Technical museums have always interested me and I endeavour to visit them whenever the opportunity arises. Recently, an opportunity to visit the “Royal Australian Army Corps of Signals Museum” at Macleod in north-east Melbourne presented itself. I was fortunate that Major Jim Gordon was able to give me a personal tour of the facility.
This museum is part of the Army Museums Network, which itself is part of the Army History Unit. It commenced operation in the early 1950s at Balcombe where members of the School of Signals initially set up displays of equipment that was being phased out of use by the army. The museum was subsequently moved to its present location in Macleod in 1970, where it was housed a redundant satellite monitoring facility from the Cold War era.
It probably seems ironic that a museum is housed in a building previously used for the very “high-tech” satellite-monitoring task. In fact, the redundant monitoring station equipment still occupies some 60% of the floor space, which means the museum cannot display all of its stored equipment until the redundant equipment is removed. Two 600kVA emergency power plants are also still installed, although these are no longer operating.
Although our interest in army communications is predominately concerned with radio, it is interesting to consider how armies communicated before radio was invented.
In very early times and even up until relatively recently, runners and couriers were often used to keep the commanders informed of progress on the battlefield and to deliver their orders. Horse-mounted dispatch riders were commonly used before giving way to motorcycle dispatch riders during WW2.
Courier pigeons were also commonly used by many armies up until WW2. In fact, they were still in use by the Swiss Army as late as 1994.
A variety of sound and visual signalling methods were also used over the centuries. Most were labour intensive and messages usually took quite some time to reach their intended recipient. However, some methods proved relatively fast in transferring signals. For example, the heliograph was an optical device that reflected strong sunlight and had quite a long range when used from hilltop to hilltop.
It was used from around the 1850s and even saw limited use in WW2.