When I was a Telegrapher
Discussing his adopted city of Paris, where he lived from 1830 until his death in 1837, German writer Ludwig Börne described it as “the telegraph of the past, the microscope of the present, and the telescope of the future.”1 Börne’s technological analogy is, to the modern reader, at once deeply familiar and oddly discordant. City-as-microscope makes a certain amount of sense as a vivid descriptor for a world becoming accustomed to new forms of spectacular realism, even if microscopy itself was hardly a concept or technique specific to the nineteenth century.2 Telescope-town also works, the predictive powers of an urban milieu that drove not only industry but also novelties in art and fashion aligning with our expectations about the modern city’s future-oriented telos. But “the telegraph of the past”? Why would telegraphy look backwards, and what kind of past might it communicate? Furthermore, while the other two devices are avowedly visual, telegraphy resonates for us as a technology grounded in a turn away from representation, a marker of the modern world’s gradual drift towards elusive, immaterial, virtual presence. Telegraphy seems to mark an effective victory of writing over image-making, visual culture abandoned by the speed with which information could now be transmitted and by the inability of the telegraph to convert a visual field into code.3
But the telegraph that Börne had in mind was, in fact, avowedly visual in character. Börne’s analogy was not with electrical telegraphy, but with the Chappe optical system, which operated in France from 1794 until 1855.4 The longevity of the Chappe telegraph—introduced by Claude Chappe and his brothers at the height of the revolutionary Terror and still current in the aftermath of the 1830 Revolution—meant that it was, arguably, able to offer a more convincing metaphor for historical thought than the technological and social caesura suggested by electrical telegraphy. Chappe’s system took the form of a series of windmill-like metal “arms” set atop towers and prominent buildings.5 In Paris, these included at various points the Louvre, Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Eustache and Montmartre. The arms of the telegraph were manipulated by an operator (known as a stationnaire) to form a series of discrete shapes, each of which was encoded with words or phrases (Fig. 1). An operator at the next station viewed the signals through a telescope, reproduced them, and transmitted them down the line to the next station, until after passing through a number of relays the messages were transcribed and decoded at their final destination. Associated irrevocably with the Revolution and Empire—indeed, promoted in its early years as especially revolutionary in character—this system was remarkably successful and wide-ranging, spreading for over 5000 kilometres within France.6 The telegraph became a ubiquitous sight, altering significantly skylines across the country, transforming the role of architecture and reconfiguring the ways in which landscape, both urban and rural, was perceived; a range of contemporary observers commented on its visual effect. In Paris, the telegraph, used almost exclusively for military signals, was a continuous presence on the horizon, transmitting its secret messages just above normal lines of sight (Fig. 2). By the 1830s the telegraph was viewed increasingly as an instrument of a repressive state. Nonetheless, via association with the telegraph, the city figures in Börne’s neat one-liner as a site where the ghost of the 1789 Revolution might appear—in material, technologized form—in the guise of 1830. Moreover, the comparison with telegraphy presented the metropolis as a scene for the reanimation of spectres of all kinds.
From Chappe onwards the systematization of telegraphy has been understood as contributing to an acceleration of life that has been taken to be a dominant characteristic of the nation-state, of modernity, and of a defining technological transformation; what media theorist Friedrich Kittler, comparing the comparative storage capacities of the Chappe telegraph and the Daguerreotype, described as the “fundamental trend of modern media technologies to replace static values with dynamic values and to replace steadfastness with speed.”7 Yet in a desire to assert a forward-looking account of irrevocable technological progress, interpretations of the Chappe telegraph that posit it as either the last phase of a tradition of semaphoric communication, or as some kind of prescient nineteenth-century internet, miss one of the most interesting aspects of telegraphy at this time: its profoundly visual nature—whether it be the self-evident necessity of the visual to the operation of the telegraph, the broader visual effects of telegraphy on those who saw it in action, or the many images representing telegraphs produced by artists working in a variety of media; images that proliferated in the half-century of its operation and in the years following its decline. Furthermore, the time of telegraphy did not only look forward, but also demanded, as Börne intimated, a reckoning with the past. Speaking to the socio-cultural contingencies of its moment, and pointing to both past and future, the optical telegraph provided a mechanism with which to think historically, not to mention allegorically. Telegraphy enabled new ways of thinking about time, yet these were not all associated with the new speed of communication it brought to bear, but with more far-reaching insights into the relation between technology, politics, and histories of media.
The demise of the Chappe system was as fuzzily open-ended as its beginning, and for a few years electrical telegraphs replicated the semaphoric code of the Chappe telegraph, seemingly unable to commit to the obsolescence of a familiar technology and unwilling to embrace fully the potential of electric telegraphy as a form of communication with devices and visual vocabularies of its own (Fig. 3). It is to the afterlife of optical telegraphy that this article turns, less to trace a linear technical history characterized by patterns of evolution and decay, rupture and regress, than to suggest that visuality continued to inflect the subject of telegraphy in France after the 1850s, and to draw out some of the ways in which telegraphy provided a means of conceptualizing the historical meaning of diverse media. For Börne, Paris itself was the telegraph of the past, the city a medium comprised of, in Kittler’s words, “commands, addresses, and data” that rendered the past intelligible in the present.8 Yet as the century progressed, the emergence of other media with an ability to conjure the past—most notably photography, in its various forms—did not lead to a decline in telegraphic metaphors: rather, it gave them new life.
