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Video clip synopsis – Charles Todd dreamt of constructing a telegraph line through the heart of the continent.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 4min 59sec
Tags - Adelaide, Australian History, colonisation, Constructing Australia, migrants, national identity, pioneers, telegraph, see all tags


Todd's Telegraph Dream

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About the Video Clip


Todd’s Telegraph Dream 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.

Background Information


London born son of a grocer and tea merchant, Charles Todd demonstrated very early his ability in mathematics and astronomy. At the age of 15 he gained a junior position at the Greenwich Observatory. The observatory was experimenting with the use of the electric telegraph to transmit time signals, and Todd was fascinated by the potential of this new apparatus. In 1855, when the government of South Australia decided to employ a superintendent of telegraphy, Todd was recommended for the position.

When Charles Todd arrived in Adelaide, the British Empire was at its zenith, and young men were flocking to the colonies in search of adventure, fame and fortune. The mother country was six months by sea, and Australia it seemed was six months behind in news and fashion, scientific breakthroughs and new technologies.

Todd, a mathematical talent, took up the position of Government Astronomer. But his fascination for the telegraph, the newly emergent communications technology, soon led him to link a wire from Adelaide to Port Adelaide, cutting information travel time from one day to one minute.

The electric telegraph is based on a simple technology. Connect one end of a wire to a battery or other electric power source and the other end to something to show that current a flowing, like a light bulb, and then earth it. At the battery end, attach a simple switch, and use it to connect and then break the electrical circuit. Almost instantaneously the light bulb will go on and off.

By using Morse code to turn the light on and off watching the light bulb, you can easily send complex messages over long distances.

Remembered for his role in constructing the remarkable overland telegraph, Todd also made an important contribution to connecting Western Australia to the telegraph system in the 1870s, and to the development of scientific meteorology in Australia.

Classroom Activities

    1. Research and draw a map of the main features of Adelaide around the time Charles and Alice Todd arrived there in 1855. Find out more about Adelaide and its population in the mid-19th century, then write a short general description of colonial life at that time for most of the city’s citizens. For example, what were the main choices and types of employment? Was Adelaide a violent, male-oriented, heavy-drinking society? Was life for women difficult? Was Adelaide primarily made up of British-born subjects? Did it attract immigrants and former convicts?
    2. You are the editor of an Adelaide newspaper. In 350–400 words write an editorial piece insisting that the South Australian colonial government do everything in its power to make its own colony the hub of news telecommunications across Australia and to the outside world, and how it may be funded. Give reasons in favour of this argument. (Remember that until 1901 there was no federal government in existence to raise taxes and to finance colonial building and construction.)
  1. Place yourself in the shoes, metaphorically, of a young married Englishwoman such as Alice Todd, arriving in the Australian colonies in 1855, knowing that when you post a letter to your family in England it may be nearly a year before you receive a reply. Plan and write a set of personal diary entries about your feelings, perhaps your sense of separation, and your excitement at the awareness that the next mail ship, carrying news from home, is approaching port.
  2. In pairs or small groups carry out some technical research then plan and create an illustrated magazine article aimed at young teenagers on how telegraphic messages are transmitted and received. You will need to include a description of how Morse code works. The general thrust of your article may be how the telegraph was an essential forerunner of modern computer and internet telecommunications, without which, where would we be today?
  3. Before the coming of the across-Australia telegraph in 1872, much shorter, more local telegraph lines had been built in various parts of the country. In pairs, carry out research into the early history of Australian telecommunications and write a report on when and where other telegraph lines were constructed prior to the 1870s, whether any of them were inter-linked into networks (or in fact if it was even possible to link them), and whether they were state-owned or privately financed and owned (for example, by newspaper proprietors).

Further Resources


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