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Mechanical Internet

I did a post not so long ago about the first “text messaging” system, invented in Greece and perfected and used by the Romans. It was a brilliant idea and remarkably effective, but it had its problems.

1. These are water clocks. If that isn’t clear enough, you need a source of water or it needs to be lugged in. Even catching the spent water will only work so long before you run into that devil called evaporation. (there is some evidence that olive oil may have been used to address this, but mostly it seems to have been water.)

2. The system required soldiers at point A to constantly look to B, C, D, E, and so on to pick out their signal. Once that happens, point A needs to signal back. Then point B, C, D, (whatever) needs to give an additional signal to start the clocks, and one more to stop them. Obviously this takes time, and while it’s quicker than sending a courier, it could have been faster with some improvements.

3. Limited number of messages. They can be any length, but there can only be so many, quite simply due to the fact that a water clock can only be so big. They all have to be identical. If one station has a faster counting clock than another, or a model with more messages, you’ll hit a bottle neck and that would be that. At best the message is all screwed up. Further, because the number is limited, frequent changes of code books are needed to ditch outdated ones, worse yet, if a solder picks up an old one instead of the new…

4. Expense. Because they rely on signals like torches and flags, range is limited, and it just can’t be scaled up at all. This would have worked itself out over time when telescopes started to become available , but they were not to be so for another 1000 years (give or take, I’m not sure of the date of the first widely available device).

Some of these issue were fixed by others (in the modern period none the less). There were things known as “hydraulic telegraphs” that still used water, but this was a long pipe with both ends raised that took advantage of gravities penchant for keeping water level at both ends. That’s quite the undertaking and completely inflexible and forget about two sites with wildly different elevations. (you need vacuums and pumps and all manner of other rubbish to overcome the elevation issue.)

However in the 1790’s a man named Claude Chappe breathed new life into an old idea, he built what is called a semaphore line. Wikipedia is a little light on the size of his network, some estimates put it at well over the 4,600 kilometers Wikipedia claims. It was an optical telegraphy system just like my Roman/Greek texting, but on a grander scale and with fewer stations required to cover a certain distance. Even better, this system didn’t require operators to constantly keep an eye on other stations, the message could sit there for a while and required no back and forth communication outside of the actual information being sent.

Guesstimates of the speed of this system push 100 miles per hour, a feat not surpassed until the invention of  electric telegraph. To put that into perspective for you, it means that a message could ripple out over the entire system (using the wiki number of 4,600 km) in about 28 minutes. Replies from every corner of the system could arrive back in Paris within another 28 minutes, for a total round trip of 56 minutes, less then one hour. That isn’t too shabby, especially with the ability to send anyone of nearly 100 messages, meaning fewer updates to codes were required and more complex messages. Equally impressive, Chappes network was in use from 1793 until after 1850. (longer than their designer was alive.)

Imagine the power that these systems granted. Communication is power. It’s plain and simple. That’s why if I had to pick a right that is the most dangerous to governments, civilians, and quite frankly, peace itself, I would say it would be freedom of speech, in a word, communication. The second amendment, always talked up as the most clear and present danger to “security”, is completely harmless on any scale if the ability to communicate were to be removed from the equation. The truth is, this country was founded on the idea that people have the right to rise up and replace their government, by force if need be. Many people say the second amendment is the main mechanism put in place to protect that right, but it just isn’t true.

The right that does the heavy lifting in that regard is the first one, the right to have arms and bear them is merely an additional tool. We likely would not have succeeded in the revolution without arms, that is a fair point, and the brits did try and restrict access to arms, but our ability to spread information totally circumvented those attempts, and while they did have an effect, it was people talking to other people and exchanging ideas, opinions, and most importantly, where the British were so we could kill them (and be home in time to watch some reality TV) that made arms dangerous to colonial rule, not the mere presence of the arms themselves.

It’s not only true that the pen is mightier than the sword, any speech, any communication is just as mighty, if not more so in certain cases.


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