If like me, you are obsessed with The Count of Monte Cristo, you’ll doubtless recall the central role played by a telegraph whose operator was so ably bribed by the Count to cause a stock market panic and initiate the financial ruin of one of his enemies. The telegraph Dumas describes as “flourish[ing] its great bony arms” was a semaphore signalling system. Invented by Claude Chappe with the first line between Paris and Lille installed in 1793, the system featured relay towers placed no more than 20 miles apart from each other so they could be clearly seen by a human eyeball through a telescope. On top of each tower was a large horizontal bar with two smaller bars mounted at both ends. By turning a gear and pulley mechanism inside the tower, the operator could position the regulator (the horizontal beam) and indicators (the little guys at the ends) at various angles, each position signifying a different letter, number, syllable, symbol, common word
The operators did not have the key to read the messages. Their job was to transmit them as they saw them to the next station down the line. Only the superintendents had the code book which would allow them to translate the signals into words. This was a closely guarded military secret, and indeed the telegraph system was entirely dedicated to military and government uses in the first decades of its existence. (Yet another example of what a Batman-like badass the Count is: he knows the code.)
At its peak, the French network had 534 stations stretching over more than 3,000 miles allowing messages that would have once taken days to reach their destination in mere hours. The record was set when Napoleon’s son was born in 1811; the message got from Paris to Strasbourg in 60 minutes. Napoleon extended the Chappe telegraph system into conquered territories like Italy and Belgium and other countries installed similar networks of their own. It was the first functional long-distance communication system on the continent, although the Romans had come close with their relay fire signals. It had serious limits, though. Obviously it required good visibility, so no telegraphing at night or in bad weather, and it was almost impossible for a message to get all the way through the relays without transmission errors.
The The Count of Monte Cristo began to be published in serial form in 1844, the year Samuel Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought” through an electric wire from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, but the telegraph bribery incident is set in 1838. By the time the last chapter of The Count hit the magazine stands in 1846, France was funding an extensive new electronic telegraph system. Chappe’s system spluttered along until 1852 after which it was abandoned. The relay towers were pillaged for construction materials or left to decay.
There are a few left today in France that can be visited by tourists. One of them, the station of Mollard-Fleury, near Modane in the Alps, was rediscovered in 2002. The mechanism was not functional, but researchers found the original designs made by a very meticulous inspector on the line and were able to make an exact copy.
Visitors who make it up the brisk climb find a two-room cabin of wood and stone. The second room contains a system of wheels and pulleys, controlling the signal system which is set on a mast above the roof.
A panaromic [sic] view looks south-east across the valley to more snow-capped mountains. Beyond is Italy.
“This station was part of the Lyon to Milan line that Napoleon built in 1805 as he prepared to resume war in Italy,” explains Bernard Pinaud, who over the summer will give demonstrations of the semaphore.
“Ultimately it extended as far as Venice, allowing the emperor to get messages to his armies in northern Italy in a matter of a few hours.”
One such message has been discovered in the records of a nearby village.
It reads: “The Legion of the South may recruit men in Turin from among the Piedmontese prisoners-of-war or Austrian deserters . However it must not recruit men who are not from Piedmont.”
Behold, the Chappe telegraph station of Mollard-Fleury in action: