From Telegraph To Telephone

First auto exchange queensland south brisbane

Brisbane Courier 10th July 1925. (TROVE)

With today’s widespread use of smart phones, high speed internet and social media, it’s interesting to look at the equivalent technologies of yesteryear. The postal service was of course a major form of communication, as discussed in another post, Letter to the Editor – The Postal Service .

A telegraph line from Sydney to Brisbane was completed in 1861 and the network gradually spread across the colony over the next 20 years or so. The Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin was completed in 1872, connecting Australia to the world with the completion of an undersea cable from Darwin to Java the following year. However telegrams were very expensive and for a long time were restricted to Government and large business use.

telegraph operator bulwer island 1899

Telegraph operator, Bulwer Island 1899. (State Library of Queensland)

Telegram usage peaked in 1945 and then gradually declined. However when I went to primary school in the 1960s, we were still taught how to reduce a message to the bare minimum to avoid a high cost telegram as they were charged by the word. A common use of telegrams in these last decades was for congratulatory messages relating to major life events such as births, marriages and graduations.

Here’s a 1919 telegram from concerned parents of Dornoch Terrace, Highgate Hill to the Army in Melbourne looking for news of their son who had been a prisoner of war in Germany. ( See a previous post Lest We Forget – Highgate Hill )

anzac telegram crowther pow

A telegram sent from the Crowther family of Dornoch Terrace, Highgate Hill to the Army in Melbourne enquiring about their POW son Cecil.

Newspapers were a major form of social media,  and reported a wide range of events. Readers placed notices to organise gatherings such as “at homes”. My post on our Highgate Hill house, Glenview – A Highgate Hill House circa 1883 , gives examples of these.

Castlemaine-Perkins initiated the first local telephone service in Queensland with a dedicated link between their Queen Street offices and the brewery at Milton. The first telephone exchange in Queensland was opened in 1880.

The 1883 Queensland phone directory contains only about 170 entries, the vast majority being related to Government and business with only a few private subscribers.

As the telegraph and telephone networks grew, the use of aerial cabling changed streetscapes considerably as can be seen in the view of Elizabeth Street, Brisbane in 1910. Thankfully, later the use of underground telephone cables became common.

elizabeth street 1900 poles

A view of Elizabeth Street Brisbane showing the extent of aerial cabling existing in 1900. (State Library of Queensland)

By 1910, the phone directory had grown to 66 pages. Our little suburb of Highgate Hill boasted around 25 entries. Some of the well-to-do of the district had telephones in their homes. These included James Allen ( James Allen, Brisbane Retail Pioneer 1938 ), Charles O’Reilly (Toonarbin), Ernest Baynes ( A Strawberry Afternoon Tea Highgate Hill 1905 ) and George Nicol ( Of Tobacconists, Brewers and Other Things ), all subjects of previous posts, as noted.

You could reach the home of the Senior Inspector of Police in Gladstone Road by asking the operator for phone number “6”. The reservoir Turn Cock ( Highgate Hill Reservoir 1889 ) had a phone connection. There was one public telephone in the suburb located in Ernest Barstow’s butcher shop on Hampstead Road. There was a butcher here until the 1990s when the two shops were incorporated as professional offices in a redevelopment of the site. Interestingly, at the time of writing there was still a public telephone just outside, 110 years later.

shops hampstead road 2019

Highgate Hill’s first public telephone was in the right hand shop, then a butcher. There’s still a public phone nearby, visible on the right of the photo.

The first few forward thinking small businesses of Highgate Hill had a phone. These included a plumber in Blakeney Street, a baker on Deighton Road, a brush manufacturer in Brighton Road and the Misses Morris and Cruise, nurses, who ran a private hospital on Gladstone Road.

The phone system was manual. To establish a call, a signal was sent to the exchange by winding the phone’s handle to alert the operator who would then connect the call to the number requested. The new occupation of telephonist opened up significant employment opportunities for women as it was considered a respectable and socially acceptable job.

telephonists working at the brisbane central telephone exchange brisbane 1910 blog

Telephonists working at the Brisbane central telephone exchange, 1910. (Queensland State Library)

At this stage however, the phone was definitely regarded as a tool to be used in business hours as indicated by this note in the 1910 directory.

Notice in the Brisbane 1910 Telephone Directory

Notice in the Brisbane 1910 Telephone Directory (State Library of Queensland)

Automatic telephone technology allowing users to make their own phone calls had been invented way back in the 1890s by the American undertaker, Almon Strowger. However it wasn’t until 1925 that Brisbane saw its first installation. This was housed in a purpose built building in Vulture Street and it served the Southside including South Brisbane, West End and Highgate Hill. It was demolished a few years ago to allow the construction of an access road into the Lady Cilento Hospital.

Vulture Street 1930

A new exchange building was erected in Vulture Street in 1925 to house Queensland’s first automatic exchange. It’s visible on the far right of this image. (State Library of Queensland)

The service, requiring users to initiate calls by using a dial on the front of the telephone, had a mixed reception. Even before the service started, criticisms from other cities were published.

Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 - 1933), Friday 20 February 1925,

Brisbane Courier 20th February 1925. (Trove)

Others welcomed the ability to avoid using an operator.

Western Champion (Barcaldine, Qld. : 1922 - 1937), Saturday 1 Au

Western Champion (Barcaldine), Saturday 1 August 1925. (TROVE)

Other automatic exchanges around Brisbane followed soon after allowing widespread direct dialling. Many years later, Robert Metcalfe proposed that the utility of a network increases with the square of the number of users and this factor contributed to the steady growth in the numbers of telephones in service.

The AW37 type telephone

The AW37 type telephone was widely used around Australia as automatic service was introduced.

However, even in the 1930s and 1940s having the phone connected wasn’t that common. My father remembered as a boy having to run to neighbours’ houses to tell them someone was wishing to speak to them on my grandparent’s phone . Grandad had the phone connected as he had built a tennis court in the backyard and used to take bookings by phone (see another post Tennis ).

Advertising in the 1930s emphasise the utility of the telephone. By this time table top phones were available.

telephone ad telegraph 7 6 1937

The Telegraph, Brisbane 7th June 1937 (TROVE).

Advertisements even ventured into the social stigma of not having a home phone.

Telephone advertisement 1936

Telegraph, Brisbane 4th June 1936 (TROVE)

Calls to other locations in Australia continued to require an operator until subscriber trunk dialling was introduced in the 1960s followed by international dialling in the 1970s.

advertisement STD 1972

The Australian Women’s Weekly, 13th September 1972

The number of fixed phones in Australia peaked in the 2000s and has been steadily dropping ever since mainly due to the use of newer technology, especially mobile phones and social media.

Brisbane has an interesting  Telecommunications Museum  at Clayfield if you are interested in this topic.

One thought on “From Telegraph To Telephone

  1. Pingback: Highgate Hill Reservoir 1889 | Highgate Hill and Its History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s