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Sir Charles Todd (1826–1910)

by G. W. Symes

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Sir Charles Todd (1826-1910), astronomer, meteorologist and electrical engineer, was born on 7 July 1826 at Islington, London, second son of Griffith Todd, grocer and tea merchant of Greenwich. Educated locally he was appointed to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, as a supernumerary computer in 1841; he showed ability in mathematics and potential as an observer. As junior assistant to Professor Challis at the Cambridge university observatory in 1848-54 he assisted in the determination of longitude between the Cambridge and Greenwich observatories by telegraphic means. Early in 1854 he returned to Greenwich as superintendent of the galvanic apparatus for the transmission of time signals. This involved close co-operation with the Electric Telegraph Co., and also with C. V. Walker, electrical engineer to the South Eastern Railway, who was one of the pioneer experimenters with submarine cables. Todd became fascinated with telecommunications. In 1855 the South Australian government requested Sir George Airy, the astronomer royal, to select an observer and superintendent of electric telegraph at a salary of £400; he nominated Todd, who was appointed on 10 February. He reached Port Adelaide in the Irene on 4 November.

Todd wanted to initiate plans for the connexion of Melbourne and Sydney by telegraph, followed by a link with England. In March 1856 he completed the first government telegraph between Adelaide and its port. He then told Governor Sir Richard MacDonnell that a line to Melbourne was of prime importance and that it should precede meteorological proposals. He went to Melbourne in July where he met Samuel W. McGowan, the Victorian superintendent, and commenced a lifelong friendship. Both governments accepted their joint recommendation that the line should be laid down under one uniform and successful system (Morse's), that New South Wales be included and that Australia be ultimately connected by telegraph to India: they had projected the first national communications system, one of the most significant colonial decisions of the century. Todd returned to survey the route of the 300 miles (483 km) section from the border to Adelaide. His success boosted his confidence and reputation and confirmed the governor's high opinion of his character, ability and vision. In 1858 the government awarded him good service pay of £1820.

Todd's meteorological plan, which he had submitted in 1856, depended on a network of observation stations which were required to report daily to the observatory. The telegraph system was the answer; he trained his own observers, including interested private individuals. Growth was slow initially and it was not until 1860 that the observatory was ready with the necessary instruments and fourteen selected stations. As the telegraph system expanded so did the meteorological stations, with a greater impetus ten years later when post offices came under Todd's control.

In England proposals for connexion with Australia by telegraph had been mooted in 1854 and the first plans were submitted to the colonies in 1858. The route was by India to Singapore and the Dutch islands to the north, by cable around the east coast to Brisbane and by landline to Sydney. The link depended on subsidies from the British and colonial governments, and involved much complex negotiation. Todd, courteous and never contentious, examined every proposal and reported simply and lucidly. John McDouall Stuart's crossing of the continent in 1862 proved the feasibility of the project but the discussions dragged on until 1863 and then lapsed. In Australia the line from Adelaide to Melbourne was doubled, a direct line to Sydney with Todd as the chief negotiator was completed in 1866 and a line was run to Port Augusta which could be a starting point for extension west or north. In 1863 South Australia had gained control of the Northern Territory and suitable cable landing places there.

1866 saw a resurgence of English proposals, and early in 1870 the British Australian Telegraph Co. planned to land a cable near Palmerston (Darwin) and connect to Queensland. On 1 January Todd became South Australia's postmaster-general and superintendent of telegraphs and revived an old scheme for a line to Perth and up the west coast, but received little support. Then the company sought permission to land the cable, and Henry Bull Strangways, premier of South Australia, decided to build an overland line to Darwin, independent of other colonies, and the company accepted.

Todd now produced a detailed organization, the result of years of practical experience. He had to build a line some 1800 miles (2897 km), handicapped by lack of time and inadequate survey. He had to rely on Stuart's journals and maps for the greater part. But determined and confident, he divided the work into three sections: the southern and northern were let to contractors, each with one of Todd's overseers, the central was to be done by government labour under him. Having overcome initial difficulties of the passage of the MacDonnell Ranges early in 1871, he heard of disaster in the northern part: his overseer William McMinn mishandled the contractors, terminated their contract in May and returned to Adelaide. Work was practically at a standstill for five months. The government sent Robert Patterson north with a relief party and Todd followed in January 1872. As work progressed he went south inspecting the line, which was completed on 22 August, although cable communication was not made for another two months. 'This epic construction project provided one of the greatest advances in communications between England and Australia and the enthusiastic leadership of Charles Todd … must mark the Overland Telegraph Line as an outstanding example of engineering in Australia'. During the final difficult months he proved his acumen in dealing with the captious and dissident Patterson. He was made C.M.G. in November. These two years were the peak of Todd's career and he achieved international recognition. One line remained to be built, that to Western Australia. By 1877 he had built his portion from Port Augusta to Eucla, the connexion being made at the end of the year.

