Fall 2014

Writing at a Distance: An Interview with Richard Taws

The optical telegraphy of Claude Chappe

Joshua Bauchner and Richard Taws

The opening of the first permanent trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1865 (a predecsessor, laid in 1857, failed) is often cited as a figurative initiation of the newly global modern world. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, “By 1872 it was possible to telegraph from London to Tokyo and to Adelaide. In 1871 the result of the Derby was flashed from London to Calcutta in no more than five minutes, though the news was considerably less exciting than the achievement. What were Phileas Fogg’s eighty days compared with this?” The telegraph, Hobsbawm observes, was “ready for discovery in the middle 1830s, in the mysterious way in which such problems suddenly break through towards their solution.” This readiness was in part due to the fact that “writing at a distance” has an ancient history. Yet these prior technologies neither inevitably nor propulsively led to the mid-nineteenth-century electric telegraph. One late branch of this history, which highlights its contingencies and discontinuities as well as the overtly political nature of the modern technology of communication over distances, is the optical telegraphy system invented in France by Claude Chappe shortly after the Revolution. Joshua Bauchner spoke to Richard Taws, professor of art history at University College London, about Chappe telegraphy, its distinct revolutionary and imperial French histories, and the development of a complex material and metaphoric visual culture around it.

Cabinet: Let’s start with the basics: What was Chappe optical telegraphy and how did it work?

Richard Taws: Chappe optical telegraphy was a communication relay system of large-scale semaphoric devices, situated about eight or nine kilometers away from one another, that covered much of France through the classic “age of revolutions.” Although the first messages were sent successfully from Paris to Lille in 1792, it was deployed officially at the height of the Revolutionary Terror, in 1794, and used until the mid-1850s, when it was replaced by electrical signals. Developed by Claude Chappe along with his four brothers, the system, also called aerial telegraphy, had at its heart an approximately T-shaped metal or wooden device, measuring roughly four-and-a-half meters tall, with articulated arms manipulated by an operator stationed below. There were three mobile arms in total—the main cross of the T, called the régulateur (regulator), roughly four-and-a-half meters by a third of a meter, and the two smaller pieces, one on each end of the regulator, like mobile serifs, called the indicateurs (indicators), which were roughly two meters by a third of a meter. Mounted on axles and totally rotatable, the arms could be set into a range of positions by an operator manipulating them via a miniature identical three-part setup connected by a system of wires and pulleys.

After some fine-tuning, the total number of positions for the device was set at ninety-eight: two for the regulator (horizontal and vertical) and seven for each indicator (one at each 45-degree position relative to the regulator, minus the one turned completely outward because it was indistinguishable at distance from the one turned completely inward), yielding ninety-two meaningful positions and six others reserved for what we might term, anachronistically, “metadata” and other information not in the message itself. When sent in pairs, these ninety-two positions resulted in over eight thousand combinations, each of which corresponded to a preset full message, proper name, word, or other communicative unit (the system could jump down to sending letters one at a time, if necessary), defined in vocabulaires held by senior telegraphic administrators, called directors, across France. During the Revolution and through the First Empire, Restoration, and July Monarchy, the Chappe optical telegraph became a really powerful means of communicating at speed over distance across all of France.

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