P.A. Clark, MIE Aust.
Paul Clark has been a working telecommunications engineer since graduation in 1952. He has practised in the Central Tablelands, based at Bathurst, Newcastle, Wollongong and Canberra. His association with and residence in Canberra began in 1965 when he was Divisional Engineer in charge of the South Coast and South Tablelands — the area surrounding the ACT. In 1972 he became directly involved in territory communications. He is, at present, Supervising Engineer Monaro Section.
MODERN communications methods arrived in the Canberra district with the opening of a telegraph office at Queanbeyan on 19 August 1864. The line was subsequently extended through Ginninderra to Yass. Ginninderra Post Office, established early in 1859, was the first in what is now the ACT.1
The first private telephone was connected to Edward Kendall Grace’s home, Gungahlin, in August 1887. Mr Grace, after lengthy negotiations, agreed to pay for the cost of iron poles to complete the line to his home from the Ginninderra Post Office, also the cost of erection, and he guaranteed the revenue of the post office to reach £100.
The cost of two telephones was £18, a substantial sum in those days. The line work cost £10. The telephone line to Gungahlin homestead was carried on three 19 foot poles that cost £3.5s, three insulators cost 1/6d and 30 yards (27 m) of wire cost 2/1.
Mr Grace was not to enjoy the new facility for long as he was drowned with his groom when attempting to ford the flooded Ginninderra Greek in 1892.
Until the selection of Canberra as the site for the National Capital, life continued its quiet rural pace and even in 1905 the post mistress at the old Canberra Post Office (Ainslie) was able to signal the arrival of a telegram to the one or two residents within visible distance by hanging a sheet on the clothes line next to the office. Research has not disclosed how this signal was cancelled out on wash day.
From these early days right through to the middle of the 1920s, the district remained a rural one despite some construction activity for the Capital. Generally, telephone and other communications needs were as few in Canberra as in any other country area except for the presence of an Administrator of the Federal Territory, a few officers of the Department of Home Affairs, the Royal Military College, Duntroon and the camps for construction workers.
In 1914, the telephone exchange at the Ainslie Post Office, then located on the Yass-Queanbeyan Road (roughly between Allambee Street, Reid and Limestone Avenue) served only two customers the Canberra Rectory and a Mr J. Murray — and this load was quite a burden, if we can believe the post mistress, Mrs H. McIntosh. On 1 July 1914, she wrote to the PMG Department asking that her salary be increased because of the increase in telephone business! She said:
‘The amount taken for telephone conversations in June 1913 was 10/2, whereas this June it is £1 .8s. One subscriber was connected to this office last October and another is about to be connected. This second subscriber will mean more business. As I have my household duties and a little one to attend to, I cannot cope with the increased telephone business and have to employ an assistant to attend to it. The salary of £30.5s per annum is not sufficient.’
The Ainslie Post Office was originally called the Canberra Post Office when it was established on 1 January 1863 on another site. A change of name was necessary when the Federal offices were constructed at Acton. The post office there opened on 1 November 1912 but changed its name to Canberra Post Office on 2 June 1913.
The new post master, Mr G.C. Bondfield, had some difficulty in taking formal possession of the post office at Acton. He reported on 30 June 1913 that ‘owing to the flooded state of the Molonglo River and the bridge having been washed away I was unable to reach Acton until 5 pm’. Mr Bondfield who had been transferred from Branxton, NSW, apparently did not notice an anomaly in his conduct of business until it was pointed out to him by Colonel Miller, the Administrator of the Federal Territory. For some weeks, it seemed, Mr Bondfield had been franking correspondence ‘Canberra, NSW’ instead of ‘Canberra— Federal Territory’.
This rural phase of the district’s communications history changed with the increased tempo of construction in the 1920s in preparation for the transfer of Parliament from Melbourne. The influx of workmen naturally increased the demand for post office and telecommunications services. The construction workers were good customers of the telephone service. Enormous queues of people waited at the Canberra Post Office at Acton to make trunk calls because the trunk lines to Sydney and Melbourne were very limited in number.
Sad to relate, monetary inducements were offered (and sometimes accepted) by the operators to reduce waiting time in the queue.
