Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/April 1894/A Century of the Telegraph in France


IT is one hundred years ago (the 22d of March, 1793) since a young man named Claude Chappe presented himself at the bar of the Legislative Assembly. He carried there a secret vocabulary composed of nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine words, represented by some numbers, and destined to be transmitted by a system of visual telegraphy by means of a machine carrying the signals from station to station.

The examination of the machine was promptly confided to a committee, which reported in favor of its adoption, and a little after, the Convention voted the funds necessary to the establishment of a trial line.

It is this memorable event—the origin of the most marvelous discovery of our times—which the telegraphic people have recently fêted as solemnly as possible.

On this occasion it has appeared to us useful as well as interesting to retrace the history of telegraphy in France, to note briefly the successive stages and the perfecting of the telegraphs which have transformed the world.

Some essays in telegraphy were made in modern times, notably at the end of the seventeenth century, by Dr. Hooke, an English physician, who made service of an apparatus consisting of some characters of a sufficient size for being perceived at a distance, each one corresponding to a letter of the alphabet.

Under the reign of the fourteenth Bourbon clique, a savant (G. Amontons), who became later on member of the Academy of Sciences, took up the study of the problem of aërial telegraphy. Highly interesting was the result thereof. Fontenelle, the literarian, has recounted these experiences. This was, according to him, a very ingenious thing, permitting to make known all that which one would at a great distance, in little time—for example, from Paris to Rome in three or four hours—and this even without

PSM V44 D810 The first telegraphic apparatus.jpg
The First Telegraphic Apparatus.

the news being given out in all the space between the two cities. This preparation, so paradoxical and so chimeric in appearance, was executed in a little stretch of country, once in presence of monseigneur and once in presence of madame. The secret consisted in disposing, in several consecutive posts, some young men who, by some long-view telescopes, having perceived certain signals of the preceding post, transmitted them to the following, and always thus in succession, and these different signals were so many letters of an alphabet of which they had not the cipher then at Paris and at Rome. The greatest distance seeable by the telescopes made the distance between the posts, of which the number was to be the least that was possible, and, as the second post made some signals to the third, as soon as they were seen made at the first, the news was found carried to Rome in almost as little time as it needed for making the signals at Paris.

The government of Louis XV did not occupy themselves with what it considered a mere plaything, and the inventor, discouraged, renounced his project. Thus was relinquished, some two hundred years ago, a project in telegraphy which was about as rapid, if not rapider, than the slow-coach message from Rome to PSM V44 D811 Claude Chappe.jpgChappe Paris of the present day, which actually takes half a dozen hours or so for the delivery from domicile to domicile.

In 1788 Dupuis experimented in turn with an alphabetic telegraph, and Linguet, on his side, was also thus occupied about the same epoch.

The idea was, therefore, so to say, in the air when appeared Claude Chappe, to whom the entire globe is indebted in reality for the invention of the telegraph. This is one of the events the most memorable in the history of humanity,

Claude Chappe was born at Brulon (department Sarthe) in 1763. His father gave him a classical instruction of the most approved kind. The studies of Claude, commenced at the college of Joyeuse, at Rouen, were terminated at the seminary of La Flèche; as to his four brothers, they were placed in an establishment a trifle away from this latter town, and this has caused the supposition to some of his biographers that Claude Chappe had conceived the idea of his telegraph in order to be able to communicate with his brothers. It is to-day demonstrated that this is nothing but a legend.

Chappe studied the sciences from his early youth. Physical science specially attracted him, and he published at the age of twenty years some very remarkable researches.

We have said that he submitted to the Legislative Assembly, the 22d of March, 1792, his invention. He read his petition himself, submitting "a discovery which he thought useful to the public welfare," and presenting a facile means of communicating rapidly at great distances all that which might be the object of a correspondence. He could from them transmit the recital of a fact at night as well as at day over a space of forty

PSM V44 D812 Aerial telegraphy 1793.jpg
Aërial Telegraphy 1793.

miles in less than forty-six minutes, and in a manner almost as rapid at a distance very much greater.

The Assembly accepted the tender of the machine, sent the petition to the examination of the Committee of Public Instruction, and admitted Chappe to the honors of the sitting.

Unfortunately for him, the commissioners could not attend any experiment; the ignorant populace destroyed the machine which he had constructed at Belleville. The unlucky inventor had, therefore, to demand aid and protection, with indemnity for the necessary repairs.

