Overland Telegraph Line

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The Overland Telegraph Line refers to the line from what is now Darwin on the northern coast of Australia to the southern coast at Port Augusta in South Australia effectively linking Australia with the rest of the world.

The first successful public message using Samuel Morse’s newly perfected telegraph system was sent on 1 May 1844. By 1856 most major cities in North America and Europe were linked. The Atlantic was crossed in 1858.

In Australia, the first telegraph line linked the business district of Melbourne with its port at Williamstown in 1854. Four years later Sydney and Adelaide had lines enabling fast communication of inbound shipping. Perth and Hobart followed. By 1869 all capitals except Perth were linked to each other. Even Bass Strait had been crossed. In that year a message could be sent from Cardwell in Far North Queensland to Port Augusta, north of Adelaide or to Hobart Tasmania in minutes.

Meanwhile, telegraph lines were snaking ever further across Asia and down into what is now Indonesia. The technology required to lay undersea cable had been almost perfected. The problem with linking Australia – importantly the major centres of population – lay in the 3000 or so Km (about 1875 miles) of largely unknown arid and semi-arid land between the southern cities and the northern coast that had been traversed only once – in the early 1860s by a party led by John McDouall Stuart.

Up to this point communications with England had been solely by ship and took approximately 3 months. The completion of telegraph communications between the mother country and its major Australasian colonies was considered to be of utmost importance. (An undersea cable would be laid between Sydney and New Zealand in 1876.)

At first it was planned that a cable from Java would be brought ashore at the newly founded Queenslad goldfield town of Normanton, at the south-east “corner” of the Gulf of Carpentaria and, from there, go overland to the existing connection at Cardwell. In January 1870 the “British-Australia Telegraph Company wrote to Charles Todd, the South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs requesting permission for cables to installed on South Australian land in what is now the Northern Territory linked to the Queensland system. Todd managed to talk the company into bringing the cable ashore at Port Darwin and pledged Government money to span the continent southward by January 1872.

The installation of telegraph lines across USA had been facilitated by the availability of corridors along the railroads which could also allow cheap and quick delivery of men and materials to the lengthening lines. Todd had the problem of constructing this line through one of the most inhospitable (at least to Europeans) regions on earth, summer temperatures regularly over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, freezing on winter nights, no known permanent water sources until near the north coast, no made roads , means of quick transport or ready-made points of supply of fresh vegetables. And he had less than two years to finish it.

They worked on three sections at once - a team from the south, one working down from the north, and one on a central section. They used camels, many of which had already been introduced for Outback work, and imported Afghan drivers to carry their equipment. (The north-south rail line that more or less follows Todd’s original route is called “The Ghan” after these men.)

Where each repeater station was situated, a small settlement sprang up, many of which still exist, if only as a roadside pub and petrol station. These days, the largest and most well known of these is Alice Springs, about half way along the line, and named after Todd’s wife.

Darwin (Palmerston) received the cable from Java in October, 1871 and started “talking” to the outside world. Todd was late. Weather, unknown mountain ranges and especially the “Top End” wet season all hampered them. The join was finally made at an isolated spot with the optimistic name of Frews Pond, 640 km (about 400 miles) south of Darwin, 8 months behind schedule. (Fortunately, the undersea cable had broken and was out of action for half that time.)

It had taken 23 months. It had cost 479,174 pounds, 18 shillings and threepence, over double the estimate. At about 20 to the mile, it had used over 36,000 poles. Some idea can be gained of the scale of the undertaking by noting that a sealed road between Adelaide and Darwin was only completed in the early 1980s and a rail line in 1993.