For the early settlers, Australia was a harsh and unforgiving land. Not only was the landscape unfamiliar and threatening, but the sheer vastness of the continent and its distance from everything and everyone meant it was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. News and letters had to travel halfway around the world by horse, ship and mail coach — a trip that took up to five months each way. When Charlotte, Princess of Wales, died on 5 November 1817, newspapers in New South Wales reported the ‘news’ as soon as they learned of it — on 2 April 1818.
And it wasn’t much easier for communication between cities, towns and settlements within the colony itself. With no radio, airplanes or even roads between Australia’s cities, until the 1870s it took weeks or even months to learn of a birth or death in the family, transfer funds into a bank or request emergency assistance.
This tyranny of distance, as it has been dubbed by historian Geoffrey Blainey, led to the development of one of Australia’s greatest engineering and technological feats — the Overland Telegraph.
The story of the overland telegraph is as much about the people, politics and challenges involved as it is about the achievement. It is the story of how a heavy-drinking surveyor and explorer somehow managed to inspire a staunchly Christian family man and astronomer to lay a single 3,200-kilometre strand of wire through almost impenetrable and largely unexplored land that had, just ten years earlier, claimed the lives of explorers Burke and Wills.
When Samuel Morse developed the Morse telegraph and sent the first telegraphed message from Baltimore to Washington in 1844, the potential for this new form of communication was immediately recognised all over the world.
Within ten years, Samuel McGowan introduced the new technology into Australia when he installed the first telegraph between Melbourne and Williamstown. Charles Todd, who had been appointed to develop a telegraphic system for the South Australian colony, wrote in 1855 of his vision to use the new technology to:
join the several seats of commerce in Australia and also, it is no idle dream in the present age of wonders connecting [to] Asia via submarine cable then via Calcutta to London.
By 1860, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmania were all connected by telegraph, but sending and receiving messages to Europe still relied on shipping and took about 60 to 80 days each way. The new technology promised relatively immediate communication with the rest of the world. In 1866 the first long-distance undersea cable was successfully laid across the Atlantic Ocean and telegraph communication between continents was made possible.
Soon, cables were being laid undersea between countries and continents and in Australia, talk turned to how best to connect with the rest of the world. Possible connection points included Ceylon to Albany in Western Australia, and Java to Darwin. The line eventually decided upon would ultimately run from London through France to Gibraltar, then to Malta, up the Suez and across to India. From there, it ran undersea to Singapore then through Java to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). Now the race was on to develop a landing place and route through Australia.
Colonies around Australia were all keen to secure the route of the telegraph for themselves. Victoria sent an ill-fated expedition, headed by Burke and Wills, to find a route from Broken Hill to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Around the same time, South Australia offered adventurers a 2,000 pound reward to map a route from South Australia to Darwin. Queensland, meanwhile, was pushing for the telegraph line to run from Darwin to Burketown in north western Queensland and exploring potential routes.
In 1860, a Scot by the name of John McDouall Stuart set out on his first attempt to cross the centre of the continent from south to north, racing against the Burke and Wills expedition. Stuart had previously accompanied Captain Charles Sturt on his expedition to central Australia and had conducted numerous expeditions of his own, surveying extensively throughout South Australia. But his first two attempts at finding a north-south route failed.
A lack of supplies, dense bushland and confrontations with hostile indigenous peoples thwarted his first two attempts, but his third attempt was successful. Leaving Adelaide in December 1861, his party finally reached the Timor Sea — at a place they named Chambers Bay, after a sponsor of their expeditions — on 24 July 1862.
In crossing the entire continent from south to north, he had traveled a distance of over 2,900 kilometres and, unlike his rivals Burke and Wills (who had reached the Gulf of Carpentaria sixteen months earlier but perished on the return trip), he made it back to Adelaide. Upon his return, he reported that timber was readily available most of the way and that he considered that his route ‘could be made nearly a straight line for telegraphic purposes’.
But the trip had cost him dearly. His health, which had been failing before the final expedition and which was further compromised by his very heavy drinking, never recovered. He returned nearly blind and suffering from scurvy.
To add insult to injury, he was awarded 3,000 pounds in recognition of what he had achieved, yet the notoriously prurient South Australian colony decided that as a result of his drinking, he should only be allowed access to the interest on the money, not the principal. Stuart never set out exploring again, instead he returned to Scotland in 1864, where he died two years later, at the age of 50.
Stuart’s achievement in mapping a north-south route through the middle of the continent was recognised by Charles Todd. Todd, who had been employed by the South Australian government first as an astronomer then later as Superintendent of Telegraphs, was one of the main supporters of running the line from the Port of Darwin through the centre of Australia to Adelaide, where it would connect with the existing telegraph network.
