Businessmen – in particular those with interests in newspapers and agriculture in Canterbury, and gold-mining in Otago – were foremost in lobbying for telegraph and then telephone connections between ports, neighbouring settlements, and the hinterlands beyond.
Traffic between key commercial points in the telegraph system was much higher than between the general population. In 1871, for example, Christchurch, with 16.9% of the provincial population, sent 48% of Canterbury’s telegraph traffic for that year; Lyttelton, with 5.5% of the population, sent 20.9% – a pattern that continued for more than 60 years.
Developing the network
Overseas cable links had primarily commercial benefits. They facilitated trade with Britain, New Zealand’s biggest market. Farmers and exporters got much quicker information on London’s latest sales prices for produce, especially the huge frozen meat trade after 1882.
Within New Zealand, growing telephone use sped up business transactions. However, its regular use for overseas business dealings would only become possible in the 1960s, with lower costs and bigger cables. Internal (as opposed to overseas) telegrams had further commercial benefits. They sped up communication and so helped build infrastructure – railways, bridges, dams and motorways – on which efficient commerce and government depended.
The role of government
Businesses looked to the government to develop the telegraph network. Sometimes non-commercial factors spurred government action. A contingent of British military engineers built the first line south of Auckland, to Drury in 1863, as part of a push into Māori lands in the Waikato.
Another government responsibility – science – benefited from the telegraph. In 1874–75 it was used to coordinate the observation of the transit of Venus by visiting American scientists. From 1876 the New South Wales and New Zealand governments used the new trans-Tasman cable to exchange meteorological data.
Although provincial government was initially involved, central government quickly asserted a dominant role, to coordinate colony-wide expansion. A Telegraph Department was set up in 1864, and later also took responsibility for telephones. In 1865 the first of several Electric Telegraph acts was passed. These regulated the appointment of staff and the acquisition of land for telegraph construction.
In 1905 telegrams and telephones combined to advertise the success of the All Blacks on tour in Britain. New Zealand’s representative in London, William Pember Reeves, would telegraph results to Prime Minister Richard Seddon, who would telephone the Evening Post. The match against Wales – the focus of intense public interest – saw a more direct method of communication. The telegraph office opened early and a system of flags was devised to declare the result: New Zealand ensign if the All Blacks won, the Union Jack if Wales won, and a white flag with red centre if it was a draw.
P & T
The telegraph service was strengthened when it joined the Postal Department to become the Post and Telegraph Department (P & T) in 1881 (‘the Post Office’ after 1959). The combined department was prestigious. Up to the 1920s at least, senior politicians served as postmasters-general. The department also had a strong staff union (from 1890), and in-house technical training systems and workshops were well regarded by private industry.
Amalgamation provided a stronger fiscal base for bulk overseas equipment purchases, to meet massive demand from the 1890s. Purchases were based on equipment efficiency and continuity of supply rather than colonial loyalties.
Initially telegraph equipment came from British manufacturers because of their head start in making such items. For telephony, American, and later Swedish and English, companies supplied equipment. New Zealand even obtained radio-telegraphy equipment in 1911–13 from Telefunken in Germany, despite worries about future hostilities.