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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, July 5, 2009

The Pitcairn Story and Radio Stations on Lonely Pitcairn Island

The Pitcairn Story

Pitcairn Island, down there somewhere in the South Pacific, is one of the most isolated islands in the world, and it would vie with Easter Island as the loneliest island on our planet. A map of the world would show us that Pitcairn is situated five thousand miles from Australia and four thousand miles from South America.

This lonely, remote island is a rocky out-crop jutting up from the floor of the deep Pacific Ocean. It has an area of just two square miles, and its highest hill, Lookout Point, is just eleven hundred feet above sea level.

Pitcairn is never visited by plane, and seldom by ship. Its main source of income is from the sale of their beautifully colored postage stamps, and also from locally made curios and handicrafts. In more recent time, they have made some income from the sale of foodstuffs, including bottles of Pitcairn Honey.

The saga of Pitcairn Island, and the drama regarding the mutiny of the Bounty, have often been chronicled in books and magazines, and portrayed on stage and theater screen as well as on TV. In fact, Marlon Brando portrayed the now notorious Fletcher Christian in the 1962 Hollywood movie, "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Archaeological research indicates that the first inhabitants on Pitcairn Island were Polynesian peoples who came in, probably from Mangareva Island, some three hundred miles to the northwest. The available evidence would suggest that the Polynesians brought in bread fruit trees, and bananas, and other fruit trees and they must have stayed on Pitcairn for a lengthy period of time, even several centuries. Early Polynesian legends tell of visits to Pitcairn, but apparently they all migrated elsewhere before the arrival of the first European explorers.

Interestingly, a small stone statue, with its back to the sea, was found on Pitcairn by the first European settlers more than two hundred years ago. This stone statue reminds us of the similar, though much larger, stone statues, found on distant Easter Island.

Pitcairn Island was discovered by the English navigator Philip Carteret in 1767 and it was named in honor of Midshipman Pitcairn who was the first to sight the island. The island lay dormant on the navigation charts of the Pacific for a third of a century.

In the year 1790, nine mutineers from HMS "Bounty" together with eighteen Tahitian men and women, landed ashore at Bounty Bay on the north-eastern edge of Pitcairn Island. They removed everything possible from the ship and then burned the hull; and in this way they turned their backs on the rest of the world.

Forty years later, when a drought threatened the Pitcairners, they were all removed to Tahiti, but during the following year, they all returned. Then, a quarter century later again, when the population grew too large, the entire colony was transferred to Norfolk Island. However, two or three years after that, several families began to return to Pitcairn Island. It was in the year 1890 that the islanders established the Seventh-day Adventist church building in the main square area of Adamstown, Pitcairn Island.

Beginning in 1926, postage stamps from New Zealand were in use on Pitcairn Island. The first Pitcairn postage stamps were issued in 1940, and the first post office was constructed during the following year. Just three years ago, new coins were minted for Pitcairn Island, but these are more for the interest of coin collectors than for circulation on the island.

The population on Pitcairn Island reached a peak of 223 in 1937; and today, the total population is less than fifty. A large number of the Pitcairners are licensed amateur radio operators; and telephone contact with the outside world is nowadays maintained by satellite.

Radio Stations on Lonely Pitcairn Island

The story of radio broadcasting on Pitcairn Island is also a very interesting saga and it dates from the very earliest times. We go back to the very beginning and this is what happened.

During a voyage across the Pacific in the year 1921, the New Zealand ship "Rimutaka" stopped at Pitcairn Island and the captain handed a Morse Code message on a card to the island Magistrate, Mr. Fred Christian. Several islanders showed an interest in this card, including the young man, Andrew Young. He determined that he would learn how to signal passing ships at night by flashing them in Morse Code, using a flashlight.

After a lot of practice at learning Morse Code, Andrew was successful one night in flashing a message to a passing ship and the ship's radio operator replied in a similar manner. This ship was thus the first to stop at Pitcairn Island through the usage of Morse Code.

