A brief history of radio on British expeditions and bases in the Antarctic.

November 6th, 2019

I wrote this piece in October 2007, as part of the background research to my PhD, but it was cut from my final thesis. I rediscovered it on my computer whilst looking for something else! Because I was still learning about good research practice at the time, it’s not as well-referenced as it should have been. The sources were books in the BAS library and some documents from the Archives.

Radio was still in its infancy during the heroic period of Antarctic exploration. Marconi’s first long-distance demonstrations in 1901-2 occurred during Scott’s first expedition on board the Discovery, and the Marconi company didn’t begin a commercial transatlantic service until 1907. By 1912, when the RMS Titanic sent the first distress message, radio technology was on the edge of becoming mainstream.

In that same year, the Australian scientist and explorer Douglas Mawson installed the first radio system in Antarctica, installing equipment at the Commonwealth Bay base in Adelie Land and also on Macquarie Island, which was to relay the signals onwards to the headquarters in Sydney. The Macquarie Island station made its first contacts on 13th February 1912, with the Commonwealth Bay station becoming the following year.[1]

When Shackleton began his legendary Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, he took with him a wireless receiving set which was supposed to allow his party to receive a monthly broadcast of news sent out from a transmitter in the Falkland Islands. It never worked, but radio was successfully used by the Aurora, the ship supplying the Ross Sea party, to call for assistance from Australia when dismasted and rudderless in the ice in early 1916.

In 1924, Marconi successfully developed HF (shortwave) transmissions, and successfully won a contract from the British Government to develop radio communications links with the dominions of the British Empire. The first of these links was between the UK and Canada, using a brand-new radio station built at Bodmin and opened in 1926.

HF sets were accordingly used on both the first Wilkins-Hearst expedition in 1928 (which was the first to use an aircraft in Antarctica) and much more extensively on the first US Antarctic Expedition, led by Richard Byrd that same year. Byrd’s team included five radio engineers and a total of 24 transmitters and 31 receivers, and managed to maintain regular contact with the outside world as well as with all flights and field parties.

Byrd’s second expedition in 1933 was the first to use voice communications in the Antarctic, and in fact the team from their base at Little America made weekly broadcasts which were carried on the CBS network in the USA.

Operation Tabarin established the first permanent British bases in 1943, and these communicated with the Government offices in Stanley using HF. All communication between the bases and Stanley was in Morse code, with messages being forwarded on from Stanley by telegram. Documents from the BAS archives[2] show that in 1944, permission was granted for the base staff to send personal telegrams, initially at full price and later at the discounted rate for members of the Armed Forces.

Communication by Morse and telegram continued into the FIDS era, but when the organisation became BAS in 1962, a programme of improvements was put in place, involving the installation of teleprinters at all the bases. Bases would then communicate with Stanley by radioteletype[3], where the messages would be forwarded on to their destinations. A dedicated “private” teleprinter link between Stanley and the head office in London was installed in 1969, over which much of this traffic passed.

From 1964 to 1966, a unique link was established between Halley and the CAA’s Birdlip radio station in Gloucestershire. This was a direct radioteletype link, and was used to help coordinate the installation and operation of a number of ionospheric instruments during the International Quiet Sun Year (IQSY). As the link was free for the discussion of technical matters, it was used extensively!

A paper[4] from the SCAR symposium on Antarctic Telecommunications in 1972 gives a list of all the equipment installed on BAS bases and ships that year. All the bases were equipped with Creed Type 54 teleprinters, operating at 50 baud. The two ships (the RRS Bransfield and the RRS John Biscoe) had newer Type 444 machines, again operating at 50 baud.

In 1974 the HF radioteletype links from Stanley to the bases were outsourced to Cable & Wireless. By 1984 the Inmarsat satellite system[5] had been installed on the bases, and this replaced both the HF links to the bases and the “private wire” teleprinter link between Stanley and Cambridge. Inmarsat was mostly used to send faxed documents, as this offered the most convenient and cheapest form of communication at the time. Later the system was modified to enable people on the bases to send and receive emails.

It’s worth noting that teleprinters don’t support any kind of error-corrective coding, so interference on the radio link would result in a garbled message.

Subsequent technology was able to overcome this drawback – in the early 1980s BAS installed the more sophisticated ARQ[6] radiotelex system on its bases and ships. This uses error checking to automatically request a repeat transmission of any corrupted data. Because sending data over Inmarsat was expensive, whereas ARQ was free (but slower and less reliable), it was mostly used for low-priority “chat” between bases and for the “metround” – a regular sched to collect weather reports from other bases and forward them on to the weather forecasting centre at the Chilean Frei base on King George Island. ARQ could also be used to communicate with Cambridge if the Inmarsat equipment failed: a message would be sent by radiotelex to Portishead Radio, a coastal radio station that offered an HF radiotelex service to ships. Messages sent to Portishead were then forwarded on to Cambridge using the public telex system.

With the introduction of the BASnet satellite links in 2003-5 the ARQ equipment is no longer routinely used. The HF radio sets are still in daily use during the summer season for voice communications with aircraft and field parties.

[1] It’s perhaps worth noting that whilst Mawson was setting up the wireless system on Macquarie Island, Scott and his party were making their final doomed journey back from the South Pole. Of course, wireless equipment would not have been portable enough for Scott’s purposes, but his expedition would be the last to operate without knowing of the benefits of radio.

[2] Document no AD6/1/ADM18

[3] Radioteletype (shortened to RTTY) is the system for sending teleprinter messages over the radio

[4] Peters, B.J. “ A note on the practical problems arising from Capt. T Busico’s review paper”, Proceedings of the SCAR symposium on Technical and Scientific Problems affecting Antarctic Telecommunications, Sandefjord, Norway, 10-16 May 1972, pp151-157

[5] The Falklands conflict in 1982 cut off communication via Stanley, which hastened the case for the installation of satellite communications on the bases in the immediate aftermath of the war.

[6] ARQ is short for Automatic Repeat reQuest. This particular system is also variously known as SITOR, AMTOR, NBDP or just “radiotelex”