J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

America’s First Telegraphes and Telegraph

Yesterday I noted how the late 1790s brought a spate of new American newspapers called the Telegraphe, most of which went out of business in Thomas Jefferson’s first term. Which is a little odd considering that most of them were pro-Jefferson. And that Samuel Morse didn’t invent what we know as the telegraph for another three decades.

The key to those puzzles appears in Boston’s Columbian Centinel newspaper for 15 Nov 1794, in an item headlined “THE TELEGRAPHE”:
The plan of the new French instrument for conveying intelligence (the Telegraphe,) is by beacons on heights, at the distance of 12 or 15 miles from each other; in all of which are placed glasses. The words to be conveyed, are exhibited on the first, read, and exhibited by a short process at the second, and so on through the whole line. What the process is for copying the words so expeditiously, and for throwing such a body of light as to make them visible at such a distance, does not yet appear; but it is clear that the experiment has complete success.

Conde surrendered at six o’clock in the morning. At the meeting of the Convention at nine o’clock the same day, it was announced to them by the Telegraphe from Lisle. They instantly changed its name to Nord Libre, and resolved that the Northern army continued to deserve well of their country. These resolutions were ordered to be conveyed to Lisle by the Telegraphe. They were so; and before the Convention separated for dinner, they received the answer that their resolutions had arrived at Lisle, so that the very same day the army received the thanks of the nation for their achievement.
The beacon on Beacon Hill could send only one signal: lighting the tar barrel atop that pole meant Boston was in danger. Claude Chappe and his brothers had developed a much more sophisticated and flexible system, and it remained part of France’s communications infrastructure for half a century. Low-tech Magazine, Boing Boing, and of course Wikipedia have more detail on how it worked.

So to Americans of the 1790s, a “telegraphe“ was:
  • the latest, most advanced technology for transmitting news over a distance…
  • particularly news about threats to the republic…
  • developed in Revolutionary France.
No wonder Jeffersonian printers adopted that term for their newspapers! They spent the last part of George Washington’s Presidency and all of John Adams’s warning about Federalist encroachments on Americans’ rights and lauding the French republic. Once Jefferson won the top office, those newspapers changed their titles (or their proprietors got political jobs).

A few years later, Massachusetts had another sort of “optical telegraph,” invented by Jonathan Grout (1737-1807) of Belcherstown, a Revolutionary War veteran and anti-Federalist who had represented part of Massachusetts in the first federal Congress. In 1801 he built an optical telegraph that sent shipping news from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard via Hull, Scituate, Marshfield, and other towns. Caleb Bingham’s Historical Grammar (Boston: 1802) said Grout’s telegraph
is upon a plan entirely different from, and far superior to, any ever used in Europe. With this Mr. Grout has asked a question, and received an answer from a distance of 90 miles, in ten minutes.
Grout’s system doesn’t appear to have lasted for long after his death, however.


Bob said...


A slightly simpler ancient ancestor of this Telegraphe appears in the opening scene of the Agamemnon by Aeschylus (ca. 475 BC). After years of waiting, the night watchman spots the mountaintop beacon that signals the fall of Troy. Although not conveying words, this is not a single fire pot like the one on Beacon Hill. It's described as the last in a chain of beacons designed to carry the one message hundreds of miles from Troy to Agamemnon's palace -- rather like sending a signal from Boston to New York in a matter of minutes.

So the French may have added words (a considerable achievement), but the idea of very long distance communication in minutes is an ancient one.

J. L. Bell said...

The same beacon system also appears in the modern epic The Lord of the Rings.