Victoria - Colonial: 1854-1900.
First Telegraph Line - the Argus.

The following description first appeared in the Argus but was reprinted in several newspapers in Victoria and in other Colonies (e.g. South Australian Register, 24 March 1854).

A description of the electric telegraph now in operation between Melbourne and Williamstown.

"The Melbourne terminus and offices are situated at the corner of Little Bourke Street and William Street and within the enclosure around the Government House. The erection or construction of the line was begun on the 25th of last November, was finished on the 3rd of February, and worked for the first time on the 3rd March inst.

There are 10¾ miles of wire between the Melbourne and the Williamstown terminus. Its route is from William Street to the Saltwater River which it crosses near the Racecourse. This route was preferred to a more direct one in order to avoid passing over private property and because of the floods which cover the marshes in winter time.

The line is one of the kind, known as Professor Samuel F. B. Morse's American line of magnetic telegraphs. Lines of this kind were first used in America in 1844, when one of about 44 miles in length, between Washington and Baltimore, was established.

The galvanic batteries which are used are known as Groves's batteries. In one of the rooms there are three of these batteries for the supply line and two for local use. Each battery consists of an outer glass cup. In it is a much smaller size cup. The space between the two cups is nearly filled with a solution of sulphuric acid mixed with water. The proportions are one of acid and twelve of water. In the zinc cup is a third cup which is made of unglazed pottery-ware and is porous. It is very nearly the same size as the interior of the zinc  cup. The porous cup is filled to the capacity of about two-thirds with pure nitric acid. In this acid there is a narrow slip or thin bar of platina which conducts the stream of electricity to the wires. The platina is the positive pole of the battery. The zinc is the negative pole.

There is a wire to each of the two poles, which wires may be connected or put together anywhere. The positive pole and its wire points to Williamstown. The negative wire goes to the earth. At Williamstown, what is the Melbourne positive passes through the machine there and descends to the earth - in that way it completes the galvanic circle. The local battery before mentioned is merely for the purpose of working the registering or recording machine in the office.

There is one main line, a part of which goes to Williamstown, and a part to the Melbourne Customs House. The wires which have been mentioned as proceeding from the batteries are taken from them through the partition dividing the two rooms and into the adjoining room or office where they are attached to the bottom of the signal-key. The signal-key is fastened on a sort of counter and is the instrument which the manipulator uses to communicate what words he desires to convey to the Customs House or Williamstown. Under this counter are two large and deep wooden boxes. One of them contains the paper on which the communications to be sent to Williamstown or the Customs House are to be marked by the recording machine and the other box contains the paper on which the communications which have been received are so marked. The paper is white, of the ordinary thickness, and is one inch in width; within that width of one inch it will receive eleven distinct lines of telegraphic letters and words, which have been communicated.

From the right-hand box, box containing the paper to be used (although there is no separation in the paper in or between the two boxes), the paper passes through, a small hole in the counter and a sort of frame or roller which revolves about six inches above the counter. From the roller, the paper passes over the signal-key to the receiving magnets or recording apparatus where it passes, at a uniform rate of speed, between two rollers. In the upper roller there is a small groove, intended to receive a small steel point attached to the end of a brass lever which is worked by an armature suspended over two helices of an electro-magnet. The steel point makes and marks on the paper as it passes between the rollers, the various dots, lines and spaces which go to denote each particular letter in the alphabet. From these rollers the paper passes out of the machine and descends through another small hole in the counter into the other or left-hand box. The paper so marked is always kept as a record, and can be referred to at any time. From it the communications received are read by the person in charge at the time — written out at length as they are read by a clerk and sent by a messenger to the persons to whom they are addressed.

And now having thus disposed of the paper, let us return to the wires, which we left fastened to the bottom of the signal-key. From it they pass to the receiving magnet and the current of electricity is communicated through it to the main line. This receiving magnet acts as a relay of power to work the registry or recording apparatus which consists of a few wheels of clockwork and the two rollers already described. The clockwork is wound up and its movement acquired by means of a weight under the counter. The current of electricity then passes through the two helices, before spoken of, and while it is so passing they become a magnet.

