Abstract: The History, Function, and Significance of Semaphore Telegraph Towers

I will conduct research on semaphore telegraph tower systems, the technology which was the fastest method of communication in existence from the 1790s until the invention of the electric telegraph and Morse code in the 1830s. The system consisted of lines of towers which crossed the countryside, set at distances so that each could be seen by the next, with arrangements of mechanical shutters or hinged arms on top. An operator manipulated the shutters or arms to spell a message in code, and the operator of the next tower would observe the message, and repeat it for the following tower’s operator to repeat, and so on.

My research questions include: Who developed semaphore telegraph systems and when, and how did different nations’ systems differ from one another? How did the mechanical aspects of the towers function? What were the experiences of tower operators? How did this form of near-instant communication, and the resulting increased speed of information, affect society, culture, and government? How did governments balance the systems’ great advantages with the massive costs of erecting dozens of towers? How did this technology relate to previous and later revolutions in communication, such as the electric telegraph and the internet?

I will conduct an extensive literature review and produce a thesis-driven research paper answering these and other questions concerning semaphore telegraph systems. I will explore the various documents available which offer information on the subject, and synthesize them into useful written analyses and descriptions of the devices and their historical context. Additionally, I will build several functional scale models of semaphore telegraph towers, and demonstrate their operation, illuminating the towers’ mechanical workings and operation. In undertaking this project, I hope to gain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of a revolutionary communication technology of the past, encompassing its physical operation and applications as well as its social, cultural, and political implications.