We continue our story of the digital switch (previous part) with a digression to examine the first telegraph. This machine was the incumbent against which the electric telegraph would be measured. Plus it’s just plain interesting.

The Brothers Chappe

In 1789, Claude Chappe was living the easy life.1 Nominally a priest, he received income from his religious “benefices” (i.e., church endowments) in the French countryside. But rather than spending his time saving the souls of the peasantry, he went to Paris, fell in with a group of philosophers, and began writing papers on experimental physics.

Things became less easy for him with the coming of revolution. The new government abolished the system of benefices, and Chappe needed a new source of income. As it happened, his brothers Ignace, Claude, and Abraham were also out of work. The brothers returned to their hometown in Brittany, and came up with a new scheme for making their fortune. They would develop a system of long-distance communication and sell it to the new revolutionary government.

Their first attempt, conceived in the winter of 1790-91, was based on a system of synchronized clocks. They set up two pendulum clocks with special symbols on the dials behind their parents house. Whoever wanted to send a signal banged on a pan to notify the other, and both then started their respective clocks. The sender then banged again whenever the dial reached a symbol he wanted to transmit. The receiver of the signal checked his own dial, and wrote down the symbol received. A code book rendered groups of symbols into words.

The Chappes knew that sound was not a practical means of synchronization for a real long-distance system (barring a cannonade to accompany each message).  Claude tried many other methods for transmitting the ‘start the clock’ and ‘write down this symbol’ signals, including electricity, to no avail. He eventually settled on a panel with a light and dark side. Flipping the panel to the light side replaced banging on the pan. With a telescope the receiver could tell the difference between light and dark from miles away.

By the summer of 1792, Claude realized that he could dispense with the clock dial entirely by simply adding more panels. The positions of the panels could encode a symbol directly. By this time, too, he and his brothers had enough confidence to begin lobbying the new Legislative Assembly, where Ignace was a member, for support. They called their device the telegraph, or ‘far-writer’.

They ultimately replaced the panels with a semaphore design, consisting of 3 movable metal arms atop a post. Each position of the arms indicated a different symbol. An ingenious system of pulleys allowed the operator to control the semaphore by setting levers in an exact analog to the desired position of the arms:

The final form of the Chappe apparatus

With the help of sympathetic allies in the new National Convention, the Chappes got funding for a proof-of-concept line in northern France in April 1793. Satisfied with its performance, the government ordered construction of a full line from Paris to Lille, some 140 miles away on the northwest frontier. By the summer of 1794 it had proved its value to great acclaim, providing intelligence on French victories in the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium) hours after the event.2 Excepting beacon fires3 and other such low bandwidth techniques, no message had ever before crossed so many miles faster than a rider on horseback.


The Telegraph Era

In 1796 one Abraham Edelcrantz wrote in his treatise on the telegraph, that4

It often happens, with regard to new inventions, that one part of the general public finds them useless and another part considers them to be impossible. When it becomes clear that the possibility and the usefulness can no longer be denied, most agree that the whole thing was fairly easy to discover and that they knew about it all along.

And indeed, after its success was proved, the public deemed Chappes’ system in France a great boon to the Republic, and imitators appeared across Europe – adding sufficient modifications to assuage national pride.The first and best was Edelcrantz himself, a Swedish librarian, teacher and poet, who immediately started to experiment with his own designs after hearing about the Chappe telegraph in September 1794. Britain, Prussia, Spain, the Netherlands, and others built telegraph systems of some sort over the next decade.5

Telegraph station built atop a medieval church at Montmartre, outside Paris

The telegraph was especially beloved of Napoleon, who used it as an instrument of political control and military power.  Immediately after the 1799 coup that made him First Consul, he signaled his mastery of the situation with the telegraphic message “Paris is quiet, and the good citizens are content.” As emperor he oversaw the furthest extension of the system, stretching across the Po Valley in northern Italy (cockpit of his early victories) all the way to Venice.6

The Chappe telegraph network in France

European rulers like Napoleon saw the telegraph primarily as an instrument of state power, and especially of war. Many of the European systems were built as early warning systems against invasion during the long series of wars provoked by the French Revolution, which lasted until Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815. Ignace Chappe lamented in his History of the Telegraph that the powers that be had not seen fit to employ the telegraph for commercial purposes. He believed that, given the chance, it could have created new trans-European markets, and turned Paris into a financial powerhouse.

