Monday, June 06, 2005

History of Communications, Computing and Media 1793-96

Sometime in the 1990s, around 1993/4 as I recall, I was one of the key members of a web publishing company called Cequel Plus, one of whose main achievements was to publish, in association with the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation and with funding from Cable & Wireless [the biggest web sponsorship deal in the UK at the time) a major illustrated site on 'The History of Communications, Computing and Media 1793-2000' Unfortunately only fragments of the site are currently available on the web:
Am aiming to try and republish and if possible update the text in sections in this blog.


The French State Telegraph is established - the first organisation of its kind in the world - to run an optical telegraph network, initially between Paris and Lille. It was built at the instigation of one man - Claude Chappe - who became the system's Chief Engineer.

Chappe had been experimenting with different types of telegraph since 1790. Using a system of telescopes, pendulum clocks and a large board, painted white on one side, black on the other, he had managed to transmit several sentences over a distance of 16km (10 miles).

By 1793, Chappe had abandoned his synchronised clocks and adopted a semaphore system, which was technically simpler and easier to read at a distance. The semaphore telegraph consisted of a large horizontal beam with two smaller wings, known as indicators, at each end. The angle of the wings could be adjusted, in increments of 45°, and thus they were capable of sending signals using a prearranged code.

Chappe persuaded the French government to allow him to build the first telegraphic connection - between Paris and Lille, a distance of approx. 190km (120mi). It involved 15 stations and began operating on 16th July 1794.

France was at war on several fronts and the system was soon to prove its value. On 15th August that same year, the telegraph brought fast and fresh news to Paris that the French had recaptured the city of Le Quesnoy, from Austrian and Prussian forces. As a result of this success, the network was extended.

Napoleon was a great enthusiast for the semaphore telegraph. In 1804, the year he declared himself emperor, he ordered the construction of a data link, strictly for government use, from Lyon, across the Alps, to Turin and Milan.It took five years to build but, when completed, meant that a message could travel from Paris to Milan in 30 minutes under optimum conditions. If the weather was bad and visibility poor, messages could take two or three days. Each station was manned by two operators, who passed on the coded messages without understanding their meaning.

From 1759 to 1855, it grew from 15 to 556 stations; at its height, it connected 30 French cities to Paris and employed more than 3,000 people. Many other countries followed France's example and similar networks subsequently appeared in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, England, Germany, Spain, Russia, Australia and the US.

Sources: Gerard J. Holzmann - Station to Station [Communicating Business. Spring 1995]. Based on his book (with Björn Peterson), 'The Early History of Data Networks' [IEEE Computer Society Press. 1995]
Also: The Edelcrantz Telegraph Systems


Étienne-Gaspard Robertson (1763-1837) was a Belgian born in Liège who was introduced to the magic lantern by a local inventor who hoped to improve this still little-known device. In his late twenties he moved to Paris and, as a showman, renamed himself Robertson and shocked Paris when in 1799 he premiered 'Fantasmagorie', a "spectral" performance, using a movable magic lantern, projecting onto layers of gauze curtain between the lantern and the audience, to produce eerie and ghostly apparitions which appear to move, the effects being produced by means of lenses and concave reflectors. The horrors of the French Revolution still haunted many people, which may help to explain the show's impact; Robertson claimed he was summoning back from the dead the spirits of famous people who had perished during the Terror. The show was no doubt enhanced by its location in an abandoned Capucine monastery by the Place Vendome. It is now seen as a landmark in the prehistory of cinema.

[Sources: C. W. Ceram - Archaeology of the Cinema [Thames and Hudson. 1965]; Barnouw, Erik 1908- "Book Review: Etienne-Gaspard Robertson: La Vie d'un Fantasmagore"Wide Angle - Volume 18, Number 3, July 1996, pp. 101-106 The Johns Hopkins University Press; A History of the Magic Lantern

The British government, alarmed by the military implications of the development of the optical telegraph at a time of war with France, hurry to develop their own system. Their top priority is to link the Admiralty in London to the ports on the south coast of England, principally Portsmouth in Hampshire and Deal in Kent. By the end of this year, they purchase the shutter telegraph from the inventor, Lord George Murray (1761-1803), for £2,000.

The shutter telegraph system they build consists of a chain of 15 stations on hills, roofs and other prominent sites, some as far as 16km (10mi) apart. (Many of these are still named 'Telegraph Hills' on modern maps.)
On the roof of each tower was a frame in which six octagonal boards, or shutters, were mounted vertically in three rows of two. These pivoted on a horizontal axis and could be 'opened' or 'shut' by rope or cable, and were thus able to generate 64 permutations, to represent letters or numbers in code.

Subsequently, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the Admiralty adopted a semaphore system similar to Chappe's, which used a mast with two arms. The network was not closed down until 1847.

[Sources: How Was It Done? [Reader's Digest. 1995]. Also Telegraph Hill fact from Did You Know [Reader's Digest. 1990]

Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) of Bavaria invents lithography, a word derived from the Greek and literally meaning 'stone printing.' Senefelder was an author seeking to reproduce his own dramatic works. He had been experimenting with etched stones and metal reliefs but the breakthrough came in an unexpected way.

The story goes his mother called out to him a laundry list and, not having a scrap of paper to hand, he wrote it with greased pencil on a printing stone. Senefelder suddenly realised that the stone could be etched away around the pencil mark to make a printing plate.

It was twenty years before he published his description of this process. Senefelder's treatise was first published in Munich and Vienna in 1818 with the title Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckery; within a year translations were published in England and France. The work is divided into two parts: the first is a history of the invention and its different processes, while the second provides practical instructions for its application.

England was the first country outside of Germany to have a lithographic press. Rudolph Ackermann, a well-known publisher of aquatint books who issued this first English edition of Senefelder's treatise ('A Complete Course of Lithography'. 1819) was, along with artist Charles Hullmandel, largely responsible for bringing lithography to the attention of the English public.

[Source: Philip B. Meggs - A History of Graphic Design' [Van Nostrand Reinhold. New York. 1983]
The Invention of Lithography by Alois Senefelder, (e-book, English translation, 1911)

No comments: