[Footnote: Aug. Guerout in La Lurmière Electrique.]
An endeavor has often been made to carry the origin of the electric telegraph back to a very remote epoch by a reliance on those more or less fanciful descriptions of modes of communication based upon the properties of the magnet.
It will prove not without interest before entering into the real history of the telegraph to pass in review the various documents that relate to the subject.
In continuation of the 21st chapter of his Magia naturalis, published in 1553, J. B. Porta cites an experiment that had been made with the magnet as a means of telegraphing. In 1616, Famiano Strada, in his Prolusiones Academicae, takes up this idea, and speaks of the possibility of two persons communicating by the aid of two magnetized needles influenced by each other at a distance. Galileo, in Dialogo intorno, written between 1621 and 1632 and Nicolas Caboeus, of Ferrara, in his Philosophia magnetica, both reproduce analogous descriptions, not however without raising doubts as to the possibility of such a system.
A document of the same kind, to which great importance has been attached is found in the Recreations mathematiques published at Rouen in 1628, under the pseudonym of Van Elten, and reprinted several times since, with the annotations and additions of Mydorge and Hamion and which must, it appears, be attributed to the Jesuit Leurechon. In his chapter on the magnet and the needles that are rubbed therewith, we find the following passage.
"Some have pretended that, by means of a magnet or other like stone, absent persons might speak with one another. For example, Claude being at Paris, and John at Rome, if each had a needle that had been rubbed with some stone, and whose virtue was such that in measure as one needle moved at Paris the other would move just the same at Rome, and if Claude and John each had an alphabet, and had agreed that they would converse with each other every afternoon at 6 o'clock, and the needle having made three and a half revolutions as a signal that Claude, and no other, wished to speak to John, then Claude wishing to say to him that the king is at Paris would cause his needle to move, and stop at T, then at H, then at E, then at K, I, N, G and so on. Now, at the same time, John's needle, according with Claude's, would begin to move and then stop at the same letters, and consequently it would be easily able to write or understand what the other desired to signify to it. The invention is beautiful, but I do not think there can be found in the world a magnet that has such a virtue.
Neither is the thing expedient, for treason would be too frequent and too covert."
The same idea was also indicated by Joseph Glanville in his Scepsis scientifica, which appeared in 1665, by Father Le Brun, in his Histoire critique des pratiques superstitieuses, and finally by the Abbé Barthelemy in 1788.
The suggestion offered by Father Kircher, in his Magnes sive de arte magnetica, is a little different from the preceding. The celebrated Jesuit father seeks however, to do nothing more than to effect a communication of thoughts between two rooms in the same building. He places, at short distances from each other, two spherical vessels carrying on their circumference the letters of the alphabet, and each having suspended within it, from a vertical wire a magnetized figure. If one of these latter he moved, all the others must follow its motions, one after the other, and transmission will thus be effected from the first vessel to the last. Father Kircher observes that it is necessary that all the magnets shall be of the same strength, and that there shall be a large number of them, which is something not within the reach of everybody. This is why he points out another mode of transmitting thought, and one which consists in supporting the figures upon vertical revolving cylinders set in motion by one and the same cord hidden with in the walls.
There is no need of very thoroughly examining all such systems of magnetic telegraphy to understand that it was never possible for them to have a practical reality, and that they were pure speculations which it is erroneous to consider as the first ideas of the electric telegraph.
We shall make a like reserve with regard to certain apparatus that have really existed, but that have been wrongly viewed as electric telegraphs. Such are those of Comus and of Alexandre. The first of these is indicated in a letter from Diderot to Mlle. Voland, dated July 12, 1762. It consisted of two dials whose hands followed each other at a distance, without the apparent aid of any external agent. The fact that Comus published some interesting researches on electricity in the Journal de Physique has been taken as a basis for the assertion that his apparatus was a sort of electrical discharge telegraph in which the communication between the two dials was made by insulated wires hidden in the walls. But, if it be reflected how difficult it would have been at that epoch to realize an apparatus of this kind, if it be remembered that Comus, despite his researches on electricity, was in reality only a professor of physics to amuse, and if the fact be recalled that cabinets of physics in those days were filled with ingenious apparatus in which the surprising effects were produced by skillfully concealed magnets, we shall rather be led to class among such apparatus the so-called "Comus electric telegraph."
We find, moreover, in Guyot's Recreations physiques et mathematiques--a work whose first edition dates back to the time at which Comus was exhibiting his apparatus--a description of certain communicating dials that seem to be no other than those of the celebrated physicist, and which at all events enables us to understand how they worked.
Let one imagine to himself two contiguous chambers behind which ran one and the same corridor. In each chamber, against the partition that separated it from the corridor, there was a small bracket, and upon the latter, and very near the wall, there was a wooden dial supported on a standard, but in no wise permanently fixed upon the bracket. Each dial carried a needle, and each circumference was inscribed with twenty-five letters of the alphabet. The experiment that was performed with these dials consisted in placing the needle upon a letter in one of the chambers, when the needle of the other dial stopped at the same letter, thus making it possible to transmit words and even sentences. As for the means of communication between the two apparatus, that was very simple: One of the two dials always served as a transmitter, and the other as a receiver. The needle of the transmitter carried along in its motion a pretty powerful magnet, which was concealed in the dial, and which reacted through the partition upon a very light magnetized needle that followed its motions, and indicated upon an auxiliary dial, to a person hidden in the corridor, the letter on which the first needle had been placed.