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Bush Communication : a note on early forestry telephone and wireless systems in WA

An early wall phone, with its essential elements - the ear-piece, mouth-piece, crank, bells and magneto and battery boxes - as once found in forestry offices all over the south-west of Western Australia

In this day of the internet, the direct telecast of Wimbledon, the mobile telephone, email and the FM radio in your car, it takes an effort to remember that only a generation before mine, Western Australian foresters were communicating by mirror. In the days before radio and telephones, all the first fire lookout towers and forestry stations in WA were equipped with an instrument called a heliograph. These were basically a mirror on a swivel with a sighting vane and a key, with which the operator could twinkle a complicated message across the tree-tops to a receiving station, who in turn could reply with a helio of their own. Learning the technique and the Morse Code were part of a forester's training in those days. My Uncle Geoff (my mother’s brother) was a forester in WA during the 1920s and 1930s, and he told me once how he had been taught, and become an expert in heliograph communication. His instructor had been a retired navy signaller, recruited by the department specially to train helio operators. According to the all-knowing internet:

The heliograph had some powerful advantages. It allowed long-distance communication with no fixed infrastructure, though it could also be linked to extend a fixed network over hundreds of miles, as in the fort-to-fort network used [by the US Cavalry] in the Geronimo campaign. It was highly portable, required no power source, and was relatively secure in that it was invisible if you were not close to the axis of operation. On the minus side, the heliograph was obviously vulnerable to bad weather, and the mirrors were fragile.

The 1927 edition of the Western Australian Forests Department’s Forester’s Manual has five pages devoted to the setting up and operation of the heliograph. They were considered high-tech at the time and great attention was given to their care and maintenance, as set out in the following rules:

I'm not sorry I missed out on this particular technology. I had learned Morse Code when I had been a Sea Scout in my youth, but my temperament would not have been well-suited to the frustration of trying to get a vital message across by helio on an overcast day or at night. Luckily, by the time I became a forester in the early 1960s, two new wonders of communications technology had evolved to replace the heliograph: the bush telephone and HF radio. Both were fundamental components of the bushfire management system that evolved for Western Australian forests, and they played a critical role in this system ultimately becoming one of the best in the world. Bush telephones had been introduced to forestry in WA soon after World War I. The system was based on that developed by the military in 1914-18 for communication between trenches and HQ on those great, static battlefields on the western front. As the Forests Department expanded its jurisdiction over the forests of the south-west, the bush telephone went with it. Over the next 50 years, using, building and maintaining the system became part and parcel of every forester's life. Technically, the system was known by the acronym SWER, which stood for Single Wire Earth Return. Less formally it was described (in an early departmental publication) as “a slack, free-running wire, festooned between trees”. This description pretty much summed up how it worked and what it looked like. The essence of the system is described in the Forests Department Bulletin 39 (1927): 1. The telephone wire is attached to trees and held by “swinging insulators” through which it is free to slide in either direction if subjected to strain; 2. The insulator is attached to the tree by a weak tie wire which will either break or pull loose from the tree should the line wire be subjected to a strain of not more than one-third of its breaking strength. 3. Sufficient slack is left in the line to permit it to be carried to the ground if struck by falling timber, without breaking either the line or the tie wire. The remarkable thing about the department’s bush telephone system is that it was so simple, was developed, installed and maintained by field foresters with no special expertise, and yet worked brilliantly. When I was the DFO at Pemberton, I had two telephones on my desk: the PMG (today called Telstra) which connected me to the outside world via an exchange in the Post Office in town, and my forestry phone, that connected me to every office, fire lookout tower and nearly every departmental house in the area. I could direct-dial, and talk to my Assistant Foresters 50 km or more away at Northcliffe or Quinninup as if they were in the room with me. The infrastructure was simplicity itself: No. 8 gauge galvanised fencing wire was strung from tree to tree. To this was attached a good earth wire at either end, and telephones with bells at any point along the line. The electrical power for the ring came from a big magneto in the sending set, generated when the handle was rotated vigorously – the magnetos produced a significant voltage, as any unfortunate discovered when holding the wire in his hands when a call was made. The power for voice transmission was supplied by batteries which had to be replaced from time to time. To call someone, you literally ‘rang’ them. By whirling a crank on the side of the phone, you would send a jolt of electricity which jangled all the bells along the line. Each individual phone on the line was assigned a code ring ("two shorts and a long"), so that you knew whether or not to answer when your phone rang. The bush lines connected up the district offices and fire lookouts, but also included houses in the forestry settlements and some farmers, especially those who were members of the volunteer bushfire brigades.

