1684: the birth of the telegraph

There’s a sort of game that historians play on Twitter. They keep track of the number of their followers by looking at events in the corresponding year. So yesterday my account (@TomCW99) racked up 1684 followers and I got quite excited because 1684 was the year that Robert Hooke invented the semaphore line.

Semaphores crop up in a couple of my books (or at least in the research I did for them).

I first came across a reference to semaphores when I was researching Napoleon’s escape from Elba. One of the French king’s bodyguards, Col Marie Antoine de Reiset wrote in his journal:

An astounding piece of news arrived yesterday. We learnt, by Telegraph, that Bonaparte had landed at Cannes, near Frejus.

The apparent anachronism is explained by the absence of the word ‘electric’ before ‘telegraph’. A check in the trusty Complete Oxford Dictionary (invaluable for historical novelists) gives the original meaning of the word ‘telegraph’ as: “An apparatus for transmitting messages to a distance, usually by signs of some kind.”

This was the idea that Hooke had presented to the Royal Society in 1684. He had intended it for military use, but his ideas were never put into practice. As so often nowadays, an idea that had been invented in Britain was left for another country to develop. Embarrassingly (given that we were about to go to war with them) the nation that did finally produce a workable semaphore system for military use was the French. In 1792, the engineer Claude Chappe developed the first successful optical telegraph. Eventually he and his brothers succeeded in covering France with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 3,000 miles. 

The British, though, were not far behind.

In Britain, semaphore was used to communicate between London and the fleet. (Note that the English tend to prefer the word ‘semaphore’ to ‘telegraph’ but they are the same thing.) Lines of semaphore towers were constructed. The first ran from London to Deal, Chatham and Sheerness and they were completed by the end of January 1796. The system was judged a great success – signals were said to have travelled from Dover to London, via Deal, in less than seven minutes. A line to Portsmouth, the home of the Navy, was completed in August 1796.

Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower

Semaphore can actually prove a remarkably efficient means of communication. Because of the importance of accurate time-keeping in navigation, it was important that the fleet had access to a reliable time signal and semaphore was used to mark the time at which the Time Ball was dropped at the Greenwich Observatory (marking one o’clock). By 1806, the semaphore line had been extended to Plymouth and the one o’clock signal was sent to the port there and acknowledged back to London in three minutes, an impressive achievement for a round trip of four hundred miles.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, the British were using a system of telegraphs developed by Sir Home Popham to communicate along their defensive forts in the lines of Torres Vedras (which will feature in a future James Burke book). Semaphore masts were installed at key points along the line s. The one shown here is a replica at Fort San Vicente.

The horizontal arms on the mast standing there today are not really long enough. When this was rigged up and working the arm would have stretched out as far as the five posts at the bottom. Ropes would have run from the arm to each of the five posts and balls mounted on these ropes would have carried the message. A model in the museum at the fort shows how it would have been set up.

The shorter arms on the modern reproduction are probably wise. There were problems with the original masts which could not bear the weight of the arms and which had to be replaced.

The system allows the masts to transmit one number at a time from one to 999. Each number corresponded to a word in a codebook enabling vital military messages to be transmitted very quickly. Anybody could see the signals but without the codebook they were meaningless.

Popham (never a man to fail to promote one of his ideas) convinced the Admiralty that his system was an improvement on the one they were using and, after trials with an experimental semaphore line between the Admiralty and Chatham in 1816, and its success helped to confirm the choice, Popham’s system was adopted.

The semaphore system was envisaged as a war-time measure, to be abandoned after the defeat of Napoleon and, indeed, it was run down as soon as he was sent to Elba. Napoleon’s escape, though, led to the system being restored to full effectiveness and it was then kept running until it was superseded by the electric telegraph.

The new-fangled electric telegraph had just started operating in India in 1857, just in time to feature briefly in my book about the Mutiny, Cawnpore. It was telegraph messages that warned the British as soon as the uprising started (the operator who sent the first message was killed for his pains) and without it, events may well have turned out differently and Cawnpore might have had a very different ending.


