Linking horizons, bridging spaces

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It was the ‘whistle of the Trans-continental Express’ that sounded as the first note in Brady’s ‘hymn of the future’. The rumbling of trains and the churning of steamships heralded the onrush of civilisation. In Brady’s dream, as in the minds of many Australians, improvements in transport and communication were essential to the future development of the Northern Territory. The land could be brought to its full potential only once its isolation had been conquered. ‘In a country of great distances like Australia’, noted David Gordon in Australia To-Day, ‘the problem of transportation is the problem of progress’. 1

From the 1860s, colonial governments had invested heavily in railways to open up the country for settlement and growth. 2 With Federation came the promise of a truly national system, with railways that spanned the continent, from east to west and north to south. The completion of the rail line between Adelaide and Darwin was one of the conditions agreed to by the Commonwealth upon its takeover of the Northern Territory in 1911, though it would take nearly a century for the commitment to be met. ‘If Australians are as big as their country, and are worthy of their Anzac sons’, thundered Gordon, a member of South Australia’s Legislative Council, ‘they will not allow their legislators to trifle with destiny by neglecting to bridge their continent from sea to sea with a railway’. ‘It is a big scheme’, he added, ‘but it can be carried through by big people with a bold policy’. 3 As well as promoting settlement, the construction of railways through central and northern Australia offered a means by which the nation could take full possession of its land. By ‘bridging the continent’, Australia could confirm its unity and legitimacy, gaining ‘clear title’ in the eyes of other nations. 4 ‘As a home for a nation’, argued James Smith, Australia exists only ‘in so far as its internal and external communications are sufficing and effective’. 5

Like the railway, the telegraph strengthened ambitions of nationhood against the dead weight of distance. ‘Up hill and down dale they go’, wrote Frank Hurley surveying the line of poles running through central Australia, ‘linking horizons, bridging spaces, uniting a continent with the chatter of cities’. 6 Developments continued apace into the twentieth century, as radio, motor cars and aeroplanes added force to the denial of distance. ‘Radio has eliminated time and space’, the Sydney Morning Herald announced in 1930, the morning after Marconi had opened the Sydney Electrical and Radio Exhibition by switching on the lights of the Town Hall from his yacht in the harbour at Genoa. 7 Ernestine Hill, meanwhile, detected a growing ‘spirit of national unity’ fostered by technological advance: ‘Quick travel by air and motor have widened the perspective, and to radio long-wave harmonies a continent tunes in’. 8 Each new marvel of science brought the continent’s forbidding distances a little further within the ken and control of its would-be masters.

As the speed of transport increased, so did the tempo of life itself. Those who had ‘grown up in the age of motor transport’, Brady observed, ‘cannot very well imagine the Horse Era, with its slow travel and rough roads’. 9 There was a difference, not only in the mode of transportation, but the very nature of existence. Previous generations had known a ‘slow way of living’ that modern minds could scarcely imagine. 10 All over the western world, the new technologies of transport and communication combined experience of speed and simultaneity within a heightened sense of time—not only was life getting faster, but the pace of change itself seemed to be accelerating. 11 The ‘march of science’ had quickened, remarked the Sydney Morning Herald in 1914, to reveal ‘wonders undreamt of by our fathers’. Who, in 1890, could have imagined that mail would be delivered by air, the newspaper asked, or that the continent would be ringed by ‘a chain of wireless telegraphy stations’? A mere twenty-five years had brought a host of ‘staggering marvels’, and the pace of progress showed no signs of slowing. 12

Two world wars added to the vertiginous rush. The battle for technological supremacy was fought in the realms of time and space, with combatants striving for more distance from their weapons, earlier warnings of attack. As threats mounted to the north, Australia had once again to face the challenge of its ‘empty spaces’. By 1940 there was still no rail link to Darwin, only a rough track, impassable in the wet. But within a year, the army had pushed through a new, all-weather road, ‘a dynamic trans-continental highway’ that cut ‘the heart of Australia open like a pair of scissors’. Travelling the road gave a ‘feeling of possession’, one visitor noted, ‘it was a conquest’ that revealed Australia as an ‘entity’ at last. The journey offered ‘a vision of the future’. 13

War telescoped time, bringing massive resources to bear on the demands of the moment. Years became months, months became days, and an instant was suddenly time enough to destroy an entire city. The development of the atomic bomb compressed decades of research into a few short years. A process that demanded the precise manipulation of ever-smaller units of time resulted in an explosive force that could not easily be quantified. The bomb challenged humanity’s ability to measure.

