The Pedal Radio of the Great Outback


The fascinating story of radio's vital role in connecting the vast outback to the rest of Australia is a story of dream turned to reality. The dream belonged to Alfred Traeger, a reclusive engineer and radio buff, whose dogged pursuit of the right equipment, resulted in a momentous change in the quality of life for those isolated settlers of the outback. We're grateful to Australian Richard Begbie for bringing this story to our attention. (Editor)

In 1907 a quiet Australian farm boy astonished his family by building a telephone between the homestead and a machinery barn 50 yards away. He had no commercial equipment -- the magnets were made from pitch fork prongs, the diaphragms from tobacco tin lids, and the charcoal for carbon granules came from the kitchen stove. The ubiquitous farm fencing wire was also called into service.

The boy's name was Alfred Traeger, and a shrewd father soon had him enrolled in an electrical engineering course. Before he was 20, Traeger had put together a transmitter, 1914 style, was sending Morse at 20 words a minute, and was working towards his amateur license.

1920s Radio in Australia

Australia is a fair sized place. Its land area is four-fifths that of the U. S., and the drive from Sydney to Perth is similar to the New York-Los Angeles run, except with fewer people and more desert. Eighty-five percent of the country's population lives in urban areas, mostly on the eastern and southern seaboards.

So when radio took off in the early 1920s, it was hailed as the magic bullet for loneliness in the great outback. Radio magazines and newspapers of the time crowed that wireless, as it was usually called, would help catch crooks, save lives, and educate the masses, but mostly that it would bring isolated people together.

It soon became obvious the talk was all hot air. Benevolence disappeared when serious broadcasting began in 1923. If people in the interior could afford a sophisticated 5- or 6-tube outfit, which would pick up an occasional capital city program when conditions allowed, then good luck to them.

While Aborigines had learned to survive the arid interior, European immigrants found the isolation hard to bear. Giant pastoral ranches of thousands of square miles meant women and children often had no outside human contact for months at a time. Clearly the situation cried out for more than flukey broadcast reception. These people needed a voice as well as ears.

Flynn of the Inland

Today, among the most revered of Aussie names stands the Rev. John Flynn, head of the Australian Inland Mission and immortalized on our twenty dollar bill. "Flynn of the Inland" (as he became known) was a visionary fired by the huge difference both airplane and radio could make to outback life. From the early 1920s, Flynn became obsessed with what he called "a mantle of safety" for the isolated and the dispossessed. Writng about Flynn in his book on Traeger, which is used as a reference for this article, Fred McKay said, "He had a 'fire in his belly' about the creation of a scheme of flying doctors to bring medical security to the entire Australian frontier country." His name is still associated with the Flying Doctor Service of the bush.

John Flynn (right) and George Towns
Figure 1. John Flynn (right) and George Towns leave Adelaide in the laden Dodge buckboard, June 1925. Note the pulley built into the rear wheel hub to drive Traeger's generator.

Traeger's Solution
Figure 3. Traeger's solution to the outback's isolation was this prototype of a pedal-operated generator unit for radio sets. Electro-mechanical work was Traeger's specialty.

Flynn got right into radio, and soon became a proficient amateur himself. In mid-1925, he stashed his old Dodge buckboard with wireless gear, as shown in Figure 1, and headed north from Adelaide with a retired army officer named George Towns. For their 500-mile exploratory jaunt, they carried a 100-watt transmitter and a demountable tube-section aerial mast. Also aboard the Dodge was a 600-volt generator, driven off a pulley specially mounted on the rear wheel.

Enter Alfred Traeger

The generator, made by a young Alfred Traeger, brought about his first meeting with Flynn. When George Towns' failing health forced him to pull out of the project, Flynn turned to the younger man. Fired by Flynn's vision, Alf Traeger was soon on the outback trail experimenting, modifying, improving. It was to become a way of life.

The First Pedal Radio
Figure 4. Once telephony had become feasible, the pedal outfit provided complete communication for the isolated homestead. Here, Mrs. Gertrude Rothery of Augustus Downs, operates the first pedal radio on June 19, 1929.

