Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Origin of the Word "Telegraph"

The word "telegraph" was coined around 1792 by Claude Chappe. He was a french physician and inventor. You will notice this is not only before Morse patented  the telegraph in 1837. It's also worthwhile to point out that Morse still in diapers at the time as he was only 1 year old. If that's not explicit enough let me reiterate... Morse didn't invent the telegraph — he stole it. 

Chappe didn't invent it either for the record. He only combined the Greek word tele meaning "far" and graphein meaning "to write." Chappe worked in semaphore, another form of encoded communication intended to transmit messages over distance quickly. In 1792 his new semaphore system was the first practical telecommunications system in Europe. Chappe also coined the word semaphore.

During the French revolution Claude's brother, Ignace was a member of the Legislative Assembly. The fix was in and Claude was hired as their Ingénieur-Télégraphiste. The Chappe semaphore system used a set of black wooden arms whose position indicated alphabetic letters. It used counter-weights to ease use and was easily manipulated with just two handles. Both of the arms had seven positions, and the cross bar connecting the two arms had four different angles. The developed a code book that used 92 of the basic symbols two at a time to yield 8,464 coded words and phrases.

With government help, a relay line was built from Paris to Lille, a distance of 120 miles to relay military information from the front with Austria. By 1824 the "telegraph" had diversified into personal messages. At it's peak the Chappe network (Le systeme Chappe) contained 556 stations stretching over a distance of 3,000 miles. Napoleon Bonaparte saw it's utility and some history books also refer to it as the Napoleonic system.  But in the 1840s the French government invested in wired, electrical telegraph systems ending the semaphore based system. The Chappe network closed up in 1852.

But Claude Chappe himself saw very little of this transpire. He had committed suicide in Paris in 1805 by throwing himself down a well at a hotel.  It was said he was depressed by claims that he had plagiarized from existing military semaphore systems.