The Australian Overland Telegraph Line was a telegraphy system to send messages over long distances using cables and electric signals. It spanned 3200 kilometres (2000 miles) between Darwin, in what is now the Northern Territory of Australia, and Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Completed in 1872 (with a line to Western Australia added in 1877), it allowed fast communication between Australia and the rest of the world. When it was linked to the Java-to-Darwin submarine telegraph cable several months later, the communication time with Europe dropped from months to hours; Australia was no longer so isolated from the rest of the world. The line was one of the great engineering feats of 19th-century Australia and probably the most significant milestone in the history of telegraphy in Australia.
Conception and competition
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 the 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. He contracted Benjamin Herschel Babbage to survey the line, and sites at Beltana, Strangways Springs and the Peake were identified as sites for repeater stations. 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.
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.
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. A storm system impacting South and Central Australia caused significant interruptions on the line in January 1872. By May 1872, the line was substantially in use with horse or camel carrying messages 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 +++
Running the Overland Telegraph Line
The requirements of nineteenth century telegraphy meant the Overland Telegraph Line initially required repeater stations every 250-300kms to boost the signal. The repeater stations contained two power sources -- the line was powered by Meidinger cells - a variation of Daniell cells, as well Leclanche cells for the local equipment. The repeater stations had a staff of four to six, including a station master, telegraphists and linesmen.
Within the first year of operations 4000 telegrams were transmitted. Maintenance was an ongoing and mammoth task, with floods often destroying poles, and a range of other incidents disrupting the line. In the 1880s, wooden poles were replaced with Joseph Oppenheimer's patented telescoping poles.
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.
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.
A chain of Repeater Stations
The southern section of the line initially included Repeater Stations at Beltana, Strangways Springs and the Peake. In 1884, a Repeater Station was added in Hergott Springs/Maree. In 1896, the Repeater Stations at Strangways Springs and the Peake were closed, and new Repeater Stations were opened at William Creek and Oodnadatta, aligning with the Great Northern Railway. Traces and remains of all these Repeater Stations can still be seen today along the Oodnadatta Track in South Australia.
The northern section of the line included Repeater Stations at Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek, Daly Waters, Powell Creek, Katherine, Yam Creek and finally a terminus point in Darwin. In Darwin, there was also considerable infrastructure to manage and maintain the undersea cable/s to Europe.
Conflict at the Barrow Creek Repeater Station
On 22 February 1874, eighteen months after the line opened, a group of Aboriginal men attacked the staff of the repeater station at Barrow Creek, killing linesman John Frank, mortally wounding stationmaster John L. Stapleton, and seriously wounding two others, one an aboriginal youth employed at the station. Contemporary press reports described the incident as the "Barrow's Creek outrage". A punitive expedition resulted in the death of several Aboriginal men believed to have been involved.
Twentieth century First Nations accounts tell a very different kind of story about what happened at Barrow Creek, and how to make sense of the conflict.
Decommissioning the line
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.
Connecting the Overland Telegraph Line to the rest of the world
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 to provide redunancy. 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.
A back-up cable to Western Australia
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.
Films and TV shows
In the 2007, the ABC produced Constructing Australia which included the Overland Telegraph Line, and the Sydney Opera House. 
- First transcontinental telegraph line across the western United States, completed in 1861
- History of telegraphy in Australia
- W.A. Crowder's diary: the Overland Telegraph Line National Library of Australia.
- Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. p. 66. ISBN 978-1-74110-492-9.
- "The end of isolation". Australia's defining moments digital classroom. National Museum of Australia. 2022. Retrieved 21 August 2022.
- Exploring the Stuart Highway : further than the eye can see, 1997, p. 24
- Phillips, Valmai (1984). Enterprising Australians. Kensington, New South Wales: Bay Books. p. 17. ISBN 0-85835-647-3.
- Darcy Yuille (director), Wendy Hughes (narrator) (18 March 2007). Constructing Australia:A Wire Through the Heart (DVD). Film Australia. Retrieved 17 December 2009.
- "Plan of Overland Telegraph Line". SA Memory. Government of South Australia. Archived from the original on 20 October 2009. Retrieved 17 December 2009.
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- Stanton, Jenny (2000). The Australian Geographic Book of the Red Centre. Terrey Hills, New South Wales: Australian Geographic. p. 42. ISBN 1-86276-013-6.
