June 10, 2006 The population density of the world’s continents says it all: North America (32 people/sq mile), South America (73), Europe (134), Asia (203), Africa (65) and Australia with just 6.4 people per square mile. Given that 90% of Australia’s population live in large cities in the South Eastern corner, the immense interior known as “the Outback” is one of Australia’s defining features. Eighty years ago, with almost no telecommunication infrastructure beyond the seaboard, the tyranny of distance loomed much larger in the Outback as the nearest doctor could be several thousand miles away, with no method of contacting them in an emergency. Hearing that German WW1 soldiers had used hand-cranked radios for battlefield communications, Alf Traeger set about creating a radio powered by bicycle pedals. The invention of the pedal radio in the late 1920s enabled the famous Flying Doctor service, and offered remote settlements access to telecommunications for th first time.
The introduction of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in 1928 by Rev John Flynn, gave Outback people what Flynn termed a 'Mantle of Safety'. They were no longer isolated by the harsh conditions of the unforgiving Outback, and could turn to the RFDS for help in medical emergencies.
Flynn lived in the Outback for most of his life, setting up hostels and bush hospitals for pastoralists, miners, road workers, railwaymen and other settlers and families. Known as 'Flynn of the Inland', his dream of a 'flying doctor service' came to life when H V McKay, inventor of the McKay Sunshine Harvester left a large sum of money in his will, and when Traegar developed the pedal radio. This gave Outback people the voice they needed to summon a doctor if necessary and at least to be able to get a radio consultation with one.
Once a doctor was contacted, an emergency flight was organised. The first flight was made on 17 May 1928 in a basic, open de Havilland DH 50 flown by Arthur Affleck, who was a pilot with the small bush airline, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd which later went on to become Australia’s national airline (QANTAS).
Pedal radios also meant neighbours, families and friends, scattered over thousands of square kilometres, could exchange news and gossip after normal transmission hours. This time became known as the 'galah' session, after the noisy, chattering native bird.
The School of the Air was also established, using the Flying Doctor Service network, and supplemented correspondence lessons sent to Outback children.
The Australian Aerial Medical Service changed its name to the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1955.
Today, the Royal Flying Doctor Service operates as a comprehensive health service, providing general, specific and emergency health services to people who work, live and travel in outback and rural Australia.
Last year the RFDS attended more than 234,000 patients, with more than 33,000 aerial evacuations, bringing this huge continent just a little bit closer for people in the most remote areas of Australia. The organization is continually fundraising in order to carry on its good work. Visit their web site to make a donation here.
For much greater depth on this subject, see these articles on the Pedal Radio of the Great Outback by Richard Begbie can be found and Outback communications: the Flying Doctor radios by Rodney Champness.
2006 is the Year of the Outback in Australia and next Friday night (June 16, 2006), the Alf Traeger Oration will be held in Charleville in Central Queensland, commencing three days of celebrations for the Year of the Outback and the Charleville School of the Air/School of Distance Education 40th birthday.
The Alf Traeger Oration is held to draw attention to Traeger’s contribution to the lives of the people of Outback Australia.
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