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

(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.

An illustration of the Chappe semaphore system.
An illustration of the Chappe semaphore system.   (Wikimedia Commons)
An illustration of the Chappe 'telegraph' system in 19th-century France.
An illustration of the Chappe 'telegraph' system in 19th-century France.   (Wikimedia Commons)
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