On 15 September 1870, work began on the Australian Overland Telegraph Line linking Port Augusta to Darwin.
The Australian Overland Telegraph Line was a 3,200 km (2,000 mi) telegraph line that connected Darwin with Port Augusta in South Australia. Completed in 1872, the Overland Telegraph Line allowed fast communication between Australia and the rest of the world.
An additional section was added in 1877 with the completion of the Western Australian section of the line. It was one of the great engineering feats of 19th-century Australia and probably the most significant milestone in the history of telegraphy in Australia.
By 1855 speculation had intensified about possible routes for the connection of Australia to the new telegraph cable in Java and thus Europe. Among the routes under consideration were either Ceylon to Albany in Western Australia, or Java to the north coast of Australia and then either onto east coast, or south through the centre of the continent to Adelaide.
Competition between the colonies over the route was fierce. The Victorian government organised an expedition led by Burke and Wills to cross the continent from Menindee to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1860. Although the route was traversed, the expedition ended in disaster.
The South Australian government recognised the economic benefits that would result from becoming the centre of the telegraph network. It offered a reward of £2000 to encourage an expedition to find a route between South Australia and the north coast.
John McDouall Stuart had meanwhile also been endeavouring to cross the continent starting from the northern Flinders Ranges, and was successful on his sixth attempt in 1862. James Chambers had gained an interest in the concept of a telegraph line across the outback. Chambers paid the costs for Stuart’s expeditions into northern Australia.
Stuart had the proposed telegraph line in mind as he travelled across the desert, noting the best places for river crossings, sources of timber for telegraph poles, and water supplies. On 24 July, his expedition finally reached the north coast at a place Stuart named Chambers Bay, after his employer and sponsor. South Australian Governor Richard MacDonnell gave his strong support to the project.
In 1863 an Order in Council transferred Northern Territory to South Australia, aiming to secure land for an international telegraph connection. Now with a potential route, South Australia strengthened her position for the telegraph line in 1865 when Parliament authorised the construction of a telegraph line between Adelaide and Port Augusta, 300 km to the north. This move provoked outrage in Queensland amongst advocates of the Darwin–Burketown route.
The final contract was secured in 1870 when the South Australian government agreed to construct 3200 km of line to Darwin, while the British-Australian Telegraph Company promised to lay the undersea cable from Banyuwangi, Java to Darwin. The latter was to be finished on 31 December 1871, and severe penalties were to apply if the connecting link was not ready.
The South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs, Charles Todd, was appointed head of the project, and devised a timetable to complete the immense project on schedule. Todd had built South Australia’s first telegraph line and extended it to Melbourne.
The contract stipulated a total cost of no more than £128,000 and two years’ construction time. He divided the route into three sections, each of 600 miles (970 km): northern and southern sections to be handled by private contractors, and a central section which would be constructed by his own department.
The telegraph line would comprise more than 30,000 wrought iron poles, insulators, batteries, wire and other equipment, ordered from England. The poles were placed 80 m apart and repeater stations built every 250 km.
Todd appointed staff to whom the contractors would be responsible: Explorer, John Ross; Surveyor, William Harvey; Overseer of Works, Northern Territory, William McMinn; Sub-Overseer, R. C. Burton; Operators, James Lawrence Stapleton (murdered 1874 at Barrow Creek) and Andrew Howley.
Surveyors and Overseers, central portion of line: A. T. Woods, Gilbert McMinn, and Richard Randall Knuckey; Overseer, James Beckwith; Sub-Overseers, J. F. Roberts (perhaps J. Le M. F. Roberts), Stephen Jarvis, W. W. Mills, W. Charles Musgrave, and Christopher Giles.
He assembled a team of men for his central section: surveyors, linesmen, carpenters, labourers and cooks. The team left Adelaide with horses, bullocks and carts loaded with provisions and equipment for many weeks. The central section would be surveyed by the explorer John Ross and Alfred Giles, his second-in-command.
The southern section from Port Augusta to Alberga Creek was contracted to Edward Meade Bagot.
Darwent & Dalwood, who won the contract for the northern section of 600 miles (970 km), arrived in Port Darwin aboard SS Omeo in September 1870 with 80 men, 80 draught horses, bullocks, equipment and stores. Stephen King Jr. was their surveyor and explorer. The northern line was progressing well until the onset of the wet season in November 1870.
Heavy rain of up to 10 inches (250 mm) a day waterlogged the ground and made it impossible for work to progress. With conditions worsening, the men went on strike on 7 March 1871, rancid food and disease-spreading mosquitoes amongst their complaints. On 3 May 1871, Overseer of Works William McMinn cancelled Darwent & Dalwood’s contract and sent all the workers back to Adelaide, on the basis of insufficient progress (they had erected poles to a distance of 225 miles (362 km) and strung wire for 129 miles (208 km) to that date) and the insurrection of the men.
