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

When I first proposed this project in February 2018, I formulated several research questions I hoped to answer: Who developed semaphore telegraph systems and when, and how did the systems and codes of different nations differ from one another? How did the mechanical aspects of the towers function, and how were they controlled? 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 believe my work, including my research, my research paper, and my models, answered all of these questions.

As stated in my previous update, I will continue reflecting on the topics of my paper. In France, the government maintained control of the semaphore network, using it only to transmit government messages. Therefore, private citizens could rejoice in the new technology, but could not use it for their personal benefit. Interestingly enough, however, two brothers conspired with a tower operator to encode updated stock prices in government messages, disguising them as errors, allowing for sneaky and lucrative buying and selling of stocks before those prices reached the local stock market (carried by ground messenger). When another operator learned of the deception and reported it, the brothers received no punishment, as there existed no laws against what they did. These brothers are often known as the first “hackers,” and their tricks prompted interest in network security as well as anti-hacking laws.

Semaphore lines sprang up in India (under British direction), North America, and the rest of Europe in addition to France. In general, governments used these lines for military purposes, but a few interurban lines in the United States, such as one from New York City to Philadelphia, carried stock market information. The semaphore telegraph immediately captured the imagination of the public, inspiring visions of modernity and instant communication for all purposes, as seen in British popular theater and the name of a British newspaper (The Telegraph – not the Telegraph of today, though). Morse’s single-wire electric telegraph, as well as Cooke’s and Wheatstone’s five-wire electric telegraph, began to spread in the 1830s, and soon eclipsed the slower semaphore telegraph, though some semaphore towers survived into the 1880s, particularly in cases where they proved more practical than a wire for sending messages over bodies of water. As the first telecommunications networks, semaphore lines prefigured later systems such as the electric telegraph and the internet, incorporating many of the same attributes including encoding, error correction, and exploitable structures.

I sought to create models of semaphore telegraph towers to bring the topic to life and show the mechanical function of an otherwise abstract, obsolete technology. Thus, my research included attention to the mechanics of semaphore towers, particularly the more complex French system. I decided not to perfectly model the tower and its inner workings, instead opting to create a large, easily manipulable visual aid which simplifies the important elements of the system as well as enlivens and draws attention to my poster. I constructed models of the French and British semaphore tower toppers using craft wood, employing correct proportions where possible. Over the next several weeks, I will continue putting together my poster for the Summer Research Showcase, combining text, images, and other visual information in an informative and engaging manner.

I enjoyed the opportunity to research a topic of my choice, as well as the ability to set my own project goals. This project inspired me to deeply investigate a semi-obscure topic, leading me to find significantly more detailed information in scholarly and specialized sources than can be found on Wikipedia alone. In fact, I somewhat yearn to trace the path of the long-forgotten New York-Philadelphia semaphore line, the locations of whose stations seem to be mostly unknown. If I travel to France, I might visit one of the operational towers to see the Chappe telegraph in action. All in all, this project complemented my lifelong interest in the history of communication and gave me a taste of the research opportunities available at the collegiate level, including the grants and programs available at William & Mary.