Friday, August 31, 2007

Telegraph

Claude Chappe invented an optical telegraph network that operated in France from 1792 through 1846. It was instrumental in Napoleon's succees. It appears it may figure prominently in the Count of Monte Cristo's vengeance.

"Yes, indeed, the very thing: a telegraph. Often, at the end of a road, on a hilltop, in the sunshine, I have seen those folding black arms extended lke the legs of some giant beetle, and I promise you, those bizarre signals so accurately travelling through the air, carrying the unknown wishes of a man sitting behind one table to another man sitting at the far end of the line behind another table, three hundred leagues away, were written against the greyness of the clouds or the blue of the sky by the sole will of that all-powerful master. Then I have thought of genies, sylphs, gnomes and other occult forces, and laughed. Never did I wish to go over and examine these great insects with their white bellies and slender black legs, because I was afraid that under their stone wings I would find the human genie, cramped, pedantic, stuffed with arcane science and sorcery. Then, one fine morning, I discovered that the motor that drives every telegraph is a poor devil of a clerk who earns twelve hundred francs a year and — instead of watching the sky like an astronomer, or the water like a fisherman, or the landscape like an idler — spends the whole day staring at the insect with the white belly and black legs that corresponds to his own and is sited some four or five leagues away. At this, I became curious to study this living chrysalis from close up and to watch the dumbshow that it offers from the bottom of its shell to that other chrysalis, by pulling bits of string one after the other."

"So that is where you are going?"

"It is."

"To which telegraph? The one belonging to the Ministry of the Interior, or the observatory?"

"No, certainly not. There I should find people who would try to force me to understand things of which I would prefer to remain ignorant, and insist on trying to explain a mystery that is beyond their grasp. Come! I want to keep my illusions about insects; it is enough to have lost those I had about human beings. So I shall not go either to the telegraph at the Ministry of the Interior, or to the one at the observatory. What I need is a telegraph in the open countryside, so I can see the fellow fixed in his tower and in his pure state."


— from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

A ghost in the machine.

1799: Napoleon seizes power. Sends the message "Paris is quiet and the good citizens are content."
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