'The tampon in the sky': What's the story with the tower on Mount Wellington?


February 21, 2019 12:27:07

The transmission tower perched atop kunanyi/Mount Wellington is a source of fascination, and occasionally anger, for Hobartians, with the sharp structure punctuating an otherwise natural landscape.

It’s been looking over the city for more than 50 years, but little is known about the tower itself.

So why is there a tower on top of the mountain?

An anonymous questioner asked Curious Hobart about the history of the tower, what’s inside and what its future holds.

How did we end up with a tower on the mountain?

There are actually two, one of which is the steel lattice structure owned by WIN TV to the north of the carpark, but we’re focusing on the taller, concrete tower to the south.

It provides SBS and ABC FM radio, television, digital radio and commercial radio services for Triple M, Hit 100.9, Ultra106Five and 7HOFM, while WIN TV and Southern Cross TV services are transmitted from the neighbouring tower.

The land is leased by the Hobart City Council and managed between the council, the Wellington Park Management Trust, Wildcare Friends of Wellington Park and the tower owners.

Known as the Post Master General Tower or PMG tower, it was built in 1959, and owned by the Federal Government’s National Transmission Agency (NTA), bringing national television to Tasmania for the first time.

Anne McConnell, a cultural and heritage coordinator with the Wellington Park Management Trust, said the decision was made to build on the summit for very practical reasons.

“It’s the highest point in Hobart, so you would get the best coverage,” she said.

The Howard Government privatised the NTA in 1999 and Macquarie Bank acquired it in 2002, rebranding it Broadcast Australia, which currently owns and maintains the tower.

But it wasn’t always the rocket-style structure it is now, as the original steel lattice was demolished in 1997 just after the 130 metre-tall concrete version replaced it on the same site.

The construction of the new tower was part of a movement towards statewide broadcasting, as services had previously been split between the north and south of the state.

What’s it like on the inside?

At 68 metres from the base is a series of antennas used by the ABC to get information from its Parliament House bureau back to the main office.

There’s also a rack-and-pinion lift that goes to the 60 metre mark, meaning workers have to climb up the rest of the way to service the equipment.

The entire top half of the tower is inaccessible while broadcasting, so if there are problems, power has to be halved and broadcasting cut to allow them to be fixed.

According to a technician who has worked at the tower, workers must only spend set amounts of time inside because the electromagnetic radiation levels are too high for safe prolonged exposure.

Opposite the tower are self-contained living quarters, which were used regularly until the 1980s to house technicians who would live there for weeks at a time.

According to current tower technicians, the workers would hike up the mountain to get there, bringing non-perishable food items with them.

The accommodation is made of the same dolerite rock that makes up the mountain, both to blend it in with its surroundings, but also because it wasn’t possible to transport other construction materials up the windy road to the pinnacle.

The three-bedroom accommodation has running water, electricity, a full kitchen and living area, bathrooms and screens to monitor the tower from the couch.

While it’s not routinely staffed now because most of its functions can be operated remotely, Broadcast Australia’s Paul Bulfin said the accommodation was occassionally used by maintenance workers who have to stay overnight.

Why the rocket shape?

The tower has become infamous for its stand-out design, with Ms Connell saying some people refer to it not-so-affectionately as “the tampon in the sky”.

It’s Hobart’s tallest structure and looks down on the city from 1,250 metres above sea level, but the blustery, below-freezing conditions pose challenges, with workers battling snow and ice to access the tower for repairs.

A snow plough operates on the mountain’s summit during the winter months to clear the way for maintenance vehicles.

A 2011 report by consulting engineers Bruce Young and Partners said the mountain site had earned a reputation for its harsh conditions.

“Mount Wellington is the most severe and hostile environment of any broadcasting site in Australia,” the report said.

Mr Bulfin said the building could be difficult to access during adverse conditions.

But the major problem historically had been the build-up of large sheets of ice on the lattice framework, which would fall off onto the nearby house.

A 2001 pinnacle zone site development plan by the Trust said developers should consider “the exposure to falling ice from the transmission towers, with large areas of the Pinnacle Zone within the potential impact area”.

Planning documents show the slipform concrete design was chosen to help minimise falling ice and the area’s since been fenced off, but chunks of ice are still blown off in gusty weather, to a lesser extent.

There are also large curved fins at the top, which helps to control the towers movement in strong winds.

‘Storms of contention’ in Hobart

At the time of its original construction in the 1950s, there wasn’t the sort of community opposition to the project as developers might encounter today.

Ms McConnell said that’s likely because having a transmission tower meant getting television services — albeit three years after TV first arrived in Australia.

“People were probably very excited to finally be getting television,” she said.

But when the upgrade proposal was made public in the 90s, the reception was more icy.

In the book The Mountain — A People’s Perspective, the authors referred to backlash as “storms of contention in Hobart”.

It was also met with criticism because the proposal was to merge all broadcasting transmissions into the one new tower, rendering the WIN TV tower — or what was then called the Tas TV or Channel 6 tower — obsolete.

But that didn’t happen, as WIN had signed a 99-year lease for their site starting back in 1959.

University of Tasmania history professor Stefan Petrow said the public response showed the community affinity with Mount Wellington.

“It almost defines Hobart,” he said.

“Whenever you’re away and you’re coming back into Hobart you see Mount Wellington looming very large and in a sense, it’s the soul of the city, so anything that detracts from the mountain is digging in to the soul of the people.”

So is the tower here to stay?

According to the Trust’s most recent historic heritage assessment in 2012, “a significant number of people have noted that the towers are visually intrusive and would like to see them removed when there is an alternative technology that means they are not necessary”.

Ms McConnell cautioned though there was a large group of people who would like to see the tower go, the Trust’s research didn’t indicate it was a majority.

Mr Petrow said at the time of the redevelopment, there was a sense in the community that both towers would be temporary.

“It wasn’t expected that they’d be there forever,” she said.

“People thought they would eventually come down and no-one really wants them to be there, do they?”

So has there been enough technological advancement to render it obsolete?

No, according to the tower’s owners, so it’s not likely to come down anytime soon.

Mr Bulfin said there were no current alternatives to transmitting from the tower.

“There are no plans on the horizon to cease FM radio or digital radio broadcasting or terrestrial television broadcasting,” he said.

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First posted

February 21, 2019 08:00:55

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