The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Telecommunications in the Boer War

The first attempted use of wireless telegraphy in war took place during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, according to a paper to be presented by Brian Austin, University of Liverpool in England, at the conference "100 Years of Radio" sponsored by the IEE in London 5-7 September 2006 . His account details the early efforts by the British Army and Navy to use the new technology, which had been demonstrated by Guglielmo Marconi in 1896.

The South African State Archives, located in Pretoria, record that the Kruger's Boer Republic placed an order for six wireless telegraphy sets from the firm Siemens and Halske on 24 August 1899. The sets, which cost 110 Pounds Sterling, were supposed to provide communication for the fortifications around Pretoria. They had a guaranteed range of nearly 15 kilometres and used antennas 36 metres high.

However, the sets never reached Kruger's forces because they were confiscated by customs in Cape Town. Later, British forces tried unsuccessfully to use the equipment supplied by Marconi on the arid inland plains of South Africa, possibly plagued by ground conductivity and the lack of matching resonances of the essentially quarter-wave antennas.

The British Navy had more luck after installing five of the sets the army rejected in the Delagoa Bay Squadron. Successful experiments over a range of 85 kilometres were recorded on 13 April 1900, and unsubstantiated claims were made for communication between Delagoa Bay and Durban, a distance of nearly 460 kilometres.

Lynn Fordred, curator for the Corps of Signals Museum (UK), said parts from the original equipment are in storage at the School of Signals in Heidelberg. Her research for a book dealing with military communications in South Africa highlights the roles of personalities and the problems experienced in coming to grips with the new technology.

While the British Army showed a surpassing lack of interest in wireless telegraphy after their initial failures, Fordred said the Boer forces were unexpectedly progressive in their use of telegraphy and telephone facilities, and even had a telephone exchange at a time when the British Army had none.

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Text Duncan Baker.

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