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- Giles, Ernest (1889). Australia twice traversed: the romance of exploration, being a narrative compiled from the journals of five exploring expeditions into and through Central South Australia, and Western Australia, from 1872 to 1876, Volume 1. S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, Limited
- 1880 photograph caption
- Papers of G.R. McMinn held by State Records of South Australia GRG 35/360
- Diary of G.R. McMinn, Surveyor and Overseer during construction of the Overland Telegraph Line to Port Darwin held by State Records of South Australia GRG 154/9
- "Messrs Darwent & Dalwood's Contract". The Evening Journal (Adelaide). Vol. III, no. 773. South Australia. 18 July 1871. p. 2. Retrieved 20 March 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
- Geoffrey C. Bishop (2015). "Architects of South Australia: McMinn, William". Architecture Museum, University of South Australia. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
- Official journal of Robert C. Patterson, Engineer in charge of construction of the northern section of the Overland Telegraph Line held by State Records of South Australia GRG 154/9
- Exploring the Stuart Highway : further than the eye can see, 1997, p. 26
- "OFFICIAL DEFENCE OF THE OVER LAND ℡EGRAPH". South Australian Register. 25 May 1871. Retrieved 20 November 2023.
- "THE BRITISH-AUSTRALIAN ℡EGRAPH". South Australian Register. 17 February 1872. Retrieved 20 November 2023.
- "History of the Adelaide to London Telegraph". The Evening Journal (Adelaide). Vol. IV, no. 1109. South Australia. 24 August 1872. p. 2. Retrieved 20 March 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
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- Taylor, Peter (1980). An End to Silence: the building of the overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin. Methuen.
- The Wreck of the Gothenburg (1875). On her voyage from Port Darwin to Adelaide. Printed by J.H. Lewis, Printer & Publisher, Adelaide.
- "The Barrow's Creek outrage". South Australian Register. 25 June 1874. p. 5.
- Koch, Grace; Koch, Harold, eds. (1993). Kaytetye Country: an Aboriginal History of the Barrow Creek Area. Alice Springs: Institute for Aboriginal Development Publications.
- "Overland Telegraph, Adelaide to Darwin, 1872". Engineering Heritage Recognition Program. Engineers Australia. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
- Martinez, Julia (2017). "Asian Servants for the Imperial Telegraph: Imagining North Australia as an Indian Ocean Colony before 1914". Australian Historical Studies. 48 (2): 227–243. doi:10.1080/1031461X.2017.1279196. S2CID 149205560.
- Australia's undersea telegraph cables listed under the NT Heritage Act, 150 years on ABC News, 28 June 2020. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
- "INTERCOLONIAL". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 2 August 1890. p. 3. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
- "The Broome Courthouse & Market History". Broome Community StallHolders Association. Archived from the original on 8 August 2017. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
- Cable and Wireless Archives, London - Correspondence with the Colonial Office, Agents-General , in reference to the Banjoewangie-Roebuck Bay Cable 1888 – 1889
- Engineers’ Final Report &Appendices, dated 7 June 1889 : Eastern Extension, Australasia, and China Telegraph Company, Limited, Banjoewangie and Western Australia Cable 1889, provided by the Historical Society, Broome
- Heritage Council of Western Australia, Register of Heritage Places – Assessment Documentation Broome Court House, 28 August 2001.
- Broome Cable Station 1889 – 1914 by Max Anderson
- Cable and Wireless Archives, London – Copies of Relevant Correspondence as provided through the Historical Society, Broome
- Institution of Engineers, Australia, Nomination of the East – West Telegraph for a National Engineering Landmark, June 2001.
- Ann Moyal – Clear Across Australia – A History of Telecommunications - 1984.
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- Vagg, Stephen (10 August 2019). "Unmade Cinesound". Filmink.
- Evans, Richard; West, Alex (2007). Constructing Australia: a companion to the ABC TV Series. The Miegumyah Press, Imprint of MUP, Melbourne.
- Exploring the Stuart Highway : further than the eye can see. West Beach, South Australia: Tourist Information Distributors Australia, 1997. ISSN 1326-6039
- Globalising Australia : Adelaide's role in the 19th century. Royal Geographical Society of South Australia, Exhibition Catalogue, 2016
- Communication by Post, Telephones and Telegraph, 1800-1970
- Overland Telegraph Line at Flinders Ranges Research Archived 10 November 2019 at the Wayback Machine
- Constructing Australia – A Wire through the Heart, Film Australia
- The Iron Wire: A novel of the Adelaide to Darwin Telegraph Line, 1871, by Garry Kilworth
- "Death of Mr. R. R. Knuckey". The Adelaide Advertiser. Vol. LVI, no. 17, 368. South Australia. 16 June 1914. p. 9. Retrieved 19 July 2019 – via National Library of Australia.