Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

French Telegraphs

By: Markus Stein and Edmund Wagner

Translator:  Justin Howard

This article previously appeared in Issue 3 of the German-language magazine Depesche, which is published by our partner, Napoleon Online. We appreciate the kindness of the editor, Markus Stein, for giving us permission to publish the translation.


I have taken a very interesting article about the recently introduced telegraph routes from a contemporary magazine, namely the Europäischen Annalen from 1795. To aid in comprehending the text, two plates – also from the Europäischen Annalen – are included, as well as a drawing of the tower of Saverne, which was part of the Paris to Strasbourg telegraph line. Now, though, to the exact wording of the text:

News of the construction of the telegraph, to explain the engravings accompanying this article.

The first plate is an exterior view of the telegraph, including the site where it stands. The telegraph must of course be sited high enough to have an unhindered view over any obstacle which could block observation of the nearest similar apparatus. One such site was found in Paris on top of the Louvre. Here the telegraph is situated on top of an observatory, which stands out above the roof of the Louvre; the observatory is flat-roofed, square and has a gallery running around all sides.

From the centre of this observatory – we shall use the assigned name – an iron pole rises vertically; at a height of 12 feet on this pole, an iron cross-bar is attached, which is painted in the national colours and revolves around its axis. This cross-bar is 9 feet long and 9 – 10 inches wide. An arm is attached at each end; these are equally wide, but only half as long. By means of a simple mechanism – which the eyewitness from whom I have this account was however unable or unwilling to describe, and about which more may come below – this apparatus can be manoeuvred into any desired position from the room underneath the observatory, i.e. the large cross-bar as well as both smaller arms can be positioned so as to create any desired angle with the vertical pole and also with the cross-bar. These variations are depicted in figures 1 – 12 of our first plate.


In order that the various symbols (the reader will already have guessed, that they represent letters) are more recognisable and least likely to be confused with each other, only angles of 45° are used. Therefore:

1. Each arm can be moved into eight different positions, namely such that together with the cross-bar it either creates no angle or one of 45, 90, 135, 180, 225, 270 or 315 degrees.

2. The cross-bar can create four angles with the vertical pole. Together with the 8 different positions of the arms, this allows 256 different symbols.

Of this total, the second plate depicts 77 selected symbols (which we have had reconstructed from the eyewitness account mentioned above), showing the 24 upper and 24 lower case letters, several combined consonants and vowels, the accents, punctuation and numbers. However, one shouldn’t believe that this is the actual alphabet which is used for communication in France. What we present here should rather be understood as an example; the actual alphabet used in France, which without doubt is not included in the list of symbols depicted and – even if it is coincidentally partly or completely included – does not correspond exactly to the individual symbols shown, is a secret of the French government.

In any case, we believe for a number of reasons that the eyewitness account is almost completely speculation, possibly a lucky guess, and apart from the external components does not concur in the slightest with reality.

The eyewitness did not have any information clarifying the mechanism of the telegraph, so did not explain it to us. What is certain, though, is that the notion that the apparatus is operated by means of ropes or cables, as the eyewitness’s drawings would have us believe, is very coarse and cannot satisfy anyone who has even a faint comprehension of motive forces. At the very least, this means of operating the apparatus would be very unreliable due to the elasticity of the ropes and the knots or loops which would be required to hold them in position, and also laborious because occasionally many ropes would have to be pulled simultaneously. Much more likely is that the cross-bar and both the arms, as well as the vertical pole to which they are fixed, are hollow and that the latter contains a toothed straight iron shaft which can be moved up and down by means of a toothed roller, and that the likewise toothed axes of the cross-bar and arms can be directly or indirectly moved using chains which may be similar to those of a pocket watch and whose joints fit into the teeth of the axes of the arms.


However, I don’t even consider this a completely satisfactory answer to the mystery, but instead see it as just a suggestion, which could lead to further deliberation. Just a few words more about the operation of the apparatus! Below the observatory there is a room which, instead of walls, has glass windows on all sides. The apparatus is operated from here, and an observer constantly stands there, and can monitor the movements of the nearest telegraph through a good telescope; the observations are jotted down and transmitted further via the apparatus; a message which is submitted in Paris can thus be known in Amsterdam within maybe half an hour. The operator of the apparatus does not need to know the secret alphabet, just has to be trained to repeat each received symbol. Obviously, in order to transmit the messages over a long distance, relay telegraphs must be sited at the intervals which can be seen by a good telescope. The apparatus is paused for a few moments at each significant position.


It’s easy to see that the alphabet in the second plate could be greatly simplified by omitting the capitals, the diphthongs, and the combined vowels, as well as most of the punctuation. That it could be even further simplified by omitting one of the arms of the apparatus is demonstrated by Privy Counsellor Böckmann in his new work on telegraphy. And the reviewer of this work in the Göttingische Gelehrten Anzeigen (Gottingen Academic Journal) notes that the art of telegraphy could be significantly improved if complete words (at least the more commonly used, e.g. articles, auxiliary verbs etc.) were each expressed by a single symbol and the spaces were specified by blank periods, which could be measured using a seconds pendulum.

Use of the apparatus at night should be possible using lamps or torches, which could be fixed to the arms; however this would obviously be fraught with difficulties.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2010


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