With the opening of Parliament in 1927 Canberra had evolved from a construction camp into a small country town albeit lacking the usual attributes of a long main street lined on both sides with shops and other buildings.
The Canberra Post Office at Acton by this time had a manual exchange of one hundred line capacity. All but four of the telephone services connected to the exchange were leased by Government Departments.
To meet communications needs after the establishment of Parliament House a Strowger Automatic Exchange was installed in the East Block Secretariat building. It was placed in service the week before the official opening of Parliament House on 9 May 1927.
The exchange had a capacity of 2000 lines. It was named Central Exchange, being located at that time, more or less in the geographical centre of Canberra. It is interesting to note that the body controlling Canberra’s development at the time, the Federal Capital Commission, adopted a suggestion made by the Sulman Committee that the electricity and telephone service wires be aligned with the rear boundaries of the dwelling allotments. Provision was made for this in lease agreements. This decision had far reaching effects in the boom years.
Economic depression in the 1930s virtually halted Canberra’s expansion. The need for telephone services was minimal. There was some growth in communications needs during the war but, once again the magnitude was not great.
The post-war growth period when Canberra moved from its small town status to that of a City presented the Engineering Branch of the PMG’s Department with real problems. The growth rate was significant. It was largely uncontrolled.
On 11 January 1949 the Deputy-Director, Posts and Telegraphs NSW advised the Surveyor-General and Chief Property Officer of the need to replace Central by three new exchanges. They were to be situated at Civic Centre, Manuka and on Windsor Walk near Kings Avenue. The Surveyor-General was asked to nominate sites for the buildings. The rate of growth of demand for telephone services was such that there was no time to erect brick buildings. All three exchanges were installed in prefabricated buildings. They were named Civic, Manuka and Barton Exchanges. The Manuka installation consisted of three portable exchanges. One of its buildings was blasted off its piers by a contractor excavating for the permanent exchange building. These structures were not in keeping with the concept of an ideal National Capital, in fact the Barton building was singled out by the Senate Select Committee on the Development of Canberra in its report in 1955. The report stated that the building was ‘devoid of any architectural merit having all the hallmarks of a temporary building.’
At this time, in the late 1940s, there was very little forward civic planning. The PMG was forced into a role to which most utility authorities are accustomed, that of forecaster of the overall City development. In other words, engineering planners were forced to collect data from all the bodies, authorities, and citizens associated with the urban development of the City. They had to arrive at a concept of the shape and rate of its growth and then plan ahead for the telephone facilities required by their concept. Canberra was entering an era of unprecedented growth but the form and shape of the City that would accommodate the growing population was not known with any certainty. The erection of the Barton and Civic prefabricated buildings and later the provision of Yarralumla Portable Exchange was the result of this uncertainty of form and timing. Telecom growth tended to follow demand, not to anticipate it.
The establishment of the National Capital Development Commission in 1957 altered the situation radically. The NCDC was designed to remedy the deficiencies brought to light by the Senate Select Committee report mentioned above.
The functions of the Commission were ‘to plan, develop and construct the City of Canberra as Australia’s National Capital’.
The new Commission quickly produced its outline plans for urban and suburban development. More importantly the plans were clearly staged in time. The PMG’s Department made a definite policy decision that Canberra was to be given priority in accordance with its status as the National Capital.
A close working relationship between PMG Engineers and the NCDC was established and maintained. Intensive planning effort produced communication development plans, both long and short term. More importantly, these plans were, and are, kept under constant review, modified and extended, as required by changes in the NCDC’s City planning.
The result of the planning activity was seen in the erection of high quality telephone exchange buildings in good time to allow equipment installation to meet the requirements of Government, private enterprise and the needs of residents in the new suburbs. The rising tempo of telephone needs can be seen by the timing of the completion of these buildings:
The rapid growth of Canberra in the 1970s was followed by a sudden downturn in expansion towards the end of the decade, leaving two telephone exchange buildings in paddocks at Tuggeranong near Pine Island and at Lanyon. They stand empty today as monuments to interrupted progress.
Telephone exchange switching equipment is only one part of a local telephone network. Cables are needed to connect subscribers to the exchange and to connect the exchanges together. Large civil works are needed to provide underground conduits to carry these cables. The period of growth saw intensive activity on the part of engineers and construction teams to design and lay these conduits and haul in the cables. In the 1960s planning confidence was such that conduit works involving the excavation for, and laying of, up to 120 pipes were going ahead through open paddocks ahead of the roadworks.
