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Archibald John Shaw (1872–1916)

by J. F. McMahon

This article was published:

Archibald John Shaw (1872-1916), Catholic priest and radio pioneer, was born on 16 December 1872 at Adelong, New South Wales, fourth child of Charles William Shaw (d.1876), Scottish innkeeper, and his native-born wife Catherine (d.1880), née Scanlon. He and his siblings were reared by relations and attended Tumut Public School. From childhood Archibald walked with a limp. He worked at a local timber-mill and Goulburn Post Office before trying in vain to join the Congregation of the Passion (Passionist Fathers). 

On 22 February 1894 Shaw arrived at Yule Island, British New Guinea, as a lay missionary with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. He taught English to the French, Dutch and Belgian seminary students and began his own novitiate. On 24 September 1896 he was professed as Brother Placid. Fr Navarre found him 'one of the most shrewd, clear-sighted, pious and zealous men' on the mission. Shaw went to Sydney next year to train for the priesthood; he was tutored by (Bishop) Gsell and ordained priest by Cardinal Moran on 5 June 1900.

Appointed assistant procurator of the mission that year, Shaw was faced with the problem of finding money not only to keep the three Pacific missions in food, clothing and medical supplies, but also to build convents, churches, presbyteries, dispensaries and schools. In 1908 he moved from the monastery at Kensington to a house at Randwick. He carried out few priestly duties beyond celebrating Mass for the Little Sisters of the Poor at Randwick.

Hoping to raise funds for the missions, Fr Shaw had been studying and experimenting with wireless telegraphy for some years. In 1910 he began on a practical basis to design and manufacture receivers and transmitters, building a 240 ft (73 m) tower in his backyard that could transmit messages 2000 miles (3219 km). E. H. Kirkby leased from the church some land and a workshop, in which he built instruments. In July 1911 Shaw applied for provisional patents to cover his airblast 'Spark Gap' system, taking out full patents next year. In September 1911 Kirkby and some of his employees floated the Maritime Wireless Co., with Shaw as its president. Earlier that year Shaw had installed wireless equipment in Papua to assist the search for Staniforth Smith, built a powerful wireless station at King Island for the Commonwealth government and supplied the radio equipment for (Sir) Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Shaw's flair for invention led him to build a prototype electric car, produce Morse code and telephone sets and design a remote-controlled submarine.

When threatened with litigation by the Marconi and Telefunken companies for patent infringement, he was backed by the Commonwealth government. More serious was the accusation by J. G. Balsillie that Shaw had pirated and patented his invention, which was the basis of the Commonwealth's coastal maritime wireless telegraph system. In 1915 a proposed royal commission to investigate the contradictory claims lapsed when Shaw withdrew from the inquiry.

Meanwhile in 1914 the Sacred Heart Order sent out a visitator-general to investigate the chaotic finances of the Shaw Wireless Co.; he found that Fr Shaw had misappropriated some £10,000 of mission funds. Shaw went to Melbourne and, helped by Senator J. J. Long (with whom he shared an interest in horse-racing), negotiated the sale of his patents and the works (which he leased from the company) to the Commonwealth government in July 1916 for £55,000. He banked the money, settled certain business matters and withdrew some £5000 in cash. On returning to his hotel he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died on 26 August; he was buried in Randwick cemetery, Sydney. When the cash could not be traced, foul play was rumoured. As a result of the 1918 Commonwealth royal commission on navy and defence administration (particularly the purchase of the Shaw wireless works), J. A. Jensen was sacked as minister for the navy and Long was forced to resign from the Senate over allegations of bribery by Shaw in 1916. The missing money was never traced. Shaw died intestate and there was protracted litigation over his few assets.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1917-19, 4 (105)
  • British Australasian, 4 Aug 1910
  • J. F. McMahon, ‘Father Archibald Shaw: the wireless priest’, Australian Catholic Historical Society Journal, 7, pt 3, 1983, p 24
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 31 Aug 1916
  • Attorney-General's Department, A432, item 29/2756 and Dept of External Affairs, A1, item 12/8413 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Archives (Sacred Heart Monastery, Kensington, Sydney).

Citation details

J. F. McMahon, 'Shaw, Archibald John (1872–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Placid, Brother

16 December, 1872
Adelong, New South Wales, Australia


26 August, 1916 (aged 43)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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