Messaging in the good old days

Texting on a qwerty keypad phone

Ever wondered how we come to be using the wonderful system of communication available to us today? I mean we charge Twitter and Facebook with being central to much of the quick messaging that has led to the kind of gatherings that overturned Governments and lately has had a role in the protest marches around the world, so how did they get along without these fancy systems in the olden days?

If you are in the SeniorNet age group you  have always used telephones, from the cranked type to modern smartphones, and you are fully au fait with emails and facsimile machines. You may also have been using telex machines and sending cables through the telegraph network

.But you may not know

Semaphore Stationthat the Napoleonic Semaphore was the world’s first telegraph network back in the 18th Century in France. So long before Mr Morse invented the code used in the electric telegraph there was the “le systeme Chappe”  the semaphore messaging system invented by Claude Chappe [1763-1805], himself a scientist who observed that our eyes are excellent at discerning angles. This became important in his design of a machine consisting of a long central arm and a shorter arm attached to each end of the central beam. By moving these arms independently at varying angles a code was devised so that messages could be transmitted from one station by having someone else observing the positions of the arms and writing down the message at another station up to 10km away and visible to the sending and next stations.

Each manoeuvre of the arms was reckoned to take about 30 seconds and each word was transmitted in full. Telegram-ese had not yet been invented. It was hard work for the operator especially as they had pay docked for delays.Semaphore station 1

Some 534 stations covering more than 5000km were in use when the system was at its most extensive, so messages sent from Paris could reach to outer fringes on the country in a matter to 3 to 4 hours, about the same time in days when sent by horseback despatch riders. The record was 60 minutes for a message travelling from Paris to Strasbourg, it bore the news of the birth of Napoleon’s son.

Interestingly, the name coined to describe Chappe’s network was ‘telegraph’ – from the Greek meaning ‘distance writing’, and it would be fair to say it was the world’s first ever system of telegraphy.

English: Chappe's semaphore

During the Revolution [1789-99] lines of stations from Brest at the west coast to Strasbourg and Huningue on the east border with Germany and to near Calais in the north were operational and during the next 16 years Napoleon extended the stations to Amsterdam, Mainz, Lyon and all the way to Venice to enable the Emperor to get his messages to his armies.

Semaphore stationLater still when the Monarchy was restored to France the stations were extended to the south to Bayonne on the west coast and to Marseille on the Mediterranean, with side lines to Perpignan and Bordeaux.

Then by about 1840-50 electric telegraphy was the new communication means with their station set up along the new railway lines and Chappe’s stations fell into obscurity. The new invention changed everything and in 1844 Samuel Morse showed that electronic telegraphy worked down a wire from Washington to Baltimore, and it soon made the semaphore system as antiquated as perfumed wigs.

Nevertheless, ‘la systeme Chappe’ was the first ever system of distance communication.