The Convention, which had succeeded to the Legislative Assembly in the meanwhile, resent the petition to the committee, but it was not until the 1st of April, 1793, that the deputy Romme mounted to the tribune for there to give reading of an admirable report, of which the following is a little excerpt, describing briefly the invention:

"The citizen Chappe offers an ingenious means of writing in the air by displaying some characters very trifling in number, simple as the straight lines of which they are composed, very distinct between them, of a rapid execution, and sensible at great distances. To this first part of his procedure he uses a stenography used in the diplomatic correspondences. We have made some objections to him; he has foreseen them, and has responded victoriously. He removes all the difficulties which may present themselves on the land over which is directed his line of correspondence; a sole case resists his means: this is that of a very thick fog which comes over the north, in the aqueous countries, and in winter; but outside this very rare case (which resists equally all the processes known) they will have recourse momentarily to the ordinary means. The intermediary agents employed in the procedures of the citizen Chappe can not in any manner betray the secret of his correspondence, because the stenographic value of the signals will be unknown to them. Two verbal processes of the municipality of the Sarthe attest the success of this procedure in an essay which the author has made for them, and permitting the author to advance with some assurance that with his procedure, the dispatch which reported the news of the taking of Bruxelles had been transmitted to the Convention and translated in twenty-five minutes."

[That was, note, a hundred years ago. Bruxelles is six hours by express from Paris. The speed of transmitting over the aërial telegraph of then was much quicker than by the electric telegraph of to-day, for at present it takes much longer than half an hour—generally an hour—to remit an ordinary telegram from an office in the Belgian capital to a domicile in Paris.]

In the same sitting the National Convention rendered a decree authorizing the trials, and naming three commissaries—Lakanal, Daunou, and Arbogast. A violent opposition was soon manifested, but Lakanal sustained Chappe with all his authority, and the inventor could construct a veritable telegraphic line of thirtyfive kilometres, starting from the lake St.-Fargeau, at Ménilmontant.

Finally, on the 12th of July, 1793, took place the definite trials, which were for Chappe a veritable triumph. He received the title of engineer-telegraphist, with the appointments attributed to lieutenants of artillery.

The telegraph was thus finally officially founded.

But on the 23d of January, 1805, the unfortunate Claude Chappe, tortured by a cancer in the ear, committed suicide by throwing himself in the pits of the hôtel des télégraphes, rue de Grenelle-Saint-Germain 103. He was aged only forty-two years.

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A Military Post, 1794.

A stone which is still in the court of the hotel, near the central post, bears this simple inscription: "To Claude Chappe."

In 1844 the aërial network had in France a stretch of five thousand kilometres, and comprised five hundred and thirty-four stations. It was henceforth not to increase, because the first trials of the electric telegraph were taking place in Albion, and had created an immense sensation.

An order of the 23d of November, 1844, opened an extraordinary credit of two hundred and forty thousand francs for making experiments. The works commenced promptly on the railroad of Paris to Rouen, and on the 18th of May, 1845, the first dispatches by the electric telegraph took place.

The first telegraphic apparatus used was the patent of Foy-Bréguet. On the 20th of November, 1850, a law was made permitting private persons to send dispatches over the wires (the. state hitherto was the only party using it) after rigorous investigation of their identity. The tariff was established at three francs per dispatch of one to twenty words; over, twelve centimes per myriametre. On the 31st of December, 1851, was inaugurated the submarine cable from Calais to Dover.

The number of dispatches in 1851 was 9,014. The length of the telegraphic lines in operation attained at December 31, 1851, 2,133 kilometres.

In 1854 was created the general direction of telegraphic lines. The writing apparatus of Morse substituted the fugitive signals of the Foy-Bréguet system, and the telegraphic system went from 7,175 kilometres to 9,244 kilometres of lines.

The year 1800 was signaled by an important fact. A conditional agreement was concluded with Mr. Hughes, professor of physics at New York, the celebrated inventor of the printing apparatus, which was definitely adopted in 1861 by the French.

The decree of the 13th of August, 1804, lowered from one franc to fifty centimes the tariff on dispatches simply circulating in Paris. The happy consequences of this liberal measure surpassed the most optimistic prophecies. They resulted in the following figures, comment on which is superfluous. Number of dispatches in January, 1864, 577; in December, 1864, 11,250.

The year 1805 was marked by one of the most considerable events in telegraphy—the reunion at Paris of the first international telegraphic conference, due to the initiative of France.

Two years later the first pneumatic line appeared in Paris. With the advent of the third republic, and up to within the last years, prodigious developments have been made in telegraphy.

Military telegraphy, or optical telegraphy with the aid of the sun, has also advanced. A description of these apparatus would run into too much space. It will suffice to state that two telegraphists are necessary for managing an optical apparatus. One reads the signals aloud as he perceives them, the other writes them down. There are two classes of instruments, telescopic and "campaign."

Here are the last statistics of the telegraphic bureau in France for one year: Number of inland telegrams, 20,084,742; international, 5,318,205; total, 31,403,007.