Photo credit: “Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower – geograph.org.uk – 18673” by Nigel Richardson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg#/media/File:Chatley_Heath_Semaphore_Tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_18673.jpg

The photograph of the model of the semaphore in use was taken by Roundtheworld and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

A Word from Our Sponsor

If things like the way that semaphore was used in the Napoleonic Wars catch your interest, you might well enjoy my books about the adventures of James Burke. You won’t come across Popham’s telegraph just yet (the latest book features the battle of Talavera and Wellington’s retreat behind the lines of Torres Vedras, complete with semaphore masts, has yet to take place). You will, though, find a lot of other incidental detail about life at the time. All the James Burke books are available on Amazon both as e-books and in paperback. You can read more details about them on this website: click on ‘My books’ at the top of the page.

Cawnpore and the other books set in the age of the electric telegraph are currently unavailable. They will be republished over the summer.

The Royal Armouries

Rather to my surprise posts about my travels seem to go down quite well, according to the number of views they got last year. So this week I’m writing a little about a recent visit to Yorkshire.

The Royal Armouries moved out of London to Leeds in 1996. Sadly this makes it inconvenient for me to get to, but I made a special trip just before Christmas.

It’s an amazing museum, purpose-built to house one of the world’s great collections of arms and armour. The Hall of Steel, six floors of hardware, is an impressive introduction.

There are some stunning examples of European armour like this one.

This was made as a Christmas present to the Elector Christian I of Saxony from his wife, Sophia, in 1591. Sadly, despite repeated hints, I didn’t find a similar half-armour under my tree on Christmas Day.

Beautiful as the European arms and armour are, my real interest is in Eastern weaponry and the Armouries have a lovely (if rather hidden away) collection. I’ve written on my old blog about kris. Kris are a Malay weapon and feature in my first book, The White Rajah. They are fascinating weapons, but there aren’t that many on display in UK museums. The Royal Armouries, though, have some lovely examples including a Balinese kris. I have seen people dancing with kris in Bali, but the faceted hilt was new to me.

There were some other examples of weaponry from the world of The White Rajah, including a sharply angled parang from the Philippines.

In The White Rajah there is mention of the padded body armour the Malays wore, but this is the first time I have seen the armour worn by the Moro people of the Philippines. The Armouries describe it as “unique”, which seems highly likely. It’s a mail and plate construction with the plates made of horn and the mail of brass. The Armouries suggest that the style derives from the armour of the mediaeval Islamic world.

The armour is accompanied by shields described as “captured from ‘Sea Dyak pirates’” in 1848 – presumably in some of the encounters described in The White Rajah. I was quite excited to see them.

Moving from the world of The White Rajah to India, there are a few nice examples of Indian weapons. They include tulwar swords and peshkabz daggers. These featured in my old blog back in 2016 if you are interested in reading more about them.

The strangest Indian edged weapons (which definitely do not feature in any of my books) are a pair of tusk swords (above), which were fitted to the tusks of war elephants. (There’s a display of a full set of protective armour for a war-elephant too, mounted on a model elephant. It is, to put it mildly, impressive.) There is a display devoted to the Indian Mutiny, which I enjoyed given that Cawnpore is set in the middle of that conflict, but the weaponry shown there is not particularly interesting.

One of the things that makes kris particularly interesting is the watering in the blade . You can see this very clearly in this example from the Royal Armouries.

This is caused because the blade is made of strips of iron and steel together steel is hard but brittle, the iron softer. Mixing the two can produce the ideal blade, given the limitations of the technology for making steel at the time that the swords were made. (If you want a more detailed discussion of the technology of this, there’s one on my old blog HERE.) Anyway, I mention this now because while I was in Yorkshire I went to see the Jorvik Viking  museum in York, which is a lovely museum and well worth a visit if only to admire a sock that is over a thousand years old.

