The History, Function, and Significance of Semaphore Telegraph Towers – Update 2

After several weeks of research and writing, I am coming close to finishing my research paper. It begins by noting that decades before the spread of the electrical telegraph, a message could travel across France at fifty times the speed of an equestrian messenger, a feat possible through the pre-electrical data network of semaphore lines. Many people today assume that the speed of information only exceeded the speed of humans and animals when Morse introduced the electrical telegraph, so this introduction serves to alert them that this paper covers an intriguing technology which achieved what modern people assume was impossible in the 1790s.

I then discuss ancient precursors, such as torch beacons, and explain how the modern telescope enabled more practical, spread-out systems such as Claude Chappe’s. I included this aspect to show that while Chappe did create a revolutionary and popular system, he was not the first person to consider the concept. A parallel can be drawn here to Samuel Morse: various people had created prototypes of electrical telegraph systems in the decades before he did, but his system became the most significant because his code (Morse code) allowed for straightforward communication over a single wire – much more efficient than requiring a separate wire for each letter or character, as was the case with many prior systems. Chappe and Morse optimized the encoding of information in types of communication systems which people previously explored.

Next, I discuss Chappe’s astronomer uncle, whose work inspired Chappe to pursue the physical sciences. Also important to note is the fact that Chappe’s four brothers had significant involvement in the creation and promotion of Chappe’s telegraph, though Chappe receives all credit for it. Though Chappe’s semaphore was the first device called a “telegraph” (far-writing), he did not come up with that term, instead calling it a “tachygraph” (fast-writing). Charles-Gilbert Romme, inventor of the French Republican calendar, dubbed Chappe’s device the telegraph, a more accurate name which endured, transferring to the electrical telegraph as well. Chappe’s first, pre-semaphore system consisted of a simple binary pulse – flipping a board between black and white – with the message to be extracted from synchronized clocks. This could also have been accomplished with something as simple as a torch or mirror. However, after a few years, Chappe did develop his revolutionary semaphore arms, which spread across Europe.

Chappe developed his system in the midst of the French Revolution and dealt with the unstable First Republic as he proposed his system and the Republic adopted it. The Republic overhauled its legislative assembly several times, and those working for new systems often ignored Chappe’s proposals to the previous assemblies. Later, Napoleon displayed extreme enthusiasm for Chappe’s system, creating an enormous network crisscrossing France and ordering portable semaphores for military use. Indeed, he saw Chappe’s semaphore telegraph as extraordinarily advantageous, especially since France was locked in war. In the Napoleonic Wars, both Britain and France employed semaphore telegraphs (of different designs), and this revolutionary new speed of information changed the nature of war, allowing reports and orders to pass quickly to and from capital cities and the warfront. This historical context played a major role in the semaphore telegraph’s development and implementation, so it is key to understanding the technology.

In my final update, I will continue detailing my writing process, and discuss the creation of my models and visual aids.