The South Australian government, recognising the political, financial and commercial benefits of running the line through their territory — not to mention the opportunity to develop the newly acquired (from New South Wales) control of the Northern Territory — began to seriously consider Todd’s plan to follow Stuart’s route. There was just one problem — they weren’t the only state who wanted the line in their territory.
The decision to build the Overland Telegraph Line involved complex negotiations between the Australian colonies and the British government. Charles Todd, the South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs, convinced the South Australian government to build a line from Port Augusta to Darwin independent of the negotiations with the other colonies, and work began in 1870.
The harsh conditions of the arid centre and the tropical north, and the difficulties that the construction teams encountered, made the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line an epic achievement. Construction of the East-West connection began in 1875, and was completed in 1877 when the Western Australian section was joined with the South Australian section at Eucla. The construction teams had to cope with searing heat, shifting sands, and lack of water.
The telegraph system worked by having an operator tap out code on an electric switch called a ‘key’, which sent pulses of electricity from a battery along the telegraph wire. The pulses were either short or long, representing the dots and dashes of Morse code. Eleven repeater stations were built and they were invaluable communication bases. Using the Morse key, operators at the stations were able to communicate with the world 24 hours a day — in 1872 it took seven hours to send a message from Adelaide to England.
Also newly separated from New South Wales, Queensland was looking to the telegraph to establish them financially. In anticipation of hosting the telegraph, they had already built a network of telegraph lines throughout the state, ready to link into the undersea international cable. But the British Australian Telegraph Company (BAT) had decided to link the Java cable to the Australian mainland at the Port of Darwin and South Australia proposed an alternative to running the cable from there to the Queensland border (some historians argue that they denied Queensland permission to run the cable through South Australian territory).
South Australia proposed that they would erect a telegraph line from Darwin to Port Augusta, which was already linked by telegraph to Adelaide. They sealed the deal by offering to pay for the entire construction and guaranteeing completion by the time the Java cable was ready for connection in just two years. So, on 8 June 1870, a bill to authorise and finance the Overland Telegraph project was approved by an overwhelming majority of the South Australian Parliament. Barely two weeks later, they were ready to begin one of Australia’s greatest engineering and infrastructure projects.
Todd had just eighteen months to complete the Overland Telegraph along Stuart’s route and the logistics involved were almost overwhelming. The route had to be surveyed, supplies and equipment ordered, labour contracted and schedules set. The only way he could envisage the project being completed on time was by dividing it into three sections — southern, central and northern — that would work simultaneously.
Each team was to work six days of the week and was made up of a number of work parties — each included blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, storekeepers, linesmen, surveyors and telegraphers. In addition, the teams had to be fully provisioned and equipped for the task, which required insulators, batteries, tools, food and medical stores. There were also three thousand iron posts for use when there was no local timber and almost 3,000 kilometres of galvanised telegraph wire for the project. Afghan camel trains were contracted to keep up supplies and 2,000 sheep were taken to ensure fresh meat.
Todd’s plan called for posts to be erected no less than 20 to the mile, or 250 metres apart. Where possible, timber poles were cut and dressed by hand. If no local timber was available, the iron posts were to be used. Holes were hand dug, the poles erected and the wire strung to the next pole in the line. An area six feet wide on either side of the line also had to be cleared. And all the time, the deadline was looming.
The southern section ran 800 kilometres from Port Augusta to Alberga Creek, north of Oodnadatta, and proved the easiest section to complete as the land had already been completely surveyed and supplies were nearer to hand.
The most difficult section was the central section, which ran through 960 kilometres of inhospitable terrain that had only really been explored by Stuart. Explorer John Ross was contracted to lead a team and undertake a more thorough survey of the route through this section. Ross followed Stuart’s tracks as close as possible but had to deviate in the MacDonnell Ranges. During this survey, the Todd River was named and Simpson Gap and the Alice Springs were first mapped by William Whitfield Mills, Sub-overseer of Sub-section C. On 11 March 1871, Mills wrote that he had found a dry riverbed, ‘with numerous waterholes and springs, the principal of which is the Alice Springs, which I had the honour of naming after Mrs Todd’.
Another surveying team travelled by ship to Darwin with 80 men and equipment to begin the northern section from Darwin to Tennant Creek. Like the central section, the northern end was plagued with problems, although these had less to do with finding a suitable route than with battling the conditions.
All was going well on the northern section until the wet season began in November. The track became waterlogged and supply carts were bogged; food supplies rotted in the humidity; holes filled with water as soon as they were dug; and mosquitoes reached plague-like proportions. Conditions were so bad that the workers went on strike and shortly after, the overseer cancelled the contract and left the project, returning to Adelaide.
Todd had to arrange for his team to continue the work on the northern section, as well as completing the central section of the line. It took almost six months for fresh teams — led by Robert Patterson and comprising 200 men, 170 horses, 500 bullocks and all the equipment needed — to arrive in Darwin and resume work. But the delay meant they had missed the dry season and almost as soon as they arrived on site, the rains began again. And the deadline was ever approaching. Fearing the worst, Patterson wrote ‘Can see nothing but blackness and suffering ahead. Fear expedition must collapse.’
