On this day: Overland Telegraph constructed

By Lauren Cella 7 November 2013
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Covering the width of the continent, the Australian Overland Telegraph Line secured us a direct link to the rest of the world.

FOR EARLY AUSTRALIAN settlers, communication with the rest of the continent, let alone an overseas destinations, was a long and difficult process. Letters and news could take months to travel halfway around the world. After the death of Charlotte, Princess of Wales, on 5 November 1817, it wasn’t until 2 April 1818 that New South Wales received the news.

But in 1870 that would all change. The South Australian government agreed to build a telegraph line through the centre of the continent to link a new submarine cable – a communications line under the seabed carrying telecommunications overseas – with the existing telegraph system.

The first pole at the northern end of the line from Darwin to Port Augusta was planted on 15 September 1870.

The Overland Telegraph Line’s 36,000 posts

The Overland Telegraph Line crossed 3200km through mountains, flood plains and desert. It was one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 19th century.

The project was given to the South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs, Charles Todd. With only 18 months and a budget of £128,000 ($2,900,000 in 2010 terms) to complete the line, he divided construction into three sections – southern, central and northern.

The telegraph line was made from 36,000 posts, pins and insulators; almost 3000km of galvanised telegraph wire; and numerous and batteries. The materials were transported to the workers by bullocks and horse drawn wagons. Afghan cameleers were also recruited to carry food and supplies to workers along the central and southern sections, giving rise to the name of the famous Ghan train line from Adelaide to Darwin.

However, construction was far from smooth says historian Stuart Traynor.

“The biggest obstacle that Charles Todd faced was that he really had very little idea about the terrain on which the line was to be built,” says Stuart. “No white men had travelled along the proposed route since explorer John McDouall Stuart’s epic crossing of the continent in 1862. Normally on a project of this type he would have sent surveyors to map out the route, but due to the 18-month time frame this was not possible. So he sent ahead (explorer) John Ross to check the terrain, but he was only a little ahead of the construction team.”

The telegraph line comes up against The Wet

There were also logistical problems with transporting equipment through an unknown environment and Charles Todd’s unfamiliarity with the wet season in the Northern Territory.

“The first pole was planted in the Top End in September 1870 with great ceremony and everything went well until December-January when monsoon season hit. Todd was able to get the central and southern sections completed on time but the northern section was not finished until eight months after the deadline of 1 January 1872,” Stuart says.

Upon completion on 22 August 1872 Todd was given the honour of sending the first telegraph message along the line: “We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a Terra Incognita believed to be a desert.”

The telegraph proved to be an immediate success with more than 4000 telegrams sent in the first year; its connection greatly reducing transmission time overseas.

“In 1866, it took roughly two-and-a-half months for a letter to get to England by ship. So four-to-five months to travel both ways. After the line was completed it wasn’t instant like email, but it only took a couple of days to get a message from Adelaide to London,” Stuart says.

By 1935 the Overland Telegraph Line was no longer carrying international traffic. More advanced communications technology had replaced it. During World War II, extra crossarms and wires were added so that it could serve as a telephone line. By the 1980s this, too, had been replaced by an optic fibre and microwave link and the remaining poles and wire removed.