The Government Electrician

Charles Todd was introduced to electricity early in his career having experimented with its use in telegraphy.  He understood the theoretical underpinnings of the new electrical science and this was confirmed in April 1854 when he was put in charge of the Galvanic Department at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.  This department was responsible providing power generated by banks of large batteries to be used for the telegraph and time keeping operations of the Observatory. There is basically little difference between systems which transmit small electric currents as telegraph signals and those which transmit larger currents for lighting and motive power and so the knowledge and skills acquired in the one were directly transferrable to the other. In South Australia, Todd’s electrical focus was always on his principal responsibility as Superintendent of Telegraphs but he never missed an opportunity to explore the wider fields. As early as 1856 he was talking about electric lighting and, through the 1860s, gave demonstrations. In November 1867 he gave a public display of electric light using a lamp he had made himself. For the next few years he was wholly occupied with the planning and construction of the Overland Telegraph Line but in 1879 he was asked by the Adelaide City Council to report on the practicability of lighting the streets with electric lamps. A few years later he demonstrated how electric arc lamps, powered by the new technology of dynamos, could light the streets. By this time, private companies keen to promote the new form of lighting were beginning to emerge and Todd’s role became an advisory one. He recommended electric lighting for public buildings such as the SA Institute and the new Parliament House but the Government was reluctant to take the step: an electric light plant was finally installed in Parliament House, under Todd’s supervision, in 1891.   Todd involved himself in the life of the Colony and no more so than in talking about and demonstrating the science and technology he was involved in.  He spoke to countless civic groups and his exhibit at the 1888 Jubilee Exhibition was illustrative of his broad interest in electrical engineering.  Among his expansive displays were: A wide array of telegraphic equipment Therm-electric pile Self-recording barograph and thermograph Electric clock Lightning arresters Electric motors Relays, switches and commutators Batteries Repeaters Telephones Galvanometers Cables Resistors Spectroscope Galvanoscopes Type printer Electrical testing apparatuses

Later Contributions

To some extent, the electric light mantle passed to his younger son Hedley who became the South Australian agent for the Brush Electrical Engineering Company in 1892. Charles Todd, however, was present at the key events of electrical engineering in Adelaide: the first trials of electric transport in 1889, the opening of the Colony’s first central power station at Port Adelaide in 1898, and – in the new century – the first long distance wireless signal in Australia in 1900 and the official opening of the city’s electric power supply in Grenfell Street in 1901. As electric lighting became a reality, Todd’s attention turned to the interference the new distribution systems were causing to the telegraph and telephone networks. As chairman of the national Electric Conference, Todd was responsible for drawing up the draft document which would regulate electricity supply in the newly-federated Australian States. Nothing was beyond the grasp of this extraordinary scientist and public servant.

National Significance

Charles Todd was often referred to, and referred to himself as the “Government Electrician”.  In the 19th  century, electricity was a new science and Todd was a leading colonial champion for its use in telegraphy, indoor and street lighting, time keeping, wireless communication and even the control of weaponry. He was the leading advocate in South Australia for the indoor lighting of major public buildings including Parliament House and the SA Institute. It was on Todd’s recommendation that the first course in electrical engineering was set up in Adelaide and by Federation he was responsible for the creation of the draft standards to regulate electricity distribution in Australia.
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