In his magisterial Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle (1875), writer and photographer Maxime du Camp provided for his readers a meticulous anatomy of a singular institution: the bureau central of communication on the rue de Grenelle-Saint-Germain in Paris.9 In this “palace of electricity” the noise of Morse and Hughes telegraph machines created a constant, repetitive din, the effect of which, combined with the austere barracks-like interior, made for an overwhelming and punishing environment.10 Yet the fierce modernity of the space and the contemporaneity of its operations existed in the wake of a trail of obsolete technological artefacts and quietly mouldering archives of earlier correspondence. In addition, the building itself, constructed with an earlier, pre-electric form of communication in mind—the Chappe optical telegraph—served to accentuate the troubling presence of the outmoded. At the bureau central, a tower at one end of the building had accommodated the Chappe apparatus (Fig. 4). By the time du Camp wrote, optical telegraphy had been replaced wholly by electrical signals (although other forms of optical telegraphy resurfaced briefly, such as Jules Lesuerre’s heliographic technique, based on Morse code, which was used during the Paris Commune).11 Yet despite largely disappearing from view, the Chappe telegraph continued, in du Camp’s reading, to haunt the future path that telegraphic communication might take, and the traces of its hardware and administration were felt still at the bureau central. Although the Chappe telegraph had swiftly transitioned during the Empire from a revolutionary system that prophesied universal communication between equal citizens in (almost) real time to a servant of militarised and secretive state power, the utopian promise of telegraphy’s early incarnation remained in the 1870s as a reproof to its current formulation.
“Eccentrically” located far from the Bourse, the avenues, the Interior Ministry and the Tuileries, the bureau central was, du Camp claimed, both “shameful” and “absurd,” a fact reflected in the haphazard interior arrangement of the building, with the current telegraph rooms situated impractically on the second floor.12 As du Camp put it:
This old fortress of telegraphy is stripped of her splendour; she involuntarily makes one think of those medieval castles on which we put wings and which became mills. We removed the Chappe machines that gestured towards the four cardinal points; we took away the telescopes that searched the horizon; the employees climb two hundred stairs, grumbling increasingly, and in the post office, where all the news of France and the world ended up, we stacked cartons, old registers, piles of paper; the mice walk about in peace, spiders spin their webs unconstrained: Sic transit! The central cubicle has become an attic.13
So much for communication’s inexorable forward march. Instead, technological progress reconfigures the present as a retrofitted middle ages, burdened by a jumble of rotten papers. Against this image of decay and diminution du Camp set out a detailed description of the physical, technological and social organization of the bureau, stressing the frantic labour that took place in its various departments (Fig. 5). Echoing Victor Hugo’s complaint, in a youthful satire, that the secretive movements of the Chappe telegraph on the twin towers of Saint-Sulpice, onto which his room at that time faced, were distracting him from the task of writing, du Camp compared the sparse, atomized workspaces of the telegraphic clerks to the garret lodgings celebrated by hard-up poets.14 Something, however, had changed in the fifty-six years between the production of Hugo’s and du Camp’s texts. Although he suggested potential analogies between their ceaseless writing and the work of literature, du Camp presented the unending labour of the young clerks as an obstacle to a creative interior life:
Some of these young people, whose pale features announce their tiredness, have a book with them, hoping to read if their apparatus remains motionless for a few minutes. None of them, I am sure, could finish the paragraph started; a dispatch arrives, then another, then another, and so on and forever, and with it a job that changes with each new telegram.15
Du Camp’s derision of the exploitation at the heart of telegraphic communication was not assuaged by the “illusory” pay structure employed at the bureau (where many of the workers, he fails to note, were women).16 Furthermore, at first sight, he observes, the work appears easy, for “To be seated on a chair in the presence of an intelligent machine which seems to function for itself, following by sight the features that it draws, to unroll a strip of paper, is all the apparent work.” However, “to be well done, it requires a quick hand, a fixity of gaze, a tense mind and often even a deployment of considerable strength.”17 Far from creating a leisurely atmosphere for the worker, technologies of transmission produced detrimental physiological and psychological effects in those who operated them, people who had, du Camp reported, largely given up on speaking to one another, but who now conversed solely in code, like the “intelligent machines” that surrounded them. At the bureau central:
There is not a second of rest, all the nerves are overexcited; the sheer diversity of news which follows relentlessly leads to more weariness: family matters, bank intrigues, commercial operations, political news, coded letters, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, arrive one after the other, like the ticking of a clock, regularly and tirelessly in the space of the same quarter hour. To this we must add the continuous noise of devices, nervous noise, staccato, almost as sour as it is dry and which, by dint of reproducing without discontinuity, ends by undermining the most vigorous of natures. If one ever comes to write the history of diseases special to each trade, I am convinced that the electric telegraph will furnish a remarkable and quite particular share.18
The combination of motivation and frustration apparent in Hugo’s experience of the aerial telegraph—its stubborn industry mocking his “sterile brain,” its invasion of his visual world, and the contrary impetus it gave him to write at a comparable rate—vanished in the closed interiors of the palace of electricity, where cyborg operators communicated in code, their bodies twitching to constant stimuli. The madness Hugo discerned as a by-product of telegraphy had invaded the system itself. Communication had become pathological. We can see here, perhaps, the vestiges of an early harbinger of telegraphy playing themselves out: the optical telegraph, so clearly anthropomorphic, can surely be considered a scaled-up, dumbed-down extension of eighteenth-century automata, with their feedback loops, programmable operations and simulations of consciousness. Scholars of automation have noted how the critical purchase of automata waned in the nineteenth century, moving from the realm of legitimate scientific enquiry to fairgrounds, shows and other spectacles; the telegraph, however, seems to provide an alternative trajectory for some of the ideas contained in the dream of artificial life.19 If it was not a simulation as such, the telegraph nonetheless evoked a machine-human body—a body, moreover, with the potential to revolt or subjugate its human masters. By the 1870s, this technological nightmare was enacted directly on the bodies of the bureau central’s overwhelmed workers. In Hugo’s poem, the waving limbs of the telegraph of 1819 affected casual observers on the ground, even if they did not understand its nefarious political messages, but the machine operated in plain sight and could be avoided, whereas the collateral effects of the 1875 telegraph were largely absorbed by those poor souls who operated the Hughes and Morse machines.
