When John McDouall Stuart and Charles Todd arrived separately in Adelaide, the British Empire was at its zenith, and young men were flocking to the colonies in search of adventure, fame and fortune. The mother country was six months by sea, and Australia it seemed was six months behind in news and fashion, scientific breakthroughs and new technologies.
Todd, a mathematical talent, took up the position of Government Astronomer. But his fascination for the telegraph, the newly emergent communications technology, soon led him to link a wire from Adelaide to Port Adelaide, cutting information travel time from one day to one minute.
Stuart was cut from different cloth -he was an adventurer able to drive himself beyond the limits of most people's endurance. At first Stuart worked for wealthy pastoralists, exploring the outback looking for gold, copper, and grasslands. But as he perfected the art of traveling light with few men or provisions, his usefulness took on a more important dimension. He became known as the man who would go where other surveyors could not.
Todd came to see that Stuart was the man, possibly the only man, who could make the hazardous journey to Australia's northern most shore, and map the route of a telegraph line that would transform the whole country. It was paramount to Todd and his supporters that Adelaide should be the first Australian city to connect to London.
At the time, most people imagined a vast inland sea separated Australia's east and west coastlines. There was enormous public and media speculation about whether the Victorian backed Burke and Wills or South Australia's Stuart expedition would be the first to cross the continent's interior.
Burke and Wills perished, but Stuart survived, partly because he adapted himself to the arid Australian landscape and was able to read signs of water. He realised that he could follow the techniques used by Aboriginal people who had survived in this harsh land for many thousands of years. Inevitably there was conflict as he crossed (unannounced) tribal lands. In describing one battle he wrote in his journal of the warriors he fought; "They are the finest natives I have yet seen. Tall, powerful and muscular men. Bold, daring and courageous. Not at all afraid of either us or our horses."
In 1861-62 on his sixth and final expedition inland, and the third attempt to cross the continent, Stuart successfully crossed overland to the northern coast. It was a shocking journey; he suffered from scurvy, stomach ulcers, and became virtually blind from sandy blight (trachoma).
Adelaide celebrated jubilantly on his return, but Stuart sank into a decline from which he never recovered.
Stuart was undone by the rigors of his expeditions combined with his alcoholism. After 1862, despite having lead the first crossing of the continent he was ridiculed by polite society. When the British asked if he should be considered for a Knighthood for his exploration feats, the South Australian governor declined citing his drinking problem.
After Stuart's crossing, the South Australian Government was desperate to beat the other States to be the first to build a wire that would connect to London. They annexed the Northern Territory to ensure access all the way to Darwin. In 1870 Todd, using Stuart's maps, organised and lead three teams to lay overland telegraph wire. Adelaide was linked to London via the undersea cable to Java and then on through India and so Australia was connected to the world.