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OpenLearn Live: 17th December 2015

Updated Thursday, 17th December 2015

The man who waved his arms and invented an internet. Then more free learning through the day.

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Yesterday: helping people have a good death; poisons in Agatha Christie novels; and the mind goes to Mars

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live

Today's posts

Cat election

Last month we met Bosco, the dog who became mayor of a small town in California. Right now, there's a cat following in Bosco's pawsteps, being pushed for office in the Siberian town of Barnaul. Locals have become so disillusioned with human politicians that they're campaigning for Barsik to replace the lot of them.

Barsik is leading an opinion poll with a projected 90% share of the vote - but the poll was online, and might be as unreliable as some opinion polls you might recall from May this year here in the UK...

Read our biography of Bosco

Siberian city wants to make cat mayor at CNN

How opinion polls work

More from OpenLearn on democracy

I was born on Christmas Day: Claude Chappe

This week, we're telling the stories of some people who happened to be be born on December 25th. Yesterday, we met an ill-fated emperor, John IV Laskaris. Today, we meet Claude Chappe.

Claude Chappe Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Public domain

Chappe was born on December 25th, 1763. Originally, he was going to dedicate his life to God but the French Revolution put paid to that. Fortunately, two aspects of his childhood were to present an alternate career.

Firstly, he came from a scientific family. His uncle was Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche, who had travelled to observe the Transit of Venus; the popular claim is that the first book Chappe read was his uncle's account of that trip. Which sounds slightly dubious, if a beautiful thought. However, the work certainly inspired him - his brother, Abraham, writing:

Reading this book greatly inspired him, and gave him a taste for the physical sciences. From this point on, all his studies, and even his pastimes, were focused on that subject.

His brothers also directly influenced the reason why we're writing about Chappe right now. The young Claude was sent to study in a seminary, while his elder brothers went to nearby private schools. The children communciated between their dorms using a form of semaphore. Supposdely, anyway. There's more than a hint of whimsy about the life stories told of the early Claude Chappe.

What is unquestionable, though, is his achievement. Around 1789, Chappe and his brothers started working on plans to create a long-distance communications network. This was something of a national obesession at the time - the Revolution had focused minds on getting urgent messages about the country while they were still urgent. Their first model was, effectively, a chain of large clocks with a dial; the clocks were synchronised by one of the Chappes hitting a large cooking pot to make a signal.

A contemporary account describes the system:

Today 2 March 1791, at 11, we, municipal officers at Brûlon, district Sablé, département of Sarthe, have accompanied MM. Avenant, vicar, and Jean Audruger de la Maisonneuve, doctor, from Brûlon, to the castle of said Brûlon, at the invitation that was given us for the purpose of witnessing, and confirming the authenticity of an invention of Mr. Claude Chappe, nephew of the celebrated Abbé of the same name, intended to correspond and transmit news in a very short period of time.

First, we went with Mr. René Chappe, brother of Mr. Claude Chappe, to the terrace at the castle, and there we found a pendulum clock and a movable tableau, with two sides, one being white and one black.

Next, Mr. René Chappe informed us that Mr. Claude Chappe was at that time at Parcé, at a distance from Brûlon of 4 leagues, to receive what he was about to transmit. He asked us to dictate a phrase to him, or any series of phrases of our choosing. In response, Mr. Chenou, doctor, proposed the following phrase: Si vous réussissez vous serez bientôt couvert de gloire.

Immediately, said Mr. René Chappe, after pointing out to us that the weather was rainy, and that the atmosphere was obscured by a light mist, contemplated said phrase, and proceeded to transmit it while moving the tableau in various ways, which lasted four minutes. He then told us that the said phrase had actually been transmitted to Parcé; as an inspection of the notary report, drafted by the municipal officers at that location would demonstrate.

The experiments were successful enough to encourage Chappe to continue his plan; his efforts were not always widely supported. A second scheme, using wooden panels, was seen as of potential value to France's various enemies; the public burned the structure to the ground, and toyed with the idea of adding Chappe to the flames.

As France descended into the Terror, Claude persevered, and his third approach, using semaphore was both successful and politically well-received. Two messages sent on 12th July 1793 signalled the birth of a new communications method:

Daunou has arrived here. He announces that the National Convention has just authorized his Committee of General Security to put seals on the papers of the deputies.

The inhabitants of this beautiful region are worthy of liberty by their respect for the National Convention and its laws.

By the September, the French government had provided Chappe with the funds to build a semaphore network, and granted him the authority to put his transmission posts wherever he saw fit. Chappe was granted a title -  Ingénieur Télégraphe - and a military rank.

The first working network was declared open on 16th July 1794, between Paris and Lille; other countries rushed to build their own telegraphs.

Chappe wasn't satisified - he worked hard to try and improve the quality of his semaphore network. But even as he worked, his invention was under attack. Politically, rivals started to sniff that he'd just ripped the whole semaphore system off the military; technologically, there were already inventors working on the next big thing, the electric telegraph.

Stung by the criticisms and broken by the challenges, Claude Chappe committed suicide in 1805 by throwing himself down a well. His brothers continued his work. There was even a proposal that the telegraph could be used for sharing commidity prices, although the owners of that data weren't keen on the idea. This might be the first big intellectual property battle of the internet age.

By 1846, the French government decided to support the development of the electric telegraph. Chappe's invention - so important for half a century - was about to become obsolete.

The history of telegraphy

Free course: The French Revolution





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