This last, the workers claimed, was exaggerated; they only refused to work after they had been sacked. These actions were certainly within his powers, and spelled out in the contract, but he was dismissed on his return to Adelaide in July 1871. Joseph Darwent had protested the original appointment of McMinn, who had submitted a losing tender, but was overruled. William T. Dalwood was eventually awarded compensation of £11,000.
The South Australian Government was now forced to construct an extra 700 km of line, and threw every available resource into its completion, down to purchasing horses and hiring men from New South Wales. It was another six months before reinforcements led by engineer Robert Patterson arrived in Darwin.
As the central and southern sections neared completion, Patterson decided to take a different strategy with the construction of the northern section. It was divided into four sub-sections with the majority of the men on the most northerly section. The undersea cable was finished earlier than expected, with the line from Java reaching Darwin on 18 November 1871 and being connected the following day.
Charlotte Waters, just north of the South Australian border in the Northern Territory, was surveyed in 1871 by Gilbert McMinn and Richard Knuckey and a repeater station built in 1872.
Because of the problems still facing the northern section, the Queensland Superintendent of Telegraphs called for the abandonment of the project, and for the line to connect to the terminal at Burketown, but Todd was adamant and pressed on. By the end of the year there was still over 300 km of line to erect, but the line was substantially in use from May 1872 by the expedient of carrying messages by horse or camel across the uncompleted section.
During this time, Todd began visiting workers along the line to lift their spirits. The message he sent along the incomplete line on 22 May 1872, took 9 days to reach Adelaide.
Running more than seven months behind schedule, the two lines were finally joined at Frew’s Ponds on Thursday, 22 August 1872. Todd was given the honour of sending the first message along the completed 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 +++
After the first messages had been exchanged over the new line, Todd was accompanied by surveyor Richard Randall Knuckey on the return journey from Central Mount Stuart to Adelaide.
The line proved an immediate success in opening the Northern Territory; gold discoveries were made in several places along the northern section (in particular Pine Creek), and the repeater stations in the MacDonnell Ranges proved invaluable starting points for explorers like Ernest Giles, W. C. Gosse, and Peter Egerton-Warburton who were heading west.
Within the first year of operations 4000 telegrams were transmitted. Maintenance was an ongoing and mammoth task, with floods often destroying poles.
In February 1875, a small contingent of Overland Telegraph employees left Port Darwin for Adelaide on the ill-fated SS Gothenburg. A few days later, at least ten were among the hundred-odd who lost their lives after she encountered a severe storm, and was driven into the Great Barrier Reef and sank.
The final stage of connecting Australia to the world was begun in 1875 when the Western Australian and South Australian governments agreed to build a line across the Nullarbor plain. This equally challenging project was completed in 1877.
Around 1871, a second cable connected Java with an overland line from Perth to Cable Station, Roebuck Bay.
When Darwin was bombed in World War II the line was deliberately cut just before the attack.
In 2008, its engineering heritage was recognised by the installation of markers provided by the Engineers Australia’s Engineering Heritage Recognition Program at a location in Darwin near the place where the cable reached the shore, the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and the General Post Office in Adelaide.
The Australian connection
In 1870 the British Australia Telegraph Company (BAT) was formed to link Australia directly to the British telegraphic cable system, by extending the cable from Singapore via Java to Port Darwin. In 1873, three British companies, The British India Extension Telegraph Company, The BAT and The China Submarine Telegraph Company were amalgamated to form the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company (EET Co).
The driving force behind the British cable companies was a Scottish born entrepreneur Sir John Pender, founder of Cable and Wireless. On 19 November 1871, Australia was connected telegraphically with the rest of the world after a cable was laid by BAT from Banyuwangi (Banjoewangie), at the eastern end of Java, to Darwin.
This coincided with the completion of the construction of the overland telegraph cable from Adelaide to Darwin. The first message sent directly from London to Adelaide occurred on 22 October 1872. A second submarine cable from Java to Darwin was laid in 1880.
The site in the intertidal zone where the cables come ashore in Darwin, where they are still visible during very low tides, was heritage listed in 2020.
Eastern extension and undersea upgrades
On 9 April 1889 a third undersea telegraph cable opened for business, running from Banyuwangi, Java to Cable Beach, Western Australia and continuing overland to Perth, to complement the two cables already laid in 1871 and 1880 from Banyuwangi to Darwin.
This cable was laid to increase security in communications to prevent disruption from seismic activity that kept breaking the Banyuwangi to Darwin cables. The contract for the cables called for the manufacture of 970 nautical miles of cable containing a single galvanised copper core with 220 nautical miles being brass sheathed, laid by the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company for the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company, by the SS Seine. The operation took only 10 days and was completed on 26 February 1889. These were all British companies.
Cable Beach is named after this cable that connected Java to Cable Station, that served this purpose until March 1914. After operating for 25 years it closed due to the opening of more competitive, cheaper-to-run stations; most cables were subsequently recovered.
Cable Station was left empty, and in 1921 it was purchased and transformed into its current use as the Broome Court House, which was placed on the Western Australian State Register of Heritage Places in 2001 as it is the only station that is still standing in Australia.
The cable now connects at Onslow on the Western Australian Coast.