Wash Day at Wellington Transmission Centre

Back in 1981, the Wellington Transmission Centre consisted largely of analogue multiplex equipment, with 4 MHz baseband systems to Auckland, Palmerston North, Nelson, Christchurch and other centres.

The transmission centre was spread across two floors of the central exchange building with telegraph systems on the first floor and the analogue multiplex equipment on the second floor.

This layout proved to be convenient on the day that the cleaners turned up to try to wash the master oscillator.

At that time, the New Zealand Post Office ran a fully synchronised analogue telephone network. An expensive caesium beam clock located at the DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) in Gracefield supplied two signal feeds to the master oscillator bayside at the Wellington Transmission Centre. From there, analogue clock feeds were distributed to the racks of equipment in the multiplex room.

The arrangement was hierarchical, with other transmission stations deriving synchronising signals for their master oscillator equipment from systems originating in Wellington. This system was necessary to ensure that voice, data and radio programmme signals were multiplexed and demultiplexed without distortion as they traversed the network.

The master oscillator bay was the heart of the station and consisted of two racks of equipment that hummed away to itself day after day. Oscillator alarms were rare, and trainees were threatened with amputation if they looked like tinkering. Preventative maintenance checks were generally carried out under the watchful eye of a senior technician, as any wandering of the station clock would send the network drifting and create alarms at every transmission station that housed its own master oscillator.

The exchange building was kept clean by a hard-working band of cleaners led by the totally unflappable Betty whose bark was, thankfully, worse than her bite. Like most staff in the building, the cleaners worked shifts around the clock, carefully working around technicians, toll operators, clerical staff and others who provided a 24-hour service to the public.

Betty regularly patrolled her patch, making sure that work was up to scratch, barking at scuff marks on the linoleum and delivering a flea-in-the-ear to any technician who was wearing muddy shoes or suspected of having left any mark, however insignificant.

Betty often berated transmission technicians for having the scruffiest habits in the building meaning that our floor required extra attention to keep clean – against all mathematical laws, I understand that the Telegraph Test Centre, Zone Centre Exchange and Group Centre Exchange staff were also given this admonition.

Despite this, the work environment was very clean with the grey-flecked white linoleum a spotless contrast to the Post Office straw-coloured equipment. However, on this particular occasion, Betty had determined that the Transmission Centre’s floor had too many scuff marks on it and required scrubbing, buffing and polishing beyond the regular cleaning.

The work was planned in advance for a Saturday and our maintenance work schedule was trimmed to ensure that staff would not be working in the test room or multiplex room.

The morning arrived as did a platoon of cleaners with buckets, mops, scrubbing brushes, polish and the ubiquitous “Busy Bee” electric floor polishers. Ah, the Busy Bee. Years earlier, having been treated to Bobby riding one while he was polishing the floor in the repair room in Gisborne, I had decided to have a go at running one in a more orthodox manner. The thing hurtled off with me in hot pursuit like some bizarre foxtrot, and I managed to turn the thing off and extract myself from its fond embrace only a few seconds before the Supervising Technician came through the doors from the switchroom. Had he caught me, I imagine a short term in the salt mines would’ve been a minor punishment compared to my fate.

But back to the Wellington Transmission Centre. With Betty’s platoon of cleaners having been assembled, we were given the “Out!” command and most of the technical staff tucked their tails between their legs and shuffled off to the first floor. Fortunately, some sensible planning had meant that a complete telephone console was available in the Telegraph Test Centre (TGTC) and the alarm console would allow a good overview of the network status throughout the rest of the day.

Two of us remained behind. The Technical Operator was virtually locked in the Radio Telephone Terminal, and I was waiting for the completion of a wire photo transmission in the test room.

With the wire photo completed, I tip-toed across the test room floor and peeked into the multiplex room to see how the Big Scrub was going. The cleaners were working away, including one who had a habit of painting his car by brush every few weeks, so that it was an advertisement rivalling the Taubmans paint chart. I was astonished to see a wave of water nearly a centimetre high coming towards me on its way up the central aisle past the master oscillator bay – I bolted.

On arriving in the TGTC downstairs, I reported the horrific sight, and we all turned to watch the telegraph alarm console, expecting it to light up in red at any moment. No-one was game enough to bound upstairs and call a halt to the operation. We waited, fearing the worst.

But Betty was in total control – of cleaners, water, electrons and any technician who was daring enough to poke his nose in. A few hours later we were called upstairs and introduced to a spotless, shiny expanse of linoleum and told that the first of us to put a mark on it would receive “boxed ears” – and that included the boss.

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