Telegraph and Telephone

Scottsdale Post and Telegraph Office, 1906 (AOT, PH30/1/2282

The semaphore system was first used to send news around Tasmania, but in 1857 Hobart and Launceston were linked by electric telegraph. It was mainly used by newspapers. In 1859 a submarine telegraph cable was laid under Bass Strait from Cape Otway to King Island, by land across the island then to Circular Head, but only a few messages came through, and the service was soon abandoned due to repeated cable breakages. Ten years later a cable was successfully laid from Low Head to Cape Schanck on the Victorian coast. (The Australia–England telegraph was completed in 1872.) The electric telegraph was extended around the island from the 1860s, reaching even such a remote area as Saltwater River in 1900. Virtually everyone in Tasmania could now send a telegram, though they were expensive and usually kept for special occasions such as births and deaths.

Alexander Bell made the first telephone call in 1876, and the telephone appeared in Tasmania remarkably quickly: Alfred Biggs is credited with making the first long distance telephone call in Australia in 1877, between Campbell Town and Launceston, and Mount Nelson and central Hobart were connected in 1880. Telephone exchanges opened in Hobart and Launceston in 1883, and the telephone was gradually extended from about 1885. Hobart and Launceston were linked by telephone in 1903. Due partly to expense, few people owned telephones at first, but they became more numerous from the 1920s. The Bass Strait phone cable was opened in 1936, enabling interstate calls. The telephone gradually came to country areas – Seven Mile Beach for example did not obtain a service until 1947 – but by about 1950 almost all areas were connected. Manual exchanges were replaced by automatic exchanges. Since the 1980s Tasmania has with the rest of the world seen more change, with easier and cheaper long-distance calling, then mobile phones, which greatly increased phone ownership.

Further reading: W Masters, The semaphore telegraph system of Van Diemen's Land, Hobart, 1973.

Alison Alexander