Mankind had long puzzled how to transmit messages at long distances as quickly as possible. From antiquity, various solutions had been tried – fire beacons, smoke signals, flashing mirrors and so on, but in the snappily titled A century of the names and scantlings of such inventions as at present I can call to mind to have tried and perfected which (my former notes being lost) I have, at the instance of a powerful friend, endeavored now, in the year 1655, to set these down in such a way, as may sufficiently instruct me to put any of them to practice, (written in 1655 but not published until 1663), Edward Somerset, 2nd Marquess of Worcester, put forward the idea of,
“How at a window, far as eye can discover black from white, a man may hold discourse with his correspondent, without noise made or notice taken; being, according to occasion given and means afforded, ex re nata, and no need of provision beforehand; though much better if foreseen, and means prepared for it, and a premeditated course taken by mutual consent of parties.”
|Worcester - Century of Inventions - 1663|
Robert Hooke, took up the idea in 1684, as a aid to the military following the Battle of Vienna in the previous year, but the plans came to naught. The notion was revived by the Frenchman Claude Chappe who, with his four brothers, built a series of 556 signalling towers, covering 3,000 miles, across the French landscape, from 1792 onwards. The towers used a system of semaphore posts, which could be changed to various configurations that represented letters or code words. A central post – the ‘regulator’ – had two shorter beams at its end, and could be aligned vertically or horizontally, giving a total of 196 possible configurations. It was a marvellous invention (and has been dubbed the ‘mechanical internet’), but had one drawback – it could not be used in bad weather or at night.
|Various types of Semaphore Telegraphs|
Attempts were made in the early 1800s to utilize the new advances in electrology, with the electric telegraph being developed in the 1830s by Wheatstone and Morse. Eventually, the telegraph superseded the optical towers of the Chappes, and the prospect of global communication was seriously considered but the early attempts to lay cables under the English Channel in 1850 failed when they repeatedly broke. The probability of transatlantic cabling seemed doomed before it began. Heads were scratched and beards stroked perplexedly, until two gentlemen of Gallic origins, a Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoît and his colleague, a mysterious and quite possibly fictious, Monsieur Biat-Chrétien (who, apparently, resided in America although no one ever saw him), proposed a system that utilised galvanism together with terrestrial and animal magnetism. And, being French, their system was, of course, based on snails.
|La Presse - October 27 1850|
This remarkable discovery was announced to the world in the prestigious Parisian newspaper La Presse of October 27th 1850, by M Jules Allix who, in an almost stereotypically Gallic piece of rambling rhodomontadic journalism, eventually gets around to explaining the principles thus,
“… it seems that snails which have once been put in contact, are always in sympathetic communication. When separated, there disengages itself from them a species of fluid of which the earth is the conductor, which develops and unrolls, so to speak, like the almost invisible thread of the spider, or that of the silk worm, which can be uncoiled and prolonged almost indefinitely in space without its breaking, but with this vital difference that the thread of the escargotic fluid is invisible as completely and the pulsation along it is as rapid as the electric fluid.”
This galvano-terrestrial-magnetic-animal and adamic force exploits the same principle as Sir Kenelm Digby’s Sympathetic Powder, that two things, be they snails or people or weapons, form a contact that remains in place even when they are later separated and which operates regardless of the distance between them. M Benoît proposed that after two snails had been in contact, an invisible escargotic fluid came into being and if the snails were separated, let’s say one left in Paris and the other taken to New York, that fluid connected them through the earth, so if a person were to touch the Parisian snail, the New York snail would react.
An apparatus was built – a square box containing a Voltaic pile, with a central steel axis around which the plates were arranged, with small zinc cups attached to each. The cups were lined with cloth soaked in copper sulphate solution and held in place by a copper strip, and into which a snail was glued. Each galvanic cup rested on a delicate spring, arranged so it responded to ‘every escargotic commotion’, and was marked by a letter of the alphabet, by which messages could be spelled out. This marvellous device went by the name of the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compass.
|... and a conventional Telegram|
M Benoît made the acquaintance of a M Triat, the founder and manager of a Parisian gymnasium, of whom was, it was said, he possessed common sense but little education. Carried away by the enthusiasm of Benoît, Triat provided the inventor with premises, materials and a hired help, and Benoît set about building his apparatus. At first he had told Triat that all he needed was two or three bits of wood but then it became apparent that a few more bits of wood were required, and then some other bits and pieces too, the cost of which came from the pocket of M Triat.
After twelve months, he began to get a little anxious and threatened to withhold further funding but Benoît, who had spent most of the time and money on other projects, pronounced the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compasses were now complete. Ideally, they should have been in different rooms but space was limited, so he had built the pair in the small apartment that was available to him, and the two or three bits of wood had grown into two ten-foot tall scaffolds, from each of which was suspended the massive voltaic piles. Benoît assured Triat that he was in daily correspondence with his associate, M Biat-Chrétien, over in America, via his snail mail, but advised caution, as if word was to get out about this miracle before it was fully perfected, competitors might steal the idea from under them. This line of reasoning fell onto M Triat’s deaf ears, who insisted on a practical demonstration and on October 2nd, in the company of the afore-mentioned reporter M Allix, Benoît proceeded to perturb his gastropods.
|M Jules Allix|
On one scaffold stood Allix, who was told to spell out a word by touching the appropriate letters; Benoît stood on the other scaffold awaiting the message, but found it necessary, for a variety of technical reasons, to shuttle between the two Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compasses, before declaring the word ‘gymoate’ had been sent. It was close. The actual word sent had been ‘gymnase’, said Allix. He changed places with Triat, who sent the words ‘lumiere divine’, which the still-shuttling Benoît and his orthologically-challenged molluscs rendered as ‘lumhere divine.’ He was then told to get in touch with his transatlantic counterpart, so he sent the Alert signal and then touched each of the snails corresponding to the letters of the word BIAT in turn, with a ‘sympathetic’ snail held in his hand. After a short delay, the horns of certain miserable, glued-down snails crept out of their shells before darting back in, on contact with the copper sulphate. With a little judicious punctuation, the letters received were, Benoît revealed, ‘c’est bien.’ Allix was delighted, impressed and excited. Triat was disgusted, unimpressed and underwhelmed. Allix went off and wrote his piece of prolix prose. Triat went away and sulked.
Then he came back and let fly at Benoît. He was pulling the plug, he fumed, he had been swindled and made a fool of. Enough was too much. Benoît was contrite. He could, he said apologetically, give Triat the demonstration he wanted. He would relocate the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compasses to M Triat’s gymnasium, one in one room and one in another, and remain firmly in whatever room Monsieur designated. Triat was mollified to the extent that he offered Benoît one thousand francs a day for his researches if only he could see the snail telegraph work convincingly. He contacted another journalist from La Presse, M de Girardin, who arranged to be present at the demonstration, also offered a further thousand francs a day if he was suitably impressed and laid out plans from further public demonstrations at the Jardin d’hiver, to a paying audience. Everything was arranged, and the day before the appointed day, Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoît disappeared. And that was that. Gone. Into the night. Not known at this address.
He was rumoured to have been seen wandering around and about Paris from time to time, hollow-eyed and muttering to himself, and is said to have died, quite mad, in 1852.
The plans for the snail telegraph were shelved, never to be seen again, and the whole fiasco became a world-wide laughing stock – Sir Richard Francis Burton refers to it in his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madhina and Meccah -
“… even hard-headed America believes in "mediums," in "snail-telegraphs," and "spirit-rappings”
and the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould dedicated a chapter to the snail telegraph in his Historic Oddities and Strange Events (1891).
|S Baring-Gould - The Snail Telegraph - 1891|