Early Days at Quartz Hill

By Vic Stagpoole, ZL2ACF

Point to point communications is as old as mankind. Hilltops are convenient places for long distance contacts, and in Britain signal stations were used between London and Dover to keep knowledge of naval activities up to date. Probably efficient on bright sunny days, but a bit tricky on dark wet nights. The development of electric signal cables was an immense step. Railways were amongst the earliest users, as their rapid rise had resulted in some nasty accidents, until adequate signalling was developed.

Long distance communication was important. Reliable communication between Dover and Calais was vital, and the first cable was installed in 1850. The next year it was extended London to Paris. It is interesting to note that while politicians spent much of their time having inter government quarrels, business and trade quietly got on with the job of ensuring that people were supplied with what they wanted!

The telegraph cable was vital. By 1854 there were 37000km in use. In 1858, the First successful transatlantic cable came into use. Unfortunately it only lasted 3 minutes, since the clown in charge insisted on using 5000 volts for the signal! After that disaster voltages were much lower and more sensitive detectors installed.

1872 saw the London—Sydney cable activated and in 1876, the Sydney — NZ link. Strangely, the NZ terminal was at Cable Bay (Wakapuaka) near Nelson, mainly because of the gold mining in the northern South Island. When the gold ran out, interest shifted to the north island, and the cable was re-routed to Titahi Bay, and then on into Wellington. In 1937 when the 2YA 100KW station was installed at Titahi Bay the now unused cable carried the audio signals from the studios in Wellington to the new site. Rumour has it that the path of the cable was not properly mapped and when it was occasionally dug up by accident the location of the cable was slowly established.

At that time there were only three lines to the transmitter. Two were in the resurrected submarine cable. The third was a mysterious ex—army (Don—8) line up the Hutt Valley and over Haywards hill to Paremata, and down to Titahi Bay. In addition there was an automatic phone line to the radio station. Phone number was 47633 But they don’t answer to that these days!

Prior to about 1920, all telegraph and radio communications was two-way. That is a message was sent and with luck, a reply resulted. At the end of WW1 the big developments of communications particularly the vacuum tube meant that radio transmission was now practicable at quite low cost. The result was that "broadcasting" became possible. In the early 1920s after Prof Jack at Otago University built our first transmitter the idea caught on and local broadcasting began.

Broadcasting was "open", that is anyone with a receiver could listen in. This was essentially a "one way" process. Broadcasting stations sprang up like mushrooms in spring. The mid thirties saw many towns in NZ with one or more radio stations. In Palmerston North for example there was 2ZF run by the Manawatu Radio Club and 2ZO run by a keen amateur, Vance Kyle.

In the larger centres a more official approach was taken. The four main centres had stations, and they had the attention of the government, as well as the newspapers. With the advent of shortwave broadcasting, reception of overseas stations particularly those of the UK and the US became important in NZ The press became aware that "their" news, meandering in on cable, took many hours to get to the public. But a news item from the BBC, could be available in 75 milliseconds. This was not at all welcome to the newspapers, and pressure was put on the government to prevent the direct rebroadcasting of overseas news. Of course special events were broadcast if conditions permitted but the idea that local stations could usurp the press's right to be first with the news was not on!

Governments seem to have gone along with this for peace and quiet but by 1935 the rapid deterioration of the political system in Europe made it quite clear to the authorities that instant news was essential to them even if Joe Public needn’t know. As a result a "Listening Watch" was established at the Wellington studios of 2YA. Good short wave reception was not possible in the city so the Titahi Bay site was used. The receiving station was sited to the east on the hillside below the transmitting station. There were three aerials including a rhombic array aimed at the UK. The NZPO had also been looking for a suitable place to establish a receiving station handy to Wellington City and decided on the hills just south of Makara beach. At the southern end was Quartz Hill which in the early days had been the site for gold mines where some of the old equipment may still be seen. The site, buildings and aerial system, were leased to the NZBS and the receiving station was established in the early 1940s.

The major purpose was to provide good reception of the BBC shortwave service. Twenty-four hour a day listening was required. From 9am-5pm daily someone at the studios in Wellington sat with headphones on, with a disc recorder at the ready. Outside these hours the watch was the task of the duty technician at QH. His main job was to listen to all the General Overseas Service stations every 15 minutes and note down the signal quality. These 24 Hour charts were sent to Head Office Engineering once a week and then on to the DSIR who were researching long distance radio propagation.

