- This article is about the communication system using towers with pivoting shutters. For other uses, see Semaphore (disambiguation). For the now closed railway in Adelaide, Australia, see Semaphore railway line, Adelaide.
A semaphore telegraph, optical telegraph, shutter telegraph chain, Chappe telegraph, or Napoleonic semaphore is a system of conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting shutters, also known as blades or paddles. Information is encoded by the position of the mechanical elements; it is read when the shutter is in a fixed position.
The system was invented in 1792 in France by Claude Chappe, and was popular in the late 18th to early 19th century.
Semaphore lines were a precursor of the electrical telegraph. They were far faster than post riders for bringing a message over long distances, but far more expensive and less private than the electrical telegraph lines which would replace them. The distance that an optical telegraph can bridge is limited by geography and weather; thus, in practical use, most optical telegraphs used lines of relay stations to bridge longer distances.
The word semaphore was coined in 1801 by the French inventor of the Semaphore line, Claude Chappe, who also coined the word "telegraph".
The word "semaphoric" was first printed in English in 1808: "The newly constructed Semaphoric telegraphs" referring to the destruction of telegraphs in France. The word semaphore was first printed in English in 1816: "The improved Semaphore has been erected on the top of the Admiralty", referring to the installation of a simpler telegraph invented by Sir Home Popham. The word was derived from "sémaphore", coined in French from Greek σῆμα (sêma, "sign") and φωρος (phoros, "bearer").
Modern design of semaphores was first foreseen by the British polymath Robert Hooke, who first gave a vivid and comprehensive outline of visual telegraphy to the Royal Society in an 1684 submission in which he outlined many practical details. The system (which was motivated by military concerns, following the recent Battle of Vienna in 1683) was never put into practice.
The first achieved optical telegraph arrived in 1792 from the French engineer Claude Chappe and his brothers, who succeeded in covering France with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 4,800 kilometres (3,000 mi). It was used for military and national communications until the 1850s.
Many national services adopted signaling systems different from the Chappe system. For example, Britain and Sweden adopted systems of shuttered panels (in contradiction to the Chappe brothers' contention that angled rods are more visible). In Spain, the engineer Agustín de Betancourt developed his own system which was adopted by that state. This system was considered by many experts in Europe better than Chappe's, even in France.
France This section does not cite any references or sources. (February 2013)
During 1790–1795, at the height of the French revolution, France needed a swift and reliable communication system to thwart the war efforts of its enemies. France was surrounded by the forces of Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Austria, and Spain, the cities of Marseilles and Lyon were in revolt, and the British Fleet held Toulon. The only advantage France held was the lack of cooperation between the allied forces due to their inadequate lines of communication.
In the summer of 1790, the Chappe brothers set about devising a system of communication that would allow the central government to receive intelligence and to transmit orders in the shortest possible time. On March 2, 1791 at 11 A.M., they sent the message “si vous réussissez, vous serez bientôt couverts de gloire” (If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory) between Brulon and Parce, a distance of 16 kilometres (9.9 mi). The first means used a combination of black and white panels, clocks, telescopes, and codebooks to send their message.
The Chappes carried out experiments during the next two years, and on two occasions their apparatus at Place de l'Étoile, Paris was destroyed by mobs who thought they were communicating with royalist forces. However in the summer of 1792 Claude was appointed Ingénieur-Télégraphiste and charged with establishing a line of stations between Paris and Lille, a distance of 230 kilometres (about 143 miles). It was used to carry dispatches for the war between France and Austria. In 1794, it brought news of a French capture of Condé-sur-l'Escaut from the Austrians less than an hour after it occurred. The first symbol of a message to Lille would pass through 15 stations in only nine minutes. The speed of the line varied with the weather, but the line to Lille typically transferred 36 symbols, a complete message, in about 32 minutes.
Paris to Strasbourg with 50 stations was the next line and others followed soon after. By 1824, the Chappe brothers were promoting the semaphore lines for commercial use, especially to transmit the costs of commodities. Napoleon Bonaparte saw the military advantage in being able to transmit information between locations, and carried a portable semaphore with his headquarters. This allowed him to coordinate forces and logistics over longer distances than any other army of his time. However because stations had to be within sight of each other, and because the efficient operation of the network required well trained and disciplined operators, the costs of administration and wages were a continuous source of financial difficulties. Only when the system was funded by the proceeds of its own lottery did costs come under control.
In 1821 Norwich Duff, a young British Naval officer, visiting Clermont-en-Argonne, walked up to the telegraph station there and engaged the signalman in conversation. Here is his note of the man's information:
The pay is twenty five sous per day and he [the signalman] is obliged to be there from day light till dark, at present from half past three till half past eight; there are only two of them and for every minute a signal is left without being answered they pay five sous: this is a part of the branch which communicates with Strasburg and a message arrives there from Paris in six minutes it is here in four.
The Chappe brothers determined by experiment that it was easier to see the angle of a rod than to see the presence or absence of a panel. Their semaphore was composed of black movable wooden arms, the position of which indicated alphabetic letters. With counterweights (named forks) on the arms, the Chappe system was controlled by only two handles and was mechanically simple and reasonably robust. Each of the two 2-metre-long arms showed seven positions, and the 4.6-metre-long cross bar connecting the two arms had four different angles, for a total of 196 symbols (7x7x4). Night operation with lamps on the arms was unsuccessful.
To speed up transmission and to provide some semblance of security a code book was developed for use with semaphore lines. The Chappes' corporation used a code that took 92 of the basic symbols two at a time to yield 8,464 coded words and phrases.
From 1803 on, the French also used the 3-arm Depillon semaphore at coastal locations to provide warning of British incursions.
At the same time as Chappe, the Swedish inventor Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz experimented with the optical telegraph in Sweden. In 1794 he inaugurated his telegraph with a poem dedicated to the Swedish King on his birthday. The message went from the Palace in Stockholm to the King at Drottningholm.
Edelcrantz eventually developed his own system which was quite different from its French counterpart and nearly twice as fast. The system was based on ten collapsible iron shutters. The various positions of the shutters formed combinations of numbers which were translated into letters, words or phrases via codebooks. The telegraph network consisted of telegraph stations positioned at about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from one another.
Soon telegraph circuits linking castles and fortresses in the neighbourhood of Stockholm were set up and the system was extended to Grisslehamn and Åland. Subsequently telegraph circuits were introduced between Gothenburg and Marstrand, at Helsingborg and between Karlskrona and its fortresses. Sweden was the second country in the world, after France, to introduce an optical telegraph network. The Swedish optical telegraph network was restricted to the archipelagoes of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Karlskrona. Like its French counterpart, it was mainly used for military purposes.