Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Communication’s Revolution-Telegraphs and Telephones

With the advent of these two innovations, the speed of communication surged by leaps and bounds. The first to make its mark was the telegraph in 1861 which enabled long distance communication for the first time albeit in written form. Nonetheless the telegraph reduced the speed of transmission of a message to Cape Town from a week to several minutes. The introduction of the telephone in 1882 to the residents of Port Elizabeth would initially only benefit the local residents but that drawback too would be overcome when inter town telephone lines were laid.

Main picture: South Africa’s first telephone exchange switchboard was installed in Port Elizabeth during 1882

Historical speed of communication

The speed of communication has been notoriously slow since the dawn of time. Dependent upon the speed of the horse, the coach and the foot, authorities in areas outside the capital, the head office or the general’s camp, were beholden to the decisions of an in situ general, manager or civil servant. These responsible officials were expected to apply their own judgement when a crisis arose and to take appropriate action based upon their skills and generic instructions from their superiors. When Caesar led his legions to war against the rebellious Gaulish warriors, he had to cross the River Rubicon on the outskirts of Rome. Having done so, the Roman Emperor and the members of the Roman Senate accepted that Caesar was no longer under their control. In effect, Caesar was a free agent.

By the mid-nineteeneth century, this was about to change. Technologies were being developed which would revolutionise the speed of communication allowing instructions to be instantaneously issued to subiordinates continents apart whilst simultaneously allowing the subordinate, in a crisis or unfamilar situation, to request instructions from a superior

The telegraph system is born

The first of these innovative systems would be the electric telegraph system. The first sytem installed in South Africa, operating between Cape Town and Simon’s Town, was introduced in 1860. To ensure that the time was standardised, in 1861 the telegraph system was also used as a time signal. This communication system was constructed for the benefit of shipping and commerce by significantly accelerating communication between the two ports. The line itself was a single galvanised iron wire mounted on wooden poles with porcelain insulators. The return circuit was via the ground. Electricity was publicly used in South Africa for the first time with the opening of the electric telegraph line between Cape Town and Simon’s Town on 25 April 1860.

From September 1861 the Royal Observatory at Cape Town sent a daily impulse over the telegraph system to a time-ball, which was mounted on a mast in the vicinity of Table Bay. The impulse, sent precisely at one o’clock, made the time-ball drop. Shipmasters used this as an accurate visual signal to check their chronometers. The impulse was also sent to the Naval Yard at Simon’s Town, and later to Port Elizabeth and East London when the telegraph line reached there.

Telegram, Tvl, 1909 in Dutch, the official language at the time from a certain Mr. J.C. Smuts

Port Elizabeth was not far behind Cape Town in using the telegraph. On the 31st December 1861, the telegraphic service between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown was officially opened. The line was built by the Cape of Good Hope Telegraph Co. The entire line from Cape Town to Grahamstown was completed in 1863.

1876 Map of the telegraph lines in the Eastern Cape

The introduction of the telegraph might have been a huge leap in the speed of communications but it possessed some serious drawbacks and deficiencies: messages had to be written by hand, the lack of privacy especially as regards confidential correspondence and the infrastructure could effortlessly be tampered with and destroyed. Easier methods of long distance communication were on the horizon. Nevertheless the telegraph would remain in use long after the introduction of its competitor.

Telegram announcing end of WWI, 1918

On the 26th August 1965, a time ball was attached to the Hill Lighthouse on the Donkin Reserve. Every day except Sundays and public holidays, at 1 pm Cape Town mean time, upon a telegraph signal sent from the Observatory in Cape Town, the ball was dropped.

The Telephone

Port Elizabeth might have lost the tussle to be the first town in the Cape Colony to introduce the telegraph albeit by a whisker, but by installing the first telephone exchange on 1st May 1882 in the Post Office building on the corner of Jetty and Main Streets, it decisively beat its competitors. The superstructure required to operate the telephone system is clearly visible on the roof in old photographs of the Post Office. Initially there were only 44 subscribers using Gower Bell telephones.

Post Office building with telephone apparatus installed on its roof
Gowar Bell phone
Telephone account, Standard Bank, 1882

On 25th June 1900, the new Post Office building was opened in North Union Street. During February 1914, a 27-mile long telephone line incorporating Theescombe, Willowby, Kragga Kama, Goedemoedsfontein, Chelsea, De Stades River and Draaifontein was opened. The telephone exchange adjoining the new Post Office was built in 1919/1920 and in 1922, the conversion from manual to an automatic exchange was commenced. Only by 31st January 1925, was this conversion completed.

Inside the Post and Telegraph Office
Port Elizabeth telephone exchange August 1905
Post Office staff in PE, 1898. Note the telegraph boys sitting on the ground

Telephone apparatus on the roof

The ‘telephone apparatus on the roof’ has been the cause of much conjecture, mainly because of the low quality of the available photographs.  Margaret Harradine called it the “superstructure required to operate” the exchange and artefacts.co.za calls it “a lantern on the roof”.  The answer is more prosaic.  It is an open octagonal framework that carried banks of insulators.  Telephone wires from the exchange in the building below were passed through an aperture in the roof, hooked up to an insulator and ‘flown’ to another insulator on a pole down the street.  In the early days, when there were few subscribers, there was only a simple pole on the roof with few crossmembers carrying the insulators.  In fact, these wires were initially strung to insulator trees on poles on the roofs of businesses.  Later on, these insulator trees moved to poles at street levels.  Also, as the number of subscribers increased, the simple tree on top of the Post Office was upgraded to the octagonal structure which allowed wires to be “flown off” in any direction.

The insulator structure on top of the Post Office
Initially the telephone wires were strung across the roofs of buildings from a simple insulator structure on the Post Office roof
This photo nicely illustrates the relationship between the structure on the Post Office roof and the street level telephone poles.
Before Port Elizabeth knew it, there was an unruly mess of wires and telephone insulator trees.at road level.  This is a view towards the corner of Russel Road and Main Street in 1903.
Function of the Telephone Apparatus on the Roof
Central telephone wire hookup point
Telephone cables laid underground in Johannesburg
1876 Map of telegraph lines

On the 8th May 1899, a lecture on wireless telegraphy was given by Edward A. Jennings in the Town Hall for the P.E. Institute. Born in London in 1872, Jennings came to P.E. as a Post Office technician and worked with the telephone system. He discovered the same principle used by Marconi and others in early wireless experiments and in due course was able to make contact with Cape Recife. An attempt to help Jennings financially, so he could continue with his research, failed and his work ended. He died in Cape Town in 1951 having received no recognition for his achievements.

On the 2nd May 1921, the first wireless station service was inaugurated in Port Elizabeth. Mayor W.F. Savage sent a message to the Captain of RMS “Armadale Castle”, anchored in the Bay. Present were the Postmaster, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, the Manager of the Union Castle Co and Capt. W.E. Clift, Marine Superintendent. On 24 November 1920, the Council gave the land for the station to the Dept of Posts and Telegraphs, a level site between the hospital and the reservoir, with an uninterrupted view of the Bay (corner Mount Road and Lennox Street). On 24 July a wireless telephone service was set up between Port Elizabeth and Bird Island and the pigeon post, established in July 1907 for emergencies, came to an end.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

The section on the mysterious Roof Structures was written by the Technical Editor, Blaine McCleland


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