Instead, the French shut down much of their network during the year-long Peace of Amiens in 1802-3, the British allowed parts of their system to lapse into disuse after the final conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and the Swedish telegraph system fell into decay after the end of hostilities with Russia in 1809.7

Entrepreneurs did build private, commercial lines in Germany, Britain, and France, mostly as a means of getting advance warning about arriving ships. For example, Johann Schimdt operated a line from Cuxhaven on the North Sea down to the port of Hamburg, on the Elbe, from 1837-1848. However, these were exceptions. All of the telegraphs in the United States, by contrast, were small, private concerns of this sort – built primarily around Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.8

Why, we may fairly wonder, did the telegraph era take so long to come about? The telegraph’s physical elements – metal and wooden beams, pulleys and ropes, had an ancient pedigree. The only novel component needed to make it practicable was the telescope – which allowed one to separate the stations of the telegraph by 5 miles or more. Even that instrument, though, was nearly two centuries old before the Chappe brothers began their experiments. We know of a number of proposals in the intervening years for long-distance communication using telescopes and visual signals, most famously that of Robert Hooke. All went nowhere.

So the explanation must lie elsewhere than in a lack of technical resources. Certainly the persistence, energy, and political savvy of the Chappes had much to do with it. But also, I think, the special situation of the revolutionary French state played a role. Though others imitated the French telegraph, none built a network of anything like the same scale and scope.9

The successive French governments of the 1790s all felt themselves (and not without reason) to be in a perpetual state of siege and emergency. A new instrument that could warn them of the activities of their many enemies must have held some appeal. Enough so that the National Convention was willing to exert its strength on behalf of the Chappes, granting them the power to claim desirable high places, and clear trees and other obstructions as necessary to build their line.

Moreover, part of the ideology of the Revolution was that it would unify the entire French nation, clearing away the parochial detritus of the feudal era. Thus such projects as the metric system, intended to replace the many local systems of weights and measures with a single, allegedly more rational, system. The telegraph, its towers stretching from one corner of France to the other, clearly fit within this program. Bertrand Barère, a prominent delegate to the National Convention, placed the telegraph alongside printing, gunpowder, and the compass in the pantheon of inventions that have “made vanish the greatest obstacles which have opposed the civilization of men, and made possible their union in great republics.”10

The Optical and the Electric

The existence of the telegraph reframed all efforts to communicate by electricity. Now the electrical projectors had a clear point of reference against which to define their efforts. They were building a new kind of telegraph – variously called electric, electromagnetic, voltaic, galvanic, etc. according to time, place, and temperament.

There are two particular moments worth pausing to examine, when the optical and electrical  telegraph crossed paths.

The Optical Inspires the Electric

On the 10th of April 1809, Austrian forces crossed the river Inn into the Kingdom of Bavaria, an ally of France. Napoleon was alerted by the nearest telegraph station at Strasbourg. He arrived at the front from Paris by the 16th, drove the Austrians out of Bavaria, and shattered their forces outside Vienna three months later, at the Battle of Wagram. It was Napoleon’s last great success.

Napoleon at Wagram

The ministers of the Bavarian government were astonished at the speed of Napoleon’s arrival. In less than a week, message and man had made a round trip of over 1000 miles, or about 150 miles a day. They consulted a distinguished member of their Academy of Sciences, Samuel Sömmering, requesting a proposal for a telegraph of their own.

To their surprise, Sömmering came back later that summer with a proposal, not for a telegraph like Chappe’s, but an electric telegraph. It relied on the principle of electrolysis – the separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen by electricity. It consisted of 35 wires, each of which terminated in a single bath of water. The terminus of each wire was labeled with a letter of the alphabet or one of the digits 0-9. Applying electricity to a wire caused bubbles to rise up in front of the desired letter or number.

Sömmering’s telegraph

Sömmering sent a copy of his apparatus to Paris with the hopes of interesting Napoleon in it, but the Emperor never saw it.11 His device would be just another historical curiosity, like the many other electric telegraphs created in the decades around 1800, but that it set off a chain of events that would help bring about the first commercial electric telegraph, nearly thirty years later and over 500 miles away — a chain of events in which Napoleon had yet another part to play. We’ll come back to that story in due time.

The Optical Obviates the Electric?

