Receiving the News – the Telegraph System

In my blog posts about the weeks leading up to the battle of Waterloo I mentioned how long it took for the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba to reach Paris. This was particularly surprising because the French had a magnificent telegraph system – defeated on this occasion, just when it was needed most, by poor visibility. The first visual telegraph system was the invention of Claude Chappe, a French engineer, working with his brothers. The French government seized on the invention and installed a network of 556 stations covering the entire country. Stelegraph codestations were updated and added to and the system continued in use until the 1850s when electric telegraphy took over. A Chappe telegraph and the posible positions are shown on the left.
During the French wars the Allies were handicapped by poor communications while the French had this excellent system – provided visibility was good. The brothers invented a simple and robust system with two arms, each with a short upright at the end. This could be controlled by counterweights by one man. A message of 36 letters could reach Lille from Paris in about half an hour. Codes were also developed, so messages, including numbers, could be sent in plain, or code. in addition there was a 3-armed system  used from 1803 onwards at coastal locations to warn of invasion. The Emperor was so convinced of the benefits of the telegraph that he took portable versions with him on campaign.
The British government was quick to see that without a telegraph system they were at a distinct disadvantage. The Admiralty’s Shutter Telegraph was created in 1795 to a design by Lord John Murray and had six rotating shutters which were used to indicate a complicated code. It required a rectangular framework tower with six, five feet high, octagonal shutters on horizontal axes that flipped between horizontal and vertical positions to signal. One was set up on top of the Admiralty building in Whitehall – more or less where the modern telecommunications masts can be seen today doing much the same job.
With a staggering disregard for security it was possible to visit the telegraph station, provided one tipped the operator. Presumably only reputable persons were permitted to enter the Admiralty in the first place, but it is still hard to believe that this was not a security loophole. The newspapers kept an eye on telegraphSt Alabans activity and could deduce when something major was about to happen by the volume of traffic and where it was going, even if they could not decipher it
The first line ran from the Admiralty to the dockyards at Sheerness and on to Deal. It had 15 stations along the route and a message took an astonishing sixty seconds. The second went south from London to the naval base at Portsmouth and then on to Plymouth and was opened in May 1806. The third to Yarmouth on the east coast opened in 1808. The image on the left shows the telegraph array on top of the church on St Albans, Hertfordshire.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The intermediate stations were  wooden huts and with a staggering lack of foresight they were all abandoned in 1814 when peace was declared and had to be recommissioned hastily in March 1815 when the news of Bonaparte’s escape from Elba reached London.
When peace came the enterprising Chappe brothers promoted their system for commercial use and some of their stone towers can still be found – there is one in Saverne, for example, and one at Baccon on the Loire, just west of Orleans which I visited a few years ago. (Photo, left, shows it with its restored telegraph arms).
Later in 1815 the Admiralty secured funding for a new system using arms rather than shutters and used the system – weather permitSONY DSCting, until 1847. The brick tower on the right is the semaphore tower at Chatley Heath on the line to Portsmouth. It is now in the care of the National Trust.


Filed under Buildings, Napoleon, Science & technology

8 responses to “Receiving the News – the Telegraph System

  1. helenajust

    This detail about the telegraph systems is very interesting — thank you.

    However, I’m wondering why the French system wasn’t used to report Napoleon’s progress through France. You say that bad visibility prevented its use. I find it hard to believe that there was bad visibility for the entire period that Napoleon made his way up though France, over a period of weeks. The message could have been sent at any time after he landed and from any point along the route of the telegraphs.

    • He landed on the 1st March and it took until the 4th for the news to reach Paris by telegraph, which is the delay apparently caused by bad weather, which seems feasible. It took until the 7th to reach Vienna and until the 10th to reach London, which is the time-lag I find so surprising. As to the news about his advance, I haven’t come across any references yet, but I imagine it was a mixture of people loyal to him not sending the intelligence onwards and general confusion. I imagine some intelligence got through, but how accurate it was…

      • helenajust

        I do think that at least some of the delays were due to those loyal to him holding it up. And then 6 days to get the news to London from Paris! I suspect that the real problem so far as England was concerned was that they thought it was all over and so the infrastructure wasn’t in place. There must have been mayhem in and around Paris, too.

        I wonder what we’d do these days if the satellites stopped functioning.

  2. Interesting, as always. I now have a reat desire to write a spy story with someone infiltrating the admiralty and sending gobbledegook through the shutters…

  3. Alan McDermott-Roe

    I was walking in the new forest a few days ago near Fritham just by the site of an old WW2 airport RAF Stoney Cross. I understand that there was a leg of this communication system through this part of Dorset. I wonder if anyone knows where the site was at Bramshaw and Pistle Hill as i cant find them on any maps! Great article.

  4. Pingback: History A'la Carte 7-23-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

  5. Philip van Rensburg

    The news about the Battle of Waterloo sent by telegraph was used in a sermon this morning, by a minister,illustrating how mist prevented the full message to go through.
    I was unaware of this method, quite enlightening!

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