Napoleonic semaphore telegraph recreated

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:

15 thoughts on “Napoleonic semaphore telegraph recreated

    1. No movie can even come close to doing that book justice. I dream of an HBO miniseries that can take its time and savor all the nuances of character, place, time and plot that make The Count such a masterpiece.

  1. Movies never do books justice, I mean even the Little Mermaid was not true to the original story. The Egyptian (Mika Waltari) is a favorite book of mine, and the 50’s movie just skipped over (without a whisper) of the entire middle of the book. Plus other things I do not remember because I only saw the movie once a looooooong time ago. There must be SOME reason why I have not seen the movie again….. The Count of Monte Cristo was one of the few books on the required reading lists in school that I ever enjoyed.

    1. To be fair, The Little Mermaid is very terrifying. Disney really can’t handle that sort of thing. Everything they touch is going to be sanitized with singing animals and a happy ending. I haven’t read The Egyptian but I’m putting it on my list.

      Penguin released a new English translation and unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago and it is truly spectacular. I cannot recommend it enough. I think you’ll find it’s even better than you remember, which is a rare thing.

  2. I really enjoyed the video of the signal tower in use; truly cutting-edge for its day, and still quite impressive! (It reminded me of the delightful hacking-of-the-clacks scenes in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, though that was a shutter-based system.)

    And I was delighted to see the Gankutsuou reference on your Count-of-Monte-Cristo page; while some of the live-action films have had decent fragments – a particular character or a particular scene – none of them did the story justice as well as the anime, IMO, despite the change in point-of-view to the novel’s secondary characters Albert and Franz. (Side note: one of the nicer casting choices for the films was a young Henry Cavill as Albert in the 2002 film; he’s getting more press these days as Superman, having bulked up just a tad {grin}.)

    1. Oh wow, I didn’t even remember that was Henry Cavill! I might have to watch it again just to see Superman play Albert. The problem I had with the movie, other than the horrendous slicing and dicing of the plot, is that none of the actors (except for maybe Guy Pierce as Mondago) incarnate the rawer aspects of the characters drawn by Dumas. The Count isn’t just a guy with hurt feelings lashing out; he’s a monster. Even Albert, who in the movie is portrayed as a good kid trying to make his way, in the book has some seriously sharp edges. None of the movies seem to want to go there.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the video. I literally clapped with glee when I saw it because I never was able to quite get a mental image of how the semaphore telegraph worked. Chappe created a shutter-based system too, by the way. It was his second experimental approach. The semaphore was his third.

  3. This is so very cool!

    Having seen this adds a new dimension to the story.

    Now to re-read for the fourth or fifth time the Count of Monte Cristo. I, too, really enjoy the book.

    Of theatrical interpretations I favour the one with Richard Chamberlin from 1975 the best. I was sorely disappointed with the 2002 adaptation.

    1. I saw the 1975 version many, many years ago, long before I read the book. I have little memory of it and clearly need to see it again. As I said on the Rats of Montecristo entry, the best adaptation I’ve seen is the anime Gankutsuo. Someday, when I win the Powerball, I will fund a version of my own with my dream casting, location shoots in the catacombs and every plot twist included. 🙂

    1. I didn’t even know Chappe’s name until I started researching this story, the Count of Monte Cristo having been pretty much my sole exposure to the optical telegraph before now.

  4. So, I scrounged around in my collection of books to see if I had a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. Alas I did not. However, I have a copy of The Collected Works which contains numerous short stories about the Count before and after the events in the book.

    One entitled Dormice relates his visit to the semaphore station in Montlhéry where the message that ruins Danglars is sent from. The description of the workings of the tower in his conversation with the operator is fascinating as I can now relate it to the video above.

    1. There are quite a few editions online — I linked to one in the post — but honestly none of them can hold a candle the unabridged Penguin edition I mentioned above. Not only does it keep in some of the juicier stuff like the lesbian daughter subplot, but it also restores the sharpness of the original French. A lot of English translations make it sound stuffy with a Victorian formality very much unlike Dumas’ turn of phrase.

  5. Thanks for this information — The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my all-time favourites — even at 7 I found it fascinating.
    The 1975 Richard Chamberlain adaptation was good, capturing the spirit of the book to a large extent.

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