It’s been 150 years since Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world ended, thanks to 3,200km of wire and 36,000 telegraph poles spanning from Darwin to Adelaide.
The Australian Overland Telegraph Line was completed on 22 August 1872, crossing the entire width of the continent.
The telegraphy system allowed for the sending of messages over long distances using cables and electric signals, reducing the communication time with Europe from months to just hours.
The project was one of Australia’s most significant feats of engineering and changed the country forever.
The 150th anniversary was marked at the Frew Ponds Overland Telegraph Line Memorial Reserve, 330km north of Tennant Creek, on Monday.
Northern Territory Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Chansey Paech, said that the Overland Telegraph Line “revolutionised communication between Australia and the world”.
“The joining of the two telegraph lines at Frew Ponds 150 years ago was a historically momentous occasion that shaped the economic and social prosperity of the Northern Territory and reformed Australia by breaking its isolation from the rest of the world,” Paech said.
“Back in the day, the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line was as exciting and pertinent to the worldwide communication landscape as the more recent arrival of the internet. The vibe would have been amazing.”
“The many tales of tenacity and toil; tears, triumph and tragedy that ran along the wire continue to bear witness to the strength and commitment of those who worked so hard, in adverse and extreme conditions to connect our country to the rest of the world.”
The telegraph line marked a step-change for communications from and to Australia, and was a significant moment in the development of the modern country.
Previously, newspapers and letters were the basis of communication to other countries, and these had to be shipped around the world, a process which took months.
After the construction of the telegraph line, communications took as little as hours.
The line travelled from Darwin to Adelaide, and was joined to Western Australia in 1877.
It was linked to the Java-Darwin submarine telegraph cable months after it was completed.
The 3200km of wire, 36,000 telegraph poles and 11 repeater stations were installed by men riding on horses, sometimes through rugged terrain.
The South Australian government won the contract to construct the overseas link, and was given a difficult two-year deadline.
The plan for the telegraph line was developed by Sir Charles Todd, an electrical engineer, astronomer and meteorologist.
Todd first linked a wire from Adelaide to Port Adelaide, demonstrating how this could cut the communication time from a day to a minute.
He first hatched the plan to build a telegraph line from Darwin to Adelaide before he even arrived in Australia from London.
The route across the width of Australia was divided into three sections: Port Augusta to Oodnadatta, a central section on to Roper River, and from Roper to Darwin.
The first telegraph sent via the line stated: “We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia.”
The Royal Australian Mint will be releasing a commemorative coin depicting the Overland Telegraph Line later this year.
Speaking at the anniversary event this week, Administrator of the Northern Territory Vicki O’Halloran acknowledged the impact the telegraph line had on Indigenous Australians, speaking to the “great sacrifice of the lives and the land of traditional owners who lived here”.
“Their knowledge of this country, the bushland and connecting waterholes was vital to the survival of those working to build the Overland Telegraph Line,” O’Halloran said.
“In so many ways the completion of this project would mean life would never be the same, certainly not for Aboriginal people from this region who had and would go on to witness this steady intrusion on their land.”