A revolutionary method of communication

In the mid-nineteenth century the electrical telegraph revolutionised communication. Information that had previously taken days, weeks or even months to reach its destination could be received within minutes. It was the first form of electrical communication, the precursor to the telephone, fax and internet. But it was neither the first system of long-distance message transmission nor the first method of communication to be called a telegraph. The nineteenth century revolution had an eighteenth century forebear – the optical telegraph.

Mankind has developed numerous innovative ways of overcoming distance as the chief barrier to communication. England is dotted with places called Beacon Hill and Wales has an entire range named the Breacon Beacons, They are a testament to the chain of fiery signals designed to alert inhabitants of enemy invasion. From coast to coast, pyres thrust high on hilltops would be lit and these flames flickering on the horizon would be the signal to light the next beacon. Fire was similarly employed in lighthouses to aid navigation at sea.

Beacon on Eildon Wester Hill Walter Baxter [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Across the ancient and medieval worlds, state-sanctioned courier systems offered a way of communicating across vast empires. Rome’s ‘cursus publicus’ had been adapted from Persia’s angariae system that saw horses speeding across the Royal Road. Later, royal enterprises saw official messages carried on a national system with variations on the theme of relays of horses and post stations.

These were important developments, but beacons were a one-off exigent solution and relays could only go as fast as horses allowed. What was needed was a reusable but instant form of communication. Into this void stepped Claude Chappe, the inventor of the world’s first system of telegraphy.

The word ‘telegraphy’ derives from the Greek words têle (far) and graphos (writing) and succinctly describes a process of transcribing a message transmitted over a long distance. It was this simple but revolutionary concept that was behind le systeme Chappe.

Claude Chappe By H. Rousseau, Augustin Challamel, Desire Lacroix [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chappe’s system was to have stations erected at visible intervals. Each station would be equipped with a device for making distinct symbols and these symbols could then be emulated along the line of stations. It was perfect for bringing order to the chaos of revolutionary France, and it was enthusiastically by the revolutionary government.

The Chappe system relied on a two-armed signal which could create up to 98 combinations. As reported on the BBC Magazine story: “Six of these positions represented service messages – “ready to transmit”, “taking a break” and so on. The remaining 92 corresponded to 92 pages in a code-book or vocabulaire, each of which contained 92 different words.”

Chappe had created a system that could transmit messages using an 8,500 word vocabulary. The system found favour both with the new style of rapid warfare that emerged at the start of the nineteenth century and, in particular, under Emperor Napoleon I. At its peak, Chappe’s system comprised 534 stations covering more than 5,000km (3,106 miles).

Messages that had previously taken up to a week to courier to the furthest reaches of the mainland French Empire could now be transmitted in a matter of hours. Important news, from great victories at war to the birth of the Emperor’s son, were disseminated across the engorged empire.

Le systeme Chappe - semaphore / telegraph system

France would not long enjoy the monopoly on such devices. The belligerents in the great European wars soon recognised the importance of almost instant communication. Some had even bettered the great French system with their own patented methods. Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz developed a shutter based system for the King of Sweden that could operate at twice the speeds of the subsequent Chappe system.

The British Admiralty looked across the Channel with envious eyes and realised that it could no longer rely on express couriers or a decidedly antiquated beacon system. Lord George Murray had been inspired by reports from France and developed a system that had six shutters that could be placed in vertical (i.e. visible) or horizontal (i.e. non-visible) positions. The British network was soon sending messages from London to important naval centres in Portsmouth, Plymouth, Great Yarmouth, Sheerness and Deal.

Such devices only had a short time to prove their worth. Electrical telegraphs and railroads would soon make such inventions seem as dated as balloon rides and courtly fashions.