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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.

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