Perhaps to get away from the infernal, driving noise of the transmission room du Camp retreated to the lower depths of the bureau, to the realm of mice and spiders. Here he passed a “mysterious” door, barred to the public, where, as if in one of his earlier photographs of Egyptian monuments semi-concealed by drifting sand (Fig. 6), the remnants of a previous age were gradually revealed, obscured partially by the sediment of time’s passage. If the transmission room was dominated by an accelerating, disciplining clock-time, here time went backwards, but was no less configured by established power dynamics.20 This is where news came that was not meant for “little people like you and me”—the deaths of emperors and kings, revolutions, abdications, peace treaties, declarations of war, assassinations, royal marriages and princely births—information regarding world historical events that required extensive mediation before it could be let loose on an unsuspecting public, and which, du Camp observed, speculators at the Bourse would have killed to get their hands on.21 This room harboured the secret information so intrinsic to the telegraphic enterprise since its systematization in the 1790s.22 This is where fantasies of capitalist accumulation came to be realised, although only retrospectively, impotently, in the form of privileged information transmitted by a continually changing technology, situated always on the precipice of the outmoded. All that is solid melts into air. And here, in a little room on the ground floor, far away from the open, cloudless sky so necessary to the aerial forerunners for which the building was constructed, lurked four machines which for five years in the 1860s had promised to send images through time and space, but which, by the time of du Camp’s investigation, had already begun their slide into disrepair and neglect.
These machines were pantelegraphs, the invention of an Italian priest, Giovanni Caselli, registered in 1861 and brought into official service in 1863.23 “Everyone knows,” du Camp writes, “that this device, which is electro-chemical, reproduces in facsimile everything that one can draw on paper: a portrait drawn in pen, submitted to the influence of the machine in Lyon, will be photographed, so to speak, by the apparatus in Paris.”24 Located between the subheadings “Mystère” and “Sorcellerie” in du Camp’s text, this machine was itself a hybrid. Formed from an etymological conjunction of “telegraph” and “pantograph,” its name imparted a confident universality to this kind of transmission that was not supported by the range of different technologies that ran alongside it at this time, competing for a share in the market.25 Whereas Chappe’s aerial semaphore operated by visual means, and gave rise in turn to an array of visual images that documented its incongruous appearance on rooftops and church towers across France, the pantelegraph’s operation did not depend on an operator discerning a visual sign and conveying it to the next outpost. Rather, it offered, for the first time, the miraculous ability to send pictures down a telegraph line. Contained in the dark rooms of the telegraphic bureau, the pantelegraph did not figure as image, but instead gave rise to images of its own making.
The pantelegraph took the form of an elegant A-shaped frame, approximately two metres in height, bisected by a heavy pendulum that hung its length (Fig. 7). The device transmitted messages to an identical machine at the destination, to which it was connected by an electrical cable. On one side of each device a pair of curved copper plates provided a support for the transmission of dispatches, one to send and one to receive incoming messages (Fig. 8). The user drew or wrote their message on a sheet of tin or metallized paper in non-conducting ink. Clips attached this sheet to one of the curved plates. The swinging pendulum animated a stylus that scanned the message by moving across it in a series of parallel lines, while on the other plate incoming messages were inscribed. One movement of the pendulum corresponded to the movement of one line. Extremely accurate clocks, functioning independently of the electrical current of the telegraphic cable to minimise atmospheric variation, ensured that syncopation between the two machines was perfect. Each time the stylus passed the non-conducting ink, it broke the signal, enabling an exact replica of the message to be produced at the other end, as long as the timing was correct. At the destination apparatus, a sheet of paper impregnated with potassium ferrocyanide was attached to the receiving plate. Those parts of the paper that were subject to an electrical current passing through the stylus were marked in Prussian blue, by virtue of a chemical reaction with the paper (Fig. 9). Earlier attempts at electrochemical telegraphy—the Davy machine of 1839 or Alexander Bain’s device of twelve years later—had been limited to the transmission of figures and pre-set signs.26 The pantelegraph was the first such device to transmit faithfully other kinds of inscription: portraits, signatures, plans, or in fact any image that could be drawn on the surface of the tin (Fig. 10). Over a decade before the implementation of telephone lines, it realised the possibility that images too might transcend their rootedness in a single place and time to appear, almost simultaneously, at another location.27
The pantelegraph is often described as a forerunner of the fax machine.28 Yet now that the many forms of image transmission that preceded the digital—CRT television and faxes, for instance—have themselves become extinct, visible only as fossilised forms or as vehicles for the nostalgia industry, the association between the pantelegraph and these “modern” forms of communication can no longer be assimilated as assuredly into a narrative of technological progress. Furthermore, where it has been discussed as anything other than a quaint forerunner to a technology whose potential was not realized at the time, the pantelegraph has tended to be incorporated into a history of telegraphic communication that has focused on the transmission of written characters. How might this all appear differently if we shift the focus to the imagistic potential of the pantelegraph, which was in fact its primary innovation in the minds of many contemporary observers?
Pantelegraphy imparted a powerful visual message, although rather than maintaining a strict division between image and text we might do better to consider the pantelegraph in the light of Lisa Gitelman’s persuasive case for the representative function of technological objects and technological knowledge, as embedded in and produced by a rhetorical, discursive field of inscriptions.29 Indeed, Gitelman observes that Edison’s phonograph (her main object of study) emerged “amid a cluster of mutually defining literary practices, texts and technologies, among them shorthand reporting, typescripts, printing telegraphs, and silent motion pictures.”30 The inscriptive functions of Caselli’s pantelegraph were likewise enfolded within a broad range of objects, ideas and practices and had numerous conceptual and material affinities with other “new media” in the visual ecology of nineteenth-century France, as well as with more established forms of representation. Indeed, the admittedly happenstance coincidence of Caselli’s invention with that transitional moment in narratives of Modernist painting, the Salon des refusés held apart from the official display at the Palais de l’Industrie in 1863, throws both events into a new kind of relief. While one was met with Imperial approbation and the other official veto, in both cases the movement of images was invoked as a marker of both novelty and legitimacy. Displacement could dilute an image’s authority, but it might equally provide alternative forms of validation. Although avant-garde art’s endorsement of individual artistic creativity was largely at odds with the pantelegraph’s diffusion of images, at this moment they were grounded in a shared faith that the image apart, moved to a different place, might offer a superior truth, and contain a greater potential to speak to modern conditions, than that which adhered to images left behind at an original location.