A diagram in the Foresters Manual demonstrates the swinging insulator, tie wire and metal tree pin

Metal tree pins, tie wire and insulators from an abandoned forestry telephone line

(phot0 courtesy of Ian Kealley). Metal pins were not driven into "green" live trees, but used on dead trees or poles

A set of stern rules governed the use of the forestry phones. These were set out in a printed statement that was displayed in every departmental office and was pinned to the wall next to the phone in every FD or farm house linked to the system.

It was common sense as well as good etiquette to check the line to see that no one else was chatting on it before you rang somebody, and bad etiquette to stay listening when they were chatting and possibly exchanging a juicy gossip or two. Lenny Talbot once told me about the bush telephone system in the Nannup district, where one of the lines between HQ and a fire lookout also connected a number of local farms. One farmer’s wife, perhaps bored by a lonely life, listened in all day to conversations on the line – you knew she was there because you could hear her cockatoo in its cage nearby.

The mention of telephone etiquette reminds me of Jim Loverock. Jim was the Assistant Forester at Northcliffe and a legend in his own time. In the days before forestry officers had a two-way radio in their vehicle, they carried a 1950s version of the mobile phone, known as a ‘field phone’. You can still see examples of these in old films about World War 1. The field phone came in a little box with its own battery, and could be wired into the bush telephone line system with jumper leads, at any point along a line. However, it was necessary that you had a means of reaching the wire, and few foresters carried ladders. Jim once had to use his field phone to report a fire. He was miles from anywhere at the time, so he stopped at the bush telephone line. Not having a ladder with him, he fossicked around and found an old railway sleeper, which he propped against the pole and climbed up. Hooking in his field phone, his ears filled immediately with the chatter of several foresters' and farmers’ wives gossiping to each other on the party line. "Get off the line in the name of the Queen!” roared Jim, and promptly fell off the sleeper, hurting himself dreadfully. He was not heard of again for a very long time.

A forester’s Field Telephone: the 1950’s version of today’s mobile phone. This phone belongs to famous forester Gordon Styles and was photographed for me by his daughter Leanne

In the heyday of the bush telephone in WA, the Forests Department had a private telephone system stretching from Sawyers Valley in the north to Walpole on the south coast, connecting every departmental headquarters to almost every departmental house, workshop, lookout tower and to numerous farms in the forest country of the southwest. There were over 3,500 km of line. It was a superb system, far better than anything the PMG had managed to develop at that time. [Incidentally, a similar system was adopted by the Goldfields Water Supply Department. It was modelled on the Forests Department’s system, and it ran from Mundaring Weir to Kalgoorlie, connecting all the pumping stations along the pipeline. The system was also mimicked in some farming communities in the wheatbelt, to link neighbouring farms on a party line system].

The evolution of phones used on the forestry network. At left the British Ericson, in the centre the ornate Swedish Ericson, and on the right the “modern” Bakelite phone.

Bush telephones were simple and useful, but had a limited range, the power of the batteries being only sufficient to allow conversations over a distance of up to about 80 km or so of line, depending on the number of phones on the line. But because the network was interconnected over its entire length, telephone messages could be relayed from one end to the other. Fire lookout towers were often used as relay points.

The system also needed constant and artful attention. Although the lines were designed to survive a limb or tree falling over them (the wire ran freely through the open sleeve insulators and had sufficient slack in them to allow a falling limb to bring down a short section without rupturing the line), but a large tree across the line would sometimes “earth it” and render it unworkable. Lightning would blow fuses, rain-water would get into junction boxes, or batteries would corrode. I remember once going out with forester Len Nicol to find why the bush telephone line to Gardner Tree had all-of-a-sudden stopped working. We found that a local farmer had "borrowed" a section of wire to repair one of his fences.

Ironically, farmer’s fences were in fact sometime incorporated into the system. The top wire of the fence would be wired-in and earthed, and soldered to the bush line. Copper wire on light poles was installed when the line crossed a gate in the fence. This was a cheap and effective way of making contact with a farmer who was also, for example, the Captain of the local bush fire brigade.

Thinking about the bush phones and trouble-shooting reminded me of a story from forester John Evans about fixing a non-functioning bush telephone line:

The 30 km line between Pemberton and Quinninup had failed, so Overseer Ted Loud and his gang (of which John was a member) was dispatched to locate and remedy the fault. Following standard procedure, they drove out to the midway point (near Moons Crossing), cut the line and (using a field phone) called the operator at either end to test which section was faulty. The line was then reconnected with a “bullet” sleeve which was slipped over the wires and compressed to affect the join, using long handled crimping pliers. This procedure was then repeated at the midway point in the section that had failed. In that way the problem was finally located and fixed. After doing this, it was time for the final connection. Ted was pushing the two wire ends into the sleeve when someone at one of the ends tried to call the opposite end. The cranked magneto generated hundreds of volts and Ted, holding the two wire ends, copped the full charge. His comments concerning the ancestral heritage of the person who tried the line before it was fixed are not suitable for reproduction here.

