My father Thomas Francis Firmstone (deceased) never talked much. He was of the old school where one was expected to jump when told to, and not stop to ask why (as it just might save your life). Like everyone who had lived through the war, he was damaged by the experience (physically and mentally). He was running from something and went to the far ends of the earth (Australia). Whilst he provided well for his family, he was very strict.


Pater: Thomas Francis Firmstone:   

Born 24-3-19 Birmingham. Died 1982 Sydney Australia

'Firmstone':  Firmus in Christo (Firm in Christ), Firmus er Fidelis (Firm and Faithful)

Tom Firmstone was from a large family. They were hard working lower class. He contracted rheumatic fever as a child which did some damage to his general health.  In 1937 joined the RAF as a pilot in Britain and later in Africa was grounded after contracting scarlet fever . He was awarded: The Defence Medal, the War Medal and the Battle of Britain Star Medal (1939 - 45). Tom's primary work towards the end of the war was a contribution to the top secret development of radar and later, other defence technology whilst employed by General Electric.

Tom was a radar boffin in England who helped develop radar during WWII with the RAF (No. 4 Squadron) after which he emigrated from the UK in 1947 as a '10 pound pom'. Tom was also a skilled trained Medical Hypnotist and helped many people with all sorts of issues. I remember he was trained to be able to restrict blood loss in the event of serious injury by controlling valves in his veins. Tom settled in Brisbane in about 1950 and was a member of the prestigious 'The Institution of Electronics' of London.


Antarctic research expedition

In 1953, Tom Firmstone who had immigrated to Australia, was working as a signalling engineer for Queensland Rail whilst studying law at the University of Queensland. As a radar/radio physicist (very rare in those days), in August 1953 Tom was invited by the Australian Federal Government to go on the 1954 expedition to Antarctica.  Tom, opted out of his Law Degree and accepted the invitation. The annual salary of a Physicist in those days was 812 to 1100 pounds. Tom was authorised and issued with an 'Experimental' radio licence covering all bands in 1954. Such a wide range of frequencies is otherwise unheard of and no longer permitted . His call sign was V.K. '1TF'. The prefix of '1' is associated with the Australian Capital Territory. Nowadays a prefix of '0' is used for Antarctica.

Research by Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) began in 1947 into areas such as Antarctic weather, upper atmosphere physics and glaciology. International cooperation on scientific research in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957 led to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The treaty provided for complete freedom of scientific research in Antarctica, for conservation of wildlife and the prohibition of military activity, nuclear testing and disposal of radioactive waste.

Today the Australian Antarctic Division carries out research into physical and life sciences in the atmospheric, terrestrial and marine domains, as well as human biology and medical research. It is also responsible for ongoing observational activities, including meteorology, seismic, magnetic and GPS networks, charting and mapping.

Macquarie Island, together with a few rocky islets nearby, has constituted a dependency of Tasmania since early in the nineteenth century. In December 1911 five members of the Australian National Antarctic Expeditions had landed on the island and remained there until 1915. The Macquarie Island Station was established in March 1948 by ANARE as a scientific base. The ANARE station at Buckles Bay was established on the northern isthmus of the island by the 1948 expedition. Macquarie Island research station is due to be closed March 2017.

In 1949, Mr (later Dr) Phillip Law was appointed the first Director of the Australian Antarctic Division.

Dr. Law directed the 1954 expedition; first stop Macquarie Island (arrived 26th December 1954) to relieve staff and provide supplies, and then on to the continental shelf to set up a scientific station . On 13 February 1954 a scientific station (Mawson) was established on the continental shelf (named after Sir Douglas Mawson).

With three other scientists in a party of 14 on the Australian Commonwealth 1954 expedition to Antarctica, Tom Firmstone was stationed at Macquarie Island and carried out research for 12 months studying phenomena of the upper atmosphere (ionosphere), searching for information that would help improve radio communications.

Information note on radio: Originally Very Low Frequency (VLF) bands were used for Morse code radios. VLF didn't propagate using the ionosphere, they were purely ground wave, and they had to use high power (1kW) to push the signal over the horizon. It was very noisy. After the Second World War, High Frequency (HF) communications were used (short-wave band). High Frequencies are propagated by bouncing them from an ionised layer in the upper atmosphere, called the ionosphere (about 300 kilometres up). The signals were bounced off this layer and back to ground again, and consequently they were able to transmit much longer distances than VLF at much lower power levels all the way to Australia. For measurment results publication, click here: 'Ionospheric Measurements'


Following a review of the Australian Honours and Awards System in 1997, it was decided to award a medallion retrospectively to those Winterers who had previously received no recognition either by way of an Imperial Polar medal or an Antarctic Service Medallion. Tom was posthumously awarded the Antarctica Expedition Medallion which has the inscription 'Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions'.

