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]



    "Hansard from 23 November, 1910, where ministers were arguing in what is now Old Parliament House" - correction: Old Parliament House was the house of the Parliament of Australia from 1927 to 1988. Before 1927, Parliament House, Melbourne was the seat of the Federal Parliament.

    Copper won out then, here's hoping fibre wins out this time. What gets me is that copper has lasted 100 years and the Telstra CEO is claiming it is good for another century.

      Sadly, it wont. Come September 14th Australia will elect a Liberal government simply because they hate Gillard. Most Aussies know nothing about the Coalitions plans but they're happier to give them the keys to Parliament for the next three years, than to do a bit of research and see that Labors policies are better overall.

        The election isn't over until the election is over. One thing I have noticed is the number of people very displeased with the liberal party. I would not count my chickens until they hatched on this subject.

        "see that Labors policies are better overall."
        You are joking aren't you?

      it's not been lasting very well in the bush for years. constant outages, especially when there's rain.. and that's just the phone line!

      connection dropouts with terrestrial wireless transmission. blockages due to area.

      the NBN is fibre optic, brand new and works on light instead of sound speeds.

      99.7% the speed of light. it won't happen on copper. if there's a single link that has copper and not fibre optic it chokes the speed right back down again.

      so you can spend 5 grand getting it to your door only to have that be useless if any connection on the way through isn't fibre optic.

      when you connect to the internet you hop across many networks not just point to point. so the network needs to be fibre optic all the way through or the high speed is shut down.

    something something history something something changes politicians dont

    All the discussion about phone and internet aside, what strikes me is that even in 1910 there were some smart people trying to get the wiring underground instead of the still dangerous (and ugly) above ground powerlines. Lets hope it does not take another 100 year to get the cables underground.

    can somebody tell me please if the coalition gets in do we still pay for line rental for our phone for the copper thanks

    I'd like to see the great debate of 2101 where they argue replacing fibre with quantum tesseractors.

      I'd like to see the great South Australian debate of 2101, electrifying the rail line. Because at the rate its going it sure as hell ain't gunna get done this century...

      why? according to the coalition everything will be wireless by then :/


        Last edited 18/06/15 9:45 am

          They'll only give us spacetime wormholes to the node, though.

          Last edited 26/06/13 9:31 am

            Perhaps at a later time you can complete the link between you and the nearest blackhole, but until then, you'll just have to use 802.11N.

    What's interesting is that both of these men were members of the ALP. Looks like the in-fighting hasn't changed... From both sides for that matter. When will they all learn that it's not about them; but the people?

      Perhaps at the time, Members will have an actual debate representing their constituents instead of just blindly toeing the party line.

    Omg. I was telling someone last week too justify the cost of laying out the copper network, for this silly thing called a telephone. I didn't know I was giving a history lesson. The NBN is the largest project since the snowy mountain hydro. I hate to say this but I will be voting for idiots #1, because idiots #2 are not going to do ftp. 25m/sec I'll go to Vodafone 4G. Now that is sad!?!?!

      It's a problem when we can only vote for idiots.

    The debate here isn't whether to now use fibre to replace copper. THe debate is why are we even listening to politicians who clearly have no idea what they are talking about half the time ? We need a whole new system of government where REAL scientists make the formal statements and then politicians debate them. There is no point debating politician's opinions because they are not equiped with the capacity to know everything about every new technology. We just spent a decade argueing about climate change for example, when clearly it is man made/capitalist driven pollution. Lets stop argueing about such clearly flawed arguements.

      politicians still make the decisions when they are in power and controlling the money. so it doesnt matter about debating a real scientific statement - it will come down to the ruling parties belief (climate change is a great example)

      The solution to that is pretty simple - all the scientists need to get together and found their own political party and run for parliament. I'd certainly be more likely to trust (and vote for) a party backed by scientists rather than one backed by unions, corporations, backwater hicks or hippies, which are the main options on offer to us right now.

      Unfortunately they're too busy doing all that science stuff, so probably don't have time for this.

    Be a cold day in hell when the Australian government can actually make a decision.

    It should be recognised that fibre has been part of our telecommunications system for more than 50 years, so its not a technological breakthrough of the 21st century. so maybe what we are paying the $90mil for is an extension of hardware associated with a mature technology to nodes closer to users, seems to be what Turnbull is argueing.
    Also the debate about iron and copper is not one of technology, they both used the same technology, electrical impulses. It was a debate about an economic decision, expensive copper versus cheaper iron working ie. the most economic way of providing an acceptable service. It seems reasonable to consider the economies. In doing so the relative costs of ownership associated with fibre versus copper to the home, where it will provide an acceptable level of service must be considered.
    It is the governments duty to provide the best system that can be provided for a cost that can be afforded by the people using it, for the short and medium term. Later upgradeabilty in the longer term is necessary to provide an evolutionary development in the future.
    Yes Albo there is a lot to be learned from the Hansard.

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