It is hard to escape the sense that sending an image so that it might appear in identical form elsewhere would have registered as a crucial moment in the history of mechanical reproduction, as well as announcing a paradigm shift in the history of how we encounter images more generally. Surely it must have changed everything? Yet the pantelegraph did not, in and of itself, transform inexorably the temporality and authenticity of visual images. In commercial terms, at least, it failed. Following his arrival in Paris in 1857 Caselli had benefited from the assistance of Paul Gustave Froment, to whom he had been recommended by the renowned physicist Léon Foucault, and the two collaborated together on the design of the pantelegraph. The invention was the subject of a great deal of interest in the French scientific community, and was initially a great success, attracting the support of Napoleon III, who suggested that Caselli use the Parisian telegraph lines to conduct his experiments. In 1863 Caselli received authorisation for the commercial exploitation of a line from Paris to Marseille, and also experimented with a pantelegraph line between London and Liverpool. However, within a decade the pantelegraph had ceased to operate. It never achieved a sufficient number of users, and did not survive the traumatic events of 1870-71.31
Poorly supported by the “Société anonyme du télégraphe pantographique Caselli,” set up to defend and market the invention, the pantelegraph was introduced at a difficult moment in the aftermath of the shift from the Chappe system and the abolition of a state monopoly on telegraphic transmission. Telegraphic companies refused to charge lower prices for handwritten messages (in fact they charged more) and the system was compromised by laws introduced to appease the anxieties of powerful interests threatened by the transition away from state control. These laws were particularly hostile to the visual dimension of pantelegraphy. They required that all messages be sent in an intelligible language and include the signature of the sender, and in apprehension of the possible seditious uses to which telegraphy might be put, they did not respond favourably to a device that could send maps, drawings, or coded messages. Finally, although one of the pantelegraph’s key uses was the transmission of signatures for banking purposes, Morse code already provided an effective means of sending figures, and the expense ultimately proved prohibitive.32 The device was picked up in China and used to transmit idiographic characters (two Chinese emissaries visited Froment’s lab as early as 1863), although an attempt in 1884 to export the pantelegraph from Italy to China broke down.33 While Jules Verne may have included a pantelegraph in his vision of a future Paris in his novel Paris au XXe. siècle, crediting Caselli with its invention, no unbroken chain links the pantelegraph to the devices that succeeded it.34 There is no forgotten history of technological triumph to be recuperated here, and any effects we might attribute to pantelegraphy ultimately transcend the technology itself.
Despite the legal restrictions that subordinated the telegraphic image to the text that accompanied it, the blue drawings transmitted by the pantelegraph remained firmly within the realm of the visual. The Musée des Arts et Métiers own a sheet of examples demonstrating its range (Fig. 11). The fragile little portraits in blue ink materialise the machine’s promise of bilocation, while a Rosetta Stone of different texts evince a desire to assert the authenticity of the transmissions: “There is no possible error in the transmission of autographic telegrams. The copies of dispatches, reproduced by means of an electro-chemical process, and not by the work of the employees, are always consistent with the originals,” reads one. This disavowal of the hand-made is disingenuous, as the pantelegraph required a significant degree of intervention by the person making the drawings or writing the text. Occupying a conceptual, if not technical, middle ground between the image drawn by the human hand and photography’s “pencil of nature,” the relationship between pantelegraphy and established and evolving signs of authorship was correspondingly uncertain. What to make of these little sketches and carefully delineated orthographies? In one, Caselli himself is the subject of the image (Fig. 12). His portrait, drawn in Paris on 1 January 1867, was to be sent to a Monsieur Léon, 17 rue des Céléstins, Lyon. This image reveals little about its sitter, for the portrait of Caselli is standardized, and as a demonstration piece was likely not from life, but rather appropriated from other representations.
Nonetheless, thanks perhaps to the juxtaposition of the auratic presence of the person portrayed with the radical form of the image’s displacement, there is, undoubtedly, something rather ghostly about these images, these magical inscriptions from elsewhere, a characteristic that did not go unnoticed by contemporary observers.35 In Gabriel Delanne’s 1909 Apparitions matérialisées des vivants et des morts, the ghost of pantelegraphy was harnessed to the study of apparitions from beyond the grave, as well as to the manipulation of the living. Delanne described how a “community of sensation” might allow for the transmission of images and impressions between an operator (an interestingly telegraphic locution) and their somnabulist subject.36 Via a mysterious process of magnetism, and by way of autosuggestion, a wound made to a photographic image might manifest as a stigmata on the skin of the person represented in the photograph. By the early twentieth century the pantelegraph as functioning apparatus was already a distant memory, but it continued to “offer an analogy for this phenomenon, because we know that thanks to an ingenious device, all trace left on the departure apparatus is reproduced automatically on the receiving apparatus located in the distance, electricity connecting each point of the two surfaces at a determined time.”37 Delanne continued to recount an experiment that took place in the studio of the photographer Nadar in front of several medical practitioners, whereby a certain Mme. O, under hypnosis, was successfully sent to sleep and awakened by exposure to a photograph that had been taken of her while under the influence, a photograph that, unbeknownst to her, had been superimposed with an identically sized photograph of the right hand of the operator. According to M. de Rochas, who recounted this story, the image of the operator’s hand communicated the vibrations produced by the hypnosis to the image of Mme O, which, serving simply as a relay, transmitted them to Mme O herself. When the time came, Mme O could be woken up by blowing on the photograph.38
As early as 1858, a language of sorcery pervades the announcement of the “Télégraphe photographique” in La Lumière. Announcing Caselli’s invention, the critic La Gavinie claimed that “The day is near when one will be able to write from one hemisphere to the other and communicate one’s feelings, just as if one spoke to the ear. – Everyone at one end of the telegraph line will be able to share confidences or exchange his portrait. – What magician would dare to announce this marvel!”39 La Gavinie predicted the future course the technology would take, and anticipated that Caselli’s machine would prove particularly damaging to French notaries. He suggested that they would lose the income provided by their intermediary function, as anyone might sign a deed or certificate, from Paris to New York, London to Peking, without needing to be present in person.40 The journalist took from an earlier report in Le Magasin pittoresque some basic information about the operation of the pantelegraph, including the claim that “To transmit by means of electricity, in an instant to a great distance, one’s own portrait, or that of people with whom one finds oneself, or the view of the property where one lives, would surely be one of the finest applications of the combined findings of the electric telegraph and photography.”41 Pantelegraphy’s present was avowedly visual and commercial, fusing personal identity and land ownership, and its future was photographic.