A similar degree of effort was expended in the final connection of the telephones. The telephone growth rate of the City was peaking at around 12 per cent per annum. Two typical examples serve to illustrate the rate of growth:
The wisdom of the Sulman Committee’s insistence on the alignment of the electricity and telephone service wires with the rear boundaries of allotments now became apparent. Close cooperation between the Department of the Interior initially and the ACT Electricity Authority finally and Telecom perfected a type of Joint-Use power and telephone construction that increased connection efficiency compared to other cities by at least 100 per cent. The power and telephone lines were erected in housing subdivisions before house fences were erected. As houses were built, connection of the telephone became a simple operation of running a single length of wire between the cable at the rear of the boundary and the house. There was a great need for manpower efficiency in the process of connecting new telephones because of the increase in demand for services coupled with general shortage of staff.
Canberra subscribers were connected for between 60 and 65 per cent of the manpower effort required elsewhere in the nation. The following table illustrates the steep rise in demand:
In the area of Private Automatic Branch Exchanges (PABX), the growth of the Government sector as departmental headquarters moved to Canberra saw installation of these units intensify. Very large PABX’s became commonplace in the City. Installations such as the PABX at the Russell Defence Offices are large enough to cater for the needs of a medium sized town. The total number of extension telephones connected to PABX’s exceeded 50,000 in the 1970s.
The rapid planned growth in the size of the Canberra local subscribers’ network equally applied to the trunk line network connecting the City to the rest of Australia. In 1939 there were two 3-channel carrier systems connecting Sydney and Canberra and one between Melbourne and Canberra. Thus a total of nine telephone trunk line links connected the Federal Capital to the two State Capitals. After intensive wartime effort, the number of channels installed by the end of 1945 was twenty-seven, fifteen to Sydney and twelve to Melbourne. Three of these channels were occupied by voice frequency telegraph systems that provided forty-five telegraph and teleprinter links to the two State Capitals.
The trunk line requirements grew at a faster rate than local line needs.
Links out of Canberra were increased over the period 1945 to 1960 by the use of twelve-channel carrier systems on open wire lines. Finally, in 1960 the first 4GHz broadband radio system was provided between Canberra and Sydney. The antenna and radio equipment was accommodated at Red Hill, initially in a portable building and finally in a substantial brick building
Channelling equipment for the radio system was provided at Central Exchange. Red Hill and Central were linked by a co-axial cable.
The original Strowger exchange at Central had been replaced by the Barton exchange in the 50s. Equipment installed at Central since then consisted entirely of trunk and telegraph line equipment, together with the manual trunk operating switchboards and the Central Telegraph Office.
A Siemens semi-automatic trunk exchange was placed in service at Central in 1954. This apparatus was an immense improvement over the older methods of manual trunk switching.
Concurrently with the improvement in equipment for operator handling of trunk line calls, planning was proceeding towards the objective of providing a fully automatic national telephone service. The production of the Community Telephone Plan 1960 established objectives and principles for the long term development of a fully automatic national telephone service. Inherent in the plan was the concept of a nation-wide subscriber trunk dialling through the introduction of crossbar switching equipment and provision of broadband transmission equipment on trunk routes.
As one of the consequences of this philosophy a six-tube co-axial cable was laid from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra. The project was a very large one by civil as well as communications engineering standards. The length of the cable route was 965 km. In all, buildings for 103 unattended repeater stations were erected. At Canberra back-to-back terminals were installed at Central. The project was commenced in 1959. The first Sydney- Canberra co-axial cable system was put into service in 1961.
The situation, then in 1961 was that the bulk of Canberra’s communications with the rest of the nation was carried by two types of systems, the Sydney-Canberra- Melbourne co-axial cable and the microwave radio system installed at Red Hill. (Subscriber Trunk Dialling was introduced in Canberra in 1962.)
This story of steady progress suffered a setback in the early hours of Friday, 22 September 1961 when the Civic Telephone Exchange/span> was completely destroyed by fire. At the time there were 5,482 working lines connected to the exchange which had a capital value of one million dollars at 1961 prices. The restoration of the service after the fire was a prime example of the team approach that has become commonplace in Canberra.
On the morning of the twenty-second of September a decision was made to provide emergency services by means of a number of portable exchanges. It was decided also to install a replacement exchange in another building on the site. Installation of cable ironwork by linesmen and technicians and building alterations by staff of the Department of Works commenced that morning.
The first two portable exchanges arrived at 5.30 pm on the day of the fire. They were transported from Sydney and Wollongong where they had not been in service. The remaining seven portable exchanges that were required were sited at places as far apart as Elizabeth and Adelaide, SA, Drouin, Victoria and at Morriset East in NSW. They were all in service or ready to go into service at these locations. Alternative arrangements had to be designed and implemented to free them for use in Canberra. The last of them was sited at Canberra on 3 October. By 12 October 5,319 (97 per cent) of the out-of-order lines were back in service — a delay of only 20 days. Over 300 urgent services were reconnected in the first three or four days.
Meanwhile, work proceeded on the replacement exchange. It was completed on 11 November, only 51 days after the fire.
At the peak of this fire restoration work, the team in Canberra involved 531 people, including 21 engineers. Other APO groups in NSW, Victoria and South Australia were heavily involved but their numbers cannot be stated accurately. The Department of Works, ACT Police, NSW Police, Commonwealth Hostels, Department of the Interior, the RAAF, Royal Military College Duntroon and many private firms also contributed to the success of the restoration work. The fire provided a prime example of the way the community could combine to work for the common good.
Meanwhile, the importance of the microwave radio installation at Red Hill grew rapidly after 1961. The expansion of the National TV broadcasting system was a major factor in this growth. In late 1962, a national TV transmitter, ABC-3 was established on Black Mountain using a guyed steel lattice mast similar to that already established for the commercial station CTC-7. Programmes for Sydney to the transmitter were carried by a microwave radio bearer installed at Red Hill, linked to Black Mountain and the ABC studios at Northbourne Avenue by coaxial cables. A television operating centre was established at Central Exchange. In 1966, similar bearers were routed via Red Hill to establish national TV transmitters at Bega, Wagga and Griffith.
In 1963 television relay facilities between Sydney and Melbourne were leased for the first time by a commercial network. The number of links of this kind grew in the late 1960s and early 1970s to a total of five simultaneous TV relays. These relays passed through the television operating centre at Central. In addition, it was required, at frequent intervals, to set up national/regional relays from Sydney and Melbourne as well as relays originating in Canberra.
In 1965, the Weapons Research Establishment Communications Centre that transferred data from NASA tracking stations in Australia to the United States was moved from Adelaide to Canberra. The NASA communications Centre, as it was then known, was housed in the Deakin Telephone Exchange, the space being made available by the Australian Post Office at the request of the Department of Supply. It has remained there to this day.
The necessary high reliability teletype and data links between the Centre and various NASA establishments in Australia and the United States were provided via Central Exchange. Considerable engineering effort was expended in Canberra and other centres throughout the country to upgrade the performance of the numerous links required. Central became the APO control centre for NASA communications.
It became clear in 1964 that the future requirements of wideband radio equipment at the Red Hill site would require a very large increase in the size of the tower. The 46 metre tower needed was not viewed with favour by the NCDC because it was on a hilltop providing a background to the Parliamentary Zone. The NCDC asked the Australian Post Office to examine the possibility of phasing out the existing installation on aesthetic grounds and finding an alternative site to meet the rising demand for radio telephone facilities.
Many sites were considered. Finally, twenty were selected for detailed study, ranging from Mt Taylor in the South to Gungaderra in the North. Each site was examined for suitability as a radio telephone station and the cost of establishment of a building, access road, power line, tower and co-axial cable connection to the network was calculated. The Black Mountain site was significantly more economic than the others since access roads, power lines, co-axial cable and other facilities were already established. The site offered a further bonus in the prospect of combining microwave radio telephone facilities with a TV broadcast and FM station, within the next ten to fifteen years.
NCDC accepted Black Mountain as the site for permanent radio telephone facilities and in 1969, the APO presented a proposal for an interim steel lattice tower. This proposal would meet the expanding technical requirements and allow removal of the existing facilities from Red Hill.
