Paris, October, 1850. A young man, a former law student and radical candidate for the Constitutional Assembly by the name of Jules Allix, publishes in the feuilleton of La Presse a short article describing a new invention. He is not himself the inventor, but is only speaking, he claims, on behalf of his associates, Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoît from Hérault near Montpellier, and a man identified only as 'Monsieur Biat-Chrétien, the American'. The discovery is of a 'pasilalinic sympathetic compass' that will facilitate "universal and instantaneous communication of thought, at any distance whatever." Unlike the electrical telegraph, we are told, the compass has no conductive wires, but only two unconnected and portable apparatuses, containing a Voltaic pile, a wooden or metal wheel ringed with copper-sulphate-lined metal troughs. And, in each of these troughs, a snail...
I have an essay on Allix and his compass in the most recent issue of Cabinet Magazine. You may subscribe here. The essay is one of my many perischolarly exercises devoted to explaining why something that seems frivolous is in fact very important, for example for our understanding of what it is we are doing when we communicate across distances, or when we attempt to harness the powers thought to inhere in living beings for our machines. Allix was a charlatan and a huckster (after the compass scam collapsed, he would later appear on the isle of Jersey hosting spiritist séances for Victor Hugo and his entourage), but what he tried to do, or pretended to try to do, tells us something vitally important about what I have been calling the 'deep history of the Internet', in which our predecessors tended to look to the living world, for example to the 'escargot commotion' generated when snails copulate, rather than to 'mere' physical forces, for the powers and principles that might be harnessed in order to achieve instantaneous connections between remote places.
Here I offer some translations of key passages from Allix's text, published in La Presse on October 25 and 26, 1850. A scan of the original text is available in the digital archive of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France here, and here. Cabinet has made my full English translation available here.
The Pasilalinic Sympathetic Compass
Universal and instantaneous communication of thought, at any distance whatever, with the aid of a portable apparatus known as the Pasilalinic Sympathetic Compass
The fact at issue, as I’ve had the honor to tell you, is the discovery of a new system for the communication of thought, as a result of which all men will be able to correspond instantaneously with one another, at whatsoever 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 electronic communication, but with the sole aid of what is basically a portable machine, which the inventors call the ‘Pasilalinic Sympathetic Compass’, and which moreover may be built to any size and may be made to take on any shape.
...Originally one needed two conductive wires for a single telegraph: the one to go out, and the other to come back. But after an experiment carried out in 1845 (on various telegraph lines that had been built in Paris), having perfectly proven that the conductivity of the earth could play the part of one of the wires, it has since been possible to do without half of the circuit. One conductive wire now suffices for each telegraph.
Now what person, in seeing, first of all, the surprising effects of a system of transmission that makes it possible to communicate thought at a distance almost as fast as by means of speech, and, second of all, the great inconveniences, independent of cost, that arise from the necessity of a conductive metal wire that can be altered or broken, and that it is not possible to protect entirely from atmospheric variations: what person, I say, in these circumstances, has not wished for the discovery of some medium that, simplifying the system still further, would permit him to get by altogether without the conductive wire?
... if no one is ignorant of the attraction or the natural sympathy of the magnetized needle for the North Pole, towards which it ever turns, it will be understood, I hope, that if a certain sympathy naturally exists between inorganic bodies, there is all the more reason for the same thing to occur between organic bodies.
... if we have any faith in divine goodness, it is necessary to admit that, whenever man has been able to conceive some idea that is truly good for humanity, as it is not possible that the human imagination be more powerful than the divine omnipotence, it is necessary, I say, to admit that God as well could have foreseen this good idea, and that, in his wisdom and goodness, he must wish that it be realized one day, for otherwise man, who is nothing but God’s creature, would be better and wiser than God, his creator, to whom man necessarily owes all of his own wisdom and goodness.
... the most useful discoveries have been due only to chance events and circumstances, and we would have to wait until the beginning of the 19th century in order to find the first traces of science being applied to electrical telegraphy. But what distance in turn separates this application of science from the new system of Messieurs Benoît and Biat! The magnificent discoveries of the Galvanis, the Voltas, the Mesmers, were only the prelude to the discovery of these two great genius inventors, and like signposts, so to speak, placed along the route that led to them.
What is remarkable in these two men is that, being strangers to one another, and each one born at opposite ends of the globe, the one in France and the other in America, they each had, separately and at the same time, the first idea of their discovery, and chance, or rather Providence, then brought it about that they meet and that they agree to pursue together the experiments and investigations that have decidedly had such fortuitous results.
...As I have already intimated, the discovery of Messieurs Benoît and Biat rests at once on galvanism, on mineral and animal magnetism, and on natural sympathy, that is to say that the basis of the new communication is a particular sort of sympathetic fluid arising from the combination of galvanic, magnetic, and sympathetic fluids, all three married together by the operations and procedures that will be described further on.
