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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 8

I Part 1: Communications
i Before the Telegraph
ii Electrical Communication Before Federation
iii Federation to the End of the Second World War
iv Post-war and on to 1975
v 1975 ONWARDS

II Epilogue

III Part 2: Early Australian Computers And Computing

IV Acknowledgements



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Part 1: Communications

Before the Telegraph

The Australian Aboriginals occupied the continent for an unknown time prior to the establishment of the first European settlement in 1788, living as an essentially food gathering society with limited need for specialised communications and to meet these, two methods had evolved, smoke signalling[1] and message sticks[2]. The use of beacon fires and smoke signaling was not peculiar to Australia and can be traced back to the early development stages of many nations. In Australia, the information content of the smoke column depended on factors such as the colour of the smoke, its size, interruptions to the column and the time of day, making the selection, quantity and type of material obviously important in the signalling process. Instances of rapid communication by Aboriginals over hundreds of miles by a system of relaying were recorded during the early years of European settlement. The other method of communication, marked message sticks, was quite widely used by Australian Aboriginals and could apparently perform a range of functions, from acting as a guarantee of good faith to summoning individuals or groups to a ceremony. A message stick, however, could not be read, it is said, by the receiver in the way in which a written language letter is read. Rather the notches served to remind the carrier of the information to be delivered, acting thus as a memory jogger.

Figure 1

1 Aboriginal message stick

When the initial European settlement was established in Sydney in 1788, rapid methods of communication using electrical signals lay well in the future of the world. Indeed, even the use of steam power for physical communication was not yet in vogue. Thus the settlers were dependent on sailing ships to carry communications, both to their home base in England and to settlements in Tasmania and on other parts of the mainland as these were formed. As farmers and graziers progressively occupied land further from the main centres, communication was by horse and bullock cart over largely unmade roads, but even these slow methods of communication were often delayed by weather conditions. Shipping schedules increased, however, roads were better formed, a mail service was developed and the press established, all contributing to an increased flow of information. A. Moyal[3] has included an account of the communication problems of the early settlers, while G. Blainey has dealt comprehensively with the whole influence of distance on Australia's development.[4]

Within the colonies, limited use was made of a range of visual methods of signalling, one such instance being a semaphore system which was installed in Tasmania, between Hobart and the convict prison at Port Arthur. At other locations information on the arrival of shipping at the Heads was flashed to the city by visual signalling, while other simple instances included the raising of flags at particular times and on particular occasions. These various signalling systems were capable only of quite local use and were inappropriate for development as comprehensive methods of communication.

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© 1988 Print Edition page 534, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher