Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

History Revisited - age of the telegram

GROUNDBREAKING TECHNOLOGY: Telegraph boys, Brisbane, 1870.  Armidale's own office opened in October 1861
As I indicated in my last column, the telegraph spread globally with quite remarkable speed. This was a case where technology directly coincided with an urgent unmet need for rapid communications.

The installation costs of the system on land were relatively low, facilitating rapid construction. Operating and maintenance costs were considerable, but these could be recovered from a marketplace eager for quick communication. The telegram was a classic example of a simple packaged high value product. Creation of undersea cables was expensive and more complex, but by then the demand was there to justify the costs and risks.

The first commercial telegraph system was installed on the Great Western Railway between London and Birmingham in 1837. On 1 May 1844, the first public telephone line between Baltimore and Washington DC opened. In Australia, the first Australian line between Melbourne and Williamtown opened in March 1854.

All the Australian colonies rapidly built lines. In 1858, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were linked. In November 1861, the newly constructed NSW and Queensland lines met at the border, linking all the Eastern colonies.

Demand grew rapidly. New lines had to be added, while relatively small centres were quickly connected.

On the New England, telegraph offices were opened simultaneously on 1 October 1861 in Armidale, Glen Innes and Tenterfield as part of the opening of the progressive opening of the Northern Line. In 1869, a line to Port Macquarie was opened.

Older Armidalians will remember the telegram. It was so much part of or lives that is hard now to realise that our kids know nothing about it!

So, for the younger generation, telegrams were expensive. The cost of the telegram was based on the number or words, a sort of Twitter equivalent, so people kept their messages short.

The expense meant that, for the private person, telegrams were only sent on special occasions; marriages, deaths, anniversaries, congratulations and achievements,

I was in Hobart hitchhiking when my Leaving Certificate results came out. I went to the Hobart GPO to collect my mail, and there were all the telegraphs and other messages congratulating me. I took them back to the boarding house and read and reread the lot. I had no idea so many people were interested.

The link of the telegram with special news made their arrival a matter of great concern. So often, and especially during the two wars, their arrival meant the death of a loved one. A telegram carried fear.

Standing on their doorsteps, people ripped the envelope open to find the worst. The short clipped words carried a message that would change their lives forever. Distressed, they would carry the message indoors, trying to wok out what had to be done, what to do next.

Telegraph traffic peaked in 1945. Now a new competitor, the telephone, had become well entrenched. I will look at this in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 17 June 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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