State Library of South Australia
Manning Index of South Australian History
  • South Australia
  • Adelaide
  • Port Adelaide
  • Place Names

  • About the Index
  • Searching
  • Text-based menus
    (Use this option if your browser will not open the folders.)

    South Australia - Communications


    Also see Adelaide - Streets - Miscellany.

    An Essay on Telephones

    (Taken from Geoffrey H. Manning's A Colonial Experience)

    When one searches for the person upon whom to bestow the honour of introducing the telephone to South Australia a dilemma is encountered. It has been said that Mr A.W. Dobbie was the first to bring the telephone 'before the public in the antipodes' in late 1877, having constructed it 'from the drawings and descriptions of the Bell telephone in the Scientific American.' In his first experiment at his home in College Town 'a conversation took place along a wire about a quarter of a mile in length.'

    At about the same time Sir Charles Todd 'constructed and brought into working order Bell's telephone' and conducted a number of 'interesting experiments', one of which saw him communicating with the post office in Adelaide from his home in Semaphore when 'the telephone proved quite as effective in the transmission of vocal music as in the case of ordinary conversation.'

    Another man who must vie for the honour is Mr C.A. Unbehaun. He was 25 years of age when Sir Charles Todd decided that he was the man to 'introduce the new means of communication to South Australia', but he was already holding an important post with the Telegraph Department in New South Wales.

    Always of a progressive nature, as a lad and tired of the humdrum existence of a sewing machine mechanic, to which trade he had been apprenticed in his native town of Rudelstadt, Germany, when he was 14 years old he ran away and, after many hardships and adventures, found his way to New York.

    The training he had received stood him in good stead and he became associated with the Singer Sewing Machine Company and, in the course of his duties, travelled over a great part of the United States. Having met Dr Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the modern electric telephone, Mr Unbehaun became deeply interested in the invention and enthusiastically took up the new work.

    When the Franco-Prussian war began Mr Unbehaun, in common with other young men of German nationality, was called to the colours. A man of strong principles at all times, he refused to plead disability, but stated frankly to the German authorities that he was opposed to the war, which he believed to be unjust and unnecessary, and definitely refused to return to the fatherland. For this he was formally ostracised in Germany and all his legal and civil rights were forfeited.

    His adventurous disposition and love of civil freedom turned his thoughts towards the new world and in the early 1870s he worked his passage to Sydney, where intimate knowledge of the telephone system, which he had gained from Dr Bell himself, was of inestimable value.

    He entered the NSW Telegraph Department as an instrument fitter to assist in the equipment of the operating room in the Sydney Post office which was then being built. In 1877 he was transferred to Adelaide at the request of Sir Charles Todd. There were only eight instruments of the Simplex-Morse system in the Adelaide telegraph operating room when he arrived, and there was no dynamos, electric motors, electric lighting, typewriters or telephones. By Christmas Day of 1877 two instruments 'made and installed by Mr Unbehaun' for experimental purposes were in the precincts of the General Post Office, Adelaide.

    It was not until 14 May 1883 that the first telephone exchange was established. The system had a corner of the telegraph operating room as its headquarters and from that small beginning the present elaborate network of lines giving interstate, as well as metropolitan and country communication, has been evolved.

    Mr Unbehaun's early faith in the vast possibilities of the telephone have never faltered, and that first pair of instruments, which he had personally completed and installed six years before the first exchange was opened, proved the forerunner of a new era in the commercial and social life of the State. Indeed, every fresh improvement which could help towards that end found in him an ardent champion.

    While the exciting experiments were being conducted in Adelaide, amateur enthusiasts were at work in the country areas. In the winter of 1881 Reverend W.T. Carter, a Methodist stationed at Melrose, arranged entertainments at several places to demonstrate the working of the phone. One of these was given in the Methodist Church at Amyton, about 20 miles from Melrose. A farm house about a mile distant was linked up with the church, the using of an ordinary wire fence being the novel feature in the connection.