Although its images were produced at the point of reception by means of a chemical reaction, Caselli’s machine was not, of course, truly photographic. However as these accounts demonstrate, right from the beginning it was considered in tandem with photography, and later incorporated into accounts of its development. As Simone Natale has observed, in the context of the United States, Daguerre’s innovation coincided with the opening of early electric lines and Samuel Morse’s interest in photography, while subsequent to the demise of the pantelegraph, Willoughby Smith’s 1873 discovery of the photosensitive qualities of crystalline selenium made photographic transmission down telegraph lines—in discussion since Becquerel’s experiments in the late 1830s—a near possibility.42 Yet the connection between photography and telegraphy was not formed by a concurrence between the “inventions” of either technology, for embedded within this relationship were memories of earlier developments and long-standing practices in both fields. By the 1896 edition of Frédéric Dillaye’s Les Nouveautés photographiques a lengthy section on the history of “phototélégraphie” paid particular attention to Caselli’s machine, which was attached posthumously to a longer history of photographic transmission.43 Such narratives, which were predominantly technical in character, were preoccupied with affirming the successful progress of the medium of photography. However, four years after the publication of Dillaye’s account, a more oblique, historically nuanced response appeared, in a text now taken to be a foundational, if somewhat eccentric, contribution to the history of photography. For the author of this text, photography’s history belonged as much to the history of telegraphy as the other way around.
In Transit in the City
Nadar’s Quand j’étais photographe was published in 1900, towards the end of his life. The past tense of the title is crucial, yet although Nadar had moved away from photography to focus on his other scientific interests, particularly in human-powered flight, he was still active in the medium.44 Noting the title’s strangeness, Rosalind Krauss observes that “Nadar’s past tense has less to do with his personal fortunes and the trajectory of his own career through time, than with his status as witness.”45 Crucial, for Nadar, was photography’s unique transformation of the world, and he stressed the extent to which it had surpassed the achievements of “the Laplaces and the Montgolfiers, the Lavoisiers, the Chappes, the Contés, all of them.”46 In an early section of this text Nadar presented a strange fantasy of image transmission, which not only referenced explicitly the telegraphic transmission of images, but which seemed to consider telegraphs more generally, and, remarkably, pantelegraphy in particular, as a form of historical comprehension.
Nadar begins his story by describing a strange correspondence that took place in the autumn of 1856. A café owner named Gazebon had written to Nadar, telling him of an encounter he had had recently with a M. Mauclerc, “an actor in transit in our city.”47 Mauclerc had convinced Gazebon that he had in his possession a daguerreotype portrait of himself that Nadar had allegedly taken “by the electric process” while the photographer was in Paris and Mauclerc in Eaux-Bonnes, near the border with Spain. Although Mauclerc was disbelieved by some, Gazebon remained certain of the actor’s credibility, having “dabbled in the process” himself.48 Gazebon thus requested that Nadar photograph him at Pau—preferably in colour, while seated at a table in his salle de billards—with the promise that he would soon put some business his way. Gazebon’s name rang a bell: Nadar recalled that Gazebon had in fact contacted him two years previously, also at Mauclerc’s instigation, regarding a gilded copper engraving—“a masterpiece of Restoration bad taste”—that Mauclerc had assured him was highly valuable.49 Mauclerc had persuaded Gazebon that this engraving was a collectors’ item whose only other copy was, strangely enough, in the possession of Nadar. Nadar, slightly freaked by their author’s persistence, ignored both letters, writing off Mauclerc as a crook and Gazebon as a gullible fool. He hung onto the correspondence though, for “It is not unpleasant and it is legitimate, in the last days of a long and sufficiently fulfilling career, to have received and to reread letters such as this one.”50
Some twenty years later, while relaxing with his friend Hérald de Pages, Nadar was visited unexpectedly by a young man, a nineteen-year-old electrician from Clignancourt whose mother had allegedly been in service for Nadar’s mother in Lyon, and who had himself worked for one of Nadar’s friends. Pushing for an audience with the famous photographer, the visitor eventually wheedled his way in. He began by relaying his career to date: having already worked in Breguet’s workshop, the young man had subsequently apprenticed with Trouvé while he was working on his dual-motored electric velocipede, with Froment as he developed his electric chronometers, with Marcel Desprez on his generator, and with Ader on his telephone. Each of these scientists was duly acknowledged for the magnitude of their achievements. Pride of place in this glittering vita, however, went to an invention that by the time Nadar was writing had long fallen into disuse: “I was even lucky enough to be accepted by M. Caselli to work on his autographic telegraphy. That is where, especially…”51
That is where… what? Transmission interrupted. An assumedly heartfelt evocation of the excellence of the invention and of the young man’s memory of his career as a pantelegrapher was curtailed, for at this point, interrupted in the telling of his story, he moved, cautiously, to the subject of his visit, which was no less than the possibility of long-distance photography. Claiming to have developed a new technique, the mysterious visitor asked Nadar to grant him the opportunity to demonstrate his invention, asking that he commission one of his technicians to take, “in the isolated conditions indicated or that you will suggest yourself, with whatever model you choose,” a photograph to prove or disprove his claim.52 Nadar, as if already anticipating being photographed from afar, froze stock-still: “I did not move a muscle.”53 De Pages, on the other hand, was more effusive. “Do you hope to be able to take photographs from all distances, and out of sight?” he demanded. “I do not hope to be able to do it, sir,” responded the young man, “I already do it. But I don’t know how else to explain it to you, and you will see the rest yourself: I am not an inventor, I haven’t invented anything; I have only encountered something that was always there.”54
