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The Télégraphe

photo: st pierre de montmartre church

Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, ex-telegraph station.

Explained

iMail from Jefferey T. Spaulding. Sent via the Internet on Wednesday, 8. October 2003:-

Bonjour Ric,

In last week's edition of Metropole Paris Jim Auman wrote -

"The telegraph wasn't invented until 1837, almost thirty years later. The only way to use something that hasn't yet been invented is through time travel. Is jumping around in time and not following it sequentially - or linearly - another French exception?"

I have to bring my little cultural-historical contribution to this discussion by noting that the telegraph was actually invented a couple of years before the French Révolution by a Frenchman named Claude Chappe.

The network was brought into service in 1791 by order of the Révolutionary Government with the idea of establishing rapid communications between Paris and different French cities - with a view to centralization, easier ruling and keeping a close watch over anti-revolutionary malcontents.

This system was formed by lines starting in Paris and ending in every major French city. By the end of the Révolution it was even expanded to Brussels, Amsterdam, Mainz, Milan and Venice, which were, at the time, administrative centers of areas newly invaded by the revolutionary 'Armée de l'An II.'

This telegraph system allowed the French army to report the victory of Valmy to the Convention - the ruling assembly - within only two hours, from a distance of about 250 kilometres.

It remained in operation until the 1850's, when it was definitively replaced by the electric telegraph in combination with the code of an ex-artist, Samuel Morse. There's nothing left of the original telegraph today, except the street name and a Métro stop.

Chappe's telegraph was of course not electric but optical - that is to say a semaphore - and consisted of a line of pylons fitted with a pivoting horizontal rod. This rod was fitted at each of its ends with hanging and pivoting blades. It looked like a 'T' with extended serifs.

Every possible combination of the positions of the rod and the blades made a specific signal, which could be either a letter or a word or a figure. The pylons were installed within sight of each other on higher places like towers, hills - or church towers. During the Révolution churches were disused or converted into temples dedicated to the new revolutionary religion - 'L'Etre Suprême' - the Supreme Being.

The two major inconveniences of this telegraph were that it worked properly only in rare nice weather and that no confidentiality was possible on nice-weather days. It didn't work at night either.

Sometimes lack of news could have caused the Government to panic. It was a somewhat nervous government. A mistaken signal transmission or a hoax could have led to disastrous consequences - perhaps requiring the cancellation of 'fêtes.'

For further details see the Télégraphe-Chappe Web site.

A la prochaine!

Jefferey T. Spaulding

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Just Close Your Eyes

Bonjour Jefferey T. Spaulding, Jim, and all other alert readers -

Paris, Sunday, 12. October:- Last week this column began with an Email from Jim Auman; like this:-

In your article 'Looping the Rue Lepic' you wrote:

"The story, according to Priscilla Bain-Smith, the author of 'Van Gogh Walks... Paris,' is that Napoléon couldn't force his horse up the Rue Ravignan to get to the telegraph station in the church Saint-Pierre de Montmartre one day in 1809. The curé suggested be build a more gentle route.

"The telegraph wasn't invented until 1837, etc."

This week, new reader and brand-new Café Metropole Club member Jefferey T. Spaulding comes along with a photo: rue ravignan clarification. There certainly was a telegraph station located in the Saint-Pierre de Montmartre church, and its signalling apparatus was stuck on top.

The Rue Ravignan on Sunday.

This was because the main telegraph station located on the roof of the Louvre couldn't 'see' Ecouen or Lille. In 1794 the Convention decided to equip the church on top of Montmartre with the signalling device.

Now we know that there was one of Chappe's optical telegraphs there. However this still leaves several questions unanswered. Why did Naopléon's horse have a problem with the Rue Ravignan, and what was he - the Emperor no less! - doing delivering his own messages when he had a whole 'Grande Armée' to do it for him?

None of last week's possible reasons of why Napoléon took on this chore explains the 'why' satisfactorily. Maybe it was a simple whim. Maybe he had a tiring day running the empire and wanted a bit of fresh air. Maybe his horse was out of shape and needed exercise.

To satisfy historical curiosity, I walked up the Rue Ravignan today. It is indeed steep, but any army horse worth its oats should have been able to manage it, out of exercise or not. It is also hard to imagine Napoléon taking any advice, good or bad, from a curé.

The Rue Ravignan goes back to the 14th century. It was an important road up to the village on Montmartre, and it was therefore paved in 1646. It got so much use from the wine shippers and the plaster guys that the paving wore out in three months. It was repaved in 1675, and enlarged. It was called the Vieux-Chemin-de-Paris until 1867.

It would be tricky to ride a horse up it now. The Place Emile-Goudeau was installed about halfway up in 1911. It was named after a famous poet and singer, who was the founder of the 'hypopathes' club. This place was also the home of the Bateau-Lavoir, which replaced the guinguette Poirier-sans-Pareil around 1860.

Aha! Legend has it that Napoléon tied his horse to a tree here, near where the Poirier-sans-Pareil would have been, in order to walk the rest of the way up to the ex-church, then telegraph photo: sign, pleace du tertre station. The 'legend' doesn't say why - forgetting that the road had been repaved 234 years earlier. Was Napoléon off his head? It's all legend! Nothing to do with the Rue Lepic.

Well, anyhow, it was a famous place on account of the guinguette, which was famous for its monster pear tree - until 1830 when the earth groaned and jiggled on account of the underlying hollow plaster quarries, and the dancing stopped. Then it became famous again when the artists moved in, and made it really legendary, when it was the Bateau-Lavoir, and not when Napoléon tied up his horse outside.

It kind of raises the question about where modern art would be today if everything had caved in and swallowed up the Bateau-Lavoir with Picasso in it.

Now that I'm on this subject, I should mention that the Bateau-Lavoir is included in the book, 'Van Gogh Walks... Paris.' I mean, if you get tired of the Rue Lepic all you have to do is wander up to near its top, then take Rue d'Orchampt downhill and it will bring you out right at the corner of the Rue Ravignan and the Place Emile-Goudeau.

At the moment it is a bit under construction or renovation. Just close your eyes and imagine Vincent Van Gogh, Max Jacobs, Picasso, Napoléon and his horse, and think hard about the legend of taking the message up to the télégraphe in the Saint-Pierre de Montmartre church. With eyes squeezed tight, you can almost see it.
signature, regards, ric

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