Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Telegraphs and semaphores

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece about the news of Napoleon's escape from Elba reaching Paris. I quoted from the journal of one of the French king's bodyguards, Col Marie Antoine de Reiset:
An astounding piece of news arrived yesterday. We learnt, by Telegraph, that Bonaparte had landed at Cannes, near Frejus.
Somebody commented on the blog to say that this had to be a mistake, as the telegraph had not yet been invented. The first commercial electric telegraph was installed on the Great Western Railway in 1838 and it was used on many railways built in the UK in the second half of the 19th century. However, at the same time Samuel Morse was developing his own electronic telegraph. He patented his electric telegraph in 1837. His system used the dots and dashes of Morse Code, rather than moving needles to point to letters of the alphabet as the British system did, and the speed with which telegraphists could code messages meant that it came to dominate electric telegraphy.

I was concerned about the obvious error and went back to look at the quote again. I had not seen the original source (it came from the University of Warwick's excellent site on the Hundred Days) but Anthony Brett-James' book on the Hundred Days, which uses eye-witness accounts, also refers to the news coming by telegraph.

So what's going on?

The answer is in the word 'electric' slipped in before 'telegraph' when referring to Samuel Morse's invention. A check in the trusty Complete Oxford Dictionary (invaluable for historical novelists) gives the original meaning of the word 'telegraph' as: "An apparatus for transmitting messages to a distance, usually by signs of some kind. ... The name was first applied to that invented by Chappe in France in 1792, consisting of an upright post with movable arms, the signals being made by various positions of the arms according to a pre-arranged code."

In Britain, semaphore was used to communicate between London and the fleet. (Note that the English tend to prefer the word 'semaphore' to 'telegraph' but they are the same thing.) Lines of semaphore towers were constructed. The first ran from London to Deal, Chatham and Sheerness and they were completed by the end of January 1796. The system was judged a great success - signals were said to have travelled from Dover to London, via Deal, in less than seven minutes. A line to Portsmouth, the home of the Navy, was completed in August 1796.

Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower

Semaphore can actually prove a remarkably efficient means of communication. Because of the importance of accurate time-keeping in navigation, it was important that the fleet had access to a reliable time signal and semaphore was used to mark the time at which the Time Ball was dropped at the Greenwich Observatory (marking one o'clock). By 1806, the semaphore line had been extended to Plymouth and the one o'clock signal was sent to the port there and acknowledged back to London in three minutes, an impressive achievement for a round trip of four hundred miles.

The semaphore system was envisaged as a war-time measure, to be abandoned after the defeat of Napoleon and, indeed, it was run down as soon as he was sent to Elba. Napoleon's escape, though, led to the system being restored to full effectiveness and it was then kept running until it was superseded by the electric telegraph.

The history of the telegraph, then, plays an important role in the history underpinning two of my books. In 'Burke at Waterloo', the original telegraph brought the news of Napoleon's return to Paris, while the electric telegraph arrived in India just in time to allow the British to communicate across the sub-continent during the 1857 Mutiny. It was telegraph messages that warned the British as soon as the uprising started (the operator who sent the first message was killed for his pains) and without it, events may well have turned out differently and 'Cawnpore' might have had a very different ending.

Photo credit: "Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower - geograph.org.uk - 18673" by Nigel Richardson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg#/media/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg


  1. Interestingly, I researched the telegraph for Death & Dominion, the new book. I wanted to know if a character could send a telegram ''after hours'' as it were. Guess what? In 1862, t he main telegraph office in the Strand stayed open all night! Thus my villain could telegraph to Liverpool and book a passage on the Great Eastern, leaving in 2 days (more research). The joys of writing historic! The grater joys of finding that what you want to happen happened!

  2. And remember the critical role played by the semaphore telegraph in "The Count of Monte Cristo"!