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A Telegraph Line across the Continent

Video clip synopsis – The story of the struggle to cross a vast continent and build the telegraph line that would bring Australia to the world and the world to Australia.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 1min 53sec
Tags - Adelaide, Australian History, colonisation, Constructing Australia, exploration, Indigenous Australia, indigenous cultures, national identity, pioneers, telegraph, see all tags


A Telegraph Line across the Continent

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About the Video Clip


A Telegraph Line across the Continent 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


This is the story of the struggle to cross a vast continent and build the telegraph line that would bring Australia to the world and the world to Australia – the epic story of constructing Australia’s overland telegraph.

In the mid 1800s Australia was a land isolated by distance and divided between two very different cultures. John McDouall Stuart, a migrant from Scotland, was determined to cross the centre of Australia and reach the north coast. His success would pave the way for a communications revolution.

Charles Todd had dreamt of constructing a telegraph line through the heart of the continent and in Stuart he found the man who could prove the inhospitable centre could be crossed. 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 position as the centre for early colonial communications.

It made Todd a hero, but Stuart, the man who made it possible, was destroyed by the hardships he had endured and died in obscurity.

Classroom Activities

  1. Construct a timeline of the important events that occurred during the construction of the telegraph line – include events you consider relevant to an understanding of the opening up of communications between Australia and the world via telegraph. Begin with the arrival of John McDouall Stuart in Australia in 1838 and conclude in 1872 with the connection of Charles Todd’s telegraph line to the British Telegraph submarine cable extending from Java (in Indonesia). Add a paragraph outlining what you believe to be the importance of this concluding historical moment both to Australians at the time and today.
  2. 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).
  3. After further research, discuss in class and then write your own report about the colonial attitudes expressed in the South Australian parliament and by the newspapers towards the Aboriginal populations of the interior, after Stuart reported he had been attacked by a party of Waramungu warriors. Why do you think these attitudes were held and do you think that at the time they were understandable?

Further Resources


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