Just like the parade of revolutionary marvels that had preceded it, atomic energy was quickly enlisted in the fight against distance. Beyond the fancies of atom-powered planes, trains and automobiles, running on the standard ‘teacupful’ of uranium, there were persistent suggestions that atomic energy might accelerate the development of Australia’s ‘great spaces’. 14 Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Australia Unlimited’ supplement, the Chairman of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, JP Baxter, described the possibility of ‘package power stations for country towns and inland centres’. As a first step, Baxter suggested that reactors might serve ‘the remoter parts of the continent’. 15

But science’s latest victory over isolation brought new dangers. Even Australia’s remoteness might not be enough to shelter it from the consequences of atomic warfare. Distance meant little in the face of global annihilation. Advances in rocket science added to the threat, foreshadowing long-range delivery of death and destruction. The conquest of space moved upwards and outwards, as Cold War rivals sought to push their technologies higher, further and faster. British rocket scientists, keen to keep up in the new race for space, fixed upon Australia as the ideal location for a testing range. They were impressed by large tracts of ‘unsettled’ land and good visibility. 16 Rockets could be sent sailing thousands of miles across the continent with little danger to life or property. As one British MP explained, no other country, except for Russia, ‘possesses such spaces or opportunities for experiments’. Australia’s problematic interior was proclaimed as the ‘world’s best’ site for probing the edges of ‘outer’ space. 17

Woomera was expected to play a crucial role in the defence of the Empire, but other frontiers beckoned. The name ‘Woomera’, Ivan Southall suggested, brought to mind ‘twin images of space’: the ‘desert space’ in which it was located, and ‘a still wider space that lies in darkness beyond the earth’. 18 In a supplement celebrating the coronation of the young queen Elizabeth, the Herald pondered the symbolism of Woomera, part of ‘the live heart of the Great Australian Loneliness’. In pursuing their ‘task of conquering far horizons in a remote quarter of the globe’, Australians had developed skills and qualities shown to the fore in the exploits of their much-celebrated ‘air navigators’. ‘The same geographical factors’, the Herald continued, ‘now give Australia a privileged place not only in the conquest of the sky, but of space itself’. 19 Australia’s vast, ‘empty’ lands might yet provide the launching pad for the future, as the nation’s long battle to wrest progress from space was continued above and beyond its ‘far horizons’.

‘We should be space conscious in Australia’, declared an article on developments in rocket science published in Walkabout. It was from Woomera, the article continued, ‘that the first moon-ship will take flight’. 20 Such speculation may have seemed a little out of place amidst Walkabout’s terrestrial travelogues and outback oddities, but there was a sense of continuity with the journal’s traditional fare revealed more explicitly in a later article by the same author. ‘From Woomera to Luna’ described in detail a tourist trip from Woomera to the moon. 21 In the future, it seemed, the familiar journey to the Centre would only be the beginning of Australians’ experience of space. This feeling of continuity could also be reflected in the landscape. Flying into Woomera, Ivan Southall looked at barren land below, scarred ‘with the rims of craters like the surface of the moon’. 22 In their struggles to bridge a continent and build a nation, Australians had shown themselves to be exceedingly ‘space conscious’. Perhaps this made the prospect of interplanetary travel a little less fanciful. They had experienced emptiness, they were hardened to distance, they had witnessed the victory of technology over isolation. Why not take the next step?

