OVERLAND TELEGRAPH LINE
Stretching 3200 kilometres across the Australian continent from south to north, the Overland Telegraph Line opened in August 1872. Built by the South Australian government, its purpose was to link Australia telegraphically to the rest of the world by connecting in Darwin with an undersea cable being built southwards from Java by the British Australian Telegraph Company. This link opened in October 1872, enabling the transmission of the latest news from London to Melbourne in around 24 hours. Previously, the minimum transmission time, using a combination of telegraphy and mail steamships, was about a month.
The building of the line across the desert was hailed as a magnificent feat of engineering and human endurance. However, many in the eastern colonies of Australia questioned the wisdom of the project, believing it would have been better to build such a link via the Queensland coast, viewed as an easier and more populated route. South Australia’s decision to go ahead with the construction without consultation with the other colonies reflected the inter-colonial rivalry then current. The South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs, (Sir) Charles Todd (1826–1910), who promoted and planned the project, wanted South Australia (within which Darwin was then situated) to be the exclusive telegraphic gateway to Australia.
The opening of the telegraph link to London had a major impact on the conduct of government, the press and business. The first private telegram received in Melbourne was on the state of the London metal market; the first press message also included information on metal prices. For the major newspapers, securing a daily supply of cable news from London became an indispensable—though expensive—requirement. After all, news from London was ‘news from home’. The London-based news agency, Reuters, was an obvious news source, though Australian press groups also appointed their own cable news editors in London.
Australia’s international telegraphic arrangements were criticised for their cost. A single message cost nearly £10, or about five weeks’ wages for a working man. One pound of this went to the South Australian government. The rates were determined by the private British cable company, which retained a monopoly on the service to London until 1902.
The overland telegraph, which required 11 repeater stations at intervals of 200–290 kilometres, proved difficult to maintain. Between its opening and the end of 1877, there were 60 separate breakdowns for periods of between one and six days. Causes ranged from detached or broken insulators to wires cut by local Indigenous people, bushfires and lightning strikes. These breakdowns, together with interruptions on the undersea cable, meant that Australia’s international communication was very unreliable until the 1890s, by which time adequate duplication had been built into the system.
Particularly in its early days, there was widespread concern that the unscrupulous could ‘work the telegraph’ to raise and lower the price of commodities, and that the high costs of telegraphy meant that early access to information was the preserve of the wealthy. Such concerns led to calls for a government-funded official service of basic commercial and political news that would be made available to the public at telegraph offices. John Fairfax, the proprietor of the Sydney Morning Herald, supported the idea on the grounds that it was unwise to leave such a matter to private agencies. However, colonial governments ultimately decided that the public provision of telegraphic information should be left to the press.
The overland telegraph played an important role in Australia’s international communication until World War II, when the undersea link from Darwin was cut and not repaired because radio telegraphy had made the cable unnecessary. The line remained in use within Australia until it was replaced by microwave links in the 1970s.
REFs: A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (1984); P. Putnis, ‘The Early Years of International Telegraphy in Australia: A Critical Assessment’, MIA, 129 (2008).