Humans have always looked for ways to make communication faster. For most of human history, communication was dependent on how fast a message could be physically delivered by foot, horse or boat. Eventually, humans developed faster methods of communication, such as smoke signals and carrier pigeons, but these quicker methods were not necessarily reliable or immediate.
The invention of the electric telegraph in the late 1830’s was revolutionary. Finally messages could be sent across an entire continent and received almost instantaneously. The only downside was that electric telegraphs required a physical line, and the first transatlantic line wasn’t installed until 1858. In that brief window of time, there was a rush of competition to develop a solution to this problem. One of these proposed solutions was the Snail Telegraph.
What is the Snail Telegraph?
Forget Snail Mail, the Snail Telegraph was invented to instantaneously deliver messages via literal snails.
26 pairs of mated snails were separated and arranged according to the letters of the alphabet to essentially become a living keyboard for texting. This invention was also called the pasilalinic-sympathetic snail compass, but Snail Telegraph is catchier, right?
Wait, what? How does that work?
Inventor of the Snail Telegraph, Jacques Tousaint Benoit, believed that once two snails mate, they are linked monogamously and telepathically by an invisible, fluid, thread until death do them part. According to that theory, if one snail is poked, its mate will respond.
Furthermore, Benoit was convinced, that great distances could not interfere with this snail bond. He claimed that this sexual snail energy travelled faster than light, using the Earth to complete its circuit.
Based on this concept, 26 pairs of snail-mates would be separated and arranged correspondingly, for each letter of the alphabet: hence the snail keyboard. To send a snail telegraph, one would simply type a message by poking one set of snails, and the holder of the partner snails could interpret the message instantly… one letter at a time. Sort of like a Ouija board.
When Did This Happen?
Jacques Benoit was pushing his snail idea throughout the 1850’s. He was a French occultist, astrologist and magician; a perfectly normal career path in the 1800’s. By that time, witch-hunts were a terrible event of the past, and elaborate magic shows were selling out popular theatres. It became fashionable to hold and attend séances. Science too, was wide open to experimentation, including elements of magic and the occult.
Why did anyone think this was a good idea?
Benoit’s Snail Telegraph was posited according to the concept of sympathy, a popular concept of the day. In fact, he was not the first to develop this theory. The idea of “Flesh Telegraphs” had been tossed around since the 1500’s. Sympathy is the same concept behind Voodoo dolls: objects, animals, or humans, are linked by the magical, invisible, element of “sympathy”. What happens to one, will happen to the other, even when the objects are separated by distance.
Benoit eventually found a patron for his project, a gymnasium owner named Monsieur Triat. Although Triat was not highly educated, he had money to invest, and became convinced that Benoit’s idea could be potentially lucrative. Triat fully funded Benoit’s work on the Snail Telegraph, providing a space to work, lodging, and money for entertainment for both Benoit and his French-American colleague, Biat Chretian.
Imagine a world of snail texting…
Benoit imagined the snail telegraph to be a portable, even wearable item. They were actually described by a journalist as “destined to be worn on ladies’ waist chains”. Be in constant communication by simply carrying 26 live snails on your person at all times. How chic! How practical!
Was it ever used?
After a year of work, fully funded by Triat, Benoit announced that the machine was complete. A demonstration was planned and they invited a journalist from “La Presse” named Jules Alix, to participate and report on the unveiling.
Alix described the Snail Telegraph as “a large scaffold shaped like a compass using 10 foot long boards”. The snails were glued to zinc bowls and placed around the perimeter of the circle next to a corresponding letter of the alphabet.
Benoit claimed that he and his partner, Chretien, had been successfully testing the Snail Telegraph for days. He had full confidence that his invention worked, but he still didn’t allow the journalist, Alix, to put up a privacy curtain between the two devices.
For the demonstration, Alix typed the word “gymnaste” on his snail keyboard, and Benoit received the message “gymote”. Close enough right?
The next challenge was to send a message to Benoit’s partner, Chretien, in America. Unfortunately the snails were exhausted and just didn’t have it in them to cooperate. The demonstration ended early to give the little guys some rest.
Did it ever work?
The short answer is, no!
A few months later, a second attempt was made to send a Snail Telegraph to America, but Benoit’s trusty partner Chretien was a no-show! It was soon revealed that “Biat Chretien” never existed! Much like the Snail Telegraph, Chretien was a complete fabrication of Benoit’s.