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Telegraph Todd: the Unknown South Australian Legend

Sir Charles Todd

It’s SA history month, so Fritz has done a little bit of digging and discovered one of the most underrated of our early South Australian legends. Telegraph Todd, aka Charles Todd, was the telecommunications king who connected Australia to England – and the world. We probably should know about this guy, right?

The Overland Telegraph Line has been described as the ‘the most significant feat of engineering in 19th century Australia’ and has been likened to the rolling out of Australian NBN.

Cast your mind back, not quite to the dark ages, but close enough. In our modern age of immediate information, it’s hard to imagine life before high-speed internet. Pre-telegraph technology, communications were dictated by time, tides, man and beast. News and government communications from England usually took from three to five months. Even the communication between the colonies suffered that time lapse, with much of Australia unmapped, and lacking roads or infrastructure – making travel a dangerous and lengthy ordeal.

South Australian Legend Charles Todd Charles Todd

With the introduction of the telegraph, information was relayed in what must have seemed a miraculously short period. The equivalent in today’s terms would be like new technology making a flight from Adelaide to London possible in only a few hours. It’s mind-boggling to think of the slowness of communication interstate and internationally.

Arguably the father of modern communications in Australia, Todd connected Australia not just on a national level but to the rest of the world. Born in England in 1826, Charles Todd became one of South Australia’s staunchest supporters, adopting the state as his home and doing much to shore up its importance on a national and international level.

He arrived in Port Adelaide on 4 November 1855 and started building the (official) telegraph line connecting Port Adelaide to Adelaide but dreamt of a much bigger project – the Overland Telegraph Line.

It’s mind-boggling to think of the slowness of communication interstate and internationally.

Todd had to deal with a quagmire of bureaucracy, vocal criticism from the various colonial governments, local opposition and of course, that age-old antagonism toward new ideas. Eventually, Todd received the go-ahead and began the end of Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world.

Building and connecting the telegraph route was a monumentally complex task. It involved negotiations between the Australian states, depended on England for funding and was beset by difficulties and setbacks from beginning to end.

Todd didn’t only plan and organise it, he also did the hard yards, surveying much of the route himself. Due to a dodgy local hire quitting mid job, Todd had to travel to NT from SA and oversee the project while still masterminding the overall connection. It took years.

Biographer Denis Cryle – an Emeritus professor of CQUniversity – recently launched his book Behind the Legend: The Many Worlds of Charles Todd in Adelaide, to honour the city that shaped Todd’s life.

We had a read to find out some interesting tidbits…

  • Alice Springs was named after his wife, Alice Bell.
  • Todd’s son in law, William Henry Bragg, and grandson William Lawrence Bragg, were both Nobel Prize winners.
  • Todd was a polymath and held expertise in astronomy, meteorology, electrical engineering, telecommunications, surveyance and postal service infrastructure.
  • Also known as the Government Electrician, Todd aided efforts to bring electricity to the colony while helping to create the first electrical engineering course in Australia, right here in Adelaide.
  • Supervising the building of the clock on Adelaide’s GPO, Todd was the South Australian Postmaster General and timekeeper.
  • Charles Todd led a long life of public service. Calm, courteous, not prone to bouts of ego or histrionics, Todd was a soothing (and pro-South Australian) presence during the disruptive Federation times.
  • A keen and generous collaborator, Todd always championed his collaborator’s efforts in any praise he received for his work.
  • For the time, Todd was quite progressive in his attitudes, particularly towards women in the workforce and in his treatment towards the Indigenous population. Todd left specific instructions not to disrupt or displace Aboriginal camps or burial grounds on the proposed route of the Overland Telegraph. Sadly, this was often ignored.
  • Todd started the recording of rainfall levels, and this was the earliest beginnings of climate studies, pioneering long-term climate patterns and the production of weather maps.
  • Todd was an actual timelord. Legit title.
  • Todd was knighted at the age of 67 for his pioneering work in telegraphy.
  • Most importantly, and what makes him a true South Australian hero in Fritz’ eyes, Todd was a lover of puns.

Did you ever wonder where the animosity between Victoria and South Australia grew? Our man Todd has a place in that.

Sir Charles Todd Astronomy

Setting out in 1868 to map the telegraph line connecting Adelaide to Sydney, Todd discovered that the Victorian border was encroaching on more than three kilometres of South Australian land. Naturally, we South Australians demanded it back. Just as naturally, Victoria declined. It ended with South Australia getting stiffed by Victoria. This argument became known as the Disputed Territory and an ancient and long-lasting rivalry was born.

Todd died in Semaphore, 1910 and is buried at North Road cemetery next to his wife, his final resting place marked with a plain tombstone. An unremarkable gravesite reflects his nature to downplay his achievements, belying his remarkable life.

South Australia’s History Festival is a fitting time to remember the originator of the information age in Australia.

The historical information in this article come from Denis Cryle’s biography, Behind the Legend: The Works of Charles Todd, you can find it at booktopia.com.au, or online. It’s a highly engaging account of this remarkable South Australian and his place in early Australian science, civil development and history.

Smiley Fritz

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