Prior to the submarine telegraph cable from Java coming ashore at Port Darwin in November 1872, Australia’s only contact with the outside world was by letter carried by ships arriving from overseas.
Western Australia lagged behind the rest of the world in the introduction of the telegraph. The first telegraph message in the world was sent on 24 May 1844, using Morse code, a system of dots and dashes that represented letters of the alphabet. The system was invented by Samuel Morse, inspired by the fact that when his wife died in 1825, he did not hear of the event until days after her funeral, due to the slowness of communications at the time. The first telegraph line in Australia was constructed in 1854, between Melbourne and the Victorian port of Williamstown. Telegraphy was the major form of distant communication for the remainder of the 19th century.
To Australia, the arrival of the telegraph was more important than the 1990’s advent of the Internet that is now such an essential part of our lives. Contrary to the slow uptake of the Telegraph in Australia/WA, Australians are now among the world’s fastest adopters of new technology.
ADELAIDE TO DARWIN LINE
It was the desire to connect Australia to the world via the telegraph that drove Burke and Wills to find a route through the red centre to the north coast of Australia.
After their ineptitude and bungling it was left to John McDouall Stuart – probably Australia’s greatest explorer – to find a route through to the north coast in 1862, proving a route for a telegraph line was feasible.
There had been a race with Queensland to be the first to get the first overseas telegraph cable. It was proposed that the submarine cable that came ashore at Darwin from Java connect with Burketown in the Gulf of Carpenteria and then with Cardwell and Townsville which were already interconnected through Queensland and NSW.
Basically the reason the line went south was because the South Australian Government offered to pay for the construction whereas under the Queensland scenario the construction costs were to be covered by the Telegraph Company.
The submarine cable from Java came ashore at Darwin on 19 November 1871. The Adelaide to Port Darwin line, constructed under the leadership of Charles Todd, was completed on 22 August 1872 but there were gaps.
Initially the Java cable failed and was not put back into service until October 1872, five months after it had reached Darwin, and two months after the overland line was completed.
EAST WEST LINE
The first telegraph line in Western Australia was installed from Perth to Fremantle in 1869. Perth was connected to Albany in 1872. Linking Perth with the eastern states required the construction of a line from Albany to Eucla to join up with the line being pushed through to there from Adelaide – a distance of 1211 km.
The route was close to the coast, basically following the exploratory path taken by E.J Eyre and later, John and Alexander Forrest. Apart from these trips the country was unknown. The proposed route was through long waterless tracts and large sand dunes.
The telegraph line was built by contract labour. Nearly all equipment was transported by sea and then carted to the line of route. Lack of access along the length of the Baxter Cliffs made the job of getting poles and equipment to the line of route difficult. The only spot to land was at Twilight Cove.
Because of the long distances, booster stations were needed at Bremer Bay, Esperance Bay, Israelite Bay, and Eyres Sand Patch. On the South Australian section, booster stations were at Fowlers Bay, Port Lincoln, Port Augusta.
When the telegraph line was completed it put Perth in communication with Adelaide and, via Darwin, with Asia, Europe and UK.
|Iron poles (SA)||12,474 (no timber in SA – poles imported from Britain)|
|Wooden poles (WA)||17000 – large supply of jarrah timber|
|Pt Augusta – Eucla||Aug 1875 – Jul 1877 (23 months)|
|Albany – Eucla||Feb 1876 – 8 Dec 1877 (22 months)|
|First year’s operation||11,000 cables|
EYRE COOLGARDIE LINE
The coastal route of the East West line caused numerous problems. Heavy dews and sea mists caused breakdowns.
The building of a new iron line from Eyre to Norseman and on to Coolgardie, further inland than the original coastal route, was commenced in 1896 and completed in 1897.
From Eucla to Eyres Sand Patch (Eyre), a distance of 260 kilometres, the line was only a short distance from the cliffs.
From Eyre the route turned inland to follow the route taken by the overlanders heading to the goldfields. A booster station was needed at Balladonia. New technology introduced at this time allowed two messages to be carried each way per wire (quadruplex).
Once completed the route of the telegraph line firmed as the overland route.
This Eyre to Coolgardie (via Norseman) line connected with the Perth to Coolgardie line that had been completed in 1894. It was shorter and more reliable line than the Perth to Albany to Eucla route.
At the same time (1896), a two-strand telegraph line, strung with copper wire on iron poles, was constructed from the East West line at Esperance to Coolgardie, passing through Norseman and Widgiemooltha.
By 1900 there was 14,500 km of internal telegraph line in Western Australia. At the start of the WA goldrush (1893) the East West line was unable cope with the traffic.
A large flow of Western Australian international cable traffic left via Broome – connected in 1889.
The Widgiemooltha Norseman Balladonia Telegraph Track has been recognised by the Heritage Council of WA as having significant heritage value in Western Australia’s history.
Lawrence, J, Perth-Adelaide Telegraph Link, Early Days, Volume 3, Part 7, 1945, p 38.
Moyal, Ann, Clear Across Australia : A history of telecommunications, Nelson, Melbourne, 1984.
Stevens, G.P., The East West Telegraph, 1875-77, Early Days, Volume 2, Part 13, 1933, p 16.
Stevens, G.P., Inauguration of the Electric Telegraph in Western Australia, 1869, Early Days, Volume 2, Part 20, 1936, p 26.
Stirling, Horace, The Telegraph in Western Australia, Early Days, Volume 1, Part 2, 1928, p 30.
Battye, J.S., Cyclopedia of Western Australia, Vol 1, Hesperian Press, Carlisle (Facsimile Edition), 1985, p 383.