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Telegraph that changed Australia celebrated on 150th anniversary

It’s 150 years since the overland telegraph line – described as Australia’s greatest engineering feat of the 19th century – was finished.

August 21, 2022
By Aaron Bunch
21 August 2022

The overland telegraph line that changed the way Australia communicated with the outside world is turning 150 years old.

News of the day, British parliament’s orders for the colonies and business information suddenly arrived from around the globe in hours via Morse code rather than taking months in the post.

“It was the internet of the day and it changed the way Australia communicated with the world,” historian and author Derek Pugh, who wrote a book on the telegraph, tells AAP.

“The tyranny of distance that isolated Australia from the centre of power in London was gone and business, prosperity and wealth blossomed.” 

The tyranny of distance that isolated Australia from the centre of power in London was gone and business, prosperity and wealth blossomed.

Historian David Pugh

Australia’s first telegraph line started operating between Melbourne and nearby Williamstown in 1854, with Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide connected four years later.

By 1870, there were telegraph cables linking England with places as far away as Japan and Malaya.

The growing network spurred on plans for improving Australia’s connection with the rest of the world but first the nation’s vast inhospitable interior had to be conquered.

The Burke and Wills expedition to find grazing land and a route for the telegraph line failed in 1861 with the loss of seven men, but a year later John McDouall Stuart’s successful journey from Adelaide to Van Diemen Gulf, near today’s Darwin, renewed hopes that a trans-continental telegraph line could be built.

After a decade of work, the overland telegraph line stretching more than 3000km between Adelaide and Darwin was linked on August 22, 1872 at Frew Ponds, about 640km south of Darwin.

It consisted of 36,000 telegraph poles suspending a galvanised steel cable that travelled between 11 repeater stations, costing almost four times the original budget at £470,720.

“Engineer Robert Patterson copped a shock as he soldered the two ends together but once done it joined up a network of telegraph wires spread across the eastern colonies from far northern Queensland to Tasmania,” Mr Pugh says.

Most importantly, it would also enable Australia to connect to the world via an undersea cable laid in late 1871 from Java in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, to Darwin – or Palmerston as it was then called.

Before the line was completed, communication with Britain, the place most colonial settlers called home, took a minimum of four months by post.

The idea that messages could be sent thousands of kilometres in minutes captivated people’s imaginations nationwide.

The first official electric telegram sent from Darwin to Adelaide was received soon after the line was connected, followed by a string of congratulatory messages.

“All were gathered and published in the newspapers the next day and a public holiday was announced with celebratory banquets,” Mr Pugh says.

The most quoted telegram of the day was sent by South Australia’s superintendent of telegraphs, Charles Todd, who wrote:

“We have this day or within two years from the date it was commenced, completed a line of 2,000 miles long through the very centre of Australia a few years ago a terra incognita and supposed to be a desert, and I have the satisfaction of seeing the successful completion of a scheme.”

At Frew Ponds, the telegraph technicians who built the line also celebrated, firing 21 shots from their revolvers and smashing a brandy bottle against the joining pole.

“The bottle, it is said, was filled frugally with tea as no one was about to waste good brandy, not even for this momentous occasion,” Mr Pugh says.

“In the first week, 152 telegrams were sent to Palmerston and 148 were received in Adelaide at a rate of 42 per day.”

Within months, the line was connected to the Java-to-Darwin submarine cable and the service was a success.

Over 4000 telegrams, mainly on behalf of businesses and government, were transmitted in the first year of service, according to the National Museum of Australia.

“The overland telegraph line is held by many, even these days, as no less significant for 19th-century Australia as Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in the 20th century was for the world,” Mr Pugh says.

“Indeed, many claim it was the nation’s greatest engineering achievement of the 1800s.”

A commemoration event celebrating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the overland telegraph line will be held on Monday when a bottle of brandy will again be smashed against the Frew Pond joining pole.

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