Claude Chappe’s Optical Telegraph

I was born before the world wide web and the internet existed. My generation is the last generation that grew up unaware of the web.

So when people talk about the network or the net today, it has a generally accepted meaning.

But it could have been different.

In the early 1790s a Frenchman named Claude Chappe was experimenting with communication over distances. How can you send a message farther than a shout and quicker than a letter?

Claude’s idea was that you could communicate a long distance with a friend if you and that friend could see each other through telescopes and you had some chalkboards to write messages. If you and I sit on our respective roofs and have a line of sight between us, we might scribble messages back and forth all day.  Of course, for longer distances, you get into a problem with the resolution of the telescopes themselves. You can’t make out my scribbly handwriting.

What to do? Claude and his brother Ignace experimented:

  • Towers with synchronized clocks. You’d make a noise in your tower and your friend would note the number down. The numbers linked to codes.
  • Electronic wires – abandoned because they couldn’t get them properly insulated, and more’s the pity.
  • Cabinets full of shutters.  Looks like it employed a simple 5 bit binary.
  • A semaphore tower that with a stylized mechanical man holding flags.

The last one stuck, and was tested with the message: “If you succeed, you will bask in glory.” They succeeded. Claude was employed by the republic and later by Napoleon to build networks of these towers, which solved the line of sight problem.  You’d sit in your tower and watch my tower.  When I transmitted a message, you’d pass it on to someone I couldn’t even see by waving your mechanical arms at them from your tower. They’d pass it on to others until it reached a final destination.

This relay race of information worked fairly well. The first applications were military, as such things often are. Napoleon was said to have a portable station that traveled with him and this fast communication within the french empire was said to be key to their success.

A network tends to justify itself and bring itself new uses.  Commodities traders wanted to use it for competitive advantage, but the first domestic use Napoleon allowed was the transmission of national lottery numbers throughout the empire. Being useful, the network grew, as networks tend to. It covered Paris to Amsterdam with routing hubs in Brussels, Anvers, and Lille. There was even a station on the white cliffs of Dover in the UK.

The whole scheme worked till the 1850’s, but poor Claude was so troubled by the constant questions of the originality of his invention that he was depressed, his life rumored to have ended by suicide.

It was bound to be surpassed, I know.  Eventually we’d get wires insulated properly and begin tramsitting messages cheaper, faster and farther. Eventually messages would be repeated and routed quickly by machines rather than by people.

Ponder a world where the optical telegraph could have been invented earlier and spread farther. How much of the democratising effect of the net as it is today is due to the nature of networks and message speed and how much is due to the American eggheads that constructed it?  Would the optical networks that popped up in France, Britain and Sweden ever have joined to form an Inter-Network that could push messages back and forth across country lines or would they have stayed disparate?

In France you can still find abandoned telegraph stations, some with their arms still on. They are lonely little poems about the vagaries of time and progress.


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