Issue 21 Electricity Spring 2006

The Human Telegraph

Michael Sanchez

In 1795, fifty years before the invention of Morse code, a Catalan scientist named Don Francisco Salvá y Campillo installed a functional electric telegraph that connected Barcelona and the nearby town of Mataró. Using one electrically charged wire for each letter of the Spanish alphabet—since coding methods did not exist at the time—Salvá’s system was remarkable not so much for its technical innovations as for the startling and macabre way its messages were received. While most early electric telegraphs had automatic mechanisms for spelling out the incoming message, such as water oxidizing in jars or jumping pith-balls, Salvá used human subjects to physically hold each of the wires. Upon receiving an electric shock, they would shout out their designated letter, which was then recorded by an official transcriber (we can only imagine what this must have been like for the poor souls assigned to A and E!).

Salvá was not the first to devise a telegraph based on electricity, though his was one of the more practical and certainly the most poetic. The concept of a multi-wire electric telegraph was first proposed anonymously by a mysterious C. M. (thought to be Charles Morrison of Renfrew, Scotland) in the 17 February 1753 issue of The Scots Magazine. C. M. suggested using Leyden jars to charge twenty-six wires, one for each letter of the alphabet, with static electricity. The first working model based on this design was made by a Frenchman, Georges Louis Lesage, in 1774. Lesage’s electrostatic telegraph used twenty-six insulated wires and spanned across two adjacent rooms of his elegant mansion.

While Salvá was certainly familiar with The Scots Magazine article, it is doubtful whether he had heard news of Lesage’s invention. The 1795 paper he delivered to the Rambla dels Estudis in Barcelona, “On the Application of Electricity to the Telegraph,” makes no mention of Lesage. Instead, Salvá details other plans for applications of the electric telegraph, including the first suggestion for placing telegraph cables underwater. He believed it was theoretically possible to use the sea itself as an electric conductor, allowing for long-distance communication across water.

In his paper, Salvá proposes to build a submarine telegraph line between the island of Palma de Mallorca and the city of Alicante: “An electrician could lay out, on Mallorca, a surface or large square charged with electricity and, from Alicante, extend a cable which comes out of the ocean and is situated near the indicated surface. Another cable, also coming out of the sea, from Mallorca, and touching another square charged with electricity at Alicante, can be used to complete the communication between the two surfaces. Running electric fluid through the sea, which is an excellent conductor, from the positive surface to the negative, will cause a spark to be emitted as an indicator that the message has been received.“ The “squares“ or “surfaces“ charged with electricity that he mentions recall C. M.’s initial design, which used electric current to attract squares of paper printed with each letter of the alphabet.

When it was unveiled, the Barcelona-Mataró telegraph was warmly received and granted Salvá a certain measure of fame. An article in the Madrid Gaceta on 29 November 1796 explains that, following the presentation of his telegraph to the Royal Academy of Natural Sciences in Barcelona, Salvá was received by the Prince of La Paz. The Prince was apparently impressed with Salvá’s “wit and common sense,” and, in turn, invited him to show his invention to the King and high nobility of Spain. The version used for this demonstration, aside from being much smaller than the Barcelona-Mataró machine, had buttons for each of the receivers to hold which concentrated the electric current. Salvá’s audience was duly impressed—so much so, in fact, that the Prince Regent asked to have the telegraph installed in his chambers and commissioned a deputy to investigate how much electric charge was needed to communicate across various distances by land and sea. Despite his success, Salvá continued to make adjustments to the initial design as new technologies became available. In 1800, he delivered a lecture on Luigi Galvani and Galvanism, in which he thankfully suggested that frogs’ legs would be better indicators than human voices.

Appointed Director of Electricity at the Rambla dels Estudis, where he had been a faculty member since 1786, Salvá was, by all accounts, a great polymath. He conducted research on popular scientific problems of his day, from meteorology to textile preparation to underwater navigation. The electric telegraph was far from Salvá’s only practical invention. He was the first Spaniard to build a hot air balloon based on the 1782 experiments of the Montgolfier brothers and, with the help of several assistants, flew the aircraft over Barcelona in 1785. In 1800, independently of the Englishman Robert Fulton who is most often credited as the inventor of the first practical submarine, he designed an unbuilt vessel that he referred to as the “Fish-Boat.” In conjunction with his work with the telegraph, Salvá also devised a rapid means of transmitting messages by placing them inside mortars and firing them from a canon.

What distinguishes Salvá is the grandness of his vision, and aside from the uncanny image of a line of men zapped into shouting telegraphic messages, his conception of an electric telegraph was no exception. He wanted to use electricity to establish connections over extremely large distances, much further than the reach of any optical semaphore. Where Lesage punched telegrams between two rooms, as if leisurely playing a keyboard instrument, Salvá dreamed of a world tied together by electricity flowing through the seas. Now that the days of infinite communication are upon us, Salvá looks more and more like the nutty great-uncle of a familiar brand of technological globalism.

Michael Sanchez is a critic, poet, and translator. He is currently at work on an anthology of writings by the Dada poet Clément Pansaers, forthcoming from Green Integer in 2007.

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