One of my favourite podcasts is The Futility Closet, source of weird and wonderful historical minutiae. An episode I caught recently put me on the trail of a truly fantastic, if short-lived chapter in the development of long-distance communications: the 19th Century pasilalinic-sympathetic compass, otherwise known as the snail telegraph.
As early as the 16th Century, there seems to have been a belief in “sympathetic communication” between people or animals linked with each other or with objects.
Many authors wrote about the long-distance communication supposedly achieved by people who had transplanted skin from each other’s arms to their own, tattooing the alphabet onto the grafted skin and pricking the letters with needles to transmit messages to the skin’s original owner.
Another method proposed – perhaps satirically – but never tried was to help sailors tell the time (thereby solving the problem of longitude) by giving them a wounded dog to take to sea. A timekeeper remained at home with the dog’s discarded bandage; this they would dip into a “powder of sympathy” at precisely noon each day, causing the dog to yelp. As ridiculous as this all sounds, the powder of sympathy was an existing 17th Century product – it was supposed to heal wounds by being applied, not to the patient, but to the weapon that had wounded them.
Compared to these precursors, the snail telegraph theorised in the mid-19th Century was practically tame – or, at least, much less gory.
Love and other secretions
The “inventor” of the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass was a Frenchman named Jacques Toussaint Benoit. Already an established occultist, he believed (or claimed to believe) that snails, upon mating, bonded for life through the secretion of a special fluid.
This “escargotic fluid” was theorised to be so thin it was essentially invisible, but able to stretch apparently endless distances. It supposedly maintained a connection between mated snails, however far apart, via the transmission of electrical pulses through the ground; Benoit even claimed to have tested this aspect of snail-based communication by putting snails in balloons to test the effects of removal from the earth.
The snails’ love connection would allow one snail to feel what its mate experienced; according to Benoit, this was the key to his plan to create a better world – and a healthier bank balance – by allowing society to dispense with the difficulties of the recently-developed and still-unreliable electrical telegraph in favour of a far more revolutionary mechanism: gastropod-based long-distance communication.
The snail telegraph unveiled
To fund his groundbreaking work, Benoit obtained the patronage of a wealthy and credulous Parisian named Monsieur Triat. Triat took care of his lodgings and provided a generous allowance, leaving Benoit free to develop his invention, which he claimed he was already using to communicate with a mysterious American colleague named Monsieur Biat-Chretien.
It took him over a year – a year of living comfortably on Monsieur Triat’s money – to produce any results at all, but when at last he could hold Triat’s impatience at bay no longer, the device he unveiled must have seemed worth the wait.
Housed in a ten-foot wooden scaffold, the prototype snail telegraph involved twenty-four individual bowls made of zinc and lined with cloth soaked in copper sulphate, each containing a single snail glued in place and corresponding to a letter of the alphabet. A second, identical device held the twenty-four mated snails.
To spell out words, Benoit or one of his assistants would prod the appropriate snails, each in turn, while another assistant at the second device would note down letters by seeing which snails squirmed. Though given that the poor gastropods were being held in individual snail torture-chambers, I would have thought they were already squirming pretty hard.
For Benoit’s first demonstration to his benefactor, his confidence was so high he invited the press: a journalist friend of Triat’s named Jules Allix, who wrote for the penny newspaper La Presse.
The two telegraphs were placed at separate ends of a large room. Triat and Allix were invited to stand at either end and instruct Benoit’s assistants to spell out words to one another, and to and from Benoit.
Shockingly, the demonstration worked, more or less. Some of the words seemed a little mangled in transmission – gymnase became gymoate and lumiere divine became lumhere divine – but the general sense got through.
Allix was delighted and went on to publish an effusive – and lengthy – account in La Presse of:
the discovery of a new system for the communication of thought, as a result of which all men will be able to correspond instantly with one another, at whatever distance they are placed, man to man, or several men simultaneously, at every corner of the world, and this without recourse to the conductive wires of electrical communication.
He even went so far as to predict that:
the pasilalinic sympathetic compass is destined to become an indispensable piece of furniture, or even an intriguing piece of jewelry, which, designed according to all the artistic fancies it will undoubtedly inspire, will necessarily be found everywhere, from the dresser, to the boudoir, and even, if you like, on the waist-chains of ladies.
A snail in the ointment
Monsieur Triat, however, was less convinced. He couldn’t help but notice how, throughout the demonstration, Benoit hurried back and forth between the two stations, supposedly to oversee his assistants.
Triat demanded a second trial of the device, this time with the two halves placed in separate rooms and Benoit barred from passing between them. Benoit was only too pleased to agree.
The date was set, Triat arrived to witness the fateful trial… but Monsieur Benoit was nowhere to be seen.
And that was more or less the end of the snail telegraph. Benoit died penniless on the streets two years later. Some sources claim his idea outlived him to be revived during the 1871 uprising of the Paris Commune – a notable member of which was none other than Jules Allix – but there seems little basis for that claim. Indeed, an account of the Commune published in 1896 recalls how Allix’s support for the idea “became the amusement of Paris for months, and its author a laughing-stock” (p. 153).
Still, perhaps we can all be grateful that in this modern, interconnected society we only have to worry about looking after our smartphones, rather than a pocketful of telepathic snails.
If you want a more contemporary account of the snail telegraph, I highly recommend Charles Dickens’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek description of the whole affair.