And as the different fluids involved vary according to the organic or inorganic being in question, it must still be said that the different fluids that are married together are the mineral-galvanic fluid on the one hand, the animal-sympathetic fluid of snails on the other, and, thirdly and finally, the magnetic-mineral fluid of the magnet and the magnetic-animal fluid of man, which means that, to characterize succinctly the basis of the new communication system, one should say that it happens by means of a galvano-magnetico-mineral-animalo-adamical sympathy.
Messieurs Benoît and Biat have in fact discovered that certain snails possess a remarkable property: that of remaining continually under the sympathetic influence of one another, when, after they have been coupled together and subsequently brought into relation through a particular operation involving the magnetic, mineral, and adamic fluid, they are placed in the necessary conditions for maintaining this sympathy; and in order to obtain all these results Messieurs Benoît and Biat require only the perfectly portable apparatus that they have invented, which they call the Pasilalinic Sympathetic Compass, by means of which they subsequently obtain, instantaneously and at whatever distance the sympathetic snails are placed the one from the other, a very sensitive commotion that they have called the ‘escargotic commotion’, which is manifested and communicated whenever the sympathy of two snails is stimulated by the approach of two other snails, similarly sympathetic between themselves, and with all the others, exactly like when electrical commotion is manifested for the physician each time he brings his finger close to any sort of electrified body.
...This apparatus consists in a square wooden box, in which a voltaic pile moves about, the metallic pairs of which, rather than being placed on top of one another as in Volta's pile, are arranged in order and are attached for this purpose to holes made in a wheel or in a circular wooden disc that moves around an iron axis.
For the metallic discs that make up the pairs of Volta's pile, Messieurs Benoît and Biat have substituted other pairs, in the form of circular depressions or troughs, and composed of a depression or trough made out of zinc, furnished on the inside with a previously dampened sheet of copper sulphate and maintained by means of a copper blade riveted to the depression.
At the bottom of each of these troughs they have fastened, with the aid of a mixture the composition of which will be given later, a live snail, prepared and chosen in advance, so that in the trough it will be able to imbue itself with the galvanic influence that should thus combine with the electrical influence, which will be developed when the wheel that forms the pile is placed into motion, and consequently along with it the snails that are attached to it.
The box in which this wheel or mobile pile is closed up can be of any form and material, but the box itself is necessary in order to remove the snails from the influence of the atmosphere. In any case, it is essentially mobile and portable. Moreover, each trough or galvanic depression is placed on a spring so as thus to form a sort of elastic key the movement of which is utilized to register the escargotic commotion.
We see now that the entirety of an apparatus of communication necessarily presupposes two particular apparatuses or instruments that are arranged like the one I have just described, and with the special attention of placing, in the troughs of the one, the snails that are sympathetic with those in the troughs of the other, in such a way that the escargotic commotion can depart from a precise point on one of the piles in order to go from there to an equally precise point on the other, and reciprocally.
And with these dispositions spelled out, the rest comes of itself: Messieurs Benoît and Biat have places on the wheels of the two instruments, and on each of the keys with a sympathy between them, corresponding letters, in such a way that from these they have mad a sort of alphabetical and sympathetic dial, by means of which the communication of thought is thus carried out naturally and instantaneously at any distance, by means of the writing of the thought itself, of which the escargotic commotion indicates the letters.
...The apparatus that I have just described, having the form of a marine compass, has been given the same name, 'compass', adding, so as to characterize its usage, the further qualification 'pasilalinic', which signifies universal speech or language, as well as the qualification 'sympathetic', which indicates the means by which one makes use of it.
The pasilalinic sympathetic compasses that Monsieur Benoît has created are more the two meters high. They have such a large size because he wanted to include in them the alphabetic letters or signs of all languages in use, as well as those of the universal pasilalinic language that he created, and which will be discussed further on, and, further, the punctuation marks as well as the numbers. But he realized that the number of couples or of escargotic keys necessary could be rigorously reduced to the twenty-five letters of the French language, and as one can, moreover, make use of snails of any size, and as there are some that are very small, even as small as the head of a pin, it follows that we should understand that the instrument, which can take any form, can also take on any size, from the very biggest down to the smallest, and that there could be some that are big like the dial of a horologium, others like that of a clock, and others still that are smaller, like that of a pocket-watch.
Here I will not speak of the matter or of the manner in which the apparatus's box can be made, but one must understand that all matters, metallic or otherwise, being suitable for use, 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 to which it will not fail to give birth, will necessarily be found everywhere, from the dresser, to the boudoir, and even, if you like, to the waist-chains of ladies.
