Before the submarine telegraph cable was first laid between Java and Port Darwin in 1872, Australia’s only communication with the outside world happened via letter carried by ships from overseas. This meant it took months for any news to arrive.
Australia was behind the rest of the world when it came to the installation of the telegraph line. The first telegraph message in the world was sent via Morse code in 1844; however the first line in Australia wasn’t constructed until 1854. This linked Melbourne to Victorian port Williamstown and was extended to Geelong later that year. Lines continued to be built throughout the state until there was a widespread network by 1857.
Telegraph lines connected both South Australia and New South Wales to Victoria by 1858. Tasmania was connected to Victoria in 1859. In 1861, a line was constructed to link Queensland to New South Wales, which meant the eastern states were all in communication with each other. The Overland Telegraph was completed in 1872 and linked the eastern states to Java via Darwin, which allowed them to receive international news.
Construction of the East-West Telegraph Line
Western Australia’s first telegraph line connected Perth and Fremantle in 1869. Often mail steamers would first arrive at the port in Albany, so a conveyance link to Perth made a lot of commercial sense. This line was completed in 1872. However, the state wasn’t connected to the rest of the country until the East-West Telegraph was constructed in 1877.
The idea of a line between South Australia and Western Australia was discussed as early as 1860, however no decisions were made. In 1873, the South Australian government received a proposal from the Western Australian government. Originally the proposal was rejected as South Australia didn’t feel they were getting enough out of the deal to allocate funds to it. The next year it was accepted by Charles Todd, their Superintendent of Telegraphs, as he decided it was necessary to their trade and commerce, navigation and defence. Both states passed bills approving the cost of the telegraph line’s construction.
The line was originally going to stretch from Eucla in South Australia to Albany in Western Australia. In 1866, a telegraph office was established at Port Augusta, as this was a staging post for the Overland Telegraph. It was the decided the East-West Telegraph line would stretch the 3310 km from Port Augusta to Albany.
This would be the toughest public works the small Western Australian colony had ever carried out, particularly because one third of their section had no European inhabitants. Therefore, a lot of the terrain was unknown. The construction was split into multiple sections, to make the project more manageable. The poles were made from Jarrah wood rather than iron as it was less likely to corrode and require frequent maintenance.
In January 1875 the first pole was planted in Albany. In August of that same year, the first pole was planted in Port Augusta. The South Australian section of port Augusta to Eucla was completed in July 1877 — the Western Australian section was completed that December, and the first telegraph message was received in Perth.
Engineers Australia considers this project to be significant due to the harsh conditions faced during construction; given it was completed using commercially available technology rather than innovative techniques. It was also important as a commercial link when the gold rush began in the 1890s. In fact in 1896 the link was extended to reach Coolgardie which was part of the goldfields. It was also an integral part of laying the foundation for Federation in Australia.