Kiwi as

Frank and Brenda Bell, 1974 (Hocken Library, Otago Daily Times photograph)

When one thinks of names of pioneers in radio and telephones, names like Marconi and Alexander Graham Bell spring to mind.?However, our keen individuals who inspire and surprise are a completely different Bell altogether. Frank and Brenda Bell are not top-of-the-mind recall names but were record-setting pioneers in their own way.

94 years ago, this month Frank held the first ever two-way conversation from New Zealand to England, the first anywhere in the world to communicate from one side of the globe to the other. Quote.

Shag Valley station in eastern Otago is an unlikely setting for a sister and brother to become world radio pioneers. Margaret Brenda Bell was born there on 18 October 1891; Francis Wirgman Dillon Bell was born in Dunedin on 12 June 1896. They were the only children of runholder Alfred Dillon Bell and his wife, Gertrude Eliza Robinson.

Alfred Bell was more interested in science than sheep. He set up what was probably the first telephone connection in New Zealand, between two farmhouses, and experimented with the new-fangled wireless communication. The two children took up their father’s interest. Frank in particular spent long periods listening to radio signals on a home-made crystal set.

The First World War saw the sister and brother heading for Europe. Brenda served as a military hospital cook in England and acted as a hostess at the New Zealand High Commission in London. Frank served as a gunner in France and Belgium until he was invalided home in 1917. The returned soldier’s boyhood interest in wireless was revived while he recovered at home from his war wounds. Along with a handful of fellow New Zealand amateurs, he helped pioneer the use of short radio waves to communicate over long distances, initially through morse code telegraphy.

He achieved spectacular success. In April 1923 he made New Zealand’s first overseas two-way radio contact, with a fellow amateur in Australia. In September 1924 he made New Zealand’s first contact with North America. The following month, on 18 October, he and a student in London held the first-ever two-way radio conversation from one side of the world to the other. It was a feat that every radio operator had been striving to achieve, and made world headlines. Frank Bell’s international status was such that, in his absence, he was elected to the five-member executive committee of the International Amateur Radio Union at its formation in Paris in 1925.

A self-effacing and publicity-shy Frank Bell soon lost interest in radio and took over the running of the family sheep station. His gregarious sister took over the wireless station. She was New Zealand’s first female amateur radio operator, and one of the first in the world. In 1927 she also became the first New Zealander to contact South Africa. […]

Brenda and Frank Bell spent most of their lives on the family farm. Brenda died in The Chalet private hospital in Dunedin on 10 August 1979, shortly after being presented with the Queen’s Service Medal. She was 87. Her brother spent the last four years of his life in a retirement home in Auckland and died in the Argyle Hospital in Herne Bay on 18 August 1987. He was 91. Both had made a significant contribution towards the development of radio as a means of international communication. End of quote.