Every forester and overseer of the era was perforce an amateur telephone expert, and routinely carried with them the tools of the trade: field phone, long-handled crimping pliers, copper sleeves, spare batteries, a coil of copper earthing wire and a tool kit of miscellaneous parts. ‘Telephone maintenance’ was a sizeable chunk of every district budget. Every year, usually at the end of winter, we would send the crews out to slash down the scrub and regrowth under lines, and to replace pegs, insulators, fuses and rusted wire, as required. The department had a specialist Communications Branch located in Como, and they would run training schools for district officers in fault-finding, construction, phone installation, repair and maintenance. The only job the local forester was not permitted to do was the wiring-up of complex switchboards. A jovial technical officer from Comms Branch called Arthur Burns was the telephone guru in my day, and was a switchboard expert; we always enjoyed his visits.

One of my early jobs as a young forester was to supervise the rebuilding of a section of the bush telephone line from Dwellingup to Mt Wells Fire Lookout. The original had been consumed in the 1961 Dwellingup Fire. I had charge of a gang of young cadets and their ignorance of procedures only just exceeded mine. It was an excellent training exercise: we ended up literally doing it ‘by the book’, working point by point through the appropriate section of The Foresters' Manual. Incredibly, it all worked when the final connection was made ... a tribute to the simplicity of the system rather than our technique!

I still have a copy of the old Foresters Manual – that wonderful and comprehensive compendium of forestry policies, skills and field practices that survived and was constantly updated right up until the death of forestry in Western Australia in the 1990s. I looked up the section on telephones the other day, and the construction of the Mt Wells line came back to me. For example, the manual dictates that …

  • The spans between trees should be 120 to 150 feet (40 to 50 m) and equalised as far as possible;

  • Only wind-firm tie trees must be selected, preferably trees that have little sway;

  • Tie trees should always be visible from an adjacent track, and should be “staggered” so as to ensure the pull of the line is away from the tree;

  • Wooden pegs must be jarrah, one-inch square and 12 inches long, with a bevelled end [for hammering into the hole bored in the tree];

  • Copper wire must be used instead of 8-gauge soft-iron wire when the line crosses a railway line;

  • When pulling the line through and straining it, best results are obtained using a horse….

… and so on, with every last detail considered and prescribed, including the method for making a sharp angle in the alignment of the line:

To get an idea of the complexity that bush telephones reached at their zenith, picture the back veranda of my house at Pemberton where I was the DFO in the late 1960s and 1970s. Mounted on the wall near the back door was a large metal-backed map of the district with fishing line and magnets running out from the fire lookouts. This was the "Coordination Board", allowing me to plot the location of fires and direct fire control operations from home at night and on weekends. Next to the map was the ‘forestry phone’ and its custom-made switchboard. The switchboard allowed me to switch in to seven separate bush lines each one of which had a different coloured switch. These were:

  • The House Line (red switch). This was a little local system linking all the houses in the forestry settlement, the District Office, workshop, store and single men's camp.

  • The Officers' Line (black switch). A ‘confidential’ circuit linking my house and that of my senior Forester.

  • The Pimelea Line (yellow switch). This ran from Pemberton out to the forestry settlement at Pimelea, with connections to several farmers in the West Pemberton area.

  • The Treen Line (green), ran out to Gardner Tree Fire Lookout, with a branch to Scott’s on the Donnelly River and the forestry Headquarters at Nannup.

  • The Diamond Line (grey), ran north to Diamond Tree Fire Lookout and thence to Manjimup District Headquarters.

  • The Gloucester Line (white). A direct line to Gloucester Tree Fire Lookout (where there was another switchboard like mine, so that all the towermen could link up when it was necessary to compare notes on a bushfire).

  • The Northcliffe/Quinninup Line (blue). This line went out east of Pemberton along the Burma and Spring Gully Roads to a junction box at Moons Crossing. Here it bifurcated, one line heading north to the Quinninup forestry settlement and then east to Beard Tree Lookout and north to the forestry settlement at Tone River; the other line went south to Northcliffe Headquarters, east to Boorara Tree and thence on to the forestry Headquarters at Shannon River, and then Mt Burnside Fire Tower.

When practically anyone on this system rang anyone else, bells would ring on my veranda. Each of the seven lines had its own bell, with a different and distinctive note, or pitch. Because we had an identical system in the office, and bells rang all day there as well, I got so I could pick which line an incoming call was on by the musical note of the telephone bell. My wife's ear was not as well tuned, and if I was away and our phone code rang, she would have to pick up the phone and work her way through the board, switching in each line in turn ("Hello! Click! Hello! Click! Hello! Click! Hello! -- Ah Hello! Yes Ron, how are you! No, he's not home yet ... etc"). Many foresters also had their own distinctive “touch” when sending a call ring. For example, I could always tell when the incoming call was from my Assistant Forester at Pimelea, Laurie Jeffrey, because of his precise, sharp and distinctive signal.