... I was placed behind one of the compasses, Monsieur Triat behind the other; Monsieur Benoît, between the two, was consequently faced by both of them. There between us he maintained a religious silence.
I touch a snail from behind, as he said; Monsieur Benoît, seeing it move, draws it close to another one, and goes from there, with a third, to the second compass. He draws it close to several snails, until one of them becomes active, and Monsieur Triat says: "I see it," and notes down the letter that corresponds to it.
... . I had in fact transmitted these three letters: 'G', 'Y', 'M', and, in hearing him say that he understood the whole word, it was very clear for me that he had understood that I was going to add the letters 'N', 'A', 'S', 'E', since we had said that the word would not be too long. But he wished for the word to be completed. I in fact touched these four letters, which made the entire word GYMNASE; he in fact received the first three letters, but there were two errors for the others. In place of 'N' and of 'S', he received 'O' and 'T', which precisely follow the letters 'N' and 'S' in the alphabet, and the whole word turned out for him as GYMOATE rather than the GYMNASE I had sent.
Then Monsieur Triat was to speak in his turn, so that there should be question and answer, and so that the role of the compasses was inverted relative to the point of departure and of arrival. This time, I called out the letters in the order they were indicated to me, in order to determine the material errors, should there be any, at the moment the arose.
He transmitted to me the three letters 'L', 'U', 'M', which I called out in succession, then he transmitted an 'I' and I received an 'H'. Next he transmitted the three letters 'E', 'R', 'E', which I received and which formed the word LUMIERE, which I received as LUMHERE. Then, finally, he sent me the word DIVINE, which I received in its entirety and which I called out, letter by letter, in the order in which I received them.
...If now we consider the applications and the consequences of the discovery of Messieurs Benoît and Biat, we see they are very abundant, whether one considers the matter from the point of view of general relations, of governments and peoples, or from the point of view of particular relations and of the family. And one may also advantageously recall here, extending the applications even further, all the proposals that have already been made, all the projects already conceived for electrical telegraphy, such as electronic newspapers, electronic mail, the usage of electrical telegraphy for the internal administration of a country, and for relations between one people and another: things one could only hope for in electronic telegraphy from a more or less distant future, and things one might not even dare to wish for at all. As for particular relations, one may wish for it and expect it from the system of new communication, which can be organized and set up as if by magic across the surface of the entire globe, all at once and without great expense in comparison with what had been necessary for electrical telegraphy.
Yes, from now on by the system of communication of Messieurs Benoît and Biat, which is as simple as it is infallible, it will be possible to correspond as quickly as by speech, from man to man, or between several men at once, at any distance, without having to worry about atmospheric variations, in any season and at any moment of the day or night!
Among all the necessities of our epoch, the most pressing one is not only that of knowing and of communicating, but of knowing and communicating quickly. The railways, from a material point of view, and the activity of human nature, from a moral point of view, have created this pressing necessity. Now, imagine a discovery thatm by connecting itself to the material locomotion of the railways and to the aerial navigation that is beginning to dawn, would achieve in one day and surpass what electronic telegraphy has already begun and what it can cause us to hope for in the transmission of thought. Without a doubt this discovery would be received with acclamation and enthusiasm by all the nations of the globe, which it would thus bring together into one sole people of the earth: rejoice, for this discovery is precisely the one made by Messieurs Benoît and Biat!
...electrical telegraphy has made us understand and hope that we might have one day a national press that is published at the same hour, both in Paris and in all the departmental capitals.... But we had to wait a pretty long time still for this, while by means of the pasilalinic sympathetic compass, we could have, if we wished, not only the French press, the English press, the German press, and that of all the countries of the globe, but also the humanitarian press of the world, which would be specially intended to connect all peoples and to bring their accomplishments into harmony, so that they might thus walk together in realization of that great saying of Christ: "All men are brothers."
And morevoer, if a pasilalinic sympathetic compass were placed in the tribunal of the Chamber of Representatives, and it were made to communicate with the ones placed in each of the city halls of France, it would be possible, so to speak, to hear the voice of the orator, at the same instant, in all places at once, and thus to estaoblish between all minds a truly miraculous communication. By means of the pasilalinic sympathetic compass, the walls of the parliament buildings would be, so to speak, turned inside out, and the orator could speak to all the earth. From one end of the world to the other his voice would be heard, and the assembly that would hear him would be nowhere, but everywhere. This invisible orator, traversing immense distances, would be infinitely multiplied before an innumerably large audience, and his words would circulate in this way as rapidly as thought to all points in the world, thanks to the mysterious agent of the invisible sympathetic fluid, bringing with them not only the passion that drives the orator, but also the beating of his heart and even the least vibrations of his soul!
...But I must remember that I am not to give in to enthusiasm.