The greatest engineering feat of 19th century Australia
The greatest engineering problem facing Australia – the tyranny of distance – had a solution: the electric telegraph, and its champion was the sheep-farming state of South Australia. In two years, Charles Todd, leading hundreds of men, constructed a telegraph line across the centre of the continent from Port Augusta to Port Darwin. At nearly 3,000 kilometres long and using 36,000 poles at ’20 to the mile’, it was a mammoth undertaking but in October 1872, Adelaide was finally linked to London. The Overland Telegraph Line crossed Aboriginal lands first seen by John McDouall Stuart just 10 years before. Messages which previously took weeks to cross the country now took hours. Passing through eleven new repeater stations and the remotest parts of Australia, the line joined the vast global telegraph network, and a new era was ushered in. Each station held a staff of six. They became centres of white civilization and the cattle or sheep industry. In many places the local Aborigines were displaced. The unique stories of how men and women lived and/or died on the line range from heroic through desperate, to tragic, but they remain an indelible part of Australia’s history.
… a book written with heart and admiration… a lasting tribute to the inventiveness and tenacity of the people behind the planning, building and execution of the Overland Telegraph – a true nation building endeavour (His Excellency, The Honourable Hieu Van Le AC).
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MEDIA RELEASE These days, computers and mobile devices keep us in touch with each other as never before, and news and information is instantly available. Australia no longer suffers the ‘tyranny of distance’, but it was very different in colonial Australia. Months would pass before letters could be answered and international news was always old when it was finally printed in the papers.
This all changed after the completion of the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century. In 1872, the Overland Telegraph Line connected Adelaide to London, and communication channels were open. But first, the tiny colony of Palmerston, now called Darwin, needed to be connected to the world’s telegraph system by an undersea cable. This was pulled on shore by men and horses on 7 November 1871, 150 years ago.
The first telegram to Australia arrived 12 days later, on 19 November 1871. The Morse code message was tapped out by Captain Robert Halpin after he and a fleet of three ships laid the cable on the sea floor between Port Darwin and Banyuwangi in Java. Proudly written, our first electric communication simply ended with “Advance Australia”
Darwin historian Derek Pugh said “the OTL was the internet of the day, allowing rapid communication with the world. It provided almost instant access to information and broke the tyranny of distance. The arrival of the international cable was the first step of this huge technological leap”. The incredible story of the OTL is told in Pugh’s new book Twenty to the Mile: The Overland Telegraph Line.
Available now, cost $39.95 plus postage. Wholesale distribution by Woodslane.
For more information on the 2022 sequicentenary celebrations of the OTL see https://ot150.net
Bio: Derek Pugh OAM, is an educator and award-winning author, writing books in several genres: NT history, science, adventure travel and YA fiction. He is most well-known for his history series on early European settlement of the Top End, Tambora, and the novels Tammy Damulkurra, and Schoolies. He lives in Darwin but as he grew up in the Australian Capital Territory and moved to the Northern Territory nearly 40 years ago, he claims to have been a ‘Territorian’ all his life. He has had a long career in education in several contexts: from large urban senior schools, to tiny remote homeland centre schools in Central Arnhem Land, and several international schools. He now teaches part time, writes about Northern Territory settlement history and is busy promoting the settlement bicentenary coming up in 2024.
Awards: Winner: Territory Read Best Non-Fiction Book 2016 for Tambora: Travels to Sumbawa and the Mountain of Change Short-listed: Chief Minister's Book of the Year, 2016 for Tambora Short-listed: Chief Minister's Book of the Year, 2020 for Darwin: Origin of a City Short-listed: Chief Minister's Book of the Year, 2021 for Port Essington
Buy Derek Pugh Books directly from the author here