In April 1970, the APO requested the Department of Works to undertake a feasibility study of a concrete tower on Black Mountain accommodating both telecommunications services and visitor facilities.
During July 1970, a study was made overseas of nine telecommunications towers and the technical brief was then updated and amplified with guidelines for public facilities. Meanwhile, on 23 July, Black Mountain was gazetted as a Nature Reserve by the Department of the Interior. Some areas were excised for public use for a Botanic Gardens, an access road to the summit where there was a public lookout, studios for CTC-7 and its 435 ft high triangular section, lattice steel guyed transmission mast; a two storey brick transmitter building for ABC-3 and the associated 511 ft high, square section, lattice steel guyed mast.
Subsequently, APO found that the tower building site in the feasibility study was partly within the reserve area.
APO and Works presented their proposal for the telecommunications tower to NCDC in August 1970. The NCDC agreed in principle with a comprehensive masted facility and to the deferment of the earlier proposed interim RT steel lattice tower. However, NCDC was uneasy about the aesthetics of the new proposal. Its view was that the tower was unacceptably bulky on Black Mountain and would detract from, and dominate, the nationally significant design qualities of the Capital’s national area. NCDC sought alternative site studies from APO and also a reduction in the total bulk of the proposed tower by the removal of the public facilities ‘drum’ and the technical equipment ‘drum’ behind the RT dishes. APO considered that public facilities were necessary to finance the proposal and estimated that capital expenditure could be completely amortised within 30 years by income from lookout fees alone.
Discussions between the APO and NCDC continued for months but made little progress from APO’s point of view. NCDC was adamant that the restaurant floor should be eliminated from the proposal. APO then took its tower proposal to Cabinet in October 1971. Cabinet endorsed the technical aspects of the proposal and approved development to the stage where the proposal could be presented to the Public Works Committee.
In March 1972, NCDC issued a public statement outlining its opposition to the provision of visitor facilities and its belief that the 195 metre tower should be reduced to a structure that housed only technical facilities for TV, radio and telecommunications. The NCDC decision to issue a statement had been prompted by concern expressed by organisations and individuals about the impact of the tower on the environment of the Black Mountain Nature Reserve and its being out of scale with the setting for the National area.
The Public Works Committee inquiry opened in June 1972. It was an unusually protracted process. Evidence was given in favour of the tower proposal by the Australian Post Office, the Department of Works, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and the Department of the Interior. The NCDC, private citizens and civic groups opposed the project as submitted.
NCDC proposed a number of design alternatives including a co-masted TV metal tower on Black Mountain and a separate RT tower at Mitchell which could also incorporate visitor facilities. NCDC maintained that the Mitchell site would provide an additional visitor facility instead of replacing one with another, had a much greater level of accessibility than Black Mountain, avoided conservation problems and would be much simpler to develop and manage. The Black Mountain co-masted TV facility could then be of simple, light-weight prefabricated steel construction of minimum mass, bulk and profile.
The Public Works Committee, however, in August 1972 recommended to Parliament that the APO’s tower proposal should be constructed.
The Prime Minister, Mr McMahon, decided that the project should be examined by his Ministers before being debated in Parliament. APO submitted a second Cabinet submission and Cabinet endorsed the project in September 1972. The House of Representatives approved the project in October 1972 but Parliament was dissolved for the general elections before the debate in the Senate was finished.
A Labor Government headed by Mr Whitlam was elected in December 1972 and in accordance with the new Government’s policy on the environment, the Minister for Environment, Housing and Construction sought submission of an Environmental Impact Statement on the project before construction could commence.
The Environmental Impact Statement was prepared by APO and released to the public by the Minister for Environment and Conservation on 28 February 1973. The EIS attracted strong criticism from opponents of the tower, much of which, in retrospect, was justified and might be expected of a maiden effort produced in a very short time.
Meanwhile, tenders for construction of the tower had been called in January.
A protest meeting was called on 11 March and attended by 700 people at the Australian National University whose site is below Black Mountain. The meeting formed a ‘Committee of Citizens to Save Black Mountain’ which immediately began to lobby the Government to postpone construction of the tower until after the EIS had been independently assessed.
