At 6.35pm on the 18th October 1924, Kiwi amateur radio operator Frank Bell sent a groundbreaking Morse code transmission across the world: “Greetings from New Zealand, signed Bell Z4AA.” It was received by London-based amateur operator Cecil Goyder who replied with:  “Received you. Greetings from us. Can’t realise you are in New Zealand.  Daylight now.  Are you troubled by static? or fading?” The communication made world headlines and created an interest in the developing radio technology.

Frank and Brenda Bell (NZhistory.govt.nz)

After being injured while fighting at the Western Front in 1917, Frank returned to his family sheep farm in the Shag Valley, East Otago. While recuperating, he developed an interest in wireless communication. He and his sister, Brenda, who shared his interest in the new technology, helped pioneer the use of short radio waves to communicate over long distances, initially through Morse-code telegraphy. The wireless companies that existed at the time, already owned air time and were aided by laws preventing interference by amateurs but they had not been able to open up international communications. It took an amateur ham operator to achieve this! After this historic trans-world ‘chat’ Frank went on to achieve a number of other firsts, including New Zealand’s first overseas two-way radio contact with Australia and North America.

When Frank had returned to full health, he was forced to concentrate on running the family farm. His sister Brenda took over the wireless station, becoming New Zealand’s first female amateur radio operator and in 1927 she was the first New Zealander to contact South Africa by radio. After the Second World War, Brenda Bell joined the staff of Dunedin’s talk based station 4YA.


New Zealand’s first official television transmission began at 7.30 pm on the 1st June 1960.  The presentation from modest studios in Shortland St in central Auckland lasted just three hours and was only available to viewers in Auckland. It included an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood, a live interview with a visiting British ballerina and a performance by the Howard Morrison Quartet.

Although the NZBS had experimented with TV technology in the 1950s, scheduled television programming in New Zealand was way behind the rest of the developed world. Britain’s BBC started the world’s first public TV service in 1936. Three years later, NBC began broadcasting in the United States. It took a staggeringly long period of 21 years to reach New Zealand.


In 1949 a New Zealand government committee began television experimenting with the first broadcasts appearing in 1951 but the government for some odd reason made sure no transmission could be classified as ‘entertainment’. It took a further 10 years before Prime Minister Walter Nash made the decision to proceed with public broadcasts.

A year after regular transmissions had been established in Auckland, Christchurch residents were introduced to the medium. Wellington followed four weeks later. Dunedin had to wait until 31 July 1962 to experience the wonder of the new entertainment medium. By 1965 the four stations were broadcasting seven nights a week for a total of 50 hours. There was no national network and each centre saw local programmes. Overseas programmes on 16mm spools of film were flown from centre to centre and played in different cities in successive weeks. By 1969 the four television stations were broadcasting for 65 hours each week, between 2 p.m. and 11 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday and 2 p.m. and midnight at the weekend.

NZTV Newsreader 1961 (Wikipedia)

I was employed as DNTV2’s second staff film cameraman. The two of us were supplied with a wind up Bell and Howell 16mm camera. This held a 100ft spool of film which lasted 2.5 minutes!  There was no sound. However, within a few months, the station purchased a sound-on-film 16mm camera. A year later double system sound was used as the public began to demand better quality from the improving TV sets coming onto the market. In1966 the average price of a 23-inch black and white television ‘consolette’ was £131, equivalent to nearly $5000 today. No wonder, the viewers wanted better sound and image from the programmes they were watching!

By the time I left the industry, cameras were half the weight but still a similar size. The digital images now captured on small cards. I look back amazed at the rapid way technology changed the way images and sound is captured.

When television licences were introduced in August 1960, they cost £4 a year (equivalent to around $170 today). By 1965 close to 320,000 licences had been issued. At the same time, operating costs were partly offset by the introduction of TV advertising. Initially advertisements were allowed only on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. At the time, more revenue was raised from television licences than from advertising. In this world of streaming, I wonder how advertisements, as we know them, will survive on broadcast television.

It’s been almost a century since Frank Bell tapped a Morse Code greeting to London birthing the world’s first trans global communication. Today, anyone can tap a screen on the phone in their pocket to instantly talk to almost anyone in most parts of the planet. Frank would be delighted with the way the technology that fascinated him has evolved.

Ceidrik Heward

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