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

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

History Revisited - telephone links towns

REVOLUTIONARY: Alexander Graham Bell demonstrates the first telephone connection between New York and Chicago in 1892. In Australia, Melbourne and Sydney were not linked until 1907.
In December 1877, E. C. Cracknell, Superintendent, Electric Telegraphs, in New South Wales successfully transmitted songs and music over the 224 km distance between West Maitland and Sydney using telegraph wires. Late in May the following year while Cracknell was visiting Armidale, there was a partially successful attempt to establish telephone communications between the Armidale and Uralla telegraph offices.

Those dates are quite remarkable.

Alexander Graham Bell first achieved transmission of intelligible speech over wire on 10 March 1876. According to Keith Munro who has recorded the history of country telephonists, details of Bell’s invention were published in the English Mechanic and World of Science of 6 April 1877 and then the Scientific American of 6 October 1877.

As soon as those publications reached Australia, both private individuals and those in the telegraph world began to experiment, constructing telephones based on the magazine articles. The potential value was clear to all, including those in the United States who triggered massive patent and political battles fighting for control of the technology.

In 1880, the first working telephone exchanges were established in Melbourne and Brisbane, followed by Sydney in 1881. The telephone age was dawning.

Despite the very early date of that experiment linking Uralla and Armidale, telephony was a little slower reaching the North. Graziers were especially early adopters, for this aided business.

Early in the 1890s, a transformer became available that allowed voice transmission over single wire telegraph lines. Over the next decade, lines were slung across paddocks to homesteads, allowing transmission of telegraphs and instructions.

Older Armidale residents may well remember those lines. Often sagging, the poles ancient and sometimes moss covered, they helped form the base of country communications.

The first Armidale service dates to 31 October 1891 when a line was installed between the Armidale Railway Station and the Goods Shed. Then came a gap until 1896 when a second line was installed between the Armidale Hospital and the Infectious Hospital. This was on the corner of O’Dell and Donnelly Streets.

Another gap, and then in 1899 a line was installed between the Hospital and Dr Sheldon’s surgery. In August 1901, the first Tablelands’ telephone exchange opened at Armidale. By the end of 1914, there were fifteen exchanges dotted across the Tablelands.

Those exchanges changed our lives for better and worse. They created new patterns of social interaction, of communications, of working, of politics. They speeded life up.

Later, with further technological advances that speeded life would become the whirly gig we know today. In the meantime, a very specific world was created that would, in it’s turn, be swept away.

In my last column in this series, I will look at some of the social aspects of the telephone.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 24 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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