South Australia - Colonial period: 1855 - 1900.
The first telegraph line in S.A. - 1856.

The motivation for a telegraph in South Australia.

The Mail, in its analysis of Australia's telegraph history on 16 October 1926, suggested that "it was a war scare that really caused the first telegraph line to be built in South Australia. During the Crimean war in 1854, the Government, fearing the possibility of a sudden descent upon our shores by Russian gunboats, desired to establish, by means of semaphores, communication between Adelaide and some point on the coast, which would command a view of the approaches to St. Vincent Gulf through Backstairs Passage and Investigator Strait. However, experience had shown that, owing to the unfavorable atmospheric conditions, any such system of signalling over the heated Adelaide Plains would be unreliable, and nothing was done".

The arrival of Mr. Todd.

The line of Macgeorge - opened on 26 November 1855 by James Macgeorge as a private line serving the public and the business community between Adelaide and Port Adelaide - was regarded most negatively by the Government. Todd literally walked off the ship Irene from England to take up his appointments into a major problem which the Government expected him to solve.

The Macgeorge line opened shortly after Charles Todd arrived in Australia on 4 November (aboard the Irene with his young 17 year old bride Alice) to take up his appointment as (astronomical) Observer and Superintendent of Telegraphs. Coincidently, a magnetic telegraph ordered by the Government and intended for use on the same line, had also arrived from England on that day.

Macgeorge had actually ignored the South Australian Government’s declaration that only the Government could own and operate telegraph networks. Nevertheless, his effort was an immediate commercial success and, in effect, he created Australia's first privately-owned telegraph network.

At that time - and throughout the following century - Colonial governments (and later the Commonwealth Government) opposed the idea of private ownership in communications. Consequently in January 1856, the South Australian Colonial Government decided it would purchase McGeorge’s line for £80 and immediately dismantle it - thus preventing further private entrepreneurial activity.


The Government line begins.

To demonstrate the Government's ability, Todd commenced the construction of a Government line. In the South Australian Register of 27 November 1855, tenders were called for the construction of an Electric Telegraph Station on LeFevre's Peninsula. Construction began in Adelaide in December 1855, opened to Port Adelaide on 18 February 1856 and was then extended to Semaphore on the Le Fevre's Peninsula in early March. Later in the year, Telegraph Offices were also opened at Port Adelaide Railway Station as well as at Bowden and Alberton.

Two construction approaches were used:

  • between Adelaide and Port, the line was above ground. Four wires were suspended on posts of Singapore cedar or Swan River mahogany with 32 posts to the mile. These posts were well charred and tarred where they entered the ground.
  • from the Railway Station in Adelaide to the Government Offices in King William Street, a six-wire cable is laid under ground in iron pipes. The same was done at the Port and, as well, 700 yards of submarine cable were carried under the creek to the Peninsula and to Semaphore.
First lines

The use of the subterranean and submarine cable reduced the cost of the City to Port telegraph line so that, including stations, materials, apparatus, &c., it finally cost £3,024.

Of the four wires used for the line, two were for railway use. The poles were square, and were mostly made from jarrah, then called Swan River mahogany, and Singapore cedar.


Early days

The commencement of telegraphic business could not however be rated as auspicious. Receipts for the first day on the Adelaide-Port Adelaide-Semaphore line amounted to 5/3. This amount fell to 2/6 on the second day, to 1/9 on the third day and to 1/3 on the fourth.

This trend quickly reversed and the perceived usefulness of the South Australian telegraphic system began to be reflected by the number of messages being transmitted:

Lines were constructed in all directions according to various priorities, especially population, mining and business demands. In addition, a number of Telegraph Offices were opened on or near this line - for example Hindmarsh in 1884.

The development of these lines can be traced through the hyperlinks below.