FISK, SIR ERNEST THOMAS (1886–1965)
Introducing Fisk at the University of Sydney in 1948, radio engineer Raymond Allsop said ‘the pioneering history of wireless in Australia is steeped in Sir Ernest’. From 1945–51, Fisk was managing director of Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) in London. EMI was much bigger and more global than Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd (AWA), but it was at AWA that Fisk made his reputation, as managing director from 1916 and also chairman from 1932. Fisk first visited Australia in 1910 as a ship’s wireless operator and moved to Sydney a year later as Australasian representative for Guglielmo Marconi’s London-based wireless company. When AWA was formed in 1913, he became technical and general manager and a director. He was the dominant figure at the 1923 conference held to consider the licensing of radio broadcasting services in Australia.
Born in Sunbury-on-Thames, Fisk was 10 when Marconi obtained his first patent and 15 when a wireless signal crossed the Atlantic. At 20, Fisk was on Marconi’s payroll, operating wireless equipment on Cunard’s trans-Atlantic ships. His life became a series of claimed ‘firsts’ and records: the first ship to use wireless in the Arctic and one of the first on the England–Australia run; and a record ship-to-ship transmission on his way to Australia. This continued at AWA: the first official direct wireless telegraph messages and the first wireless telephone conversation between Britain and Australia; and the first Australian demonstration of what became broadcasting. His greatest achievements were the instantly successful commercial wireless telegraph services opened between Australia and the northern hemisphere in 1927–28 and AWA’s electronics manufacturing business.
Fisk learned commercial aggression at Marconi’s and taught it at AWA. The transmitter site for the international wireless telegraph services was called Fiskville, while AWA’s best broadcast receivers were Fisk Radiolas and Radiolettes. He was criticised for speculating publicly that wireless could be used to communicate with the dead. His great political ally was William Hughes, who drove AWA’s plan for an international wireless service through parliament as prime minister in 1922 then joined the company’s board, remaining a director for life. Like Hughes, Fisk was an Englishman who became an Australian. At EMI, he called himself ‘an Australian living in England’ but it wasn’t enough to persuade Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies to let EMI buy the Commonwealth’s half-share in AWA.
REF: J. Given, Empire State: Ernest Fisk and the World Wide Wireless, ABC Radio National Hindsight, February 2012 and June 2013.