In November 1871, the undersea cable from Java arrived in Darwin, to much fanfare. The scheduled completion date of 1 January 1872 would be impossible to meet and under the contract terms, the government would be penalised for every day of work after that date. Todd arrived with reinforcements in January and work finally resumed in April that year. As the gap between the northern and central sections decreased, a pony express was used to carry telegraph messages across the gap. As it happened, the overseas line failed and was not restored until October 1872, so compensation was no longer an issue.
On 22 August 1872, the Overland Telegraph was finally completed when the lines were joined at Frews Ironstone Ponds. Todd sent the first official message to Adelaide and the city celebrated. With the restoration of the international link, Australians could now receive a message from London in Adelaide in just over a week.
Wish to confirm the completion of the telegraph which is an important link in the electric chain of communication connecting the Australian colony with the mother country and the whole civilized and commercial world will, I trust, redound to the credit of South Australia.
Eleven Telegraph Stations were set up along the line at intervals of 200 to 290 kilometres. Their role was to receive and retransmit messages to the next station in the line as well as maintain their section of the line. As there was no mains electricity to power the lines, each station had its own power supply — a set of glass batteries called Meidinger cells.
Meidinger cells required continuous maintenance. Each station would have at least one station master and four operators working in shifts around the clock. There would also be at least one linesman at each station. Maintenance of the line was almost continuous, with damage to the poles and lines from termites, weather and bushfire.
In some sections, the relay stations became the focus of Aboriginal discontent and in one more notable incident, the station at Barrow Creek was attacked in 1874 and the station master, James Stapleton, and a station hand killed. Official reports attributed the attack to the proximity of the station to a waterhole and note that no arrests were made. Unofficially, reprisals were severe, with every Aboriginal in the area killed by police troopers and linesmen.
The repeater stations built to relay messages along the line were invaluable communication bases, and were often starting points for expeditions, such as those of Ernest Giles, W. C. Gosse, and Peter Egerton-Warburton in the MacDonnell Ranges.
As land along the line was settled, these relay stations became the hub of many new townships. Today, the cities of Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Pine Creek are all located where old relay stations once operated.
For many years, the Overland Telegraph was the way Australia kept in touch with the world — and other Australians. In 1942, the rest of Australia heard about the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese via the Overland Telegraph. In anticipation of an invasion, the decision was made to cut the international cable and this was never repaired after the war as new technologies, such as radio and airmail, made the telegraph redundant. Even so, the line remained in use within Australia until the 1970s, when it was replaced by microwave links.
The story of the Overland Telegraph Line is displayed in the Barracks, now the oldest building in Central Australia, part of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station.
Today, the line is largely in a state of disrepair, although some sections and relay stations, such as the one in Alice Springs — which is listed on the Northern Territory Heritage Register — have been restored and act as tourist attractions.
The Alice Springs Telegraph Station is a historic museum precinct presenting the story of the connection of Australia to the rest of the world through Telegraph Communication in 1871. Since being declared protected as a Historical Reserve in 1963, the Alice Springs Telegraph Station has become the best restored Telegraph Station in Australia with a commitment to authenticity. The restored stone Buildings house furnishings and artefacts from early last century, and are preserved as a historic display.
The Station Master residence was constructed of local stone, with shady verandahs facing north and south and very thick walls, two practical ways of keeping out the summer heat.
Horses were the only transport for people on the Station and about sixty horses were kept, mainly for the linesmen who maintained the Telegraph Line. The horse-drawn buggy was used by the Station Master’s family to go out for a Sunday picnic.
The Telegraph Office was the heart of the Station and it never stopped beating. It was constantly manned to allow for the time difference between Australia and overseas, but most importantly to boost the Morse code signals so they were carried at full strength over the great distance of the Telegraph Line.
The Telegraph Station continued to operate until 1932. It later served as a welfare home for Aboriginal children of mixed ancestry until 1963, when it was declared a Historical Reserve.
Today the Telegraph Station is still a registered and operational Post Office. All mail posted in the original red Postbox on site is stamped with the unique Telegraph Station Commemorative Franking Stamp.
The Overland Telegraph is gone, but its legacy, an engineering feat that conquered the tyranny of distance and ended Australia’s isolation from the world, remains.
No line passing through a similar extent of uninhabited country, where the materials had to be carted over such long distances, no line of equal length and presenting similar natural obstacles, has been constructed in the same short space of time.
Charles Todd, 1870.
The Overland Telegraph Memorial in Darwin commemorates the centenary of the overseas cable to Java in 1871, and the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin in 1872, and the first message between London and Adelaide.