The other story we must consider here concerns one Francis Ronalds, a British electrical experimenter and tinkerer, and later an inventor and engineer of note. In the summer of 1816, he decided to prove the practicability of an electric telegraph. In basic conception, his system was identical to the first Chappe experiments – consisting of synchronized clock-driven dials on each end of the line. The difference is that he got electricity to work as a synchronization signal.

When he touched his electrical machine to the wire a pair of pith balls at the far end would become electrified and repel each other, signaling that the receiver should either start his clock, or read its dial and write down the currently indicated letter. He strung up some eight miles of iron wire over two large wooden frames in his lawn, in order to prove that the system would work at useful distances.

Dial for Ronalds’ telegraph

Ronalds wrote to the British Admiralty to describe his admirable new method of “conveying telegraphic intellegence”, and requested an interview to demonstrate his “contrivance.” The Secretary of the Admiralty, John Barrow, brusquely replied that “…telegraphs of any kind are now wholly unnecessary; and that no other than the one now in use will be adopted.”12

This story is sometimes told with a kind of glee at Barrow’s shortsightedness, but several caveats are in order:

  1. Ronalds system was nothing like the successful electric telegraphs of the 1840s. There is little reason to believe that, had Barrow instead answered Ronalds with enthusiasm, the electric telegraph would have become a success decades ahead of its time.
  2. Recall that the European states saw the telegraph primarily as a military instrument, and as such the need for such system had indeed passed (or at least greatly diminished) with the final fall of Napoleon.
  3. Finally, the Admiralty was accustomed to a steady stream of proposals for improved telegraphs, most of them from cranks. Ronalds himself acknowledged that “every one knows that telegraphs have long been great bores at the Admiralty.”

Nonetheless, the potential advantages of the electric telegraph were clear enough. The natural enemies of the optical telegraph were many: rain, smoke, fog, snow, the short days of winter – in bad conditions it could take days for a message to get through. The station at the British Admiralty in London, for example, was put out of commission by the “London fog” (that is to say, coal smoke) 100 days of the year.13 The electric telegraph, given properly insulated wires, cared nothing for the weather. Its messages always arrived instantaneously. Moreover, the electric telegraph would certainly cost less to operate, requiring manpower only at places where messages would be sent and received, not at ten mile intervals throughout the countryside.

It remained to be seen, though, whether the potential of intelligence by electricity could ever be realized. (Next part)

Further Reading

John J. Fahie, A History of Electric Telegraphy to the Year 1837 (1884) [1974 reprint]

Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age (2000)

Gerard J. Holzmann and Björn Pehrson, The Early History of Data Networks (1995)

  1. This section is based primarily on Gerard J. Holzmann and Björn Pehrson, The Early History of Data Networks (1995), 47-96. 
  2. One suspects that the telegraph may have instead fallen into disfavor had its first reports been of French defeats. 
  3. Such beacon chains are mentioned in Herodotus, from the fifth century B.C. The most familiar recent depiction comes from The Return of the King (1955):…The Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained posts on these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South.” Please ignore the absurd film interpretation, which places the beacons on top of snow-capped mountain peaks, where any watchers would surely die of exposure within days. 
  4. Holzman and Pehrson, 260. 
  5. Holzman and Pehrson,179-202. 
  6. Holzman and Pehrson, 71-74. 
  7. Holzman and Pehrson, 68, 114-120 and 194-96. The Swedish system was restored a generation later, and parts of it continued to operate until the 1880s. 
  8. Holzman and Pehrson, 186, 196 and 201-2. This pattern of private firms in the United States vs. state-controlled telecommunications in most of the rest of the world right up through the 1980s, when most West European states began to privatize their holdings. 
  9. On the cultural and political causes of the telegraph, see Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age (2000), 193-203. 
  10. Barère, a compatriot of Robespierre on the Committee of Public Safety, barely escaped execution in the “Thermidorian Reaction” that brought down that body. He alternated periods of prison, exile, and French government service until his death in 1841. 
  11. Dr. Hamel, “Historical Account of the Introduction of the Galvanic and Electromagnetic Telegraph” in Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 7, London (1859) 
  12. John J. Fahie, A History of Electric Telegraphy to the Year 1837 (1884) [1974 reprint], 127-145. 
  13.  Holzman and Pehrson, 197. 

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