Manning a 24 hour-a-day watch took a staff of 6-8 technicians. There were four houses in the radio settlement available for married staff and a hostel for single men. The aerial system at Quartz Hill was large. Four reversible Rhombics for the UK-NZ path, several 33 metre “Vee" aerials for the U.S and Canada path and Australia, and a large MF "flat top" for the reception of broadcast band signals. When Quartz Hill was established towards the end of WWII there was little available in the way civilian equipment and much of the ex-military gear was not entirely suitable. Head Office Engineering Section (HOES) had built two professional broadcast receivers with switchable bandwidths which gave excellent quality reception during daylight hours, but at night were only useful for local stations. There was a miscellany of other sets. Canadian Marconi CSR-5s, which were similar to the American AR—88, were the mainstay of shortwave reception and proved to be very reliable.

There were three Hammarlund "Super Pro" receivers in a diversity reception rack. These had been used by the U.S. armed services in NZ and released to us at the end of the war. Diversity reception was, however, not of much use for sound broadcast reception. The receiving hut (it would be a gross exaggeration to describe it as a building) was exposed to the elements, and it was impossible to maintain at a stable temperature. Opening our solitary door or a window in a high wind usually meant an abrupt drop in temperature, and the receiver’s frequency settings would drift. It was impractical to keep them all in tune so diversity was not used. It was later found that the effects of fading etc was much better suppressed by using Single Sideband reception of the conventional AM signal.

The centre of activity was the Eddystone 600 series "desk" receiver. This was switchable to six different aerials, if required and enabled the duty technician to check all the BBC channels with a minimum of effort. It also enabled him to constantly check incoming signals so that a good backup was available, in the event that the signal being used deteriorated, there was a replacement. The rhombic aerials fed into repeater amplifiers each with three outputs so that several receivers could be used on the one antenna. A "patch panel" enabled the input to a repeater to be changed as required. Because Quartz Hill operated through the night when the studios were closed it had a disc recorder. This was mainly used to record news broadcasts. These could be up to 15 minutes long so a 16inch disk at 33.5rpm was needed. The discs were aluminium with a black acetate coating. The cutter head used a sapphire stylus which had to be lowered carefully. Bring it down too hard and it might penetrate to the metal which usually damaged the stylus. Too light and the swarf coming off the disc might tangle around the cutter. The machines could also record at 78rpm, so the odd 12" disc might be used for test purposes, especially if a pop time was being broadcast! Test gear was a miscellaneous group, mainly General Radio equipment probably discarded from the armed services.

I transferred to the studios in Wellington in 1948 but that’s another story. In 1954 I returned to Quartz Hill and my wife and I occupied one of the staff houses. There had been big changes. The "hut" now had a new ex-army building attached to it. This provided a new main control room, an office and drawing office and a larger kitchen area. The most notable improvement were the three GEC BRT400 series receivers. Later three more were added. These were excellent post—war sets with an amplified AGC system, variable six-range bandwidth and covered from MF broadcast up to 30Mhz.

The first sets had a problem until some unreliable "Hunts" capacitors were replaced. They were very stable so that once warmed up, they would stay on frequency. The old disc recorder had been replaced by an early EMI tape recorder. This was big and bulky but could record up to an hour on one tape so that news recording was simple. It had a built in audio power amplifier with push-pull KT66s! We didn’t use that facility as we had rack mounted monitor amps, but envious eyes must be cast on the unused valves by the local hi-fi nuts struggling with 807s. One of the problems that bedevilled maintenance in those days was the need to replace radio valves as they aged. It had been the practice in the Air Force radar stations to have an inspection party that turned up about every three months at the coastal stations.

They replaced the valves and retuned the sets. The local staff spent the next week or so getting things back to normal! At Quartz Hill we had to do much the same thing. Nowadays the rule is "if it ain't broken, don’t fix it!" Eventually we got a noise generator which enabled us to determine a noise figure for each receiver. Where doubts occurred we could plug in the noise generator and see if the receiver’s performance had deteriorated. If it hadn’t then we left it alone!

Operational Aspects

The day-to-day operations were straight forward. Make sure that a good signal from the BBC was always on line to the Listening Watch at 38 The Terrace and when they weren't on duty, keep an ear on the signal. At the same time the duty technician had to check the signals from all the available General Overseas Service stations every 15 minutes. The quality of the signal from 5 (perfect) to 1 (horrible), was recorded on a printed 24 hour chart. These were sent off to head twice weekly and then on to the Carter Observatory to relate reception conditions to the solar activities. Daytime charts were accurately filled in since the boss was around. It seems likely that in the "wee small hours" attention to detail might have suffered. Arriving at work at 1am after crawling out of a warm bed, was hardly conducive to enthusiastic attention, and if the previous nights conditions had been normal a few hours zzzz, till 4am might occasionally ensue. Mysteriously, there was a camp stretcher folded up behind the racks and it is possible that it could be put to good use on a quiet night. Not by me of course! Norman Johnson, who was the senior tech when I first arrived at QH in 1947 told me that he had arrived one warm Sunday afternoon to do some work only to find the duty technician asleep out in the sun on the stretcher! He didn’t bother to disturb him.