The forestry bush telephone system survived and became increasingly complex right up until the mid-1970s. The entire system then disappeared almost overnight. Several things killed them off, especially the development of transistorized radio-telephones, the replacement of many lookout towers by spotter aircraft, the closure of forestry settlements and the completion by the PMG (Telstra) of the government telephone system throughout the southwest. PMG phones were based on underground cables, and were comparatively powerful. They also obviated the need for expensive and labour-intensive maintenance of the thousands of km of forestry lines through the bush.

The system lasted for over 50 years and served the department and the community magnificently. It was cheap to install and run, and amazingly resilient. But it was an old-fashioned and ultimately obsolete technology, vulnerable to the wireless revolution of the 1970s. Today it is largely forgotten. I have my own reminder on the wall in our kitchen: a 1930s Swedish Ericson which I managed to get my hands on when all the old forestry phones were being thrown away in the mid-1970s. It is a beautiful thing, constructed of oak timber, and I am often moved to give the crank a little twirl in passing, and listen nostalgically to the music of its bells.

The Ericson on our kitchen wall

But if I learned to master the technology of the bush telephone, that of the early High Frequency (HF) radio was another kettle of fish. The Forests Department had been experimenting with radio since the mid-1920s, also using early military technology, but the first major consignment of radios were ex-tank FS 6 radios purchased from Army Disposals just after World War II. Each district had a base set at Headquarters and several mobiles which were installed in the gang trucks (or occasionally in the boot of a DFO’s car). Although regarded as ‘high tech’ at the time, these HF mobiles had two major disadvantages by today's standards. Firstly, each time you used the set, it was necessary to stop the truck, get out, run out a long wire aerial and attach it to a tree. You then tuned the set to the exact parameters of the aerial. Both transmitter and receiver had to be separately tuned, and it was a finicky, trying business. Unless the mobile you were trying to reach was stopped, and with the radio turned on and tuned for reception and transmission, you could not reach them. For this reason, the system operated by “Sked calls” – all the mobile radios were turned on at the same time according to a pre-arranged schedule, for example on the hour. Most of the forestry gangs in those days had a “Radio and Billy Boy” – a junior whose job it was to boil the billy for smoko and lunch time, and listen out to the radio sked calls on the hour, and then contact the overseer if there was a message for him.

Forestry overseer using a FS 6 HF radio from his gang truck

The other great disadvantage of the old HF system was that reception deteriorated sharply in bad fire weather. Hot, unstable atmospheric conditions would make reception a nightmare, and if a serious fire started (as it often did when conditions were hot and unstable), the signal would frequently become "unreadable". Poor radio reception had been one of the great problems during the terrible bushfire emergency in the jarrah forest in January 1961, and this emphasised the need for change. There was great celebration in the early-1960s when the old HF sets were finally pulled out and replaced by modern VHF (Very High Frequency) two-way radios with a set installed in practically every forester’s vehicle and truck. The VHF system was based on the use of repeater stations located throughout the south-west on high points, and they operated independently of the weather or atmospheric conditions, the batteries being recharged by a small wind turbine. The early sets had valves and took a while to warm up, but when transistors became available, radio use became a pleasure rather than a frustration.

Systems in transition: this picture shows the radio room in a Forests Dept HQ, circa 1962. The operator is using the little white compact VHF set, while next to it is the bulky old FS 6 HF set

As with the heliograph and the bush telephone, the HF system suddenly became obsolete technology. They were the best available at the time, and were a significant advance, but they could be sods of things, and most foresters were glad to see them off.

Fate, however, had one last trick to play. In 1985 when the Forests Department was amalgamated with the National Parks Authority to form a new land management agency, the park rangers were found to be still using the old HF system that had been abandoned by foresters 25 years previously. A ‘highlight’ of this system was that a ranger in the Albany area could easily chat with a ranger in the east Kimberley (nearly four thousand km away), while two rangers in the same park could not communicate at all, or with the local bushfire brigades who by then were also using VHF. It took years to sort it all out.

But technology moves on, apace. As I write, VHF radio itself is on the verge of obsolescence, being replaced by instantaneous world-wide telephonic communication via satellite; virtually everyone has a mobile phone in their pocket with which they can dial-up almost anybody anywhere in the world. It’s hard to see how it could get any better – but then that’s what they said when the first bush telephones were installed.

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Oct 07, 2022

Another fascinating look into the past - great work Roger - keep them coming !

J&MA, Vic.

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