Traces of radio pioneer priest in Kurrajong

By Jordan Grantham, 18 September 2018
Fr Shaw (centre) sits among the radio entrepreneurs of history, Marconi (left) and Bell (right). Images: Wikimedia Commons and Brian Kirkby.

Hidden in the Kurrajong Valley, near the northwest boundary of the Diocese of Parramatta, is a relic of a surprising priest and pioneer of Australian radio.

Kurrajong Radio Museum contains equipment and written materials relating to Fr Archibald Shaw MSC (1872 – 1916), who became the President of the Maritime Wireless Co and a Commonwealth Government Advisor on wireless communications.

“I’ve got a crystal set, a very early one. It has probably been through Fr Shaw’s workshop, which was taken over by the Royal Australian Navy,” Ian O’Toole said, curator of the Kurrajong Radio Museum.

Ian is a Fr Shaw enthusiast.

“There is also a Shaw Street on King Island, where he had his main station for ships in the Bass Strait.”

“I think I also have a letter to him from one of his superiors,” he said.

Largely self-taught, Fr Shaw’s interest in radio technology developed from his need to raise funds for the missions in Papua New Guinea, where he served for several years. All profits from Maritime Wireless Co supported this missionary activity.

Maritime Wireless Co was the first significant wireless manufacturing operation in Australia, employing over 150 people at its peak, described by The Daily Telegraph as the most powerful radio station in Australia.

Shaw’s company was awarded the contract to supply radio technology to 17 of the 19 wireless stations that formed the new Coastal Radio Service in the lead up to WWI.

In this hyper-connected age, it can be easy to forget the novelty of instantaneous wireless communication.

The HMAS Parramatta (I), memorialised at Queen’s Wharf, Parramatta, is just one of the many ships that relied on the Coastal Radio Service in WWI.

Wreck of HMAS Parramatta on the Hawkesbury River. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Shaw was also consulted on radio technology for the famed Sir Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition.

The extent of self-taught Fr Shaw’s radio knowledge is disputed and his colleague Edward Kirkby, Chairman of the Maritime Wireless Co, another pioneer of Australian radio, contributed recognised expertise in radio technology.

Dr Alexander Graham Bell (left), world famous telephone inventor congratulating Edward Kirkby at Maritime Wireless Co, Randwick. Image: Brian Kirkby.

It was a competitive time and defence contracting was a high stakes competition. After winning the Commonwealth Government contract for the Coastal Radio Service, Maritime Wireless Co was sued by competitors Telefunken and Marconi. The latter would go on to build the Vatican Radio service in 1931.

Towards the end of Fr Shaw’s life Maritime Wireless Co suffered declining revenue and mismanagement. After an investigation by a religious superior, Fr Shaw was told to sell the company, which was bought by the Royal Australian Navy in 1916, shortly before his sudden death.

Was Fr Shaw murdered? He died from cerebral haemorrhage shortly after withdrawing £5000 in cash, which could not be found. The riddle of this enigmatic priest remains to be solved.

 

Kurrajong Radio Museum
Open weekends 10am – 5pm (Check by calling 4573 0601)

Tickets
$10 Adults
$5 Children

 

Sources:

Kirkby, Brian, “How the works came about”, Randwick District Historical Society newsletter, September, 2005

F. McMahon, ‘Shaw, Archibald John (1872–1916)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shaw-archibald-john-8404/text14759, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 March 2018.

Williams, N, “Father Archibald Shaw and his pioneering radio factory”, ELECTRONICS Australia, March 1990, pp 38-43.

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