The forgotten telegraphist
By David Thompson
On the William St wall of the Supreme Court building in Melbourne there is a small plaque, ignored by most passers-by, which commemorates one of the most significant events in the history of Melbourne and indeed Australia.
That was the opening in March 1854 of the first electric telegraph line in Australia between Williamstown and the Telegraph Office on the corner of William and Little Bourke streets.
This was the first link in a network of electronic communication that expanded across Australia and ultimately linked us to the rest of the world.
The electric telegraph was brought to Australia by Samuel Walker McGowan. Born in Ireland in 1829, McGowan moved with his family to Canada and was educated there.
He studied law but later switched his interest to telegraphy. He worked in the USA with Samuel Morse, the inventor of the Morse electric telegraph. In 1852, encouraged by Morse, he decided to bring the telegraph to Australia.
McGowan arrived in Melbourne in May 1853 with a quantity of telegraph equipment. He wasted no time in demonstrating the telegraph, and as a result, in November 1853 he won the contract to build and operate the first electric telegraph line in Victoria (and the first in Australia) between Melbourne and Williamstown. It opened for business in March, 1854, and McGowan became the first Superintendent of the Electric Telegraph in Victoria.
The telegraph quickly gave news of the safe arrival off Williamstown of ships, passengers and cargo. It also allowed the rapid transmission of eagerly awaited news from the outside world, often brought ashore by the port medical officer, the first person to board a newly-arrived vessel.
By December 1854, the telegraph line to Geelong was completed, with the first message to Melbourne giving news of the Eureka Stockade. The telegraph network expanded across Victoria and the other Australian colonies, and the completion of the Overland Telegraph in 1872 linked Australia to the world.
Now news from the rest of the world arrived in hours rather than weeks or months. Businesses could co-ordinate their activities and gain timely information about overseas markets.
Telegraphed time signals allowed the standardisation of time throughout the colonies. Police could transmit information about fleeing criminals faster than the criminals could flee. Telegraphed meteorological data allowed the compilation of weather maps. Even chess matches were conducted by telegraph.
The telegraph even affected horse racing. On October 1, 1859, a special telegraph link to Flemington Racecourse transmitted for the first time the results of the Australian Championship Sweepstakes. Such transmissions became routine, and by 1888, the Australian telegraph network, and the line to New Zealand, would be cleared of all other business to allow unhindered transmission of Melbourne Cup results.
In1902, with the laying of a cable across the Pacific, the telegraph finally “girdled the earth”. The use of the telegraph for government, business, news, and personal purposes had become so widespread that the technology involved was no longer noticed.
In Melbourne, within 50 years, our electronic connections had gone from a single wire stretching 18km to Williamstown, to links to the four corners of the globe. The spider web of land and submarine cables around the world formed the basic infrastructure on which today’s internet has been built.
And what of Samuel McGowan? Sadly, on April 18, 1887, he died after a short illness, less than a week after returning from a year-long trip overseas to study developments in telegraph and telephone technology.
Today, his name is virtually unknown in Melbourne. A headstone in Oakleigh Pioneer Cemetery and a memorial window and plaque in Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Balaclava are among the few reminders of the man himself.
Even the plaque on the wall of the Supreme Court commemorating the opening of the first telegraph line mentions only the event and not the man responsible.