Admitting to the two men that he had already demonstrated his invention, the visitor showed them—with a performative flourish—a cutting from “an ordinary Courrier or Écho de la Banlieue,” which documented his successful attempt to photograph the town of Deuil, near Montmorency, from Montmartre.55 The man’s appeal found a receptive audience, for it so happened that the day before this encounter Nadar and de Pages had visited the International Exposition of Electricity, where they had marvelled at the exhibits, yet remained troubled slightly by the “diabolical servant” promised by the technological future, which Nadar recounted in a memorable passage:
We had seen it invisibly discharge all duties and perform all functions, realizing all the dreams of the human imagination. Obedient and ready to execute our commands, this all-powerful yet discreet servant is unrivaled in all its forms, and is known by many names: telegraph, polyscope, phonophone, phonograph, phonautograph, telelogue, telephone, topophone, spectrophone, microphone, sphygmograph, pyrophone, etc., etc. It lifts and carries our burdens, propels our ships, and drives our carriages; it transports our voice from place to place without distortion; it writes far beyond the reach of the human hand; it reads our heartbeat and tells us what time it is; it sounds the alarm before we are aware of the fire and warns us of flood waters before they have begun to rise. Our faithful man-at-arms, it diligently stands the night watch in our stead; it regulates the speed of our missiles and routs our most powerful enemies; it reveals the hidden bullet to the surgeon’s knife; it stops dead in their tracks locomotives, galloping horses, and highwaymen all; it tills our soil and winnows our wheat, ages our wine, and captures our game; it monitors the cashier at the same time it guards the cashbox; it prevents electoral fraud and may even someday make honest men of our worthy public officials. A first-class worker, a Jack-of-All-Trades-one at a time or all at once as you like: stevedore, postman, driver, engraver, farmer, doctor, artilleryman, bookkeeper, archivist, carpenter, policeman . . . and why not photographer, even long-distance photographer?56
As Stephen Bann has noted, in sustained examination of the text, despite Nadar’s overwhelming commitment to a cult of progress and his fascination with the social and ontological implications of technological novelty, his scientific vision was eclectic and he was averse to triumphalist narratives of photographic exceptionalism.57 Indeed, this vision of technological supremacy bears a semblance to Maxime du Camp’s dystopian account of telegraphic workers, their minds and bodies bound in servitude to an incessant stream of everyday and official information that is ours, not theirs. This is technology as regulating device—“it monitors the cashier at the same time it guards the cashbox”—in the service of capital. Nadar’s description represents technology, with telegraphy in a lead role among the other inscriptive devices listed, as both supra-human and sub-human, operating above the level of our own capacities and at the same time beneath contempt. The trope of machines as servants was hardly a new one at the turn of the twentieth century, yet it is worth stressing that telegraphic workers had, since the earliest days of the Chappe system, been considered particularly worthy of pity, if not empathy. The mechanism of the Chappe telegraph required that its operators replicate in miniature, by manipulating small handles, the same manoeuvres as the signal arms they controlled. They were thus viewed as inseparable from the apparatuses themselves; du Camp’s description of the robotic telegraphic workers of the 1870s took this to its logical conclusion. Furthermore, the cold and cramped conditions the Chappe operators endured, and the strain on their eyesight produced by staring through a telescope for long hours from an isolated turret, were thought to produce particularly enervating effects. “Living chrysalises,” Alexandre Dumas termed them in the Count of Monte Cristo, “poor wretch[es],” “genii, sylphs, gnomes,” “fagged to death with cabals, factions and government intrigues,” their monotonous lives wasted watching a “white-bellied, black-clawed fellow insect, four or five leagues distant.”58
The telegraph’s zoomorphic affinities were firmly in place before Dumas’s novel, and had a long shelf life. Here is Barthélemy, writing in the 29 May 1831 issue of his peculiar anti-July Monarchy verse satire Némésis:
The minister issues floods of circulars;
Everywhere the telegraph, obscure vocabulary,
Bringing a clear meaning to the attentive prefects,
Like a cut snake, wriggling in the air.59
And here is Aby Warburg, at the end of a 1923 lecture published in English in 1939 as “A Lecture on Serpent Ritual,” drawing a sharp comparison between modern communications technology and primitive thought, as typified by the Pueblo Indian cult of the serpent:
And away above his top hat runs the electric wire. In this copper-snake, invented by Edison, he has wrested the lightning from nature. The American of to-day no longer worships the rattle-snake….Electricity enslaved, the lightning held captive in the wire, has produced a civilization which has no use for heathen poetry.60
Warburg’s remarks concern a photograph of an “Uncle Sam in his tall hat” he had captured in 1896 walking past an unidentified pseudo-classical rotunda on a San Francisco Street (in fact the former City Hall, completed in 1899 and destroyed in the 1906 earthquake) (Fig. 13). This figure exemplified the type of man whose technological rationalism dispensed with the cult of the serpent and overcame an indigenous fear of lightning. Warburg’s suspicion of the ability of Enlightenment “progress” to answer the fundamental questions of human existence found an eloquent metaphor in the electric telegraph, which, alongside the telephone, he derides for “destroying the cosmos.”61 A final example: for Roland Barthes, describing the Eiffel Tower, Paris’s most prominent communications mast, it was photography alone that was able to reveal its unique characteristics:
Photography, which often tells us the whole truth about an object, perhaps offers another metamorphosis: animal metamorphosis. Whether we think of it as an insect with a hard thorax whose legs have been ripped off, or we see it rising up into the sky like a wingless bird that is trying to push itself up higher, way above the clouds, or whether it appears, finally and more prosaically, like a huge giraffe put there for the sole purpose of inspiring awe among Parisians…there is a virtual animality to the tower.62
Warburg’s and Barthes’s turns to animal metaphor, clearly distinct in intention though they are, are notable for the way in which they invoke an analogical language that had long attended telegraphy, even its pre-electric forms.63 The line that connects Dumas’s “black-clawed insect” to Warburg’s “copper-snake” is one that also connects Dumas’s wretched telegraphers and Warburg’s diminished world. Similarly, Nadar’s technological imaginary at the International Exposition was filtered through nearly a century of critique of telegraphy’s complex dialectic between human, machine and animal, stillness and movement, exploitation and progress, dead media and those that still pulsed.