The Antarctic Medallion forms part of this nation's Honor system and recognises service in Australia's Antarctic Territory under extreme conditions.

Media release in 1997 re Medallions, click here: Media Release
1953 news article, click here: November 1953 News article - Tom Firmstone
Link to 'Blue Ice' documentary film, click here: 1954 Expedition documentary film

Voyage List of 1954 Expeditioners:

  • Officer in Charge: Kenneth Richard Campbell,
  • Medical Officer: Anatol Gourin
  • Cook: Michael Charles Taylor
  • Diesel Mechanic: Harry George Whitton
  • Radio Supervisor: Gordon Lyndsay Abbs
  • Radio Operator: Alan Charles Hawker
  • Meteorologist: R Keith Stibbs
  • Weather Observer: Jack Vivian Giles
  • Weather Observer: John Alexander Grey Jones
  • Physicist: Keith Desmond Short
  • Radio physicist: Thomas Francis Firmstone
  • Physicist (cosmic ray): David Hubert Johns
  • Geophysicist: Colin Stewart Robertson

1954 Macquarie Island Team photo below:

Front Row, from left: Jack Giles, David Johns, Thomas Firmstone, Alan Hawker, Keith Short.

Back row, from left: Colin Robertson, John (Nellie) Jones, Harry Whitton, Kenneth Campbell, Michael Taylor, Gordon Abbs, Anatol (Tol) Gourin, R. Keith Stibbs.

Not everyone has been impressed by their first view of Macquarie Island. In 1822 Captain Douglass, of the ship Mariner called it "the most wretched place of involuntary and slavish exilium that can possibly be conceived; nothing could warrant any civilised creature living on such a spot". The only goal for winter was (and still is to this day) to survive the darkness and loneliness for 5 months. ANARE Club Members are a very exclusive body, and the those who have journeyed and lived in Antarctica are known as 'Anareans'. Prior to the 1953/54 expedition there were only 81 Anareans from Australia.

Prior to leaving from Hobart, Tom met Beverlie Nation and they corresponded during the expedition year via (radio) telegrams. As the government of the day was censuring allmessages, they had prior arranged a secret code they could use.

Base Camp Macquarie Island 1960

The above photo shows a portion of Macquarie Island ANARE Station  in 1960

The above photo shows Macquarie Island ANARE Station in 1953.

For information on Macquarie island, click here: Link to information and web cam access
For a brief History of Macquarie Island, click here: Macquarie Island

Ice Breaker

The 1954 expedition ship was the ice breaker M.V. Kisat Dan pictured below. This Danish ship had to be chartered as Australia did not have its own ice breaker and it left Melbourne on December 1953 to resupply Macquarie Island then later on, to set up Mawson station arriving 13th February 1954.

The return pick up trip from Mawson, Heard Island and Macquarie Island with 50 men which included ships crew, VIP passengers, journalists and the actual expeditioners, at one stage nearly ended in disaster as the ship was struck by a fierce hurricane. The Captain (Hans Christian Peterson) lost control of the ship which was side on to the wind and rolled to an almost horizontal level in mountainous seas cluttered with ice pack and was in danger of capsizing and of being blown to smash against ice cliffs. M.V. Kista Dan however arrived back safelyin Melbourne on 4-1-1955.

For history of the 'M.V. Kista Dan', click here: 'Kista Dan'

Back on theAustralian Mainland

On arriving back in Australia (Hobart base) Tom and Beverlie (one of two identical twins) were married in Hobarts Cathedral. 

In about 1956/57, the Firmstones then moved to the city of Adelaide in South Australia where Tom gained a job working for Philips (in Hendon) to run their laboratory to develop and manufacture the first commercial transistors in Australia. Note: The first commercial silicon transistor was produced by Texas Instruments in 1954. This was the work of Gordon Teal, an expert in growing crystals of high purity, who had previously worked at Bell Labs. In 1947 Philips signed a cross licensing deal with Bell Laboratories securing a royalty free non exclusive license. Toms team at Philips in Australia produced the first commercial amplifier transistor, the OC72 (PNP AF Output) in 1958, as shown below.  Early versions of the OC72 were glass encapsulated and painted black as light would affect the junction characteristics. Later they became known as model 2N281.

After producing 10's of thousands of discreet transistors, it was soon discovered that it was impossible with the technology of the time to manufacture a transistor to specification. Instead, a more pragmatic philosophy needed to be applied; they mass produced, tested each and sorted them according to their characteristics.