Alan Moorehead made a real-life visit to the Woomera rocket range in 1952 and was entranced. Standing on a ‘waterless plain’ that stretched away ‘apparently to infinity’, Moorehead lifted his gaze to the heavens and found that ‘the mind leaps outward… any extension of the imagination becomes a reasonable possibility’. As evening fell, Moorehead struggled to piece together the implications of what he had seen, to understand the ‘spirit of the place’. Like Brady some forty years earlier, Moorehead’s thoughts turned to the future. Standing in the company of an RAAF officer, Moorehead stood on a cliff-top, overlooking a dry salt lake marked with a ‘pattern of star-like craters’, the result of bombing tests. A brilliant new moon rose in the sky. ‘It was not difficult to know what the Group Captain was thinking’, he reported, ‘ The moon—it was not so far away. And if you could reach the moon why not all the rest?’ Woomera offered ‘endless space’ for a new breed of pioneers. ‘The sky here is the limit’, he concluded, ‘nothing else’. 23



Notes:

  1. David J Gordon, ‘Bridging a continent’, Australia To-Day, no. 13, 21 November 1917, p. 107.
  2. Geoffrey Blainey, The tyranny of distance, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2001, chapters 10 &11; Graeme Davison, ‘Railways’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), Oxford companion to Australian history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 542-4.
  3. Gordon, ‘Bridging a continent’, p. 107.
  4. John Flynn, ‘Australia’s north and centre’, Australia To-Day, 11 November 1922, p. 109.
  5. James A Smith, ‘Linking a continent’, Australia To-Day, 10 November 1924, p. 87.
  6. Frank Hurley, ‘The Red Centre’, Walkabout, vol. 6, no. 12, 1 October 1940, p. 10.
  7. ‘Tales of the genii’, SMH, 27 March 1930, p. 10. See also ‘When Marconi switched on the lights: the Sydney Electrical and Radio Exhibition’, Sydney Mail, 2 April 1930, pp. 20-1.
  8. Ernestine Hill, ‘Along the last lost border’, Walkabout, vol. 5, no. 7, 1 May 1939, p. 39.
  9. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 14, no. 1, 1953, pp. 27.
  10. ibid., p. 22.
  11. Kern, The culture of time and space; Graeme Davison, The unforgiving minute: how Australia learned to tell the time, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, ch. 4.
  12. SMH, 29 July 1914, p. 8.
  13. Edgar Laytha, ‘Overland to Darwin’, Walkabout, vol. 8, no. 2, 1 December 1941, pp. 7-8.
  14. JP Baxter, ‘Peaceful uses for atomic energy’, in ‘Australia Unlimited’ supplement, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1957, p. 16; JP Baxter, ‘What atomic energy can do for Australia’, New Commonwealth, vol. 29, no. 10, 16 May 1955, pp. 467-470. For a discussion of atomic powered trains see ‘Atomic powered locomotive’, Commonwealth Engineer, vol. 43, 1 August 1955, pp. 7-8.
  15. Baxter, ‘Peaceful uses for atomic energy’, p. 16.
  16. See, for example: Herald, 2 April 1946, p. 9; Herald, 12 July 1946, p. 5; Herald, 8 August 1946, p. 1. For the history of the Woomera rocket range, see Peter Morton, Fire across the desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project 1946-1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1989.
  17. Herald, 14 May 1947, p. 2.
  18. Ivan Southall, Woomera, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962, p. ix.
  19. ‘Woomera symbols’, in ‘A vision splendid’ supplement, Herald, 8 March 1954, p. 12.
  20. E I Rosenblum, ‘Walkabout in space’, Walkabout, vol. 20, no. 9, 1 September 1954, p. 10.
  21. E I Rosenblum, ‘From Woomera to Luna: space travel – when?’, Walkabout, vol. 23, no. 11, 1 November 1957, pp. 33-4.
  22. Ivan Southall, Rockets in the desert, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1964, p. 6.
  23. Alan Moorehead, Rum Jungle, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1953, pp. 88-92; Alan Moorehead, ‘The sky’s the limit at Woomera’, Herald, 9 July 1952, p. 4.

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