Together Flynn and Traeger set up the first base station at Alice Springs -- the country's geographical center. A couple of outstations soon followed, and in 1926, 2-way radio became a reality in one of the most remote places on earth. But Alf Traeger quickly saw the major obstacle to a wider network -- the awkward, heavy duty, glass, copper oxide Edison batteries -- as well as the need for a reliable high-power voltage supply to the local transmitter. A simple, durable alternative was essential for ordinary outstation use.

In 1927, Traeger built a hand-powered generator. It was transported from Longreach to Cloncurry in the vast emptiness of western Queens-land. Flynn turned the generator while Alf worked the Morse key. The rig performed beyond expectations. Excitement for a wider bush network mounted, with Cloncurry the proposed site for a base station. All systems were go, until the fatal flaw in the hand-generated outfit became apparent. A lone operator could not generate power and send Morse simultaneously, and most homestead emergencies involved a lone woman.

Traeger, now a man possessed, worked dawn to dusk in his Adelaide workshop to solve this problem. But, at Flynn's request, he first remodeled the transmitter and receiver into a compact, easy-to-operate "baby set," shown in Figure 2 (see print version). He then returned his attention to the high voltage supply problems. His brother Jack remembered the moment in August 1928 when Alf, eating lunch in the workshop, suddenly stood up and said, "I'm going to buy bicycle pedals."

Transceiver Set #1, ca. 1930
Figure 5. Transceiver Set #1, ca. 1930, reconditioned and encased in a metal cabinet. Note the telegraph key at right.

Flynn played down the idea. He had seen a bicycle-mounted generator used in a travelling Pathé picture show, and it produced nowhere near the required voltage. But, being a clever practical engineer, Alf turned generator armature winding into an art form. By late 1928, he had his prototype of a pedal generator, shown in Figure 3. Flynn came to see it, was deeply impressed, and told Traeger to put on his Sunday suit. "I want to take an important photograph." The result is the photo shown on our cover.

A Bush Network

The pedal wireless Alf posed with on that November afternoon spelled the end to outback isolation. Lonely homesteads, remote mission stations, aboriginal communities -- every inhabitant of the outback would benefit. Figure 4 shows the first pedal radio unit being used on June 19, 1929. The bush network quickly grew to cover much of the remote center and north. Figure 5 shows the 1930 Transceiver Set #1 reconditioned and encased in a metal cabinet with a telegraph key on the table at right.

Morse code had always been a problem for the lay operator. Although telephony was his ultimate goal, in 1931, Traeger devised an ingenious solution for the Morse-code illiterate -- an automatic Morse keyboard. Resembling a typewriter, each key was connected to a pivoted steel bar with notched spacings corresponding to the Morse alphabet. Traeger's Morse keyboard is shown in Figure 6. Figure 7 (see print version) shows a complete setup with the Morse keyboard.

In 1937, Fred McKay, then a young minister with the Australian Inland Mission (A.I.M.) and pictured in the box at the bottom of the previous page, used the Traeger radio system in his travels in the dry outback. Fred, now an active 93 year old, succeeded John Flynn as director of the mission and is himself the subject of a biography by Maisie Mc-Kenzie entitled Outback Achiever.

Meanwhile, Alf was continually improving the pedal radio, and telephony soon became standard. A 1936-1940 model is seen in Figure 8 (see print version). Its nameplate, shown in Figure 9 (see print version), reads, "Australian Aerial Medical Services" with "AAMS" set in a wings insignia. Figure 10 (see print version) shows a 1943 model.

Much of the rest of Traeger's life was spent bringing the latest in radio to the bush. He introduced the new vibrator sets as soon as practicable, and was actively involved up to and including the birth of solid-state technology. By the 1970s, the Adelaide workshop was turning out single sideband sets, such as the typical unit shown in Figure 11 (see print version). Traeger, shown in his later years in Figure 12 (see print version), maintained his interest in the work until his death in 1980. By that time, there were 6,000 transceivers throughout Australia.

Not unlike a standard typewriter
The internal view the keys activated steel arms

Figure 6. Traeger's ingenious solution for the Morse code illiterate. Not unlike a standard typewriter (top), the keys activated steel arms with a working face cut to required long and short spacings (lower right). The internal view (lower left) shows the oil-filled dash pot necessary to produce smooth movement of the keyed arms.

