(From left) Cyril Brandon, Rawson Stark and Stanton Hicks
with their "receiving outfit", including a "Massie
Detector" and the boys' original "selective device", which
they invented to eliminate atmospheric disturbances. Photo
from the Otago Witness.
Dunedin is noted as the pioneering centre of radio in New
Zealand because Professor Robert Jack's broadcast from the
physics department at the University of Otago on November 17,
1921 is accepted as the country's first radio broadcast, but
the city has an even earlier claim to fame.
A hundred years ago, on September 10, 1908, three teenagers,
Rawson Stark, Stanton Hicks and Cyril Brandon created another
New Zealand first by transmitting messages between Andersons
Bay and Ravensbourne.
The boys had already been fiddling around with radio gear for
at least a couple of years, swotting up on textbooks from the
Athenaeum and scrounging electrical gear from various
sources, made easier by the fact that Rawson Stark was the
son of the city's electrical engineer, E. S. Stark, and
Brandon was employed by electrical engineers Turnbull and
Hicks was a student and his father worked "on the literary
staff" at the Otago Daily Times, which may account for
the headline in the sister paper, the Otago Witness, "Three
At the public demonstration Morse code messages were
exchanged between the mayor of Dunedin, John McDonald (a
tailor who was, incidentally, the first New Zealand-born
mayor of Dunedin) based at Andersons Bay, and the mayor of
West Harbour, engraver Hagberth Moller (of the firm which is
now Brandwell Moller).
About 12 words a minute were able to be sent. At both
stations various dignitaries had gathered and the Otago
Daily Times reporter provided a detailed description of
the intricacies of the transmission and reception process,
which would have baffled many readers: "on depressing the
sending key the primary current from the battery rises from a
voltage of 16 volts to something like a million volts in the
secondary circuit and becomes high tension alternating
current of tremendous energy, and passes through a battery of
Leyden jars, which on discharge, set up oscillations in an
inductance coil or tuning circuit whence a suitable lead
conducts the now high frequency current to the aerial".
All this done by boys of 16 and 17.
Appropriately, the first message sent, that by Moller to
McDonald, noted, "this shows that young New Zealand is
treading closely in the footsteps of advanced electrical
science". (Marconi had sent his first Morse code message by
radio in 1896).
The transmissions across Otago Harbour were not strictly
legal as the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1903 had set up a
government monopoly of wireless use and stated, "any person
who erects, conducts or establishes any station or plant for
the purpose of receiving or transmitting without first
obtaining official consent is liable to a maximum fine of 500
[$64,000 in 2008] as well as forfeiture of their equipment".
The Dunedin lads were undeterred by this threat and
transmitted a message for Prime Minister Joseph Ward, which
was then telegraphed to him in Wellington.
The Act was rarely enforced and Ward did not order the post
office inspectors to seize the gear, probably because he was
aware that most of the post office telegraphic staff were at
the Andersons Bay and Ravensbourne stations that very night.
Instead, he sent this telegram to the boys: "The setting up
of a wireless telegraphy station and the successful
transmission of messages reflects the highest credit upon the
boys. I congratulate them upon the possession of such
inventive faculties, which augurs well for their future
success in life."
For Stanton Hicks, who graduated MSc in 1915 and MB, ChB in
1923, Ward's prediction was certainly accurate.
He went on to outstanding success in Australia in the fields
of human physiology and pharmacology and was knighted in
His other great contribution was as a nutritionist, and after
working as a catering adviser to the Australian army he wrote
a book, Who Called the Cook a Bastard, indicating he had
adapted well to his new country.
Rawson Stark and Cyril Brandon may not have reached such
heights but they could still claim to be New Zealand wireless
Jim Sullivan is a Dunedin historian.