The busiest time for the duty tech was at the change from long path to short path reception. During the daylight hours BBC signals came in on the long path over the south polar region. At night usable signals came in on the short path over northern Russia. The BBC Pacific Service from about 6pm to 9pm, was the source of the news rebroadcasts. The 6pm News and "Radio Newsreel" was recorded and broadcast in NZ at 6.30 and 6.45pm. At llpm the late news was rebroadcast live. At 6am the news was live, recorded and played again at 7am. The 8am news was also rebroadcast live.

This could be a problem. Through the early hours, reception was on the short path, and this was usually good. Particularly at high sunspot numbers, the higher frequencies,above 20 MHZ gave good results, so that signals in the 21 and 26 MHz regions might be used. As dawn approached the short path signals improved, noise disappeared and fading was slight. At 5.30 am the quality would be about "4" (they seldom got to "5") and it looks as though the 6am rebroadcast would be a beaut. Many an unsuspecting tech got caught on this! Of course the back-up signals in the lower bands were present but not as clean as the higher ones. Right, let her rip! The news sounded good, the readers voice was crystal clear...hang about, he isn’t in the announce room, they’ve shifted him into a big studio, I can hear the echo of his voice. Wait a minute... it's not a studio, for some reason they've put him in the Albert Hall! The penny drops, we have the dreaded l/7th second echo! The time for a direct signal UK to NZ was about 75 milliseconds, but the round the world echo took about 140 milliseconds. Ionosphere conditions are so good, that the signal goes on around the world for a second time and a third or fourth!

Hasty dive for the mixer panel, for our reliable 9.41, 12.095 or 15.07MHz channels, traditional BBC Frequencies, out of band, and therefore likely to be free of interference. Most of us got caught on this problem at least once! On some occasions, fortunately rare, there would be up to a second of echoes.

Reception was indeed governed by the solar activities. The eleven-year sunspot cycle controlled us. At low sunspot activity reception conditions were somewhat limited, but usually stable. At sunspot maximum reception could be very good, but subject to unwelcome changes as the sunspots and solar storms increased. The Carter Observatory in Wellington, would keep us advised about sunspots coming around the sun, so we could be prepared for propagation problems, but there was no warning about solar flares. When these occurred, the radio waves from the sun travelled at the speed of light, so the first thing you knew was when the signals started to fade out. About three days later the millions of tons of ionized matter which had been ejected from the sun could arrive so you were prepared for that. Unfortunately there was no guarantee that it would occur. Fadeouts could be very rapid, on one occasional heard the BBC signal fade out in the middle of a word. Fortunately fadeouts didn't last too long so that in half an hour or so signals would start to filter in.

Life at Quartz Hill was seldom boring. The weather could be violent, with damage to the aerial system, some days were calm and sunny with a clear view as far north as Mt Ruapehu, with Taranaki out to the west. One day a cat turned up at the door. He soon established himself as a staff member, and kept control of the rodent population. He was given the name of "Sinpo" (Strength, Interference, Noise, Propagation disturbance, Overall merit), from one of the charts we had to fill in for important received signals.

1956 brought changes. The station building was getting to the end of its use, and a brand new one was on the books. It was much larger with more operational control rooms, better staff facilities, and a good workshop. With construction under way, the site was pretty busy, and visitors plentiful. I was temporarily in charge for about a year so I was kept fairly busy. The new station was due to open in late 1958 but I transferred to the Forest Service in September and didn’t see the changeover.

The vital change in 1956 took place in the Atlantic Ocean, when the first transatlantic telephone cable came into operation. Prior to that time only telegraphy was possible. The wideband needed for phone purposes meant that repeater amplifiers were needed about every 30km. Transistors at that time were new, and not thought to be reliable enough for use. Western Electric had developed reliable valves which would have a life approaching ten years and this made the cable economic. Arthur C. Clarke's book "Voices under the sea" covered the event. Rapid developments from that time particularly the use of fibre optic cables and the space satellites meant that voice communication over long distances was reliable, free of interference, available 24/7 and at low cost. Suddenly Makara, Quartz Hill and all the elaborate and costly transmitting stations were no longer required. At this time (2008) there are at least 13 undersea cables in use across the Atlantic. If you want to ring a friend in the UK all you need to do is pick up the phone and dial. If they are home you will get an answer in about ten seconds. In the late forties a call to Britain had to be booked weeks ahead and might occur at any strange time, usually about 2am!