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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.





Telegraphy, the earliest practical application of the science of electricity, had been developed by Wheat-stone and Cook in England and by Morse in America. In 1862, only 18 years after Morse's first long-distance line had been built, the Canterbury Provincial Council opened New Zealand's first telegraph line between Lyttelton and Christchurch. This was followed shortly afterwards by one between Port Chalmers and Dunedin. The telegraph network had, by 1866, spread over the South Island and across the Cook Strait to Wellington.

Progress was slower in the North Island, particularly on the main link between Auckland and Wellington. The first telegraph line in the North Island was a military line from Auckland to Drury, which was later extended to the Waikato. The Electric Telegraph Department, established by the Central Government in 1863, took over the Auckland military network, and in 1866 started on the Wellington to Auckland route. Though this reached Napier through Masterton two years later, it did not reach Auckland until 1872. A route through the King Country would have been too difficult (Maoris were hostile, the land bush-covered and rough). Even the easier Masterton route had to follow the coast in order to avoid the dense bush. This line was eventually extended from Napier, through Taupo and Rotorua, to Thames, where it met the Auckland line already extended from Mercer. Within 10 years of the establishment of the first telegraph line more than 2,000 miles had been erected and 400,000 messages a year were being handled. Ten years later (1882) the lines had almost doubled in length and 1·5 million telegrams were being handled annually. The Electric Telegraph Department was for 18 years separate from the Post Office, though its Commissioner was also Postmaster-General and many of its “telegraph-masters” were also postmasters. By 1879 only 19 of the 214 telegraph stations were operating independently. Minimum charges for 10-word telegrams in 1868 ranged from 1d. a word between nearby stations to 8d. a word over long routes. A universal rate of 1s. for 10 words was adopted in the seventies. In 1896, 6d. telegrams were adopted to encourage traffic, but by 1915 the Postmaster-General was speaking publicly of a loss of 2d. on every telegram handled, and the basic rate was increased to 8d. that year and to 1s. in 1920. Charges later fluctuated, with a general tendency to meet rising costs as far as possible without too cramping an effect on traffic growth.

Machine-printing telegraph equipment, which promised reduced costs, was first used in New Zealand in 1921 between Wellington and Christchurch. It was the multiplex type, of New Zealand design, by which four messages could be sent in each direction on each circuit. This system continued for about 30 years, but meanwhile the first of the more modern and faster teleprinters had been introduced in 1929. The centennial year of the telegraph in New Zealand (1962) marked the virtual end of morse. Teleprinters are now used on all important circuits with subsidiary transmission by telephone. Teleprinters are also used on the network of circuits leased by the Press Association and on more than 300 direct branch-to-branch circuits leased by business firms and Government Departments. The usefulness to the commercial community of leased teleprinters was greatly increased in 1964 when automatic Telex switching of teleprinter calls became available on a national network. Three and a half million inland telegrams were sent in 1900; 7¼ in 1920; 4½ in 1940; and 7¼ million in 1960. In 1964 7,194,945 inland telegrams were sent.

Principal Inland Rates in 1964

Ordinary Telegrams Weekdays Sundays and Holiday
For the first six words or fewer, including address and signature 1s. 3d 2s. Od.
For every additional word 1d. 1½ d.

Urgent Telegrams: Ordinary rates plus 1s.

Greetings” Telegrams: Ordinary rates plus 1s.

(These telegrams are delivered on special decorative stationery.)

Letter Telegrams Weekdays
Up to 22 words, including address and signature 1s. 9d
For each two words (or fraction thereof) after the first 22 words 1d.

(Letter telegrams are delivered by post on the next working day.)