In November 1967, Tom changed jobs and was employed by G.E.C Australia Pty. Ltd. in NSW, and was in charge of carrying out insulation impulse testing on very large power distribution transformers.

In 1969 during the Vietnam war, Tom became the Supervising Engineer (associated with Standard Telephones and Cables (S.T.C)), looking after the top secret satellite communications facility located at Dundas, NSW. This was a joint Army facility between the USA and Australia (the technology was provided by the USA). As a then civilian, he was provided with a rank (a Major something or other?) so as to be able to give orders to military personnel. I remember (on the Army picnic day) as a 12 year old electronics apprentice, seeing the American guards with rifles standing at attention (covertly) just inside the double layer of security doors (perhaps ready to shoot on sight). The purpose of the facility was to encrypt/de-encrypt communications between the Pentagon and the military forces in Vietnam via direct satellite link. The valve and discrete transistor technology was advanced for the time (and top secret), and the computer (singular) consisted of a large number of bays of computer racking in a large room. The project was so secret that I can find nothing published about it to this day, only that an Army engineer mate of mine has recently confirmed of its past existence (I think the building still stands?). The war ended in 1975, and the technology is so obsolete now that I doubt there is anything still on the official secrets list about it. It would be nice to obtain a little history one day and if the equipment still exists, to see it again. I remember my dad explaining that the heat load generated was such that a large air conditioning plant was needed in order to minimise component failures. I recall that it was very cold inside the building compared to the outside. Unfortunately, due to constantly needing to move between the outside and inside of the building, Tom contracted double pneumonia in about 1972 ? and his health went downhill from there. After degenerating into lung emphysema, no doubt contributed to by his smoking (as nearly everyone did in those days) and a chest weakness from contracting scarlet fever back in Africa during the war, after about 10 years of suffering his body eventually wasted away, his heart gave out in 1982 and he went back to God. 

I remember other memorable visits (as an engineering apprentice) to unusual technology, such as the largest stationary diesel engine (supposedly in the world ?). The valves alone were so large that a man could climb down into the cylinder onto a piston. Another such visit was when I was allowed to accompany my dad on a inspection of an in-service Australian submarine from the forward torpedo room to the engine room (nothing was off limits). I guess I was not considered a secrets risk at the age of about 16. I particularly recall the design and robustness of the small circular explosion resistant bulkhead door between the forward torpedo room and the rest of the submarine as I crawled through it. But what struck me most was the size of the main periscope. A fold out seat was fitted to it. At each side of the seat are fold out left and right rotation throttle pedals. Push down on the right pedal and the periscope spins right, do the same on the left and it spins left (taking you along with it). The view from the northern side of the harbour was so clear that I could clearly pick out the face of a person walking on the southern side of the harbour (Circular Quay).

The Firmstones

The Firmstone family has a proud tradition in British engineering continuously (unto this day) since 1633 (200 years prior to 'the' Industrial Revolution). Over the past century the business was scaled back eventually to a small shop. Until recently, the business was managed by George Firmstone (deceased Dec 2016. Rest in peace George. The Firmstone Company to this day is still located in Warwick UK

Iron bridge

Henry Onions Firmstone was one of a number of iron masters (engineers of the day) who worked on developing the worlds first Blast Furnace and provided iron for the worlds first iron bridge known as 'Iron Bridge'.  'Iron Bridge' was constructed between 1777 and 1781 by Abraham Darby III and spans the river Severn.  
Opened in 1781, it was the largest structure and first arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron. Its a wonderful design from the days when the visual aesthetics (the form) of engineering were just as important as function and it stands as a world heritage structure. I am advised by the family in Englandthat a plaque can be found on the bridge (somewhere), commemorating the name Firmstone. I hope to go and see it one day.

As a railway man, I learnt to appreciate the efforts our past fathers went to, in order to reduce potentially monolithic designs by breaking up the form with organic curves and motif stylization's. Some of the most beautiful buildings are the old railway stations. In the past, even the signal posts had finials of varying design on the top.  I find it a great pity that the form of our transport infrastructure counts for little in this modern age. Hopefully there will be a swing back towards recognising the importance of visual aesthetics in a design.

For a history of Henry Onions Firmstone, click here: Henry Onions Firmstone

Mater: Beverlie TasmaFirmstone

Beverlie was a legal stenographer and later in life studied art and became an art teacher at the local TAFT college. Mum was also an accomplished opera singer with her sister Colleen.

Died October 2021 Sydney Australia at the age of 95. Her last 10 years was not a good life. She is now at peace and with her Maker.

For genealogy of the descendants of John Nation, click here: GEORGE NATION and OLGA LANGDALE

Me: Baptised in St. Marks, Bellerive, Tasmania 1957.