Geoffrey Blainey’s book The Tyranny of Distance has rightly entered the Australian psyche as shorthand for an important facet of Australian history. Australia IS a long way from everywhere else – half a world away from the ‘mother country’, England, and just as far from the eastern United States. This meant that up until very recently communications with these places was difficult and expensive. The 1870’s were a significant era for Australia following the introduction of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal which massively reduced travel times from Europe and the arrival of the undersea telegraph from Singapore allowing for the same day transmission of news from the heart of the Empire.
The undersea Telegraph to Darwin became operational on October 22 1872 and on the Saturday of that week the Argus noted that the quickest telegram yet received from London had taken 10 hours to be transmitted from Reuters in London to the Australian Associated Press in Melbourne. Despite the arrival of this technological marvel the Argus could not foresee a future where Australia could be in instantaneous communication with London but thought that receiving news within a few hours would be achievable.
Even in the late 1880’s Australia’s single telegraphy line to Singapore was sufficiently vital that a British author could base the plot of a projected joint Russo / Chinese invasion of Melbourne (on Cup Day, the fiends!) around their navy first severing the telegraphy link, once again casting Australia into the communicative darkness. Sadly, as he had not visited Victoria in thirty years, his insights on life in Mordialloc were limited.
The telegraph line connecting Australia with the rest of the world enabled newspapers to keep up with current events of interest to the British Empire and even beyond the British sphere so that Australian editorialists were able to offer their famously jingoistic threats to dastardly foreigners. “We warn the Kaiser”… thunders the Upcountry Advocate, no doubt striking fear into the hearts of military planners in Berlin.
And that was pretty much how matters generally rested until well after the Second World War. Regularly scheduled week long flights to London had begun to be offered from Sydney in 1938 but for most any travel to Europe was still by boat. Radio was able to broadcast news within Australia from off the wires and services such as Movietone News were able to give moviegoers weekly updates with moving pictures on world significant events such as wars and Royal Weddings, as well as provide light frothy gossip about movie stars. For the average Australian the rest of the world was still a very long way away and incredibly difficult to engage with.
In 1950, over the whole year, three international telegrams arrived in Australia for each resident. A telegram is best considered as the equivalent of a tweet and they were charged heavily on a per word basis. Similarly, seven international postal items per resident arrived in Australia during 1950 and international mail was both slow and expensive. For the purpose of comparison think of a letter as equivalent to a blog post or a day’s worth of Facebook updates. That was it, over an entire year; and these averages conceal the fact that for almost all Australians the relevant number in each case would have been zero with many communications being Government or business related. The private communications which occurred were most likely between recent migrants to Australia or those posted to Australia for work purposes and their homeland.
Three tweets and seven Facebook updates or blog posts from overseas is something Australians in 2013 can experience for free (monthly service fee) in half an hour of idle computer browsing. This is a very different and more engaged world that we now live in, and it is a very recent thing – a 21st century thing.
Overseas telephone conversations were literally unheard of in 1950, possibly excluding some secure lines between senior levels of government. From memory we still considered it a very special treat to chat for 15 minutes with friends in the US in the late 1990’s and it was often done at a dinner party with the phone being passed around the guests. Even then it cost enough that you did not do it too often.
The humble telegram remained as a significant, if rare, medium of communication with the rest of the world until well into the 1980’s before being supplanted by email. Little Heroes caught that sense of massive Australian isolation – One Perfect Day I’ll get your telegram.
The telegram in Australia finally died in 2011 after living an eerie diminishing half life for 20 years or so as a scripted part of the wedding reception.