In 1864 Todd had suspected the accuracy of the fixing of the 141 meridian boundary between South Australia and New South Wales; on completion of the Sydney line in 1866 he obtained agreement to check it. In 1868 with the co-operation of the observers of New South Wales and Victoria, he worked in the Sydney and Melbourne observatories and established a transit at the border to complete the operation. The solution agreed to by all was that the 141 meridian was two and a third miles (3.7 km) to the east of the original boundary.

The full development of Todd's beloved astronomy depended on the spread of the telegraphic network and the acquisition of modern instruments to provide a complete observatory. By the early 1880s he had organized constant general astronomical work, time services, a standard point for geodetic surveys, and gradual improvement in the accuracy of climatic statistics. Before that he had made regular observations, notably of Venus in 1874, and again in 1882 when in order to get the best possible results he established a temporary station at Wentworth, New South Wales. A long series of notes on the phenomena of Jupiter's satellites was published in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, of which he had been made a fellow in 1864. His meteorological system spread to all colonies and New Zealand. He sought systematic interchange of information and pioneered the production of weather maps. When he retired there were 510 rainfall stations in South Australia and the Northern Territory, twenty-two of which were completely equipped for all meteorological observations.

Todd attended an International Telegraphic Conference in Berlin in 1885, and next year while in England he was made an honorary M.A. of the University of Cambridge. Professor J. C. Adams, co-discoverer of the planet Neptune, was his sponsor. In 1889 he was elected a fellow of The Royal Society, London. These two distinctions gave him great personal satisfaction and by 1889 his salary was £1000. In June 1893 he was made K.C.M.G. He was also a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Meteorological Society and the Society of Electrical Engineers. In 1895 at the request of the Western Australian government, he chose a site and suggested the design and equipment for its new observatory, and his deputy was appointed government astronomer.

Todd held leading positions in numerous learned societies and educational and public institutions in the colony, and was always ready to assist and advise. After Federation in 1901 his departments consistently showed a profit. His designation was changed to deputy postmaster general (retired June 1905) but, despite the Public Officers Retirement Act (1903), he did not leave the State public service until 1907. In his later years he ruled his departments as a 'benevolent autocrat', trusted by employers and employees. The keynote of his life was service, and psychic experiences had led him to a firm belief in his destiny. Kindly and tolerant but never pessimistic, 'his natural impulse was to believe that the purpose of every man in his employ was as single as his own … he rarely failed to find what he thought to see'. He was essentially happy and good humoured. His besetting 'weakness' was his constant punning of which, as a connoisseur of tea from his early days, the hackneyed example was 'I'd be odd without my T'. Much of the history of astronomy, meteorology and telegraphs in South Australia is contained in his reports to parliament between 1856 and 1900.

Prior to leaving England in 1855 Todd had married Alice Gillam Bell (d.1898) of Cambridge. They had two sons and four daughters, a devoted family that also brought up two sons and a daughter of his eldest brother who died in 1861. The Alice Springs telegraph repeater station in central Australia was named for Mrs Todd in 1871; the adjacent township of Stuart was re-named Alice Springs in 1933. One of the founders in 1859 of the Brougham Place Congregational Church, North Adelaide, and of the Stow Memorial Congregational Church, Adelaide, in 1865, Todd and his family were regular worshippers. He died of gangrene on 29 January 1910 at Semaphore and was buried in the North Road cemetery. He was survived by one son and four daughters; Gwendoline married Professor (Sir) William Bragg of the University of Adelaide. Todd's estate was sworn for probate at £12,876.

Select Bibliography

  • Aust Post Office, The Centenary of the Adelaide-Darwin Overland Telegraph Line: Symposium Papers (Syd, 1972, and SAA)
  • W. L. Manser, The Overland Telegraph (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1961)
  • Todd papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • Magnetic Telegraph Dept, letter-book 1856-58 (G.P.O., Adelaide)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. W. Symes, 'Todd, Sir Charles (1826–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Todd, c.1860

Charles Todd, c.1860

State Library of South Australia, 26817

Life Summary [details]


7 July, 1826
London, Middlesex, England


29 January, 1910 (aged 83)
Semaphore, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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