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Samuel Walker McGowan (1829–1887)

by Jean Gittins

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Samuel Walker McGowan (1829-1887), scientist and administrator, was born on 4 January 1829 in Londonderry, Ireland, eldest son of Samuel McGowan and his wife Eliza, née Walker. Educated at Midland District Grammar School, Kingston, Canada, he studied law in Toronto. After his father died in 1847 McGowan turned to telegraphy in which he had experimented. Taught by Professor Samuel Morse, he gained practical experience with several telegraph companies in North America.

Encouraged by news of gold discoveries in Australia McGowan decided to migrate to Victoria. Early in 1853 he arrived in the Glance at Melbourne, intending to form a private company to provide telegraphic linkage between Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide as well as the goldfields. He soon captured the interest of capitalists but the government decided to make all telegraph lines a public monopoly. In September tenders were called for the construction of an experimental line between Melbourne and Williamstown and McGowan's was accepted. On 1 March 1854 he was appointed general superintendent of the Electric Telegraph Department of Victoria and two days later the first telegraph service south of the equator was opened. By December the experimental line had been extended to Geelong. In 1857 all main centres were connected and lines radiated from Melbourne westwards to Portland and northwards to the Murray River, and by the end of October telegraph communication between the three capital cities flowed freely.

McGowan represented the Victorian government in the Victoria when she laid the cable to Tasmania in 1859 although satisfactory communication with the island was not effected for another ten years. In March 1869 the postal and telegraph departments were amalgamated and McGowan became inspector of postal and telegraph service. Early in 1885 he was appointed deputy postmaster-general.

At St James's Old Cathedral, Melbourne, on 30 June 1857 McGowan married Annie, eldest daughter of H. W. Benson of Kingston; they had two sons and two daughters, the younger of whom, Henrietta Celeste, became a journalist on the staff of the Age. The McGowans lived in Hotham Street, St Kilda, and visited the beach daily in summer. McGowan also enjoyed walks in the Dandenongs with Ferdinand Mueller. He served on the Council of the Royal Society of Victoria at various times from 1862 and was a captain in the Torpedo Corps formed for the defence of Port Phillip Bay. In 1886 he was granted leave for twelve months on full salary to investigate developments in telegraphy overseas. In London he opposed J. H. Heaton's proposal for a penny postal service between England and the colonies as a scheme which would only increase the postal department's annual deficit. He also discussed overseas cable services with the chairman of the Eastern Extension Co. In Canada talks were held with the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway for a proposed shipping line between Vancouver and Australia. He sailed for Melbourne, armed with copious notes for a report to government, but became ill and died on 18 April 1887, nine days after his return. He was buried at Oakleigh cemetery, survived by his wife and their four children.

Proud of his achievement in introducing electric telegraphy to Victoria, McGowan had a dinner service made in England, decorated with elaborate cable and Morse motifs and a compass centred on each plate. His only public memorial appears to be a stained glass window set in the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, Balaclava, a tribute from his colleagues.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Vetch, Life of Lieut.-General the Hon. Sir Andrew Clarke (Lond, 1905)
  • Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings, 24 (1887), 179
  • F. R. Bradley, ‘History of the electric telegraph in Australia’, JRAHS, 20 (1934)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12, 19 Apr 1887
  • Leader (Melbourne), 23 Apr 1887
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20 Feb 1954.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'McGowan, Samuel Walker (1829–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 January, 1829
Londonderry, Ireland


18 April, 1887 (aged 58)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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