The Marconi Company in England heard about this event and during the following year they sent out two crystal set receivers and a small spark transmitter. However, the islanders were unsuccessful in operating the equipment; and some time later the captain of another ship from New Zealand sent his radio operator ashore to fix the problem. Soon afterwards, another passing ship, the "Corinthic," was contacted by wireless for the very first time, using the re-vitalized Marconi equipment.

During the year 1926, Robert Hare, an Adventist pastor from New Zealand, took a small 12 volt spark coil transmitter to Pitcairn Island and this was in use for a short while in making contact with passing ships. This equipment was rated at 1/4 kW and it was powered by an engine from a motor vehicle. However, petrol was in short supply on Pitcairn and the equipment was in use for only a short period of time.

In January 1937, the radio operator on board the schooner "Yankee," Allan Eurich, spent a week on Pitcairn Island during the ship's second world tour. He investigated the radio equipment on the island, and subsequently wrote an article that was published in "QST Magazine." This article created a great interest in the United States and two men, Granville Lindley and Lewis Bellem, assembled a quantity of radio equipment that was donated by eighteen different radio companies. It was carried to Pitcairn Island by another New Zealand ship, this time the "Rangitata."

This ship arrived off the coast of Pitcairn Island at 8:20 pm during a thunderstorm. However, on March 1, 1938, the two men, Lindley and Bellem, went ashore at Bounty Bay and they brought ashore four and a half tons of radio equipment, as well as a package of QSL cards, and a batch of radio envelopes. The radio equipment was set up and the station went on the air four days later, and it was officially inaugurated on March 18, 1938.

Originally, the callsign in use for amateur transmissions was VR6A, though shortly afterwards, the callsign was amended to VR6AY, with the letters AY indicating the operator, Andrew Young. Officially, the callsign for use with the relay of broadcast programming was PITC, but there is very little evidence that this callsign was ever in use on air.

The first transmissions from Pitcairn were amateur in nature and the fortunate first QSO contact was with amateur station W8CNA in the United States. Other amateur QSO contacts followed quite quickly.

The first commercial tests on 15320 kHz were made a few days later in contact with the RCA communication station located at Bolinas in California. These original tests were made with KKW on 13780 kHz and KKR on 15460 kHz. The antenna on Pitcairn was a rhombic beamed on San Francisco.

During the month of April, three radio broadcasts, quite short in duration, were made from Pitcairn Island to NBC in the United States. Interestingly on a subsequent occasion, everybody on the island was ready to make a choir broadcast when suddenly a ship was sited off the coast. This event interrupted the choir broadcast, which was never again re-staged.

When the American engineers left the island on May 5, the radio station was left under the complete control of Andrew Young. At this stage, the major usage of the radio equipment was for amateur QSOs, and for communication with nearby shipping.

Six months later, the first subsequent delivery of mail came in by steamer, including a total of five hundred reception reports addressed to the radio station VR6AY.

Early in the next year, 1939, the radio equipment began to develop faults; first the battery charger and then the transmitter itself. Some of these problems were corrected by radio officers on passing ships, but ultimately in the spring, the faulty equipment was loaded onto a ship and taken to amateur station NY2AE in the Panama Canal Zone for repair. Towards the end of this same year, the radio equipment was loaded back onto another ship bound for the Pacific, and for Pitcairn.

At this stage, Admiral Richard Byrd, who was now on his third expedition to Antarctica, stopped at Pitcairn Island for two days and dropped off some much needed food for the islanders. His radio officers also repaired the receivers still in use on Pitcairn.

After an absence of nine months, the radio station was re-installed on Pitcairn, and re-activated, still under the same callsign VR6AY. However, by this time hostilities had broken out in Europe at the beginning of World War II, and events in the Pacific took another turn. We will present the second episode of "Radio Broadcasting on Pitcairn Island" on another occasion.

In the meantime, we should say that these days, the QSL cards verifying radio station PITC-VR6AY, as well as the associated radio envelopes, are valuable collector's items. There were two printings of the original QSL card, one as VR6A, and one as VR6AY; and both versions are highly prized.