The first International Exposition of Electricity, to which Nadar likely referred, took place at the Palais de l’Industrie on the Champs-Elysées in autumn 1881 on the initiative of Adolphe Cochery, Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, following a smaller display at the Exposition Universelle of 1878. If Nadar’s description seems functionalist in tone, his book as a whole is infused by its reflection upon an earlier point in the nineteenth century, when the role of technology—contra Warburg—seemed neither so fixed nor so utilitarian. As John Tresch has described, the period until 1848 might be characterized by a confluence of seemingly opposed mechanist and romantic scientific worldviews.64 Tresch recounts the role of spectacular, subjective, transformative machines in establishing truth, and notes the participation of scientists such as Arago and Foucault in the phantasmagoric operatic spectacles of Berlioz or Meyerbeer. These composers, too, demonstrated a consistent interest in technological advances; Berlioz proposed at one point the use of an electric telegraph to keep players in time.65 Honoré Daumier, who depicted Chappe telegraphs in a number of his prints, pointed to this meeting of art and science in a lithograph published in Le Charivari in April 1859, shortly before the introduction of the pantelegraph, but in the hiatus after the withdrawal of the Chappe system (Fig. 14). Showing three conductors raised above a massed crowd, Daumier’s print refers to the “grand festival des orphéonistes” at the Palais de l’Industrie, which took place under the rubric of the 1859 World Exhibition. The text accompanying the image makes explicit that this is indeed, an “alliance de la télégraphie et de la musique.”
We might also read an 1861 etching by Félix Braquemond’s after Nadar’s portrait of Meyerbeer in this context (Fig. 15). Braquemond’s print remediates Nadar’s photograph but also ironizes it, mock-heraldic grotesques and cartouches within the platemark sending up the composer and orchestrating a multiplicity that tests the limits of different media: print, drawing, and photograph. But Braquemond’s sketches and scribbles in graphite, black ink, and orange pencil also speak to the condition of transmission—spectacular transmission at that—that characterised the careers of both Nadar and Meyerbeer. Like the slight fading of the image in a pantelegraphic message, the cartouches are repeated across the surface of the paper at varying densities, some of them split laterally between finished and unfinished sides of the same image, as if mid-transmission. This is less a matter of a direct causal relationship between telegraphy and the print than an instance of an image’s animation by, and interrogation of, new possibilities for mechanical reproduction. Coincident with Caselli’s invention, Braquemond’s defaced portrait of Meyerbeer is overlaid by an accretion of archaic decoration and whimsical masks that acknowledge the theatrical character of Meyerbeer’s practice and its evolution in a climate of serially appearing, ghostlike reproductions.66
Returning to Quand j’étais photographe, at this point in his account, Nadar himself succumbed to a strange hallucination, an optical illusion in which his friend de Pages’ features merged with those of the young visitor, revealing “a kind of diabolical mask which slowly took on the form of a face I had never seen before but that I recognized immediately: Mauclerc, Machiavellian Mauclerc, ‘in transit in our city’; the electric image mockingly reared its head at me from the land of Henri IV.”67 As if in one of Francis Galton’s composite photographs, superimposition of features revealed a criminal “type” that transcended location in a particular time and place.68 It recalled too Balzac’s eidolic theory of spectres, and perhaps, the autosuggestive images of Mme. O and her ilk produced in Nadar’s studio. However, it also pointed to ways of tracking information across time that were not unique to photography. Nadar’s hallucination was a photographic effect, certainly, but rather than allude solely to the temporal consequences of photography, it was grounded in the shared histories of photography and telegraphy.
The actual mechanics of the young man’s proposed method were somewhat shady. The visitor stressed that no connecting wires were necessary, for the machine depended on the conducting properties of air alone. Having relieved an ironically amused Nadar of two louis, the young man left, swearing to return twelve days later. Needless to say (although the story is not resolved fully) we are left to assume that this never happened, that the two men had been scammed, albeit knowingly, by a consummate racketeer, and that the ghost of Mauclerc continued to stalk the streets. Pushed by de Pages as to whether he still denied the feasibility of long-distance photography, Nadar affirmed his agnosticism, refusing to deny or confirm the possibility. Two addenda to the section bring the story right up to date. A first postscript notes the recent work on precisely this technical question by Dr Ed. Liesegang of Vienna, citing an article in the British Journal of Photography “in which we may finally see Mauclerc discredited and Gazebon rehabilated.” A final P.P.S. is even more adamant, asserting a contemporaneity that surpasses not only the long-ago story of Mauclerc and Gazebon, but exceeds even its later recounting, making sure that readers are in no doubt that the text occupies the time of the now: “P.P.S. This morning the first successful wireless telegraph message was transmitted across the English Channel by Marconi. Is there any dream too extravagant?” Nadar signs off, finally, “Marseille, June 99.”69
When Nadar was a photographer, he tells us, the mysterious young fraudster who visited him was a telegrapher. Telegraphy, like photography, walked a fine line between truth and falsehood, fraud and sincerity. Nadar’s visitor in Quand j’étais photographe was not an oppressed and exploited telegraphic worker, or even a sublimated form thereof. Rather, in his humble work shirt, he carried the brio of the impetuous, creative inventor, despite his claim to the contrary that he was just repeating pre-existing innovations, including those of Nadar himself. Caselli’s device, after all, was (like photography) artistic in tone, if often bureaucratic in application (again, like photography), and as du Camp had observed, it occupied a different conceptual and physical space to the massed ranks of telegraph operators at the bureau central. Nadar encounters this young man, if not as an equal, then as a fellow traveller, although this figure also operates as a cipher for significant changes in both media, transitioning between pantelegraphy and Marconi’s success. For Krauss, Nadar’s scepticism was another iteration of his commitment to photography’s indexical qualities, his conviction that “photography can only operate with the directness of a physical graft.”70 Yet the text unfolds over a long time, bringing together a half-forgotten exchange from 1856 with a story from the 1880s and its telling in 1899. Nadar’s “P.P.S.” regarding Marconi challenges his own scepticism, affirming the subtly dialectical quality of his approach, for while pantelegraphy may have “failed” where photography transparently “succeeded,” photography’s future now looks likely to be realised by telegraphic means, reanimating Caselli’s long-moribund project in the process.
