I first became aware of the significance of Brisbane’s Old Windmill when I was doing research for an exhibition on the 50th anniversary of TV in Australia, which I co-curated. I also wrote the catalogue. The exhibition was held at the Australian Centre for the moving Image (ACMI), and of course it celebrated the half-century since broadcast TV began in Melbourne and Sydney in 1956.
But … 1956 turned out not to be the very first TV transmission in Australia. That honour – some say – went to Thomas Elliot of Brisbane, who televised a picture of movie-star Janet Gaynor, sending it from the top of the Brisbane Old Windmill Observatory to his friend Tom Biddle, 40km away in Ipswich. This was April 10 1934.
So Brisbane Windmill has a place in TV history. But that is not its only claim to fame. Constructed by convict labour in 1828, it is now the oldest settler-built structure in Queensland.
In July 1841, it was used as a gibbet, when two Aboriginal men were hanged from a beam from an upper window*. Thus does the old tower span two ‘regimes of spectacle’ – social control by spectacular punishment and then – some would say – social control by televised pop culture: from gibbet to Janet.
Now someone has found a newsreel clip of Thomas Elliot’s Sauron-like experiments at the top of the tower, and posted it on YouTube. It’s worth a look! However, it has attracted some comments which suggest that this was not really the very first TV transmission in Australia. so the quest continues, but TV has left its mark on another historic place.
* See Beryl Roberts (1991). Stories of the Southside. Archerfield, Queensland: Aussie Books. p. 63. ISBN 094733601X