Parliament Arguing About Copper Wires In 1910 Makes For Some Amazing Reading

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again. That’s pretty much the National Broadband Network bickering in a nutshell. The argument right now is over the use of the copper network for the Coalition’s fibre to the node plan against the Government’s expensive fibre to the home plan. Believe it or not, MInisters were having the same debate over 100 years ago. This is fascinating.

Anthony Albanese — Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and House Representative for the Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy portfolio — stood up in the House of Representitives in Question Time today to have a jibe at the Coalition’s FTTN plan. Fairly standard fare.

The interesting part came when Albanese invited the Coalition to look at the Hansard from 23 November, 1910, where ministers were arguing about the virtue of replacing the iron wire network with copper wires when, at the time, there was no real need.

What follows is a really interesting conversation from 103 years ago between Member for Melbourne Ports, James Mathews MP, and Member for Calare, Thomas Brown MP. It’s a conversation that bears a stark resemblance to the argument over copper versus fibre today.

When reading this, replace the word “iron” with “copper” and the word “copper” with “fibre”:

James Mathews MP:
Some time ago I met a gentleman who came here from the Old Country, who ridiculed the expensive practice of using copper wire where iron wire would do, the latter costing only [10.5 pence]. per lb., and the former [1.5 pence]. The price of iron wire does not fluctuate much, but that of copper fluctuates a good deal. The year before last it was about [11 pence] a lb.

Thomas Brown MP
Copper is used for greater efficiency.

James Mathews MP:
The practical men in the Department, not the theorists, think that nothing is gained by using copper wire for short lines. Some of the iron wire lines have been in use for thirty years, and give as good results now as copper wire lines. Last year an iron wire line, put up when I was a boy, to connect the Age office with Mr. David Syme’s house on the Yarra, at Hawthorn, was still giving satisfactory results, although for a good part of its length it ran parallel with the railway line, and was exposed to the smoke of locomotives, which was prejudicial to its life.

There is an iron wire line to Bacchus Marsh, and those who have spoken over it know that its conductivity is better than that of many copper wire lines. I do not say that copper wire should not be used for long-distance lines like that from Sydney
to Melbourne, but for short city lines iron wire is sufficiently good, and is much cheaper. When the honorable member for Bendigo was Postmaster-General, tlie instruction was given that iron’ wire must be used where suitable. At the time there was not a great quantity of iron wire in stock, but when a new supply was obtained, the onus of determining whether iron wire or copper wire should be used was thrown on the line foreman, who naturally did not care to run any risk. Why should responsibility of this kind be thrown on men receiving only £156 a year? It would not be allowed in a business office. No doubt it is done to shield the official “heads, who, if anything goes wrong, can blame their subordinates. When there was an outcry against the increase in the telephone rates, many persons stated in letters to the newspapers that they did not object to paying rates which would make the service profitable, but objected to making good losses due to extravagant or incompetent management, and demanded that a better system
should be provided. The PostmasterGeneral has shown that the auditors appointed by the last Government were of opinion that the rates should be increased, and the Postal Commission recommended an increase, so that the action of the Postmaster-General has justification, but, at the same time, the subscribers are right in demanding efficiency and economy of administration.

For some time I was trying to get the conduit system extended. Two years ago, I stated in this Chamber that the officials are too fond of seeing their work in the air. In up-to-date towns overhead lines will soon be abolished. The conduit system is not so expensive as the tunnel system. Tunnels would be necessary in busy parts of the city, but conduits connected with them would be used for the suburbs. The ratio of the cost of having wires overhead to that of having them in conduits is about as one to six. but the Department would do nothing in the way of getting rid of the overhead lines until an agitation for their abolition commenced. It is a pity that the officials are not more ready to accept suggestions for improvements.

How will our generation be judged in 103 years time? [Hansard PDF]

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