Ok Sparks! Radio Day at RMS Wray Castle: Why Amateur Radio is important

by Ross Dalziel

CW Walker on Blelham Tarn Image

“CW Walker on Blelham Tarn” 2016 (Biro-to-woodcut)

Technology and Internet culture has changed the way many of us live and how we think about places and the past; much of the Ok Sparks! project approach is informed by both this and the nature of the site itself.

In a sense Wray Castle is like an early ‘virtual’ place; to misquote Proust “real but not actual, ideal but not abstract”; a real fabricated space using the technology of the time but with architecture that refers to visions of the ‘idea of a castle’ and the imagination of how that would sit in the landscape, complete with fake ruins.

The connected ‘virtual’ world we have become used to in the new millenium had it’s origins in many places and with many many people but it really started back in the 19th century.

James Dawson who built Wray Castle, died in 1875, ten years after James Clerk Maxwell published his proofs of electromagnetism, predicting radio waves and 20 years before Marconi began commercially exploiting and communicating the work of Heinrich Hertz‘s and others experimentation with electromagnetic “Hertzian (radio) waves”. In 1894 Oliver Lodge and Alexander Muirhead demonstrated wireless signalling at Oxford University with radio waves. From there proceeds a complex but rapid history of experimentation that led to radio being used for communication and safety at sea famously saving the survivors of the Titanic. Without this mix of theory and experimentation, and those early technical cultures, the Information Society we live in may not have developed the way it has.

In 1958 Tommy Tomlinson an ex Royal Mail Chief Radio Officer setup RMS Wray Castle to train radio officers for the Merchant Navy and for a while it was one of the key places to learn how to use radio communication and radar at sea.

“Lo-WRAY Alliance” 2016 (Biro-to-woodcut) Illustration

“Lo-WRAY Alliance: This Di-Pole Won’t Work With This Board” 2016 (Biro-to-woodcut)

I’m interested in the evolution of technical culture and the stories we tell ourselves about technology. I think one major myth picked up from ‘upgrade’ culture perhaps, is that there’s a linear story about technological progression: now we have WiFi and the internet, books and radio are not important and everything happens in Silicon Valley.

But it turns out things don’t progress tidily and things we assume are ‘old’ and ‘new’ overlap in surprising ways and in surprising places: a Victorian folly in the Lake District does not look like a major player in teaching radio communication, but it was.

Rather than take a direct historical approach to Wray Castle’s past, for the opening weekend of Ok Sparks! we’ve invited some people from across the North who in many ways continue to teach radio communication but in the contemporary landscape of mobile data communication.

Wray is full of surprises and stories about the science of communication and biology but it’s difficult to make them, like radio waves or microscopic algae, visible and understandable. It can be difficult to tell these stories without people, so part of the Ok Sparks! artwork is to invite some special guests to informally show visitors their interest and passions with the idea that this intimacy gives you a different kind of knowledge. We can all read a fact about a place’s past; and now that is one of the internet’s role: but direct discovery and a face to face conversation, is perhaps worth a hundred Wikipedia entries or github repo’s.

The period of broadcasting is perhaps ending at the same time as the internet is poised on the brink of letting people access the sum of all human knowledge, or becoming it’s ultimate profiteering gatekeeper. A mix of potential global sharing and ‘intelligent’ narrow-casting, it’s an interesting time for comms. ‘Personalised’ learning you can get on everything from YouTube to Codeacademy has it’s own dangers of course. We are fed the things we think we want to know about based on what we already know or have looked at, or have shopped for; or worse what other people think we should know or what we have looked at.

Commgenuity image

“Commgenuity” 2016 (Biro-to-woodcut)

I think discovering some of the real texture of some less well known local technology and science, perhaps some of it presumed redundant or of little importance, face to face, in a unique place, could only help reflect in this world of information overload.

We have kept the setting for these 2 weekends as informal as possible without dumbing down the content and equally we want all ages be able to engage with what we are doing. We’ve chosen a simple format of temporary tabletop demonstrations amongst existing activity in the castle.

So we’ve invited the brilliant Furness Amateur Radio Society (FARS) who are operating a temporary OFCOM approved radio station at Wray on the 7th May 2016, call sign GB2WCR, Karl from Wray Castle Ltd, the company who RMS Wray Castle evolved into and one time lab technician at Wray Castle, Dave Mee who works with the LoRa Alliance for an open source Internet of Things, Derek Hughes from Southport and District Amateur Radio (SADARC), who’s interest is in all things packet radio and propagation and helped me pass my Amateur Radio Foundation Licence exam this month and more to be confirmed

Knowledge is not necessarily contained within large academic institutions or on the internet: it could be in a church hall a pub or an old castle, or the tributaries and uplands of a glacially carved landscape.

[vimeo 102601182 w=640 h=360]

Social Life of I.T. from Squirrel Nation on Vimeo.

The first part of the film above documents the Uplands Rescue Resilience Project based in Coniston funded by the ITaaU network. On mentioning this project to Stuart a friend from Southport & District Amateur Radio Club he told me all about the Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) sometimes used to send signals in mountainous areas and it made me really reflect on just how physical radio waves are; they are not in the least bit virtual even if the information they carry are.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QsCyTEDb74?rel=0&controls=0&showinfo=0]

This talk from Chaos Communication Camp Congress (32c3) at the last Chaos Computer Club Congress is another fascinating example of communities getting involved in network infrastructure; it’s a part of the technical ecosystem that is really inspiring. For me the Ok Sparks! project has helped me articulate a part of my work that seems to be meandering into a form of science communication or rather infrastructure communication. I don’t think personally I have enough knowledge to necessarily really communicate the science or technology; again it’s more like literacy and perhaps more about communication of the technical ecosystems and the communities within it. Hwa Young, Glenn and I have had long discussions around the value of this form of ‘Data/technical Literacy’ and how it fits in with an artist’s work. The communities I’ve come across just organising our Ok Sparks Radio Days are just the tip of the iceberg of these technical cultures that can get so easily missed amongst the homogenous narratives and myths of what technology is.

Before Wray Castle became a place for people to visit, The National Trust, although preserving something along the classic ‘country house of cultural import’ lines, invited tenants over the years that have truly added to the richness of it’s stories and I think to the real texture of the cultural heritage of the Lake District. Look beyond the best known tourism and Cumbria is really a place of that much misused word, ‘innovation’; the innovation rhetoric that flies around in politics often overlooks the real nuance of what that means; people in unique places and contexts exploring, be it freshwater science, microbiology, radio communication or text adventure games and Minecraft.

Join us for the Ok Sparks Day with Furness Amateur Radio Society, Saturday 7th May 2016, Castle Building Room & Marconi Room, 10:30 – 16:30, Ok Sparks! Day 2 with special guests, Sunday 8th May 2016, Castle Building Room, 10:30 – 16:30
Drop in / Free with General Admission


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