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The Alice Springs Telegraph Station

(Reprint from News: March 13, 2002)

March 13, 2002

 

The first European crazy enough to travel through the deserts of central Australia was a guy named John Stuart, who led a party through the Alice Springs area in 1862 during the first successful south-north crossing of Australia.  Stuart was searching for a fabled inland lake but didn’t find much in central Australia other than sand, rocks, and bush flies.  To top it off, after reaching the northern coast, he almost died on the return trip south.  How a group of men on horses could have crossed 2,000 miles of desert without a map (and without Happy Meals) blew me away.  It’s challenge enough, I thought, to travel through this area in an air-conditioned Camry with a six-speaker stereo system.

 

In 1871, nine years after Stuart’s visit, a telegraph cable was laid under the ocean from the island of Java to Darwin, on Australia’s northern tip, thus linking Australia with the rest of the world.   To carry the messages south across the Australian desert, a dozen telegraph repeater stations were constructed, including one here at Alice Springs, which was the first white settlement in central Australia.  Once the telegraph system was in place, news from London that had taken three months to travel by ship was able to reach Australia in about 12 hours.

 

When it operated between 1871 and the 1930’s, the Alice Springs Telegraph Station was manned 24 hours a day as telegraph operators relayed messages in Morse Code.  Operators wrote down weak messages as they arrived from one direction and then, using a separate keying device, sent these messages down the other line where it was received by the next telegraph station, located a few hundred miles away.  This process was repeated until the message reached the intended destination. 

 

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station is now a historical park and it’s located about a mile north of town, just a few yards from the original springs that were named “Alice” (after the wife of an official in Adelaide).  Many of the original buildings are still there including the Telegraph Room, which plays a continual recording of a Morse Code message.  I listened closely but all the dots and dashes in rapid succession just sounded like gibberish to me and, even with a printed Morse Code guide to the 26 letters to refer to, I couldn’t decipher a single letter.  It amazed me that anyone could listen to that staccato and translate it into English.  Considering that a message from London was copied and relayed perhaps 30 times before it finally reached Australia several hours later, I wondered how often a message like, “The Queen is ill” got garbled into “Old dogs are blue.”

 

Morse Code, of course, isn’t used anymore except to earn a merit badge in the Boy Scouts.  However, the same “on-off” principal laid the foundation for modern computer and digital technology, including modems and fiber-optic communications.  I think Samuel Morse would be proud... and so, probably, would Alice.

 

2-2821_Original_Alice_Springs.jpg (49465 bytes)    2-2818_Telegraph_Station.jpg (28263 bytes)    2-2814_Telegraph_Station_Alice.jpg (30661 bytes)

Above left:  These are the original Alice Springs on the Charles River.

Above center:  The original telegraph building, a few yards away.  Note the telegraph wires.

Above right:  Here's the telegraph room, which plays a continual recording of an actual Morse Code message.  It all sounded like Greek to me, though.

 

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