Napoleon-Era Telegraph Revolutionized Communication
Rudimentary system sent messages over great distances quickly
By John Johnson, Newser Staff
Posted Jun 23, 2013 7:12 AM CDT
An illustration of the Chappe semaphore system.   (Wikimedia Commons)

(Newser) – If the telegraph is like old-school email, then this is like old-school telegraph: The BBC takes a look at a system of distance communication developed by a French inventor in the late 1790s that seems crude by today's standards but was ingenious in its day. Claude Chappe's telegraph—historians generally think the word came about to describe his brainchild—made it possible to send messages from Paris to the farthest-flung parts of the country in a matter of hours instead of days. The military made the most use of it, with Napoleon expanding it greatly after taking power.

Chappe's invention came along before the advent of the Morse Code and electronic telegraphy, so how did it work? Laboriously. Messages would be delivered from one post to the next via semaphore—a contraption on the roof had a central beam and two arms that could be manipulated into various shapes, and those shapes could be translated into words via code book. Someone in the next post down the line, about 6 miles away, would use a telescope to capture the code and pass it along. At its peak, the system covered more than 3,000 miles with more than 530 stations. But it quickly faded into obscurity when Samuel Morse had a brainchild of his own in the 1840s. "On the long trek to the Internet, it is an overlooked—but significant—early step," writes Hugh Schofield.

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Showing 3 of 12 comments
Jul 3, 2013 9:22 PM CDT
Cue silly Monty Python semaphore skit.
Jun 24, 2013 3:18 AM CDT
Signal fires on hills, mountains and towers were used for centuries to signal. This might could be a precursor to Naval Semaphore but has nothing whatever to do with the telegraph.
Jun 23, 2013 10:15 PM CDT
If you're going to claim this as the inspiration for the telegraph, then American Indians of our southwest developed a system about 1100 A.D. They had people stationed on plateaus throughout the area forwarding messages between villages. This is nothing new.