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Semaphoric Texts: The Chappe Telegraph in the Early Republic

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Abstract:

The vast majority of texts we read are intentionally unambiguous. That is, at the level of transmission, groupings of words are sequenced so that they can be defined specifically and reduced to elemental graphemes for unambiguous reception. Sloganeering in modern advertising makes a fetish of this process—the unintentional is simply unaffordable. The reputation of interpretation has suffered correspondingly as the methods of disambiguation have proliferated and improved in both quantity and speed. This is, frankly, disappointing to those of us in the humanities who seek to find alternatives to the conventions of perspective and opinion that govern mass judgment. But the reality is that we inhabit a world of instruction and managed message-making—from digital code, to advertising, to acts of vandalism underwritten by fear, to journalism, to strategic communiqués.

The goal with these forms of signal making is a kind of automatism in transmission and comprehension--a colonizing, in terms made familiar by Paul Virilio, of time and space by the elimination of duration and distance. Such textuality on synchronized systems, in which simple relays of miniaturized and cryptograph messages are delivered at increasingly high speeds. It is the origin of text as data—putting the mechanical production of print to the purposes of strategic state interests. The origin of these cryptonomic methods is modern, and it is to be found in the eighteenth century amid the technological modernizing of war.

Consider the Chappe telegraph of 1791. It was an optical telegraph (in contrast to the better known electric telegraph of the next century) that used the clock face not as an indicator of time, but as an analog for the alphabet. Still, the demands of temporal immediacy hangs over the methods of such crypto-public texts—how to communicate as instantaneously as possible, while maintaining codified secrecy over the open distance of the transmission. Barely two years later, the French had established the first working telegraph line, built upon the Chappe optical semaphore ideas, and it was instrumental in Napoleon’s first national triumph.

In the US of the 1790s, the anxiety produced by new media and their promise/nightmare of instantaneity--the ways in which private coercive methods affect mass publics and the modernizing nation--was not directly registered as a recognizable crisis, in either popular press or elite journals. But there was a great deal of notice taken of the breakthrough, generating in turn new ways of talking about information, geography, and politics. This paper will begin to describe the new telegraphic technologies and what the emergent interpretive and spatial compressions meant for a republican world still adjusting to the revolutions of print discourse.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509621_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Wertheimer, Eric. "Semaphoric Texts: The Chappe Telegraph in the Early Republic" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509621_index.html>

APA Citation:

Wertheimer, E. H. "Semaphoric Texts: The Chappe Telegraph in the Early Republic" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509621_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: The vast majority of texts we read are intentionally unambiguous. That is, at the level of transmission, groupings of words are sequenced so that they can be defined specifically and reduced to elemental graphemes for unambiguous reception. Sloganeering in modern advertising makes a fetish of this process—the unintentional is simply unaffordable. The reputation of interpretation has suffered correspondingly as the methods of disambiguation have proliferated and improved in both quantity and speed. This is, frankly, disappointing to those of us in the humanities who seek to find alternatives to the conventions of perspective and opinion that govern mass judgment. But the reality is that we inhabit a world of instruction and managed message-making—from digital code, to advertising, to acts of vandalism underwritten by fear, to journalism, to strategic communiqués.

The goal with these forms of signal making is a kind of automatism in transmission and comprehension--a colonizing, in terms made familiar by Paul Virilio, of time and space by the elimination of duration and distance. Such textuality on synchronized systems, in which simple relays of miniaturized and cryptograph messages are delivered at increasingly high speeds. It is the origin of text as data—putting the mechanical production of print to the purposes of strategic state interests. The origin of these cryptonomic methods is modern, and it is to be found in the eighteenth century amid the technological modernizing of war.

Consider the Chappe telegraph of 1791. It was an optical telegraph (in contrast to the better known electric telegraph of the next century) that used the clock face not as an indicator of time, but as an analog for the alphabet. Still, the demands of temporal immediacy hangs over the methods of such crypto-public texts—how to communicate as instantaneously as possible, while maintaining codified secrecy over the open distance of the transmission. Barely two years later, the French had established the first working telegraph line, built upon the Chappe optical semaphore ideas, and it was instrumental in Napoleon’s first national triumph.

In the US of the 1790s, the anxiety produced by new media and their promise/nightmare of instantaneity--the ways in which private coercive methods affect mass publics and the modernizing nation--was not directly registered as a recognizable crisis, in either popular press or elite journals. But there was a great deal of notice taken of the breakthrough, generating in turn new ways of talking about information, geography, and politics. This paper will begin to describe the new telegraphic technologies and what the emergent interpretive and spatial compressions meant for a republican world still adjusting to the revolutions of print discourse.


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