A Clacks Tower in Marseillette

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In the south of France, the village of Marseillette lies on the Canal du Midi between Carcassonne and Narbonne. It is a neatly maintained village of some seven hundred souls with no evidence of industry or small business of any kind save for an excellent bakery. It is an agricultural community — grapes for wine, of course, but also apples and rice, according to French tourism literature.

We’re strolling the empty streets on a Thursday morning after stopping at the bakery. We see wonderful French doors and windows and roofs and a church bell tower that tolls the hours. We wander through the town’s cemetery where we can see another tower, not associated with the church. And so we go looking for it.

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It is a tall, stand-alone tower of stone with a round, white-faced clock near the top. The clock is clearly younger than the tower, and looks like an afterthought. We find a plaque bolted to the tower’s curvilinear side. It presents a history of the tower, in French and English, and when K and I have finished reading, we turn to look at one another and simultaneously exclaim, “The Clacks!”

We are lately-arrived Terry Pratchett fans. We’ve especially enjoyed his later novels, and one of our favorites is “Going Postal.” The story takes place in his fictional universe, “Discworld,” in a time period that strongly suggests Victorian England; a principal story line involves a visual telegraph system called the Clacks.

Briefly, the Clacks is a semaphore system along a communication line of towers. Having read the plaque on the Marseillette tower, K and I have jumped to the conclusion that Pratchett was well aware of what we have just discovered here in Marseillette when he wrote about the Clacks. And while our discovery is a surprise, it is no surprise to us that Pratchett may have used an historical artifact as the basis for a more cunning fiction. This is one of the things he does so well: incorporating Earthworld technologies into parallel Discworld phenomena, often for the purpose of satirizing the former. (In this case, the Clacks strongly suggests the information-sending revolution of the internet, and the difficulties this caused the post office — not to mention the service vs. profit clash between customer and owner.)

Here is a transcription of what we’ve read:

The clock tower or fort tower has not always housed a timekeeper. It was originally a relay station in the first telecommunications network of the world. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, Claude Chappe, an ex-priest, invented a system of optical transmission that sent messages rapidly through relay stations. This invention was so revolutionary that it attracted the interest of Napoleon I who found it as a swift, secure means of communicating with his armies based in the south of France. After a test-line was built in 1793, Montpelier was linked to Toulouse. Marseillette was retained as a relay station. It was the highest in the Aude; the tower, built in 1834, was fourteen meters high. However, this telegraph line had hardly come into use when, already, scientists and technicians were preparing and setting up the invention of S. Morse; the electric telegraph. Chappe’s system disappeared after lasting less than a century having several disadvantages: only working in daylight and fine weather and being used only for military communications. In 1853 the electric telegraph came to Aude for a much wider use. Claude Chappe died in 1802. The commune bought the tower in 1858 to house the municipal clock. The tower became the symbol of the commune.

(“Chappe’s system disappeared after lasting less than a century…” This phrase couldn’t have better told the difference between how time is perceived in an Old World farming village and a twenty-first century New World city. In my country, version 2015.10, “less than” applies to a time period whose parameters are determined by such phenomena as new iPhone models and OS upgrades. Television series, pop songs, sports seasons, all last “less than” something considerably shorter than a century, a term of time measurement whose beginnings, to younger generations of Americans, are already swallowed in the mists of time.)

The tower was built in 1834 and its functionality lasted less than a century — dates that correspond perfectly with the Victorian period.

Curious to know more, I googled “Claude Chappe” and came across a wealth of information. By far the best treatment of Chappe’s system is found in a .pdf file posted by Professor J-M. Dilhac with the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Toulouse.

I’m not going to attempt a synopsis of Prof. Dilhac’s work, but I am going to present screenshots of the illustrations in his document which give one a sense of how the transmissions were accomplished, and the beyond-France range of the system.

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Professor Dilhac writes in conclusion:

Technically speaking, in retrospect, the system may look simple, but it was a highly sophisticated technical tool using, as already said, source coding, control signals, synchronisation, flow control protocols, i.e. principles used in modern communication networks… What is left today of the optical telegraphs? As already said, once they were superseded by electric telegraphs, their history was forgotten as most people’s life had not been directly affected, while materials soon disappeared. All that is left today is a few street-names (like “rue du télégraphe”). However, it is worth saying that even if modern data telecommunication networks are faster, bigger, more flexible and reliable, they are not intrinsically very different. They still use basic methods developed by men born and educated in the XVIIth century.

Only a few street-names remain, perhaps, but in Marseillette, this splendid tower was left for us to discover the year Terry Pratchett died. There is a whiff of Discworld irony in this monument to Pratchett’s genius running parallel with the real world tribute to the genius of Claude Chappe.

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