Henry Sutton & Australia’s First Telephone & Telephone System

The announcement of Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention, the telephone, was first bought to the public’s attention on 25 June, 1876, at the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia, USA. The invention of a device that enabled people to talk to one another over long distances immediately caught Henry Sutton’s attention and so, excited about the great possibilities this invention might bring, he set straight to work experimenting with the new device.

Within six months of Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone, Henry had designed and constructed at least twenty different telephones, sixteen of which were subsequently patented by others overseas. Henry first set up a telephone system between the three floors of the family’s Main Road music store and by mid 1877, he had set up a connection which ran between the music store at 36 Main Road, Ballarat East, and the new store at 31 Sturt Street, Ballarat. This became the first telephone system in Australia.

Not long after Henry began to investigate the telephone, Henry wrote to Alexander Graham Bell. This started a lifelong personal and professional association between the two inventors. It is more than likely that it was Henry’s association with Dr. Bell and other scientists around the world that led to sixteen of his telephones being patented by others. Henry freely shared his knowledge and designs in the hope that they would benefit the advancement of the telephone, clearly understanding its possibilities as a means of communication in the future.


In the course of the designing his various telephones, Henry thought it would be more practical to be able to talk and listen on the telephone without having to change the receiver from the ear to the mouth. It made more sense to Henry to incorporate the two into what we know today as the telephone handset. Although the telephone handset was first designed in late 1877 it was not publicly demonstrated and published until the 4th of February 1878. The published description of went as follows.

“Some interesting experiments in telephony were made a few evenings ago at Mr H. Sutton’s music warehouse, in the Main Street, in the presence of Mr Oddie, Mr Bechervaise (the post-master), Mr Blandford (of the telegraph office) and several other gentlemen. The instruments experimented with were two of Professor Bell’s portable telephones, made by Mr Sutton from which splendid results were obtained- and a new form of telephone, described by its inventor, Mr H. Sutton, as a compound telephone. The general opinion of those who witnessed the experiments is that in spite of the adverse circumstances under which they took place, this telephone is a great improvement on Professor Bell’s. In all the experiments a resistance equal to thirty miles of ordinary telegraph wire was used in the circuit. It appears while experimenting seven months ago with the horse-shoe form of permanent magnet, the poles of which were surrounded by convolutions of fine wire, and various diaphragms, Mr Sutton found that when subjecting a vibrating diaphragm to the action of both poles of the magnet at the same time, instead of the entire magnetic force being utilised in involving electricity, that part of the force was neutralized in the diaphragms, which seemed to act in the same way as the keeper of a permanent magnet.

By presenting only one pole of the same magnet to the diaphragm a far stronger current was evolved, and knowing the action is reciprocated between each pole of the same magnet, the idea was suggested to place a coil of wire on both ends of a bar magnet. The compound form of telephone is the outcome of these and other experiments. This instrument is different to Bell’s telephone in that it consists of a curved magnet surrounded by coils of wire at both ends. Each coil has a separate diaphragm, the curve of the magnet being so arranged that one diaphragm comes opposite the mouth of the operator, whilst the other diaphragm reaches the ear. The following good results are obtainable from this arrangement:- 1st That he can both speak and listen at the same moment. 2nd That it involves mere intensity of sound, 3rd the timbre of sounds transmitted are reproduced more perfectly. 4th When used as a transmitting instrument, the results obtained from all other telephones of the ordinary form in the same circuit are considerably improved. 5th The instrument is mounted on an adjustable stand, which leaves both hands free. In Professor Bell’s arrangement, two telephones are necessary- one held to the ear, another to the mouth, both hands being thus engaged. Mr Sutton’s telephone being compound, opens up a new field for experimental research, and we understand that he is still engaged in experiments which may still further improve the application of telephonic science.”


Local citizens of Ballarat were so intrigued by the constant reports on the new invention that one employee of the London Chartered Bank on the corner of Sturt and Lydiard Streets (now the site of the Commonwealth Bank) connected a line of string from the second floor of the Bank across the street to the second floor window of the Union Bank on the opposite side of Lydiard St. Then, employees of both banks tried to talk to each other using tin cans attached at ends of the line. This must have proved quite an amusing sight early in the morning in the centre of the city of Ballarat and inevitably this event would have created an amusing topic of conversation around town afterwards. It is not known who the employees were or if their experiment was successful, but certainly it would have amused Henry at the time. This attempt by the bank staff to talk to mimic a telephone may well have been one of the first times in Australia that people used tin cans on the ends of a string of string to talk to each other. The fun of this experiment went on to become a part of everyday play for children growing up in Australia and is still a source of great amusement. Such was the local interest in the new invention at the time that preliminary steps were taken to form a Telephonic Club in Ballarat.


Henry Sutton generously donated two of his double compound telephones, one for each of the Ballarat fire stations, the station in Barkly St Bakery Hill and the station on the corner of Sturt and Dawson Streets. The telephone system was installed by Henry on 7 April, 1878, Henry connected the telephone system between the Ballarat West Fire Station and the Ballarat Fire Station making them the first fire stations in Australia to have a telephone system. Henry, Captain Williams of the Ballarat West Fire Station and Captain George Morris of the Ballarat Fire Station and several other officers and gentlemen were present when the first telephone conversation took place. The Telegraph line and Henry’s telephones were an invaluable gift, not only to the two fire stations but also to the residents of Ballarat and it was not long before they proved to be a very useful life-saving addition to the two stations. At the Ballarat Fire Station, the mounting board from the installation in 1878 is still there with the faint outline of the shape of Henry’s telephone. A few years later Henry Sutton helped the city of Ballarat once again by installing the fire stations fire alarm system around the city.


Henry put his telephones to good use while he was still a student at the Ballarat School of Mines. He set up a telephone system there in late 1877, making the school the first educational institution in Australia and perhaps the world to have a telephone system. The system went from the Registrar’s office to the School’s laboratory to test other people’s and students telephone inventions. Later in 1884, when Henry was a lecturer at the School, he set up a telephonic circuit for use by the students which was laid out between the engine-house and the workshops.


On Saturday 16 February, 1878, Mr James Oddie, who was a great mentor and advocate of Henry’s scientific talents organised a dinner and telephonic séance which was held at Craig’s Hotel, Ballarat. To highlight Henry’s work with telephones, Mr Oddie invited twenty two gentlemen involved and interested in telephony to attend the dinner. The guest list included Mr William Bechervaise from the Telegraph Office in Ballarat and Mr Peter R. Challen from the Melbourne Telegraph Office. At this séance, Mr Challen was to learn firsthand of the success of Henry’s telephones. He commented later, that up until then he’d thought that he had been the first in the Southern Hemisphere to experiment widely in the construction and use of the telephone. All the men later experimented with a number of telephones.

FOOTNOTE: To date, none of Henry’s telephones have been discovered but it would certainly be of great historical interest to find one. Henry’s specialty and expertise was his telephone receivers and the knowledge and experience that he gained through this work proved invaluable for his future inventions and discoveries such as television and radio.