Development of the telegraphic system: Overhead lines, 80,440

PSM V44 D816 Military optical telegraphy.jpg
Military Optical Telegraphy.

kilometres of line, 264,980 of wire; ordinary subterranean lines, 1,719 line, 15,168 of wire; long-distance subterranean, 4,524 line, 30,237 wire; submarine, 6,004 line; private lines, 3,293 line, 6,512 wire; railroad telegraphs, 12,588 line, 106,653 wire. At end of 1890 the overhead lines alone had in all France covered some 115,000 kilometres.

Telegraphic bureaus in France, about 9,000. They use 12,750 Morse instruments, 993 Hughes, 25 Wheatstone, 58 Baudot, 1,155 Cadran, 1 Meyer, 951 diverse; total, 15,932.

The poste central (as it is locally termed) and the telegraphic service of Paris has an exceptional importance, which is easily explained. Paris, head and heart of France, is, in effect, the center from whence all radiates and where all converges. It is at the central post of telegraphs of Paris (rue de Grenelle 103) where are managed all the telegraphic dispatches exchanged between Paris and the departments or abroad, as well as a great number of those which the different towns exchange between themselves. The poste central is exclusively a bureau of transmissions; no dispatch is disposed there directly, and it does not distribute any directly. The service is performed by about five hundred men and four hundred women. The approximate daily average of the number of telegrams expedited by the poste central is 36,250, and by all the bureaus of France 67,187.

One can conceive that a personal staff so numerous must be installed in some vast and specially furnished rooms. Two new halls have been constructed quite recently and opened for business. Their installation leaves something to be desired; the light penetrates there badly at night; they are illuminated by electricity. One of these halls is occupied by the men telegraphists, the other by the lady operators. The 362 apparati of diverse nature in service at the poste central are grouped in each one of these halls, following a methodical order based on the regional classification.

It is known that the apparati of the system Baudot are the most frequently used in telegraphy. They serve the cities of Marseilles, Havre, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon, Brest, Caen, Clermont-Ferrand, and Nantes. They permit several employés to work at two, four, and even at six on the same wire, thanks to the ingenious application of the division of time realized by M. Baudot, engineer of the administration.

Two brigades share the service with the men, same as with the females, an alternating service which leaves them a little liberty. The employées (mark, the word with two final e's is feminine) while at work are all dressed in black blouses to preserve their dresses from the oil stains liable to result from close contact with the apparatus. They are allowed to do, when their post is free, a little work in crocheting or in tapestry.

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Operators' Room in the Great Telegraph Exchange, Paris.

On some great tables are installed the apparatus with all their accessories; each employée has allotted to her a space about ninety by ninety centimetres. Before each one there is a bar with three spikes, where they have to place separately the dispatches for abroad, the province, and Paris. In the middle of the hall is a bureau for the direction of the dispatches; two factors are attached to each section, one for unspiking the dispatches and carrying them to the direction, the other for distributing the dispatches on the posts. There is furthermore an elevator near the direction for mounting or descending the telegrams, because the men's hall, situated above, possesses all the wires connecting with the great cities of France as well as to abroad.

The basement is assuredly one of the most interesting parts of the poste-central. There are found some vaulted cellars devoted to the nine thousand elements of piles in service; in other places one will see some dynamo-electric machines, refilling pumps, etc. This is certainly not one of the least interesting features, that of seeing steam engines become the auxiliaries of telegraphy.

These machines work, on one part, the compressing pumps destined to run the Hughes apparatus and the dynamo-electric machines necessary for the production of the electric light. They work equally a dynamo-electric apparatus (an auto-regulator), which an agent of the central post, P. Picard, has had the ingenious idea to invent for replacing the piles.

Between them, the French writers, K. Fichot and H. Meyer, have managed to produce a fairly creditable account on the occasion and descriptively historical of the centenary of the foundation in France of the telegraph. The Parisians have celebrated the event, and while so fêting the centennial of the aërial telegraph they were almost at the same time, in a way, celebrating the golden jubilee of the introduction into Gaul of the electric telegraph, which was established at Paris just close on fifty years ago.

The interesting and curious paper of the Gaulois literarians above named will not be noticed in the French technical press (or, at least, it is not believed it will be); therefore an advanced translation is forwarded for the edification of English-speaking readers. In this rendering the purity of the original has been faithfully preserved as much as possible, even unto preserving some of the idiomatic peculiarities of expression of the vernacular.

It will be seen that the present summary is moderately complete,—detailing the introduction of the telegraph, some rather surprising comparisons; then the advent and progress and a few statistics of the present-day electric telegraph, description of the Paris great central bureau, etc.