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Witt, Sidney Herbert (1892–1973)

by Ann Moyal

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sidney Herbert Witt (1892-1973), electrical engineer, was born on 12 March 1892 at Windsor, Melbourne, son of Australian-born parents Herbert Horatio Witt, broker, and his wife Mathilde Laura Ida, née Schultze. Educated in Melbourne, he joined the Commonwealth Postmaster-General's Department as a junior instrument fitter, electrical engineer's branch, on 10 February 1910. By completing training courses and displaying innovative skills, he became an assistant-engineer in December 1913.

In 1921-22 Witt accompanied the chief electrical engineer Frederick Golding on a study tour of the United States of America, Britain and Europe to investigate the latest developments in telegraphy, telephony and radio communication. On his return he played a leading part in the planning for an Australian trunk telephone network. At the instigation of (Sir) Harry Brown, Witt was appointed in June 1923 to found a research section at the department's headquarters building; next year he was promoted supervising engineer. In 1925 his team of five became the staff of the P.M.G. 'Research Laboratories', charged with monitoring developments in electrical communication, undertaking experimental work, formulating standards for telephone transmission and linking new research discoveries to the work of the department's engineers.

At Holy Trinity Church, Kew, on 18 August 1923 Witt had married with Anglican rites Viola Phoebe Jackson. A slim, spry and highly active man, he had a creative and wide-ranging grasp of telecommunication science. From 1924 he contributed to the introduction of voice frequency repeaters and 3-channel carrier systems into the trunk network. In 1927 he was prominent in planning and setting up a national broadcasting service. He promoted studies of new telegraphy and telephony systems, established national frequency standards and initiated scientific research programmes for the quality control of telecommunications equipment. Under his direction the small P.M.G. research laboratories became the focus of advanced telecommunication studies in Australia.

During World War II the P.M.G. laboratories carried out telecommunications research, design and development for the armed services and contributed to the establishment of an emergency telegraph system. In collaboration with the radiophysics laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, they embarked on some twenty secret radar projects based on information brought back from Britain in 1939 by David Martyn. While the C.S.I.R. radiophysics research team prepared the prototype for Australia's radar equipment, the P.M.G. laboratories shaped specifications and production design, and advised the Department of Munitions on the large-scale manufacture of the radar apparatus. This complex developmental work was crucial in bringing radar into operation in Australia and earned Witt the in-house title of 'the father of radar'.

In l941 Witt had designed and helped to set up the short-wave transmitting station at Shepparton for broadcasts to the South Pacific and South-East Asia regions, a service which was to become Radio Australia. He retired from the laboratories in June 1945 to undertake a series of assignments as Australian delegate to meetings of the International Telecommunications Union concerned with formulating an international plan of frequency allocations for radio communication. These discussions led in 1947 to the establishment of the International Frequency Registration Board, to which Witt was elected as Australia's representative.

Witt moved with his family to Geneva in January 1948 to assume full-time duties on the I.F.R.B. Chairman in 1949, he remained there until his retirement in l957. He was an active member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, the Postal Electrical Society, the Institution of Radio Engineers, Australia, and other professional bodies. For recreation he played golf. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 28 June 1973 at Glen Iris, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (Melb, 1984)
  • J. F. Ross, Radio Broadcasting Technology (Port Macquarie, NSW, 1998)
  • Proceedings of the IREE, 34, no 7, Aug 1973, p 287
  • Australian Post Office Research Laboratories, Review of Activities, 1973, p 10
  • Telstra Research Laboratories, New Horizons, 1998, p 47
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann Moyal, 'Witt, Sidney Herbert (1892–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/witt-sidney-herbert-12059/text21631, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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