Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Snail Telegraph

Some Victorian 'scientific' inventions never quite made it. Don't invest your money in snail farms, just yet ...

     France and England united by telegraph, although for more than fifty years they had been competing with each other in the invention of instruments of telegraphy.
     It was just about this time, 1850, that an ingenious Frenchman propounded the idea of dispensing with communicating wires altogether, and of transmitting messages to any distance by the utilisation of animal magnetism. This was one Jacques Toussaint Benoit, who, in conjunction with a mythical French-American, named Biat-Chretien, submitted to the wonder lovers of Paris a scheme for telegraphing by means of — snails.
     As described in the French newspapers of 1850, this "discovery" was a reputed evolution of galvanism, terrestrial and animal magnetism, and of natural sympathy. The base of communication was said to be a sort of special sympathetic fluid—strongly suggestive of Sir Kenelm Digby's sympathetic powder—which was composed of the blending of the galvanic, magnetic, and sympathetic currents by a certain process.
     Why snails were selected as the developers of the required animal sympathetic current, was thus explained. M. Benoit declared that by experiment he had found that snails, which have been once put in contact, are always in sympathetic communication. When separated, he affirmed, they discharge a species of fluid, of which the earth is the conductor, which unrolls like the thread of the spider or silkworm, and which can be uncoiled and prolonged almost indefinitely into space without breaking. But this thread of "escargotic fluid," he said, is invisible, and the pulsation along it is as rapid as the electric fluid.
     With such a marvellous fluid it was not necessary to have connecting wires. All that was required was that a wire, at each end of the sympathetic telegraph, should be carried into the earth, and the earth would complete the circuit. All that now remained, therefore, was to construct the apparatus for developing and transmitting the magnetic fluid. This was described in the Paris paper, "La Presse," of the twenty-seventh of October, 1850; and we use a translation made by Mr. Baring-Gould, who has preserved the curiosity from oblivion :
     "The apparatus consists of a square box, in which is a Voltaic pile, of which the metallic plates, instead of being super posed, as in the pile of Volta, are disposed in order, attached in holes formed in a wheel, or circular disc, that revolves about a steel axis. To these metallic plates, used by Volta, MM. Benoit and Biat have substituted others, in the shape of cups or circular basins, composed of zinc lined with cloth steeped in a solution of sulphate of copper, maintained in place by a blade of copper riveted to the cup. At the bottom of each of these bowls is fixed, by aid of a composition, a living snail, whose sympathetic influence may unite and be woven with the galvanic current, when the wheel of the pile is set in motion, and, with it, the snails that are adhering to it."
     Alas! poor snails; but they required brethren in misfortune to complete the circuit. Each galvanic basin, we are told, rests on a delicate spring, so that it may respond to every "escargotic commotion." Such an apparatus obviously required a corresponding apparatus at the point to be communicated with, disposed in the same manner, and having within it snails in sympathy with those in the other apparatus. This was necessary so that the "escargotic vibration " should pass from one precise point in one of the piles to another precise point in the other complementary pile.
     "When these dispositions have been grasped," goes on the report, "the rest follows as a matter of course. MM. Benoit and Biat have fixed letters to the wheels, corresponding the one with the other; and at each sympathetic touch on one, the other is touched. Consequently it is easy by this means, naturally and instantaneously, to communicate ideas at vast distances by the indication of the letters touched by the snails. The apparatus described is in shape like a mariner's compass, and to distinguish it from that it is termed the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass, as descriptive at once of its effects and the means of operation."
     On these principles M. Benoit—no one ever saw M. Biat — constructed his apparatus at the expense of an admiring friend. Then he held a select "private view" in his workshop, at which the enthusiastic reporter of "La Presse " was present.
     The machine proved to be a large scaffold, formed of beams ten feet long, supporting the Voltaic pile, in which the poor snails were stuck by glue at intervals. Or rather there were two such machines — one at each end of the room, and each containing twenty-four alphabetic and sympathetic snails. They looked very unhappy, and tried hard to get away from the unsympathetic solution of sulphate of copper which dribbled upon them. But whenever they put out their horns to creep away, a dribble sent them back quickly to their shells. This was doubtless the "escargotic commotion."
     It was rather objected by the spectators that the two machines should be in the same room ; but M. Benoit explained that while space was limited in his premises, it was of no account to the snails. They would communicate as freely, and almost as rapidly across the globe as across the room. Indeed, he professed to be in daily converse with his friend Biat, in America, and intended telegraphing to him after they had themselves tested the machines.
     So the journalist went to one of them to manipulate a message, while M. Benoit went to the other to receive it. The words certainly did seem to be reproduced, with some errors in orthography ; but then the inventor was rushing about so much, examining, adjusting, and explaining, that he seemed to be at both machines at the same time. The journalist touched the alphabetical snails at the one end as he spelled the words, and the snails in M. Benoit's machine, after a slight interval, put out their sympathetic horns in response to M. Benoit's sympathetic, but not perfectly grammatical, fingers.
     The spectators were puzzled, but not incredulous, and they waited with anxiety to see an interchange of messages with America. Somehow, the snails refused to respond to the adamic current in the mythical Biat across the ocean, and the scene ended in some confusion.
     A further test-seance was promised, and arranged for, when the machines were to be placed in different rooms. The day arrived, but M. Benoit did not. As for M. Biat-Chrétien, he is supposed to have been a sort of scientific Mrs. Harris.
     Such is the story of the snail telegraph, surely one of the most curious episodes in the history of telegraphy. And there is no doubt that it was for a time firmly believed in by some intelligent men, who had persuaded them selves that the crazy Benoit was an inspired genius. We may laugh at them now, of course ; but have we not among ourselves, and in our own time, persons who devoutly believe in the production of spirit-photographs?

All the Yeard Round, 1890

1 comment:

  1. if you ignore the escargots, it is a bit reminiscent of the 1902 "natural conduction wireless telephone" devised by Nathan Stubblefield