Australia Network

Print | Close

print friendly page for

7 May 2009

Overland Telegraph

Communication was so important because Australia was developing as a very important economic colony and it was hard to convince people to come out to Australia because they had loved ones and family and it was six months before you could find out the news of the family and another six if you needed to answer.

And one of our biggest industries was wool and you put your wool clip on a ship and send it off to London and it was three or four months before you got your cheque back.

The telegraph line actually came about as part of a dream by Charles Todd and Charles Todd came over to Australia as the astronomer for the South Australian Government but he was always interested in sending communication via Morse code.

In the original construction, it was all done using local timber so that timber had to be cut by hand and planted into the ground. They actually cleared a path from Adelaide through to Darwin which was about twelve foot wide, by hand. They had no mechanical means.

They then had to find 20,000 poles to plant in the ground, which meant that they actually had to dig 20,000 holes, cut down 20,000 trees, and then stand them up and then string the wire between them.

So, the logistics was incredible. The fact that they only took 18 months to construct the line is just absolutely amazing and it really was an engineering feat which probably couldn't be achieved today.

Once they planted the timber in the ground, the white ants came along and caused untold havoc and the poles actually used to fall over. They tried to use poles that were resistant to termites and they found some, for example, called Cyprus Pine was very resistant to termites. One of the problems with cyprus pines was the resistance was created by a high oil content so if you had any bushfires or anything along those lines the poles used to go up like you wouldn't believe.

The process of sending a message started with the customer writing their message down on a form and giving it to the operator. The operator then transcribed that into Morse code and sent it to the next repeater station.

Initially, at that repeater station, it was written down and then resent to next repeater station. However, with some of the advances, they were actually able to develop a register and the register was the name of a machine that actually was like a ticker tape machine. So the dots and dashes were read and they were actually able then to resend them to the next station without having that manual person there.

A lot of us think about the telegraph line going from Adelaide through to Darwin but just to understand the magnitude of it, the line, once it left Darwin, went under the sea to Indonesia, through Java, went over to Singapore. From Singapore it went through to India, up through the Suez, up through Malta, Gibraltar, through France and then on to London.

The telegraph station buildings here in Alice Springs were all constructed between 1871 and 1872. They were constructed using all local materials. All the stones that you see there were actually won off the local hills. The roofs
were originally always constructed out of brush and on more than four or five occasions they actually burnt the roof off of buildings by having fires in there to keep themselves warm. So they had to change over to iron, and a camel could only cart a sheet of iron that was no longer than about 1.2m otherwise it would have fallen over.

Currently the Alice Springs telegraph station is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Alice Springs. There's a lot of interpretive information and guided tours and some interactive displays for people to come along and really experience what it would have been like living back here at the turn of the century.

The post office was the hub of the whole site. It used to operate 24 hours a day. It had one to two operators in here all the time. They actually used to sleep in here - you can see the old bed here. And when they were in there they used to receive the messages, send them on, ensure the equipment was working properly.

One side was the telegraph office which was very busy with traffic going through 24 hours a day. On the other side of the wall you actually had the post office that used to get a camel train with mail once every two months.

The stationmaster was the only man on site that actually had his own private residence and he was the only man that was allowed to bring his family with him, and generally the stationmaster's wife or companion lived in there and she also schooled the children.

It's generally believed that during the operation of the station there was about 32 people living here at any one time.

So, apart from having the stationmaster, and you would have had to have a cook to look after all the men and you would have had the telegraph operators, you also had maintenance crews. You had stockmen that looked after the stock and you also had gardeners that looked after the gardens.

It was like a mini town.

Before the telegraph stations actually came on line there was no settlements of any description in the north of Australia except for the indigenous people.

The telegraph station, just by the fact of its existence, really opened up the Northern Territory to development.