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November 2022

Object Title:  Radar Set and Radio Whale Beacon
Object Number:  Radar set 1992.3.007, Marconi radio transmitter and receiver 1998.4.288 and radio beacon 1995.1.220
This month we bring you several objects for the price of one! The museum display shows our radio transmitter and receiver, a radar set and antenna control unit. These vital pieces of equipment were used at Leith Harbour whaling station in the early 1950s.

Radio and radar equipment on display in the Allardyce Room, South Georgia Museum


The first wireless telegraphy facilities at South Georgia were those aboard the ship Deutschland which arrived on 31 October 1911. However, she made no radio contacts, as her apparatus was inadequate and few other stations were established in that region of the world at that time.

The use of radio by whaling ships was well developed before the Government considered establishing a station on South Georgia.  Whaling companies had pioneered the use of wireless in Antarctic regions and used it to keep whale catcher vessels in contact with their base (a land station or floating factory). This allowed communication of progress reports, advice of movements, and locations of whales.

The British Government first proposed a Government Wireless Station in 1913 but it wasn’t until 1925 that it was established at King Edward Point. This was built at the same time as the marine laboratory and accommodation for the Discovery Investigations. Official transmissions started on 1 April 1925 with Mr H R Prickett as operator. The station was equipped with two high aerials of steel lattice construction which remained as prominent landmarks until early 1954 and finally closed on 13 January 1970. The original apparatus was provided by the Marconi Company. This was replaced with 1935 equipment during the World War II. Some of this remained in place and could still be operated in 1982 during the conflict.

South Georgia received its international radio call sign ‘ZBH’ when the station opened. On 1 January 1926 the Magistrate was able to report the reception of the first broadcast programmes of ‘British Official Wireless News Messages’ in Morse from the Rugby transmitter in the United Kingdom and (in 1932) the ‘Voice of the Empire’ from Daventry, the precursor of the BBC World Service. King Edward Point became a registered coastal station for ships’ communications shortly afterwards and traffic increased enormously. All early transmissions were in keyed Morse before Morse tapes, teleprinters and, later, voice became practicable.

Alongside the government developments, the use of radio transformed the whaling industry by making it easier to maintain contact with the outside world. Companies could keep in touch with their home country, and individuals with their families.

Radio also allowed communication between whale catchers and the factory ships or shore whaling stations. Catchers would report their catch and position up to four times a day so preparations could be made for their return with the catch. The downside to this was that competitors were also able to find out what a ship had caught, and where they had caught it.

Geoffrey Smethhurst at his radio station in Leith


Inside of the radio workroom in Leith. The radio officers had to maintain and repair any faults as well as operate the radio


The Radio Officers had an important role, both within the government organisations and with the whaling companies. They would be working in shifts to maintain contact 24 hours a day. They were the centre of communication between the Antarctic and the rest of the world.

Born in 1924 in Bolton, Geoffrey (Geoff) Smethhurst worked as a radio operator for Christian Salvesen & Co between 1947 and 1962. He spent time working in Leith whaling station and also aboard whale catchers, transport ships and factory ships, including the Southern Sailor and the Southern Opal.

“Working on the factory ships, in the radio room, you were kept very busy taking DF bearings and messages from the catchers and what have you. Then we had to keep in touch with Norway and the UK through Portishead Radio. Christmas time was very busy because everybody wanted to send messages.” Geoffrey Smethurst, Radio Operator

Radar was introduced onto whaling ships after World War II, the first wartime naval sets soon being replaced by better models. These reduced the dangers of navigation as ships and icebergs could be detected up to 10 miles away. Whaling was made more efficient as heavy fog no longer prevented hunting.

A caught whale cast adrift with a radar reflector and a catcher ID


The other use of radar was in finding “flagged” whales.  These were whales which had been caught, killed and then set adrift, allowing the catcher to continue hunting. The whale would be inflated with compressed air, so that it floated, and a radio beacon, radar reflector and light wer attached. A company flag identified whom the whale belonged to. Flagging was not fool proof and whales could get lost if the beacon was knocked off.

 “We had to fit them [radars] on most of the catchers, which meant building a circular tube as high as they could get, just behind the bridge where there was a watertight door.  You could just get inside and operate the radar”- Geoffrey Smethurst

Images: The radar equipment and whale beacon.  The Radio Beacon was attached to a bamboo pole that would be driven into the flank of the whale.

Today the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands works with the British Antarctic Survey to provide satellite links to the outside world. Telecommunications at King Edward Point are vital for staff living and working on the island and enable communication to the UK, other research stations in Antarctica and to ships in the area, maintaining links to research, fisheries and tourism vessels.