Telephones were first used in New Zealand as an ancillary to the telegraph service, the Telegraph Commissioner “fully anticipating that this means of intercommunication would be largely made use of in the future”. The first telephone exchanges were opened in 1881 at Christchurch (27 subscribers) and Auckland (26 subscribers). Dunedin followed in 1882 and Wellington in 1883. By 1890 there were about 2,500 subscribers, rising in 1900 to 7,150. In 1913 the first automatic exchange equipment was in operation at Auckland and Wellington, though the equipment merely supplemented the manual exchanges. It was not until 1919 that an automatic exchange at Masterton was opened, with all telephones operating automatically. By 1910 there were 29,681 telephones installed, including extensions. In each of the next two decades the numbers were more than doubled and by 1964 had reached a total of 901,955. New Zealand ranks fourth in the world in telephone density and, on present rates of growth, could soon be third. In 1962 it had 34·8 telephones per hundred of population. In the 10 years from 1952 to 1962 the number of subscribers increased by 99·7 per cent from 288,704 to 576,570. In the year 1964 almost 70,800 new installations were made. Even so, more than 19,000 applicants were still on waiting lists. Seventy-seven per cent of all telephones in use in 1964 were automatic.

Years Total Telephones (Including Extensions) Telephones per 100 Population
1900 7,150 0·9
1910 29,681 2·87
1920 80,723 6·53
1930 161,323 10·84
1940 217,869 13·28
1950 348,539 18·2
1960 686,021 28·94
1964 901,955 34·8

(NOTE – By mid-1965 it was estimated that 35 per cent of New Zealanders had a telephone. On this basis New Zealand was third in world telephone density, behind the United States (44·28 sets for every 100 people) and Sweden (42·25 sets per 100). Canada and Switzerland were fourth and fifth respectively.)

Until recently rural telephone service was usually provided by party lines, sometimes owned and maintained by subscribers. In 1960 there were 55,227 party lines serving a total of 173,139 subscribers' stations. Since the Second World War small automatic telephone exchanges have been established in many country places, mainly with individual lines or small party lines. An emergency telephone service (dial 111) for ambulance, police, and fire services operates in about 90 exchanges. Coin-in-the-slot telephones were first tried experimentally in Wellington in 1910 for local calls. Multi-coin slot telephones, from which local and toll calls can be made or telegrams telephoned for onward transmission, were first installed in 1938 in Christchurch.

Annual telephone rentals for residential telephones range from £12 for very small exchanges up to £16 for the main centres. Business telephone rentals range from £18 to 31. Party lines are charged at correspondingly lower rentals. Accounts for telephone rentals and for toll calls are machine processed and issued from three zone account centres which are located at Auckland, Palmerston North, and Christchurch.

Telephone Toll Services

Some countries charge a fee for all telephone calls. In New Zealand service is charged for on a flat rate for unrestricted calling within the local exchange area and with toll fees for calls to other exchange areas. At the turn of the century calls from one exchange to another could be made only if the distance were short and if circuits were not needed for telegraph traffic. By 1906 telephone toll lines from Dunedin to Invercargill, Auckland to Hamilton, and Wellington to Masterton were in service and others were being built. The first telephone cable connecting the North and South Islands was laid in 1926. This cable, and the new technique of “carrier” telephony adopted in the twenties, made it possible for really long-distance calls to be made. Carrier techniques improved both the quality of the transmission and the capacity of the lines. Toll services were further improved in 1960 by the new large-capacity toll link between Auckland and Wellington. Coaxial cable is used from Auckland to Hamilton and from Wellington to Palmerston North, with microwave channels between Hamilton and Palmerston North. Many other circuits, coaxial cable, microwave, and V.H.F., are being built.

A policy of wider free-calling areas has recently been adopted and selected flat-rate areas are being extended to enable subscribers to call over much greater distances without paying a toll fee for each call. In spite of this policy, toll traffic continues to grow. In 1900, calls numbered 260,000; in 1920, 6¾ million; in 1940, 16 million; in 1960, 47½ million; and in 1962, 55 million.

Toll Calls (in thousands)
1900 1920 1940 1960 1964
258 6,718 16,092 47,499 61,015

Toll rates for distances up to 30 miles range from 5d. to 1s. 1d. for each three minutes or fraction. They are the same day and night. For distances over 30 miles the rates range from 1s. 7d. to a maximum of 8s. for three minutes' conversation. These rates are increased by approximately one-third of the relative initial rate for each minute exceeding three. Between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. on weekdays and between midnight and 6 a.m. on Sundays and departmental holidays the rates for calls over 40 miles are reduced and vary from 1s. 9d. to 6s. 1d. for three minutes' conversation, with a proportionate increase for each additional minute. The charge for an urgent call is double the rate for an ordinary call.