology brought sound reception and transmission to outpost radios in 1935. Sound also brought about the ‘Galah’ session which started each morning at 7 o’clock, about the time the galahs started waking from their night’s sleep and started screeching in the gum trees. Each morning Sister Amy Bishop, from the Birdsville Hospital, called women from Clifton Hills, Pandi, The Bluff, Beetoota, Bedourie and Monkira. Each had the opportunity to discuss the common things of life, a pleasure before denied to them. This simple act of communication broke the isolation and loneliness suffered by people in the bush. The Galah session became an institution throughout Australia; a feature of the outback now replaced by, but not improved upon, by the telephone.

When Australia came into World War 2 families operating Traeger transceivers suddenly found that they were able to pass on vital information, especially when Japanese planes started bombing Darwin and Broome. Isolated homesteads around the northern coast were able to alert army intelligence about waves of bombers flying overhead. Special radio operators were recruited by Major Basil Hall to undertake secret intelligence work along the northern coast and the islands of the Timor Sea. Many of these men carried with them portable Traeger radios. Both men and radios were required to work in appalling conditions

The Traeger factory continued to develop and refine radios for the outback. Even when most radios were now battery operated improved pedal radios were built especially for drovers and travellers. Twenty specially modified pedal radios were built for use in Nigeria and Traeger’s first portable hand-held two-way radio was built in.

Portable radio

The Flying Doctor flew on his first mission on 17th May 1928, and soon after that so many outback folk were demanding the pedal radio that Traeger could not keep up with the demand. Flynn rejoiced, “At last the dumb Inland speaks”, even though it was in the stuttering accents of Morse code keyed by amateur hands, including John Flynn himself.

Fifty years later the Flying Doctor’s “Mantle of Safety” woven from radio, aviation and medical care, had covered the remotest parts of the outback. The radios have become compact little units that are used as simply as a telephone, but they are the direct descendants of Alf Traeger’s pedal radio.

Radio’s were used for assistance in many situations.