A word now as to the alphabet in use by the manipulators and other things incident to the affair. Each letter in the alphabet is denoted by a given number of dots, lines and spaces. These are made by the manipulator, who is sending a communication, according as he presses down and permits to rise up the signal-key we have mentioned. His action on it makes a corresponding dot, line or space by means of the steel point by way of indentation on the paper at Williamstown or the Customs House, whichever he wishes to communicate with. Besides this alphabet, they have an alphabet, if it may be so called, for numerals and some thirty abbreviations or arbitrary characters which denote short sentences ordinarily in use.

The opening of the line, or construction of new ones to the Heads, Geelong, Adelaide and Sydney, will be most important to all persons, but especially those engaged in commerce; and of the whole of them none will be ordinarily so important to Melbourne as the continuation of the line to Geelong and the Heads. The line to Sydney will be an important one and it is within our knowledge that a gentleman is now engaged in the formation of a company for the purpose of erecting it.

If the company is formed and the work proceeded with, Mr. Samuel W. McGowan, the contractor for and Superintendent of the Melbourne and Williamstown line, will have the contract. Mr. McGowan has offered to erect the line at £125 per mile, he being permitted to use such timber for posts as he may find on the route. No more suitable man could have been selected for the work which he has so far done than Mr. McGowan. He was engaged with Professor Morse in the construction of the first line of the kind. He has been engaged in the business constantly for the last ten years in the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia and so well understands it that he will receive and dictate a long message from the mere sound of the machine without ever looking at the paper on which it is marked. So thoroughly is he master of the invention, and so simple is it to those who understand it, that Mr. McG. has instructed one of the Customs House clerks sufficiently in three days to enable him to send and receive messages and work the apparatus. Owing to there being no glasshouse here where Mr. McG. could obtain insulators, and a potter at Sydney having 'botched' a quantity which he undertook to make, Mr. McG. has had to invent and manufacture a quantity of insulators from shellac,tar, &c, &c, which are now in use on the Melbourne and Williamstown line.

In some cases the eighth of a second is all the time needed to communicate between Williamstown and Melbourne. So rapid is the transmission of words that Mr. McG. on the occasion of the supposed loss of the Atlantic steamer, transmitted 19,000 words in three hours and five minutes, from New York to Buffalo, a distance of 500 miles. And an almost infinite advantage resulting from the existence of such lines will be seen from the fact that, along that line of 500 miles, there are the cities of Hudson, Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Syracuse, Utica, Auburn and Rochester - each of which cities publishes one or more newspapers. Now, at the very instant of time at which McGowan was transmitting any one of those 19,000 words, there were in each of the places we have named two reporters attending in the Telegraph Office and taking down for their respective papers the words as fast as they were received. What they wrote was sent to the printer as fast as it was written and so, within an incredibly short space of time, 19,000 words of most interesting news were distributed in an 'extra' or 'supplement' among the inhabitants of nine or ten cities and their surrounding districts, at an extreme distance of 500 miles from each other".

The Sydney Empire of 22 March 1854, added the following details to the above account:

"On the occasions referred to, the operator held several communications with Williamstown, receiving answers in two or three seconds. In one instance, an official message was transmitted from the Lieutenant-Governor to the Harbour Master and replied to in an incredibly short time; the state of the dust, weather, time of day, shipping news and other matters at Williamstown were also asked and ascertained.

We are glad to be able to announce that on and after Monday next, the telegraph will be thrown open for public use on the following terms: namely, for every message under ten words (exclusive of address and signature not charged for), 2s 6d. and 3d. per word for every word over ten; all messages must be legibly written with ink and contain date, address, and proper signature.

On reaching their destination, the words will be copied by a clerk and immediately despatched, as per address, by special messenger, and delivered free within one mile of the respective telegraph offices, porterage being charged for any greater distance; and in the event of messages addressed to ships in the Bay, an additional charge will also be made for boat hire.

All messages will be sent in the order of receipt and no precedence allowed unless on Government or Forces service and announcement of deaths".

The Herald report then proceeded: "We are credibly informed that an estimate has been already prepared for a line to connect Melbourne and the capital of New South Wales; that it can be done for £125 per mile, using rough timber to be everywhere met with for posts; and a company is about being formed for carrying out the work".