Friday, April 20

The Chap Who Really Invented the Internet

By Grant Davies

It was in the year 1793, a few hundred years before an American politician claimed to have invented the internet, that a clever chap named Claude actually did  so. It wasn't precisely the same of course, but it was the first practical  high speed network of communication ever built, and it revolutionized the way important messages were sent.

The inventors name was Claude Chappe, a Frenchman, who along with his three brothers, figured out and then built a mechanical system that could relay messages between stations some ten to twenty miles apart. The  message could then be passed along the "grid' so that it took less time for information to move a hundred miles (about an hour) than it takes today to boot up the PC I'm using to write this.

The whole thing was built on a system of mechanical arms, set on towers for visibility, that could be set in 196 different positions. The use of a telescope allowed the next operator to set the arms on top of his tower exactly the same way and so on down the line.

Chappe thought he would call his invention the tachygraph or "fast writer", but a friend talked him into the final name, the telegraph, meaning "far writer."

It was pretty high tech for the times and avoided the obvious problems others in the world had with smoke signals, torches, mirrors, couriers, and the like. It was so high tech that when a guy named Napoleon snatched up power some six years later and saw how fast he could send military orders, he had a whole bunch of them built that linked all the major cities in France. Eventually they numbered 500 and were copied by others all across Europe.

But with success came heartache. With envious competitors claiming credit for his ideas and his own possibly failing health, Claude decided that he would check into a hotel, rent the highest room, and jump out the window to end it all. Unfortunately, in those days the highest room in the hotel was probably a tad too close to the ground to insure completion of the task, so he threw himself down the well instead.

I'm thinking that was a bad way to end. If he lived just a few hundred years later, he might have become a VP and come within a hanging chad of being a modern day Napoleon.

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