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Edward Charles Cracknell (1831–1893)

by Martha Rutledge and J. L. Affleck

This article was published:

Edward Charles Cracknell (1831-1893), superintendent of telegraphs, electrical engineer and torpedo expert, was born in Rochester, Kent, England, son of Edward Edmund Cracknell and his wife Emma, née Thompson. He went to Oxford but took no degree and at 17 was apprenticed to an instrument maker in London and 'devoted himself to scientific pursuits'. In 1855 he went to South Australia with Charles Todd as assistant superintendent of telegraphs. On 1 January 1858 he took up the same appointment in New South Wales where on Australia Day he opened the colony's third telegraph line. In 1861 he was appointed superintendent of telegraphs.

Cracknell always sought to keep abreast of the latest telegraphic and scientific developments. After a visit to England, Europe and America in 1865-66 he became interested in connecting the Australian colonies with overseas telegraph systems. In June 1869 he addressed the Royal Society of New South Wales on the subject. The first overseas cable was opened in 1872 and Cracknell pressed for its duplication. In 1878 he went with the postmaster-general, John Fitzgerald Burns, to Melbourne where he gave evidence before the Intercolonial Conference, which agreed to duplicate the submarine cable between Australia and Java.

Cracknell's other great interest was the scientific side of military operations. He thought the harbour could best be defended by fixed torpedoes (underwater mines). He exploded the first torpedo in the colony at South Head in 1871, and was gazetted a lieutenant in the Torpedo Corps, then part of the Naval Brigade. He again visited England in 1876 and with the permission of the Admiralty and War Office examined all their torpedo installations and witnessed experiments. On his return he prepared a complete torpedo defence system for Sydney, Newcastle and Botany Bay and it was approved by the military authorities and the government. In 1880-81 he published three confidential lectures which he had given in Sydney on torpedoes. When his unit was transferred to the military forces and renamed the Submarine Miners Corps in 1877, Cracknell was promoted major. In 1881 in evidence to the royal commission on the colony's defences he explained that the corps was largely made up of signallers and electricians from the Telegraph Department and that he ran it as closely as possible in connexion with that department.

As early as 1874 Cracknell had lectured to the Royal Society of New South Wales on 'Duplex Telegraphy' and on his return from the International Telegraphic Convention in Berlin in 1885 he introduced the duplex and quadruplex systems and modernized the telegraphic service. He was also interested in the uses of electric lighting. In 1886 he was gazetted lieutenant-colonel.

In 1887-89 two attempts were made in the Legislative Council to discredit Cracknell, apparently at the instigation of Dr John Creed, who chaired a select committee on the colony's torpedo defences; the report found them unsatisfactory. Cracknell was defended at length in an acrimonious debate by the government representative, Julian Salomons, and others who agreed that the chairman's questions had been biased and prompted by animus. In 1889 another select committee inquired into the petition of Lieutenant Thomas Hammand, manager of telephones, who alleged that Cracknell had attempted to dismiss him from the Torpedo Corps and to transfer him to Armidale because of his damaging evidence to the earlier committee. Cracknell's request to Hammand for an explanation of discrepancies in his evidence was regarded as a breach of parliamentary privilege. Neither report was adopted.

Cracknell was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and Electrical Engineers in England, of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1865 and of the Engineering Association of New South Wales from 1879. He was a founder and first president of Sydney's Electric Club about 1891. By 1893 the colony had 22,000 miles (35,405 km) of telegraph lines and 600 stations, and Cracknell had been responsible for the high standard of the equipment used. When the zigzag railway across the Blue Mountains was being built, Cracknell managed to shift 80,000 tons of rock with two different blasts. He died on 14 January 1893 at his home, Richmond, Edgecliffe Road, Woollahra, after 'over-exertion during an all day parade', and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife Margaret, née Cunningham, whom he had married in Rochester about 1853, and by his only son and three of his five daughters. An obituarist claimed that Cracknell's 'heart was thoroughly in his work', and that his zeal was 'equalled by his natural intelligence and acquired capacity'.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1872-73, 2, 79, 1878-79, 5, 738, 1881, 4, 708
  • Postmaster-General annual report 1885, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1885-86, 7, 888
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1887-88, 2, 651, 1889, 2, 861, 894
  • 'Memoir: Edward Charles Cracknell', Minutes of Proceedings of the Engineering Association of New South Wales, vol 8, 1892-93, p 158
  • Town and Country Journal, 23 Nov 1878
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Jan 1893
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 21 Jan 1893
  • manuscript catalogue under Cracknell (State Library of New South Wales)
  • printed sources catalogue under Cracknell (State Librray of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and J. L. Affleck, 'Cracknell, Edward Charles (1831–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Rochester, Kent, England


14 January, 1893 (aged ~ 62)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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