In this current age of instant connectivity, when it is estimated forty percent of us have access to the internet and seventy-five percent have a phone, it is almost impossible to imagine the excitement involved in the laying the last of the submarine telephone cable finally connecting all of Australia to the rest of the world.
In 1936 the final piece was laid between Apollo Bay in south west Victoria, via King Island as half-way point, to Stanley on north west Tasmania. 161 nautical miles in length it was, at the time, the longest telephone cable in the world and cost 200,000 pounds.
Across the treacherous Bass Strait, steel wires were needed as armor to protect the cable from the notorious toredo sea-worm which had developed an appetite for the insulation that covered ordinary cable. It was the first telephone cable insulated with paragutta which is a mixture of protein free rubber and resin free balata, combined with a plasticiser.
But it is a wild coast and at Apollo Bay the surf prevented the 5,000 ton cable-steamer, the Faraday, from using its whale-boat to reach the beach, so they fired a rocket-line from the shore. In the age of steamer ships and limited electric lights the workers relied on moonlight and bonfires on the shores of the mainland and islands.
During one night the final splicing was executed midway between King Island and Stanley and was celebrated in the tradition of cable-ships with the sea burial of an effigy of a sailor, named after the toughest man on board. A sea shanty was sung and a few solemn words spoken as the effigy was lashed to the cable. The rope holding the cable was then severed with an axe and the ‘sailor’ and cable sank to the bottom of the sea. All of Australia was now connected to the rest of the world.
A limited edition set of two postage stamps commemorate the occasion and depict Amphitrite, wife of Neptune, holding the ribbon of communication between cable landings.
The Apollo Bay Old Cable Museum is run by the local historical society and is housed in the cable station building that was constructed in 1936. Th museum is chock full of telephonic artifacts and is located at 6250 Great Ocean Rd, Apollo Bay VIC 3233 – just opposite Pirate’s Cove.