The Electric Telegraph

This 1857 letter is a key document in the process of establishing a working system for electric telegraphy in the Colony. Telegrams were expensive to send, which meant they were usually reserved for extremely good or bad news, and would be used by governments for important communications where speed was necessary such as with the pursuit of bushrangers.

The Department of Lands and Public Works was charged with the task of constructing the lines and stations, and this document formally requests that the Colonial Secretary contact the Victorian authorities to implement the decision of the Legislative Assembly in relation to a scheme to connect Sydney and Melbourne.
The electric telegraph was a ‘great leap forward’ in communications technology, being the first widely-used ‘instant messaging’ system. It involved the transmission of electric signals (capable of being translated into a message) from location to location over a network of wires. Various versions of the electric telegraph were introduced on a small scale in Britain and the USA during the 1840s, and in 1854 the first telegraph line was laid from Melbourne to Williamstown. This was followed in South Australia with a line from Port Adelaide to Adelaide city in 1856. These telegraph lines were immediately popular, and New South Wales took steps to catch up with the other Colonies in the late 1850s.
Following inspection of operations in Victoria and South Australia, the Legislative Assembly voted on 31 October 1856 to establish a Select Committee to investigate the issue. A report in favour of introducing the electric telegraph to New South Wales was tabled in December 1856, and on 6 January 1857 38,000 pounds was allocated in the 1857 Estimates to allow work to commence.
The second document (last page below) illustrates the rapid expansion of the Electric Telegraph in the colony, with the number or messages sent rising from 9,000 to 74,000 within the first four years.

Source: NRS 905, Colonial Secretary letters Received, 1857. Establishment of the Electric telegraph in NSW – letter from Under Secretary Lands and Public Works, 9 January 1857 Letter No. 57/165, [4/3350]
NRS 12419, [2/886] Electric Telegraph – Report by Superintendent, 1863-64 [2/886]


10th Janry 1857
Under Secretary Lands & Public Works
On the subject of the establishment of the
Electric Telegraph
Department of Land and Public Works
Sydney 9th January 1857
with reference to the address from
the Legislative Assembly date of 30th Ultimo,
on the subject of the establishment of
the Electric Telegraph forwarded under
Blank Cover from your Department
on the 3rd Instant, I am directed to
request that you will have the goodness
to move the Honorable the Colonial Secretary
to invite the Cooperation of the Government
of Victoria in connecting the Cities of
Sydney and Melbourne by Electric
2 I am also directed to state
that it is considered desirable by the
The Under Secretary
Colonial Secretary’s Office
Secretary for Lands and Public Works
that the two systems should in effect
form one, by an union at Albury
and to accomplish this in the most
satisfactory manner it will be necessary
to form a station there which should
be under the joint management
of the two Governments. With regard
to this matter especially it is conceived
that an expression of the views of
the Government of Victoria should be
3 I am add that the Secretary
to the Treasury has been requested
to place the sum of £38,000 on an
additional Estimate for this year for
the purpose of carrying out the report
of the Select Committee on the
establishment of an Electric Telegraph
between Sydney and Melbourne
I have the honor to be
Your most obedient Servant
Michael Fitzpatrick
A copy to be sent
to the Chief Secretary
of Victoria, with
a letter to the
effect suggested
C Secy Melbourne
Mr FitzPatrick
14 Jany 1857
on 1st Feby
Showing the capital invested, number of messages and receipts, from the opening of the first lines in New South Wales, in 1858, to the end of the year 1864.

1858 £ s. d.
Capital Invested – £17,253 12s. 11d.
No. of messages – 9,141 Cash receipts 1,932 19 9
Working expenses 2,087 8 6
Net loss 154 18 9
Number of stations – 11
Capital Invested – £23,816 19s. 9.d
No. of messages – 36,867 Cash receipts 7,826 0 10
Working expenses 4,646 9 9
Net profits 3,179 10 1
Number of stations – 12
Capital Invested – £48,454 2s. 2d.
No. of messages – 53,951 Cash receipts 12,136 13 2
Working expenses 9,408 12 4
Net profit 2,728 0 10
Number of stations – 23
1861 £ s. d.
Capital Invested – £60,615 13s. 3d.
No. of messages – 74,224 Cash receipts 16,542 8 9
Working expenses 12,915 15 4
Net profit 3,626 13 5
Number of stations – 36

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