Claude Chappe began development when he and his four brothers lost their livelihoods because of the French Revolution. They determined by experiment that it was easier to see the angle of a rod than determine the presence of a panel. Their system was composed of black movable wooden arms, the position of which indicated alphabetic letters. The Chappe system was controlled by only two handles, and was mechanically simple, and reasonably rugged. Night operation with lamps on the arms was unsuccessful.
Each of the two arms showed seven positions, and the cross bar connecting the two arms had four different angles, for a total of 196 symbols (7x7x4).
A crucial innovation was to use a group of trained, dedicated men to pass the signals.
The first Chappe semaphore line was established between Paris and Lille in 1792. It was used to carry dispatches for a war between France and Austria. In 1794, it brought news of a French capture of Condé-sur-l'Escaut from the Austrians less than an hour after it occurred. Other lines were built, including a line from Paris to Toulon.
The first symbol of a message to Lille would pass 193 km (120 miles) through 15 stations in only nine minutes. The speed of the line varied with the weather, but the line to Lille typically transferred 36 symbols, a complete message, in about 32 minutes.
By 1824, the Chappe brothers were promoting the semaphore lines for commercial use, especially to transmit the costs of commodities.
The system was widely copied by other European states, especially after it was used by Napoleon to coordinate his empire and army. In most states, the postal union ran the semaphores.
Many national services adopted signaling systems different from the Chappe system. For example, Britain and Sweden adopted systems of flapping panels (in contradiction to the Chappe brothers' discovery that angled rods are more visible).
This was the period in which the naval semaphore system was invented. This system uses hand-held flags. It is still accepted for emergency communication in daylight.
Semaphore lines had several crucial advantages over post roads (roads with stations to change horses). First, a semaphore message could easily travel at several thousand miles per hour. Second, with large signals and a telescope, the distance between stations could be as much as 30 km (20 miles), over mountain ranges and bad terrain, reducing investment and the number of stations over other forms of communication. Finally, techniques were developed to permit a semaphore relay line to serve a region, not just a single town, permitting a service to amortize the line's expense over several towns, and reach the headquarters of a bivouacked army.
The semaphores' crucial disadvantages were that they were affected by weather, especially fog and rain, and they could be read by anyone with training.
The first code book was developed for use with semaphore lines. The directors of the Chappes' corporation used a secret code that took 92 of the basic symbols two at a time to yield 8,464 coded words and phrases.
Napoleon Bonaparte saw the military advantage in being able to transmit information between locations, and carried a portable semaphore with his headquarters. This allowed him to coordinate forces and logistics over longer distances than any other army of his time.
Semaphores were adopted and widely used (with hand-held flags replacing the mechanical arms) in the maritime world in the early 1800s. Semaphore signals were used, for example, at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The semaphores were successful enough that Samuel Morse failed to sell the electrical telegraph to the French government. However, France finally committed to replace semaphores with electric telegraphs in 1846. Note that electric telegraphs are both more private and unaffected by weather. Many contemporaries predicted the failure of electric telegraphs because "they are so easy to cut."
The last stationary semaphore link in regular service was in Sweden, connecting an island with a mainland telegraph line. It went out of service in 1880.
The semaphore system was cleverly designed, and provided a strategic advantage for France in a difficult time. However, it was almost 30 times more expensive per message than the electric telegraph. Here's a brief breakdown using $US:
Semaphore line, 120 miles (Paris to Lille)
- 15 towers ($1,500,000)
- At least 15 full-time operators ($450,000/year).
- Operates at most ten hours a day.
- Sends roughly 2 words per minute (1 symbol per minute, at 2 symbols per phrase, using the efficient directors' codebook).
- Cost to send one word one mile, at 10% interest: $0.0114
Electric Telegraph line, 120 miles
- At least six full-time operators ($180,000/year)
- Poles, right-of-way, wires, installation: $15,000/mile, ($1,800,000)
- Operates 24 hours a day.
- Sends 15 words per minute (includes breaks for the operators).
- Cost to send one word one mile, at 10% interest: $0.000380
- Chappe's semaphore (an illustrated history of optical telegraphy)
- Semaphore Flag Signalling System (shows stick figure waving flags)
- International Maritime Signal Flags (sometimes confused with semaphor flags; shows alphabetic/numeric maritime flags)
- International Maritime Signal Flags (shows the meaning of each flag, and two-letter meanings)
- U. S. Navy Flags (shows the meaning of each flag)
- Maritime Signal Flags (a brief illustrated history of maritime flags)
- World War I and II Royal Navy Flags (historical; shows the meaning of each flag)
- U. S. Storm Signal Flags (pictures and description)
- Automobile Racing Flags (picture and meaning of each flag)
- Skin Diving Flags (pictures and laws of use)
See also optical telegraph.