Parisians in awe

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‘The Telegraphe (sic)’, c. 1795.

In August 1794, Napoleonic France was at war with all of the European monarchies. An overheated atmosphere reigned on the streets of Paris. People were eager to hear about any new information. Word then spread that Napoleon had met the Austrians at Condé sur l'Escaut less than an hour previously, two hundred kilometers from Paris. By means of the optical telegraph, which had recently been invented by Claude Chappe, Napoleon had managed to diffuse his war strategies and news with unprecedented speed.

Napoleon had received word of the invention of the optical telegraph in July 1793. He enlisted Chappe into government service and had him build a network that would reach from Venice to Amsterdam. Each line of the network consisted of a series of towers, topped by a signaling system of three hinged wooden posts. The position of each post corresponded with a code that referred to a specific meaning.

Napoleon wanted to "know in the space of a few instants how events unfold, to transmit orders or announce the rescue of a city." Within a few years of its discovery, the optical telegraph had become a state-owned strategic information infrastructure. The event that had left the Parisians in awe also marked the modest beginnings of telecommunication infrastructures in Europe.

How to cite this page


Suzanne Lommers, 'Parisians in awe', Inventing Europe,


  1. Fickers, Andreas, and Pascal Griset. Communicating Europe: Technologies, Information, Events. Basingstoke: Palgrave, forthcoming.

About this tour


Media conflicts: the complicated relationship between 'media' and 'revolutions'

Over the years, technological innovations have created new opportunities in conflict situations. Control of the media means not only the power to have your message heard, but also to drown out or disrupt the messages of your adversaries. Innovations like satellite communications, the internet (which enabled anonymous posting of information), and recently the social media (which allows the free sharing of information between large groups of people) have changed the ways in which resistance and conflict have been organized.

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What's like this?

The Chappe telegraph

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