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Todd completes Telegraph

Video clip synopsis – In 1870 Charles Todd, using explorer John McDouall Stuart's maps, organised and lead three teams to lay the overland telegraph wire.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 6min 15sec
Tags - Adelaide, Australian History, colonisation, Constructing Australia, exploration, national identity, pioneers, telegraph, see all tags


Todd completes Telegraph

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About the Video Clip


Todd completes Telegraph is an excerpt from the film A Wire Through the Heart (55 mins), the third episode of the three-part series entitled Constructing Australia, produced in 2007.

Constructing Australia
Politics, tragedy and conquest combine in stories behind the building of Australia. The Bridge, Pipe Dreams, and A Wire Through the Heart, combine rare archival images with dramatic storytelling in showcasing three landmark events that would allow Australia to mark its place in the world. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Kalgoorlie Pipeline and the Overland Telegraph line were engineering triumphs, but the human drama in constructing Australia is even more fascinating.

Curriculum Focus


A student:
5.1 explains social, political and cultural developments and events and evaluates their impact on Australian life
5.3 explains the changing rights and freedoms of Aboriginal peoples and other groups in Australia
5.5 identifies, comprehends and evaluates historical sources
5.8 locates, selects and organises relevant historical information from a number of sources, including ICT, to undertake historical inquiry
5.9 uses historical terms and concepts in appropriate contexts.

Inquiry questions: What was life like in Australia at the turn of the century?

This material is an extract. Teachers and students should consult the Board of Studies website for more information.

Background Information


In 1870 Charles Todd, using explorer John McDouall Stuart’s maps, organised and lead three teams to lay the overland telegraph wire. In eighteen months Adelaide would be linked to London via the undersea cable to Java and then on through India and so Australia was connected to the world.

The international telegraph link from Java would come ashore at Port Essington, in what is now the Northern Territory. Stuart had provided a route for an overland telegraph line across the forbidding interior of the continent. All that remained was to build a telegraph wire from coast to coast, passing through the arid heart of Australia.

But the logistical problems of construction were immense. The journey alone had nearly killed explorer Burke and his party eight years earlier.

Provisioning and equipping the construction teams was an immense task: insulators, batteries, tools – from axes to shovels to wire cutters – food and medical stores, thousands of iron poles for areas where there was no local timber, and 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometres) of galvanised wire, every yard imported from England.

Each work party included blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, storekeepers, linesmen, surveyors and telegraphers, transported by dozens of wagons and hundreds of horses and bullocks and, in the central section, two caravans of camels.

The southern section ran 500 miles (800 kilometres) north from Port Augusta. The central section – the longest and most difficult – ran through 600 miles (960 kilometres). The northern section – to be built south from Darwin – covered 700 miles (1200 kilometres).

There was no mains electricity to power the telegraph. Instead, every 120-180 miles (200-290 kilometres) along the line there was a repeater station. This was a building where an operator would take down signals and then re-transmit them to the next station.

Each station had its own power supply; a set of glass batteries called Meidinger cells. Each cell produced only about as much electricity as a modern AA battery, so large numbers of them had to be hooked up together to produce the necessary operating power, about 120 volts. The batteries required continuous maintenance. And the line itself was simply No. 8 standard wire gauge galvanised iron wire, like modern fencing wire.

The telegraph wire would spread like gossamer across the desert, and culminate in Todd’s moment of triumph – sending the first 'wire’ through the heart of Australia.

Classroom Activities

    1. At one point the workers on the northern section of the telegraph downed tools because of poor conditions. In pairs, prepare a dramatic scene of dialogue about these problems and how to resolve them, taking place on location between at least one of the workers and Todd. In groups either rehearse and carry out a play reading to the class, or record and edit the scene as a sound file for playback on a computer. For a recording you may wish to add sound effects, music and a voice-over narration.
    2. In pairs, carry out research on the living conditions and work of the people who ran and serviced the ‘repeater stations’ along the telegraph line’s route. Create either a poster display on the subject or write an illustrated magazine article aimed at a young teenage audience
  1. When Todd returned to Adelaide after the telegraph line was built he was given a hero’s welcome. Research this event, then write a set of private diary entries as though you were Todd, putting down in words your own feelings, thoughts and impressions about what you have experienced, and what you may owe to others, especially to the pioneering work carried out by the late Mr John McDouall Stuart, and the debt of gratitude you owe, perhaps, to your wife.
  2. Research and write the definition and purpose of an Environmental Impact Statement and a Feasibility Plan. Drawing on this information, discuss in class whether the undertaking to construct an overland telegraph (or any similar huge project) could be discussed and ‘green-lighted’ by parliament in only 24 hours and then proceed almost immediately in today’s more regulated political, environmental and culturally sensitive climate. Write a report in 400–500 words on what would be required today before embarking on such a project. (You may first wish to examine the issues surrounding the recent completion of the Adelaide-Darwin railway line.)
  3. For a short time from the late 1850s to the 1870s newspaper reporters from Melbourne in Victoria were based in Perth, Western Australia, and were constantly travelling to Adelaide by steamer. Discuss in class the objective of this. Could this be the basis for a new TV action-romance-historical drama series? Working in small teams, put together a production proposal to a major TV network for the first series of episodes based on this exciting period of Australian communications history. Your final presentation may be in any suitable format: oral; desktop-published, printed promotional material; or as one or more web pages.

Further Resources


Richard Evans and Alex West, Constructing Australia, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2007