A telegraph network 50 years before the telegraph – le systeme Chappe

A full half-century before Samuel Morse demonstrated his electric telegraph system in America, a long-distance and extremely effective communication network existed in France.

The network was developed by Claude Chappe (1763-1805), a scientist who realized that the human eye was an excellent device for discerning angles, even at long distances. He took that idea and developed into a long vertical pole that supported a horizontal beam.

At each end of the horizontal pole was a shorter pole. The two end poles could be put into seven different positions through a system of ropes and pullies. That allowed operators to develop 49 different signals.

These ponderous devices were placed on hilltops so they could be visible to each other through telescopes. Once an operator at one station received a signal, he would reproduce that signal so that the next station could also reproduce the signal.

The French revolutionary government authorized the first system in 1793- le systeme Chappe. The first line was from Paris to Lille. When Napoleon took power, he saw the value in the system immediately and expanded the network in all directions. At its most extensive, the network contained more than 500 stations and covered more than 3,000 miles. A message could go from Paris to the farthest French border in three to four hours — not the three to four days that it would take a horse rider.

When the electric telegraph came into use in the 1840s, the French continued to use their systeme Chappe for a while, but its slowness and limitations (mainly weather and costs) could not compete with the new technology. In the 1850s, it was abandoned and pretty much forgotten.

Chappe himself came to a bad end. In 1805 he committed suicide, said to be depressed over accusations that he had pilfered the idea of his system from others.

More on the early French telegraph system from the BBC: How Napoleon’s semaphore telegraph changed the world – BBC News

And from The Economist: How the system was hacked: The crooked timber of humanity | 1843

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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