As Bann has described, Quand j’étais photographe is not only one of the first attempts by a contemporary practitioner to document the history of photography’s early industrial forms; it demonstrates too Nadar’s particularly self-aware understanding of the relationship between images and history.71 This is a relationship that extends into the future, for the conceptual attraction of the story is, Bann contends, an affinity between long-distance photography and “what we now banally term ‘television’.”72 Nonetheless, “the moment has not yet come,” for Nadar seems to articulate something that has not yet transpired, and will not for some years.73 But is it “Nadar”—that curious confection of self and other in the photographer’s memoir-story—who does this? Or is it rather the strange visitor, with his tall tale of previous work on Caselli’s machine, who ventriloquizes for Nadar photography’s displacement of bodies in space? Nadar’s narrative betrays the extent to which the early history of photography was bound up with the ways in which it might be transmitted. The pantelegraph provided a language with which to understand something that had attended photography since its earliest days: the dream, and sometimes nightmare, of an image that might move seamlessly from one place to another. Collapsing the durational and spatial aspects of the new medium, this mobile image was tied to the mobility of Mauclerc (in transit in our city) but also to the mobility of objects themselves in time (du Camp’s sic transit).
In Charles Baudelaire intime: le poète vierge, published posthumously in 1911, Nadar describes a surprising meeting in the late 1830s with “a strange, ghostly figure,” who he encountered on a walk through Paris with the writer and journalist Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont. When Nadar and Privat were able to identify this “apparition” they saw it was none other than Baudelaire himself.74 Nadar gave the following description of his friend:
Assisted by the black of the costume, the restrained, meticulous, crushed gesture recalled the successive silhouettes of the optical telegraph which was then being taken apart on the towers of Saint-Sulpice or, better, the angular gymnastics of a spider in wet weather after her thread. The relationship with our new friend was already complete, despite his reserve, because things happened in this way then, and long before the electricities of M. Edison.75
Striking, in this account, is the attention Nadar pays, not only to Baudelaire’s physical similarity to a Chappe telegraph, but to its destruction. Baudelaire’s body is framed in terms of an interregnum between the dismantling of the optical telegraph on Saint-Sulpice and the new speed of human connection forged by Edison’s electric marvels. This motif situates Nadar’s recollection in a particular time and place, the Paris of the 1830s and 1840s—a period to which he returned frequently in his writings. Baudelaire intime, Baudelaire in time. Death is always already encoded in this description, which appeared in print after the passing of both men, and which invoked, by association, photography’s much commented upon ability to mediate past lives. More importantly, however, Nadar uses the time of telegraphy to calibrate and comprehend this past.
Much of the discourse on telegraphy’s relationship to both contemporaneous and “new” media has focused on its electric forms, particularly those that achieved some measure of longevity, aligning them either explicitly or implicitly with a future path sometimes understood in overly deterministic terms. Yet the telegraphs with which Nadar punctuated his writing on photography had been mostly outmoded for some time—the Chappe system ceased to operate the year before Nadar’s first correspondence from Gazebon—and even his references to technology from the last twenty years recalled its former, obsolete iterations. At one level telegraphy seemed to provide a useful framing device because of its longevity as a practice and its continuing relevance, a stable marker against which photography’s progress might be measured. However while for Nadar the time of photography was informed by the many other devices that accompanied its introduction, such as the pantelegraph, through these associations he also offered a reminder that telegraphy, like photography, offered a means to think the past in its complex relationship to the present and future. Nadar’s late writing exploits, in the process, a fault line between a vision of photography as determined by technology itself, and one in which human subjectivity was primarily at stake. In other words, it expresses, but does not ever truly resolve, an uncertainty about the limits of human versus technological agency, and about whether photography’s role was to record the traces of human time, or whether its key relation might in fact be with other machines. Nadar’s image of an “all-powerful yet discreet servant” appropriating all aspects of human activity is undercut by the autobiographical tone of Quand j’étais photographe; indeed, it is clear that the force of telegraphy here derived in part from the way it presented such ambiguities in concentrated form, for behind every telegraphic apparatus was a human operator, however subordinated to their device they might be. Yet Nadar also knew that to speak of current forms of telegraphic communication was to invoke a technological genealogy that included the past time of telegraphy’s visual world, from Caselli’s little blue drawings to Chappe’s network of semaphoric relays, materialised in the body of Baudelaire and captured repeatedly by Nadar’s camera, his damp-spider-telegraph arm folded in jacket (Fig. 16). In this sense Nadar outlined the continuing relevance of a machine such as the pantelegraph to a world that had largely forgotten it. A cut snake—to paraphrase Barthélemy—but still wriggling in the air.