    The fence was connected with a wire to the house at one end and at the other a wire was taken from the fence across the road into the building and around the walls. To this wire were attached about twelve receiving telephones. The audience in the church by passing them from one to another were able to enjoy the efforts of the choir, although it was a mile distant.

    One of the items of interest was the phonograph and the songs, solos, speeches, etc., that it reproduced. Dr Mitchell of Melrose was chairman of the gathering and one of the items rendered by the instrument was 'Rule, Britannia' which had been sung into the machine by the genial doctor.

    When a similar entertainment was given at Melrose, the hall was connected with the telephone line and at nine o'clock the chimes of the post office clock in Adelaide were heard distinctly by the audience. Sir Charles Todd also sent messages over the 'phone to the people, The instruments were borrowed from the authorities and Sir Charles Todd and his staff did all in his power to assist Mr Carter to make his novel and instructive entertainments a thorough success.

    The 48 subscribers, who had accepted Mr Todd's invitation of 14 May 1883, to apply for connection with Adelaide's first telephone exchange occasionally wandered around to see what really happened when they 'tinkled', gave the number they wished to speak to and hung up again, to await the announcement that the connection had been established. They were not much enlightened when they did see it.

    All that was visible on a magneto board was a series of panels studded with holes and a tidy tangle of cords, plugs and counterpoises. Having found that young females had more pleasing voices and, if carefully chosen, better manners than youths, the exchange was in charge of two young ladies between 9 am and 8 pm and a high compliment was paid to Len Griffiths who had assisted at the installation of the board when he was put in charge at night.

    As was fitting Government House was No. 1; then followed officials, the observatory, detective office and hospital, with John Hill & Company the first private subscriber. Rates were stiff enough at 12 a year within half a mile of the exchange and an extra 25 shillings for every additional quarter mile, but subscribers might talk all day and every day if they wished.

    Next year there was an exchange of 21 subscribers at the Port, but there was an extra 10 a year for connection with that as well as Central. The additional wonders of trunk lines to Kapunda and Willunga followed simultaneously with semi-private connections.

    A shrewd publicist, as well as an enterprising organiser, Mr Todd proved himself. Conversaziones and telephone concerts, in which one performer sang to piano accompaniment at Willunga, another to violin obbligato at Kapunda, popularised his innovation and at the end of seven months he had 300 subscribers and had persuaded city and suburban councils to overlook unsightly poles in the streets with their ever-growing network of wires.

    His invention and resource were unlimited. A service was opened at the Jubilee Exhibition, country facilities were inaugurated with a three-subscriber at Gawler and subscribers provided with 'whispering trumpets' at a rental of five shillings a year - large affairs of impressive appearance designed to ensure secrecy, though the whispering feature was, more or less, a matter of imagination, since there was no amplification of speech.

    Mail steamers at Largs Bay anchorage were connected with their agents' office by means of a telephone at the end of the Semaphore jetty, whence there ran a cable to a protected terminal on a buoy several miles out at sea.

    General Notes

    Reminiscences of the introduction of the telephone are in the Register,
    22 May 1923, page 4e,
    7 February 1924, page 10d,
    "Early Telephones" is in The News,
    27 March 1930, page 12f.

    "Our Telephones - A Record of Progress" is in the Register on
    16 and 23 July 1910, pages 6b and 11g' (includes photographs),
    "Our First Telephone" is in the Advertiser,
    26 October 1931, page 8i; also see
    9 August 1938.

    "The Bell Telephone in Adelaide" is in the Register,
    22 December 1877, page 5g and
    5, 7 and 17 January 1878, pages 5c, 5d and 5a;
    29 January 1878, page 5c and
    20 February 1878, page 5b,
    1 and 16 March 1878, pages 5c and 5d,
    27 May 1880, page 4e,
    24 August 1881, page 5c,
    19 August 1878, page 2d,
    1 October 1878, page 2c.

    "Who Introduced the Telephone [to South Australia]" is in the Register,
    1 July 1911, page 14f.

    "An Hour With the Telephone" is in the Observer,
    2 February 1878, page 19a.

