Building Australia's First Overland Telegraph Wire

The story of Australia's first overland telegraph wire is told in the documentary Constructing Australia: A Wire Through The Heart (2007). 

It is the tale of two remarkable men – Charles Todd, a scientific genius, and John Stuart, a fearless and dedicated explorer. 

In the mid-1800s Australia was still a very isolated land. Stuart, a migrant from Scotland, was determined to cross the centre of Australia and reach the north coast. Meanwhile, Todd was dreaming of constructing a telegraph line through the heart of the continent. Together they paved the way for a communications revolution. 

A Telegraph Wire to the World

Mathematician Charles Todd, who held the position of Government Astronomer in South Australia, was fascinated with the telegraph, a new and emerging communications technology. In 1855, his fascination led him to link a wire from Adelaide to Port Adelaide, cutting information travel time from one day to one minute. As seen in this clip (narrated by Wendy Hughes), he soon set his sights on farther horizons:

Conquering the Vast Centre

For Todd's dream of connecting Australia to London via telegraph wire to become a reality, it required a pioneering effort to tread a path through the centre of Australia.

In 1860, Scottish-born John Stuart, on his fourth attempt to cross the country from Adelaide to the northern coast, became the first European to reach Australia's centre. However, ill health and lack of water forced him to turn back:

A Race to the Top End

Todd receives news that the Victorian government already has an expedition underway to reach the north coast, led by Burke and Wills, who had set out in August 1860. Stuart is hired by the South Australian government to lead another expedition through the centre of Australia to scout locations for the telegraph wire. By early 1861, the race to the top end was on between the southern states:

A Massive Undertaking

Todd pleads with the South Australian government for funding to construct the telegraph line. But with the forces of nature working against the construction crews, Todd must lead the way:

The telegraph's construction heralded the start of a new communications era every bit as revolutionary as the internet. News from overseas arrived in hours rather than months, securing Adelaide's prime position as the centre for early colonial communications.

Constructing Australia: Wire Through the Heart (2007) © NFSA

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Free Teachers' Notes for Constructing Australia: A Wire Through The Heart are also available from our Educational Resources page.