On Friday 1st August 1980, a simple three-word message broadcast on 6000 Flying Doctor transceivers sent a ripple of sadness across inland Australia. ‘Traeger is dead.’ Alfred Hermann Traeger died as he had lived - with quiet dignity behind the scenes. He shunned praise, but he has as many memorials as Nobel Prize winner and inventor of wireless telegraph, Guglielmo Marconi.
He was a revolutionary, but just didn’t know it.
Painfully shy electrical mechanic Alf Traeger was working at his bench in an Adelaide workshop in June 1925, when a thin, bespectacled man burst in and asked, ‘Have you still got that generator?’ The surprised ham radio enthusiast sold his homebuilt machine to the preacher, who immediately strapped it to the side of his heavily-loaded Dodge Buckboard and set off on a rugged 2400km trek to Alice Springs. That startling moment launched of one of the most important partnerships in Australian history.
The reason for Rev John Flynn’s urgency that day, was his need to find the solution to the problem that was making his great dream futile. Until someone devised a radio that anyone in the bush could use, the world-first air ambulances that he and pioneer airman Hudson Fysh were building in the QANTAS hangar in Longreach Qld, would be grounded.
It was a deadlock that needed a genius to break.
Humble Alf Traeger was born for this hour. The stories he heard in Sunday School of the Lutheran missionaries at Hermannsburg in the NT had ignited a longing for fulfilling adventure in the son of an immigrant German family. So, late in 1926, he found himself alongside Flynn, battling sand crossings, sweltering heat and flies to bring trial radio equipment to set up a base at the Australian Inland Mission Nursing Home in Alice Springs. A few days of hard work and the mother station 8AB was tapping out Morse code messages to Adelaide.
A few frustrating weeks later and the successful radio linking the Aboriginal mission at Hermannsburg to 8AB Alice Springs made Alf Traeger’s boyhood dream, of being a fruitful follower of Jesus, real. Flynn’s vision of a wireless network connecting the people of the inland captured him body and soul and brought depth of meaning to his career. The founder of the Flying Doctor service would one day declare that this ‘wireless wizard’ was his greatest discovery.
Over the next few years the two men covered thousands of tough miles in the loneliest parts of Australia, spurred on by the desperate medical needs they saw everywhere the faithful Dodge Buckboard took them. The bush became the laboratory for developing their innovative technology. Flynn stirred city audiences with gripping reports of needless deaths. His pithy saying was ‘The aeroplane or the grave!’
1928 was an exhilarating year for Australia’s booming aviation industry. Bert Hinkler completed a solo flight from London, Charles Kingsford Smith created history by flying the Pacific from America and in Cloncurry Qld, pilot Arthur Affleck and doctor Kenyon St Vincent Welch were called out on the first emergency medical flight of its kind in the world. And without fanfare, tucked away in his unpretentious Adelaide workshop, another young man had invented a marvel of simplicity and efficiency, the very first of its kind – a pedal-powered radio. In this way, Alf Traeger joined these pioneers with his ground-breaking device, linking aviation and medicine to the remotest parts of a continent.
He had broken the silence that lay over Australia’s heartland.
Australian author Ion Idriess described it as ‘the first accessible means of communication that came the way of the men and women of the Never Never.’ It brought news from home and overseas, weather forecasts, movements of stock, connection to neighbours and distant families. Each pedal wireless was a messenger of hope and healing to isolated bush people -indigenous and settlers. Nurses in isolated clinics could summon outside help. Padres in their vehicles could relay needs from beside bush tracks. Doctors would soon answer calls from mid-air. The well-travelled author sensed a larger mystery behind Alfred Traeger’s brilliant technological achievement. – ‘a great spiritual power.’
He was right. John Flynn and Alfred Traeger were men of faith who teamed their gifts to realise the impossible dream of placing ‘a Mantle of Safety’ over the vast open spaces of the Inland. The thread they used to weave it had come from Israel, two thousand years before - they were followers of the Great Healer from Galilee. The quiet achiever’s own words were simply, ‘I have always believed that God guided my life.’
November 11th 1928. John Flynn got Alf to put on his best suit for this historic photo he took when he presented the world’s first pedal radio to ‘the Boss.’ A deeply moved Flynn could only utter, ‘Thanks mobs.’
Australian Inland Mission padre Fred Mackay shows bush kids the invention that will one day bring them the School of the Air. It was one of Alf’s most satisfying achievements.
July 1928. A satisfied smile on the dial of the inventor as he successfully transmits a Morse code message from Cloncurry July 1928. Alf gave the bush a voice.
A proud bush family returning to their isolated station homestead with their own Traeger radio transmitter. Alf was the hero who connected them to the world.
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