Walter Henry Hannam (1885–1965)

Affectionately referred to as ‘Blubbery’, due to his 101 kilogram stature; Burwood-born Hannam followed in his father’s engineering and inventing footsteps. Hannam must have learned much from his time with William Hannam, working as a gas and hydraulic engineer from his Sydney business, Hannam & Company, on Pitt and Castlereagh Streets. Perhaps his gentle nature, good humour, and diligent work ethic were inherited from his mother, Anna Sarah (known as Annie).

Education and work

With a science diploma from the Technical College in Sydney, Hannam worked for 11 years in his father’s business, in which he owned 200 shares. Between 1911 and 1912, he was wireless engineer on Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). On his return, his plans to establish his own electrical engineering business were thwarted by the outbreak of war. Post military service, he lived with his sister while re-acquainting himself with civilian life. With a £240 re-establishment loan, he formed his electrical and mechanical engineering business in Mosman. Romance was probably hindered by his Antarctic and European service, as he married later in life.

Achievements in Antarctica

While Hannam can be credited with being among the first to play football on the Antarctic continent, his place in history focuses on his contribution to communications and skills in completing practical tasks.

Hannam made possible the first use of radio in Antarctica by establishing the wireless telegraphic system on Macquarie Island and on Mawson’s Antarctic base. Equipment needed on Macquarie Island was moved from the Aurora to land in barrels. The four radio masts were floated to shore, and the most appropriate site for signals was chosen by Hannam for the masts erection. The expeditioners modified the sealers’ flying fox to aid their task of moving equipment to establish the radio station, and were helped by the sealers living on the island. On 13 February 1912, Macquarie Island was able to communicate with ships around Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne, Sydney, and Wellington.

Hannam was stationed at Main Base, as wireless operator and mechanic, for two summers and a winter. Using a Telefunken 1.5 kilowatt radio to transmit Morse code; Hannam received intermittent communications. 25 September 1912 marks the first successful message transmission from Antarctica via Macquarie Island to the station on the Queen’s Domain, in Hobart. First Officer, Frank Fletcher, and the two able seamen managed to once again secure the wireless mast that had been flattened in the 322 km/h winds of 13 October 1912. Hannam laid the foundation for Jeffryes, his successor in February 1913, who made adjustments to the system which established reliable two way communications. Jeffryes was then able to convey news, such as the tragic deaths of Ninnis and Mertz, and Mawson’s amazing account of survival.

Achievements influenced by his Antarctic experiences

Hannam writes of being dirty for 4 days enroute from Macquarie Island to the Antarctic continent, and finally enjoying the opportunity to wash. Presumably, the desire to clean himself in warm, clean water inspired Hannam’s patent, Improvements in rapid type electric water heaters for bath and other domestic service, in 1929. The Hannam Hot Water Service is a familiar item for sale in newspapers of the time.

Awards and honours

The three islands in the eastern part of Commonwealth Bay were named Hannam Islands by Mawson, in appreciation of Hannam’s valuable contribution to the expedition. Hannam received the Polar Medal in 1914, for his service on Mawson’s expedition. The Australian Antarctic Divisions’ Walter Hannam Building honours him.

Imparting his knowledge of Antarctica

As a member of the Coogee Surf Club, Hannam and fellow expeditioners: Watson, Dovers, Hunter, Wild and Joyce, relayed their Antarctic experiences to eager listeners, and finished with a performance of “A Chorus from the Antarctic”.

Hannam’s diaries from his time with Mawson’s expedition are held in the State Library of New South Wales.

World War I

Aged 30, Hannam’s service began as a lieutenant; an engineer with the Australian Motor Transport Corps. He served until 1919, when he was discharged a Corporal, on medical grounds: arthritis in his knees.

Personal attributes

Hannam saw to the erection of the wireless masts, which involved months of arduous work. He demonstrated persistence and determination by continuing to work on the system. Ninnis and Mertz were always willing to help Hannam in tasks requiring more hands, such as replacing frayed ropes on the wireless mast, and Hannam must have felt their loss deeply.

Hannam was passionate about radio communications. He considered radio essential to the country’s security, given Australia’s post war vulnerabilities. He was a founding member of the Wireless Institute of Australia, and was for a time secretary. Hannam’s well known call sign among radio enthusiasts was 2YH.

Hannam is described as being courageous, hard working, obliging and persistent. His warm and friendly personality was valued by Mawson, and an asset to the expedition.

Written by K Quinn