On 21 May 1973, Cabinet approved construction of the tower. Opponents of the project then called a lunch-time meeting on the lawns in front of Parliament House and attended by about 1,000 people.
On 6 June, a letter of acceptance was issued by the Department of Housing and Construction(formerly Works) to Concrete Constructions (Canberra) Pty Ltd to construct the tower.
A few weeks later the Attorney-General advised the Postmaster-General that a group of fourteen prominent Canberra citizens had sought his fiat to an action to challenge the power of the Government to construct the tower. The fiat was granted on 4 July 1973. It granted institution of proceedings on behalf of the Committee to Save Black Mountain to seek an injunction restraining construction of the tower on three grounds:
APO and the concerned citizens were subsequently involved in twenty months of legal proceedings, unprecedented in Australia.
Work on the tower had been formally authorised by the Governor-General in Council on 19 September 1973 but was subsequently declared unlawful by the Supreme Court on 31 October 1973. Preliminary site works which had been undertaken ceased at once. The Court had found that APO and the Minister for Works and Housing did not have the approval of NCDC, the planning authority for the National Capital, to construct the tower. The Court rejected arguments brought by the plaintiffs on environmental and ecological grounds.
Various legal manoeuvres followed, including an appeal by APO against the Supreme Court judgment and a cross appeal by the plaintiffs to the High Court. By the time the judgment of the High Court was handed down on 17 February 1975, construction of the tower had been underway since December 1973.
On 6 December Cabinet had resolved to utilise Section 12 of the National Capital Development Commission Act to break the deadlock. Accordingly, the Minister for the Capital Territory formally directed the NCDC to approve construction of the tower. NCDC responded with a formal refusal. This correspondence was then referred to the Governor-General in Council and he decided in a favour of construction of the tower. Work resumed on the tower site on the same day.
By the middle of 1977 the tower was completed to the stage where installation of equipment could commence. Installation continued with building work until the tower was completed. It was formally opened to the public by the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, in May 1980.
Black Mountain Tower is unique in Australia. Its concept was a ‘first’ for APO (now Telecom). For the first time a telecommunications facility was combined with a tourist feature.
In the first ten months that it was open to the public 430,000 people passed through its turnstiles. The tower has become a major tourist attraction in Canberra and provides panoramic views over the City, the National Area, Lake Burley Griffin and the new towns to the north and south of the central area. The restaurant and snack bar are popular.
As a communications facility, the tower has, at the present state of the art, the capability to house eight high power television transmitters, ten FM radio transmitters, up to 42 parabolic antennae for microwave radio relays and about 80 mobile radio services. Accommodation for all the necessary ancillary services as well as a television operating centre (replacing the one at Central) is also provided.
The tower has also become a landmark for Canberra and can be seen from many kilometres away when approaching the National Capital.
The structural engineering aspects of the tower are described in a paper by Mervyn Cole (3).
The ACT initially was controlled by the Goulburn Engineering Division of the PMG. In 1946 a Canberra Division was established to control the ACT and parts of NSW. The first divisional engineer was B. Browne and the divisional headquarters was established in the East Block secretariat building.
The scope of the control was widened in 1972 with the establishment of an Engineering Section based in Canberra which replaced the Canberra and Goulburn and Monaro Divisions. The first supervising engineer of this section was Don Ferguson.
The history of engineering design and construction relating to telecommunications in Canberra has one dominant theme — that of a team effort. Within the Postmaster-General’s Department, the Australian Post Office and, latterly, Telecom Australia, engineers have combined with technical and line personnel to produce a telephone network that met the needs of the people of the National Capital in an efficient, effective and economical manner. Planning and construction groups in the NSW State and the National headquarters have combined in an exemplary fashion with the Canberra engineering groups to design and complete a long list of major projects. The unique character of the City as a planned entity has contributed greatly to the success of its telecommunications facilities. In particular, engineers of the NCDC, ACTEA, the Departments of Transport and Construction, and Capital Territory have, by their close co-operation and the excellence of their planning and design, made invaluable contributions to Telecom’s success.
The author’s thanks are expressed to Mrs B. Johnson, Mr C.E. Munns, Mr L.M. Rogers and Mr D. Ferguson for their assistance in the production of this chapter.