There are many ways to communicate with people verbally or visually. We use text, voice or even imagery to communicate a message. This can be done through online messaging, video chats, letters or even via phones. The main focus will be on the Optical Telegraph. Otherwise known as the Semaphore system. Dictionary.com defines “semaphore” as “a system of signaling, especially a system by which a special flag isheld in each hand and various positions of the arms indicate specificletters, numbers, etc.” The semaphore system was invented by Claude Chappe in 1792. The invention was quite popular all the way from the late 18th century straight to the early 19th century (Brewster 1832 pg 664 – 667).
Originally, the system used visual signals via towers with paddles. The way the paddles were positioned would signify one letter. Here’s the key for the entire alphabet with semaphore:
The system eventually evolved into what is known as “semaphore lines” which was the precursor to the electrical telegraph. Although that did not come until 50 years after the first conception of the semaphore system. The semaphore system also lead to the conception of the Flag Semaphore, where instead of using a tower and paddles, it used a person with flags to mimic specific gestures. Also the Heliograph came out of the semaphore system as well.
As for why the semaphore system was so popular, it is because using the semaphore system was much faster than using the traditional method of using post riders to send a message. They were also much cheaper to use when compared to post riders so in essence, using this method made everything else obsolete at the time.
In France, the Semaphore system was promoted heavily by the Chappe brothers for commercial use. The main purpose was to transmit the costs of commodities. Napoleon Bonaparte was interested in the Semaphore system not because of it’s use to transmit costs of commodities but wanted it for military use. It would be used to send information between military bases. However, the idea was impractical because the military bases had to be within sight of each other. Plus, on top of this, it would require staff to be trained and disciplined operators. This made the cost of using semaphores quite expensive and made the whole idea impractical.
Here’s an image of the Semaphore network in France:
Semaphore network around France
Meanwhile in Sweden, a Swedish inventor who goes by the name of Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz experimented with Chappe’s idea of the Semaphore system. In 1794, Edelcrantz inaugurated a telegraph with a poem which was dedicated to the Swedish King on his birthday. This lead to Edelcrantz’s own Semaphore system, which strangely enough, was twice as fast when compared to Chappe’s version. The system was based on ten collapsible iron shutters. The different positions of the shutters made different combinations of numbers which were then translated into letters and numbers. Eventually there was a network of telegraphs that were about 10 kilometers a part from each other in the neighborhood of Stockholm.
The Semaphore system was so successful that Samuel Morse failed to sell the electrical telegraph to the French government; however, France finally committed to replace semaphores with electric telegraphs in 1846. Electric telegraphs are both more private and almost completely unaffected by weather; they also work at night. Many contemporaries predicted the failure of electric telegraphs because “they are so easy to cut.” (Holzmann, 2011)
While not used as often as it once was in the 19th century, the Semaphore system did lead to interesting developments such as the electrical telegraph, heliograph and semaphore flags. So it did indeed have an impact on how we communicate today.
David Brewster, D.B, 1832 Telegraph, Volume 17 of The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, pp. 664–667 Viewed 15th August 2015
Holzmann Gerard, H.G, 2011, 28th June “Data Communications: The First 2,500 Years” (PDF) Viewed 16th August 2015