Andrea here, thinking about communication. Now, all of you are reading this on some sort of electronic device, and no matter where you are in the world, the bytes somehow transport themselves pretty much instantaneously for your reading edification. When you think on it, it’s pretty mind-boggling the amount of information we can access with the press of an electronic key.
More than that, it’s the split-second ability to communicate with each other that has fundamentally changed (for better and for worse) the way we live and think—the rhythms of life, the expectations, the constant need to react and process. And it’s happened SO fast. I remember the the era of no internet, no cellphones . . . and wrestling with whether to spring for the cost of a long-distance telephone call to talk to a faraway pal.
I hate to admit it, but most of us (me included) probably panic when we find that we’ve forgotten to put our cellphone in our purse or pocket when we run out to do an errand. The idea of being “out of the loop”, even for a short while, is disorienting. Our brains seem to have been rewired by the new technology . . .
This is a roundabout intro to what spurred the topic in the first place. I was doing some general Regency research for an idea for one of my future Wrexford & Sloane mysteries the other day when I came across an interesting article on the invention of semaphores—or, as many called the system back then, the visual or optical telegraph—which was really the first, albeit primitive, step in the high-speed communication revolution.
The semaphore system was invented in 1791 by Claude Chappe, a graduate of France’s elite academy, the Ponts et Chaussees, which trained engineers to innovate improvements to the country’s military-based road systems. (As is often the case in history, military conflict seems to spur many technological innovations.)
Up until then, the speed of communication, whether by written letter or verbal message was limited to how fast one could travel by horse. (Granted, carrier pigeons were on occasionally tried, but not on a regular system.) The semaphore system revolutionized that.
The system was based on a pair of large movable wooden “arms” set at the ends of a horizontal cross bar. The arms were around 6 feet long and painted black for better optics. (Variations were soon developed with three arms) Each of the arms could rotate into seven set positions, and the cross bar could also tilt at specific angles. A code was devised, allowing an “alphabet” based on various combinations of the arm setting. These arms and crossbars were set atop manned towers on high hills (generally, they had to be around 3 to 6 miles apart for the messages to be relayed visually from tower to tower.)
Here’s how it worked: (As the British quickly adopted the brilliant idea, I’ll use an example from England) An urgent message originates at the Admiralty in London. It’s handed to the semaphore operator, who passes it to the next station (apparently the average signally rate was three letters per minute.) From there it whizzes down the coast to the naval base in Portsmouth . . . The record was 4 minutes and 30 seconds for the message to be received!
Granted, the system was dependent on good weather (rain, fog, etc. could often make visual contact impossible.) Still, the speed must have struck people as amazing. The British developed a variation in 1795, based on system of six shutters that opened and closed in various combinations to create letters and numbers. But the "arm" system remained most popular.
At each station, the message would have to be received and written down by the operator, who was armed with a telescope, then sent on to the next station. Obviously, brevity was key for both speed and accuracy reasons. A typical message was around 36 symbols . . . so in many ways, it was the the precursor of Twitter!
Napoleon, who greatly ppreciated science and innovation, was huge fan, and used semaphores to keep track of troop movements, both the enemy and his own. And the British considered the system essential for communicating to the naval stations up and down the Channel coast. The threat of invasion was a huge worry for the government, and semaphores allowed them to stay updated in “real time.”
Each semaphore route had to be constructed at great cost, and manned, so they were mostly run by the military, and were not available to the general public. However, the concept of high speed communication must have changed everyone’s view of how messages could move from point to point.
Revolutionary as the semaphore system was, it ended up being short-lived. There was really little way to improve its speed, as human performance had its limits. More importantly, in 1844, with Samuel Morse’s the first transmission of a message generated by electricity and sent over over wires, the electric telegraph once again totally revolutionized high speed communication.
I find very interesting—and prescient—that Morse chose this as his first message: “What hath God wrought.”
What do you think about our world of instantaneous information? Do you always have your cellphone with you and turned on? (My daily walks are all “silent” I refuse to talk or read when I’m outdoors walking Nature. I only carry it for taking photos of things I find interesting.) Would you rather go back to a slower, gentler pace of life? And lastly, do any of you still write letters to friends?