Jack Strachan

Interviewer: Ian Hansen

Did you know that Jack Strachan was a country boy, born and bred in Goolwa S.A. who worked for a while in Murray Bridge, but for 45+ years, lived and worked in Port Augusta S.A. as an employee of the Australian Commonwealth Railways?

Did you also know that in 1941 Jack was arrested in Port Augusta and interrogated for "consorting with the enemy" just because his boss had a German name? It is a hilarious story that is worth hearing in this interview.

As stated, Jack Strachan (pronounced Strawn) grew up in Goolwa at the end of the Great Depression and was introduced to radio in 1934-35 when he became friends with the owner/operator of "Dunstall's Travelling Picture Show" that toured the South Coast town showing newsreels and "shorts" at all of the country towns. Frank Dunstall also was the local agent for Harrington's in Adelaide who produced the "Imperia" (soon nicknamed the "Inferior") superheat radio made by AWA for the SA market. Frank sold hundreds of these "less than desirable" radios and would take almost anything as a trade-in to sell them. At that time, the Federal Government was undertaking the building of the barrages across the lower Murray at Goolwa and up-river so there was an influx of lots of cashed-up workers! Young Jack Strachan was the recipient of all the trade-in radios that Frank Dunstall received and over the next couple of years, he refurbished and improved on many of the designs, learning valuable lessons in circuitry, power supplies and radio efficiency that stood him in good stead for his next adventure when the family moved to Murray Bridge in SA. in 1937.

One of the highlights of life at Murray Bridge was working at Alan Smyth's radio shop in the main street., the local outlet for AWA radios. In his spare time he designed and built a 100watt public address system amplifier for use at outdoor events. It was so successful that it was packed up and went with him to Port Augusta in 1941 - where he stayed throughout his 45+ year history with the Australian Commonwealth Railways.

In 1941 while working at the big railways workshops there, Bill's radio skills came to the fore doing "after-hours" repair work for the local AWA retailer, a friendly German immigrant with whom he forged a lifelong friendship.

The railways infrastructure at Port Augusta was considered a major asset in 1941 as the Japanese forces moved closer to Australia, so it was decided that an air-raid warning system was needed for Port Augusta. A siren system duly arrived at the railway workshops and was to be powered from that site. It was young Jack who pointed out that in an air raid, the system would fail if the telephone lines that triggered it from a central location were hit - it needed to be triggered remotely using radio signals!! Jack's 100watt PA system was butchered for parts and a standby generator to power it independently was developed. Jack developed the device needed to create the wailing sound and the whole machine was ready for trial. It was SO successful that it could be heard in excess of 5 miles from each of the 3 linked sites where it was installed.

Within DAYS the top brass from the Army , the Railways Corporation and the Commonwealth Police arrived to investigate! Jack was rounded up and held for questioning about this radio controlled device and more importantly, his association with his German friend and his involvement in the project. He was accused of consorting with the enemy! His modified amplifier had alerted the top brass of the army because of the distance he was able to send signals. He was told that "this thing" could transmit signals all the way around the world, which he kind-of knew, in principle…. It was the 807 valve that he'd used but he thought he had suppressed it enough. Not so did the Army brass! So it was back to the basement of his German friends shop that the amplifier was banished.

Jack was convinced that there was a use for broadcast radio receivers on passenger trains that criss crossed the country through Port Augusta. His experience with the air raid siren debacle had convinced him. He saw radio as a tool for keeping passengers and crew informed about the War, the daily news and sport, but no-one would take him seriously.

It took until 1946 - after the war - that the first experiments were done, but it was the introduction of AWA "PYROX" wire recorders that helped to introduce changes in thinking of the railways engineers. Once the wire recorders proved their worth it was a natural progression to move to live radio.

Jack's story is one of fun and adventure - the post-war years were also an exciting time. Click on the link below to hear the next 40 years of Jack's story.

(Interview Duration: 1 hour 5 minutes)

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