Morse telegraph system model
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
The first patent for a working telephone was by Professor Alexander Graham Bell in Boston in 1876. He made a call between two rooms in a Boston boarding house on March 10th 1876 and later demonstrated his telephone at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition that year and took the scientific world by storm.
In Australia, there was much excitement about the telephone. The invention was an inspiration to begin work on the first Australian telephone. A customs inspector from Geelong, W.J Thomas, used a homemade instrument and linked two houses in his district in late 1877. He later transmitted over a longer distance, between Geelong and Ballarat on the evening of January 9th 1878, and then between Geelong and Queenscliff.
In July 1879, a Melbourne engineering firm, Robison Brothers, installed a telephone between their Flinders Street offices and foundry in South Melbourne. Telephone connections between Parliament House and the Melbourne’s newspapers quickly followed, and other Melbourne companies followed suit and connected their offices and workshops throughout the city. Before September 1880, Robison’s system was a point to point service.
The first telephone exchange in Australia was at the Mercantile building in September 1880 and known as the Melbourne Telephone Exchange Company owned by Masters and Draper and managed by Henry Byron Moore; an exchange at Willis Street was built after when ownership was taken over by the state. Robison Bros are listed on the first directory of September 1880 as number 1 under the Melbourne Telephone Exchange Company in a list of 44 services.
The first coin operated public phones were installed in and around Melbourne in 1890s and in 1901 the Australian Constitution gave authority over all postal, telegraphic and telephonic communication services to the Commonwealth Government, which then founded the Postmaster General’s Department (PMG). At that time, there were 33 000 phones across Australia. A trunk line between Melbourne and Sydney was installed in 1907. It was extended to include Adelaide in 1914, Brisbane in 1923, Perth in 1930 and finally Hobart in 1935.
This article includes information kindly supplied by the Telstra Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria. The Museum is managed by the Victorian Telecommunications Museum.