    A telephone experiment between Adelaide and Gawler is reported in the Observer,
    9 March 1878, page 11d.

    A lecture given by Mr A.W. Dobbie is reported in the Observer,
    11 October 1879, page 11e.

    "The Telephone" is in the Register,
    27 May 1880, page 4e.

    "The Telephone Bill" is in the Register,
    12 August 1881, page 5a.

    "The Adelaide Exchange" is in the Register,
    3 August 1880, page 5a,
    7 August 1880, page 208e,
    "Telephone Regulations" on
    17 December 1881, page 30c.
    21 January 1882, page 7d.

    A telephonic "soiree" is reported in the Register,
    24 August 1881, page 5c.

    "Commercial Use of the Telephone" is in the Register,
    13 January 1882, page 5a,
    "Use of the Telephone" on
    25 January 1882, page 5a.

    "Telephone Exchange" is in the Register,
    4 April 1883, page 5a,
    15 May 1883, pages 4g-5a,
    "New Telephone Regulations" on
    8 September 1883, page 4g.

    "Telephony in South Australia" is in the Observer,
    26 July 1884, page 42d.
    An editorial on the telephone is in the Advertiser,
    22 September 1884, page 4e; also see
    2 February 1887, page 2b.

    "Overhead Wires" is in the Express,
    24 September 1884, page 6c.

    "Telephone Improvements" is in the Register,
    16 April 1885, page 5a; also see
    26 August 1889, page 4h.

    "A Glimpse at Our Telephone System" is in the Register on
    6 January 1891, page 6a and a
    "New Telephone Exchange" on
    10 and 19 July 1894, pages 7a and 6b,
    "The Telephone System" on
    3 November 1898, page 4h.

    "The Public and the Telephone" is in the Express,
    10 July 1894, page 2e.

    "Popularise the Telephone" is in the Register,
    18 July 1899, page 4g; also see
    17 and 25 April 1900, pages 4c and 4f,
    1 and 16 June 1900, pages 4f and 8a,
    19 September 1901, page 4c,
    31 March 1905, page 7c,
    7 May 1908, page 7e.

    "The Telephone" is in the Register,
    1 June 1900, page 4f.

    Photographs of the Adelaide Exchange are in the Chronicle,
    4 April 1903, page 42,
    of laying underground telephone lines on
    10 March 1906, page 31; also see
    20 November 1909, page 28.

    "Telephones to Country Towns" is in the Advertiser,
    17 May 1905, page 6b; also see
    29 June 1905, page 1g.

    "Telephone Rates" is in the Register,
    31 March 1905, page 7c.

    "The Telephone System" is in the Advertiser,
    13 December 1905, page 7f,
    "Telephone System - Projected Improvements" on
    7 March 1906, page 10b.

    "Our Telephones - Their Use and Abuse" is in the Register,
    2 February 1904, page 6b.

    "New Telephone System" is in the Register,
    16 March 1906, page 4f.

    "The Telephone - Its Uses and Abuses" is in the Register,
    24 November 1906, page 8e.

    "Telephones and Language" is in the Register,
    19 January 1907, page 6e.

    "Adelaide Telephone Wiring - To Be Placed Underground" is in the Express,
    30 January 1906, page 3h,
    "Telephone Etiquette - How to Improve the System" is in the Express,
    24 February 1906, page 1e,
    "Telephone Tentacles" on
    7 June 1907, page 4e.

    "Full Telephone Board" is in the Advertiser,
    31 July 1906, page 6d,
    "The Telephone Toll System" on
    6 April 1907, page 6g,
    27 March 1909, page 12d,
    22 June 1909, page 6f,
    30 August 1910, page 1i,
    "New System of Telephones" in the Advertiser, on
    26 April 1909, page 4e.

    A presentation to Miss Hoar, Senior Monitor, is reported in the Register,
    24 October 1906, page 5a.

    "SA Telephones - The Advantages of the Toll System" is in the Register,
    28 February 1908, page 3h.

    "Telephone Service - New Apparatus" is in the Register,
    16 March 1909, page 4i.

    "Installing a New System" is in the Express,
    24 February 1910, page 1f.

    "Adelaide to Melbourne Telephone" is in the Register,
    25 July 1914, page 15c.

    "The Telephone Girl" is in the Advertiser,
    28 April 1909, page 6f,
    2 February 1923, page 8e,
    "A Telephone Boom" on
    19 May 1923, page 13d.

    A visit to the Adelaide telephone exchange is reported in the Register on
    17 July 1884, page 6a; also see
    29 July 1884, page 6a.
    "The Telephone, A Government Monopoly and Extortion" appears on
    7 July 1890, page 6f

    "Popularize the Telephone" is in the Register,
    18 July 1899, page 4g.

    "The Telephone" is in the Register,
    1 June 1900, page 4f.

    "Our Telephones - Their Use and Abuse" is in the Register,
    2 February 1904, page 6b.

    "Telephone Rates" is in the Register,
    31 March 1905, page 7c.

    "New Telephone System" is in the Register,
    16 March 1906, page 4f.

    "The Telephone - Its Uses and Abuses" is in the Register,
    24 November 1906, page 8e.

    "Telephones and Language" is in the Register,
    19 January 1907, page 6e.

    "SA Telephones - The Advantages of the Toll System" is in the Register,
    28 February 1908, page 3h.

    Information on the telephone exchange is in the Register,
    24 May 1909, page 6f.

    "Our Telephones" is in the Register,
    21 December 1912, page 6h.

    "The Hello Girl - In the Telephone Exchange" is in the Register on
    13 March 1913, page 9a.

    "The Telephone - A Glimpse at the Nerve Centre" is in the Advertiser,
    25 November 1913, page 12a.

    "Telephony - Modern Marvels" is in the Register,
    10 May 1919, page 11d; also see
    26 January 1923, page 8g.

    "Behind the Telephone Scenes" is in the Register,
    25 December 1919, page 6h.

    "People Without Phones" is in The Mail,
    29 July 1922, page 7b,
    9 December 1922, page 2d.

    "Cheaper Telephones" is in the Observer,
    28 October 1922, page 41e.

    "Automatic Telephones" is in the Register,
    21 and 22 March 1922, pages 5h and 9b,
    Advertiser, 26 May 1926, page 12b.

    "How Central Grew", the reminiscences of L.H. Griffiths, is in The Mail,
    19 May 1923, page 2f; also see
    26 May 1923, page 17d.

    An obituary of Mr C.A. Unbehaun is in the Chronicle,
    9 February 1924, page 45.

    "The Demand for Telephones" is in the Advertiser,
    30 July 1924, page 9b,
    "Automatic Telephone Exchanges" on
    5 September 1924, page 17d.

    "Patience on Telephone" is in The News,
    8 January 1925, page 5b.

    "Number Please - Telephone Girls' Life" is in The Mail,
    19 December 1925, page 1a,
    "Passing of Hello Girl - Automatic Phone System" is in The Mail,
    16 July 1927, page 11a,
    26 November 1927, page 9c.
    30 September 1927, page 10e.

    "Adelaide Telephones - Automatic in 1932" is in the Register,
    4 June 1927, page 11g; also see
    12 December 1927, page 9c.

    "Fifty Years of Telephones" is in the Advertiser,
    22 April 1926, page 12e,
    "Telephone Services" on
    10 August 1928, page 16d,
    "Romance of the Telephone" on
    17 November 1928, page 29f,
    "Fifty Years Progress of the Telephone" on
    15 May 1933, page 8i.

    Information on the central exchange is in the Observer,
    23 February 1929, page 43d.

    Information on the telephone exchange is in the Register,
    26 January 1923, page 8g.

    "Carrier-Wave Telephones" is in The News,
    6 June 1929, page 18d,
    "New Type of Telephone" on
    12 September 1932, page 10f.

    "Adelaide Phone Conversion Plan" is in The News,
    23 June 1937, page 9a.

    Communications - Choose again