The 2-way network became the heartbeat of outback life. In conjunction with the Flying Doctor Service, it turned Flynn's concept of a mantle of safety into an everyday reality. It made possible the legendary "School of the Air," now an institution for bush children across the country. Best of all, the ever-changing equipment in the corner of living room or kitchen lifted the final, ever-present burden of the bush pioneers -- the blight of loneliness.

However there was one thing about the pedal radio which never changed. Throughout the bush, it came to be called by everyone everywhere, the "Traeger."


McKay, Fred. Traeger, The Pedal Radio Man. Moorooka, Australia: Boolarong Press, 1995.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Fred McKay for his invaluable help and cooperation, and especially for providing the original photos.

(Richard Begbie, Woodend, RMB 113, Bungendore 2621, Australia. E-mail: rbegbie@atrax.net.au)

Richard Begbie lives on a farm near Canberra, Australia, where he divides his time between merino sheep, writing, and a fascination with unusual 1920s broadcast receivers, from crystal sets to consoles. He is a columnist for the "Canberra Times," which he describes as Australia's nearest thing to the "Washington Post."

The 1937 Traeger Portable Model

The 1937 Traeger Portable Model

The Traeger portable set of the mid-1930s, shown here, was built in identical stacked cases with receiver and transmitter mounted up top, and pedal generator and batteries below.

The receiver tunes from the broadcast band to the higher frequencies of the bush network. It uses a Type 32 tube as RF amplifier, a second Type 32 as regenerative detector, a Type 30 for audio driver, and a transformer-coupled Type 49 for output. Receiver power comes from 90v/22.5v dry B batteries, 9v bias for output grid. Two large No. 6 (1.5v) cells in series supply the 2v heaters.

The transmitter uses a Type 33 as Miller-type oscillator, keyed directly for CW signals. For telephony, a Type 30 is used as microphone preamp, and is transformer-coupled through a 19 double triode to the Type 33 oscillator/final. The high-power plate supply for the Type 33 comes from the pedal generator.

Transmitter coils are wound on a plug-in former, which also carries the open slab crystal in a plated cylinder along with tuning capacitor and tuning lamp. The set uses a random length aerial, plus counterpoise. Power output is around 1.5 watts into the aerial.

Traeger -- The Pedal Radio Man
By Fred McKay

Excerpted from a review of the McKay book by Graham Thornton
in "Amateur Radio," December 1995.

In his review of Traeger -- The Pedal Radio Man, Graham Thornton hails author Rev. Fred McKay for making more widely known the remarkable contribution of Alfred Traeger (1895-1980) to the inhabitants of the vast Australian outback. The Traeger transceivers had three outstanding features -- "effectiveness, reliability, and above all, simplicity of operation." They were a salvation to the lonely outbackers. In all, Thornton points out that it is difficult to call Traeger anything but a genius.

Though a biography and not a technical book, the eleven appendices of McKay's book provide some valuable technical information, according to Thornton. The book covers not only Traeger's invention of the pedal radio and the mechanical Morse keyboard, but also his mastery of modern solid-state technology.

One minor criticism is of McKay's labeling of Traeger as a "radio amateur." Thornton reminds readers that Traeger was more than that -- he was a highly skilled professional engineer, and in Thornton's opinion, he might easily be called "the Michael Faraday of Australian Radio."

The 120-page, well-illustrated book is available from Boolarong Press, P.O. Box 308, Moorooka, Q. 4105, Australia, for $14.95, plus $6.35 Air Mail, Australian dollars. $1 Australian is about $1.50 US; Visa/MC/AE accepted.

[Free Sample] [Books, etc., For Sale] [Subscribe to A.R.C./Renew]
[Online Ordering] [Book Reviews] [Event Calendar]
[Home] [About ARC] [Subscription Information] [Links]

Antique Radio Classified
P.O. Box 2-V75, Carlisle, MA 01741
TEL: (978) 371 - 0512
FAX: (978) 371 - 7129
E-MAIL: ARC@antiqueradio.com

URL = http://www.antiqueradio.com/traeger_pedal_07-99.html
Copyright © 1996-9 by John V. Terrey - For personal use only.
Last revised: June 29, 1999. Pages designed by Wayward Fluffy Publications