Woolen sock in Jorvik Centre

Given my interest in swords, though, I particularly admired this one, which was found not in York, but in Windsor. I had a long chat with one of the experts there who said that it was probably made by a particularly good swordsmith and that it would have been owned by someone of high status. You can see that, like the kris, it is made of strips of different metal – some almost pure iron, some carbonised to steel. After centuries in the ground, rusting has eaten away the edges of these strips, making it very clear how the sword was made. So here we have two swords, literally half a world and hundreds of years apart, both made using very similar technology.

Close-up of sword

I could go on about Chinese swords

Nepalese kukris

Or even this rather lovely specimen from Burma.

Not everyone, though, shares my fascination with swords. I’ll stop now.

If anyone does want more about arms or armour, do feel free to say so in the ‘Comments’ below.

Exciting news! (Well exciting for me anyway.)

I have a new book coming out.

If you missed the tweets or Facebook posts, I have some news this week. I’ve written another book.

This is a complete change from me. First, it’s a novella – just 33,000 words. I like novellas. They tell the story that they have to tell and then stop. They are convenient in today’s crowded lives because they don’t take that long to read. My apologies to those, like one of my friends who read a draft copy, who want more words because, they said, they enjoyed it so much. None of my other six books are under 75,000 words and some run considerably more than that, so there’s no shortage of words you can read from me if you feel the need for them. I didn’t want to pad this one out, so I tried to make every word count and I hope that the ride is short but exciting.

The second big difference from any of my other books is that this is not historical fiction. It’s very much set in the world of today. It’s about two companies of magicians: the Maestros of Magic touring the country, playing provincial theatres, and the Carnival of Conjurors who are storming to success in the West End. When the Maestros begin to suspect that the Conjurors are using Black Magic to achieve their incredible illusions, things get nasty. Soon “dying on stage” isn’t just a figure of speech.

The book is called Dark Magic and bits of it are very dark indeed, but there are a fair few laughs. It’s nice to have an excuse to give free rein to my twisted sense of humour.

It has being huge fun for me to write. Just as with my historical novels, I did have to do some research – but the research consisted of chatting to magicians and watching tricks on YouTube. It made a pleasant change from days spent reading 19th-century correspondence.

In another break from the way I have done things in the past, this one is being self-published. Publishers are generally unenthusiastic about novellas, so this seemed the best way to get it to see the light of day. If it’s successful, I will probably self-publish more of my historical novels. The way that publishing works these days, selling to a publisher takes a lot of time and effort and the benefits aren’t as obvious as they were when publishers had fewer authors and were in a better position to offer them support.

Self-publishing does mean that I have to do all my own promotion, including things like sort out the cover. I have a very beautiful cover, thanks to designer Dave Slaney. I’ll be revealing it on Friday. Look out for my blog post then.

Buy Me a Coffee (please)

I blog on Fridays, generally about history but sometimes about other things, like this blog on an aspect of writing life. I do the odd book review as well, and these are usually posted on Tuesdays.

For all kinds of boring reasons, I’m not writing a lot at the moment. (I’m looking for publishers for some stuff I have written already and I don’t want to write another book until the ones that have already been written have homes to go to.) This means that my blog is the main writing that I do right now.

It can be very satisfying to run a blog. This one gets well over 3,000 visitors in the average month. Even allowing that many of them seem to be spambots of one sort or another, that still leaves quite a few real people and they surely can’t all be Russian hackers. It’s nice to know that my take on some historical events is widely read and, as my figures stay pretty stable, a lot of people are presumably coming back month after month, hopefully because they like what they see. (I know 3,000 isn’t very many by the standards of these things, but then I’m writing thousand word posts on topics like the Conference of Vienna, so I don’t expect a massively high readership.)

It’s a good thing that it is satisfying, because there are no obvious practical benefits. One reason for doing it was to prove to myself, and anybody who read it, that I can reliably produce a column week-in week-out. (I’m allowed to take time off for Christmas and summer holidays.) This is a lot harder than it seems at first and many bloggers who start with high hopes fizzle out after a month or two, but here I am (though I have no idea yet what next week’s blog will be about). The market for people who can write a regular historical column is, though, extremely limited and there seem to be more than enough Caitlin Morans and Giles Corens to supply the market for columnists generally, so, having proved I can do it, I have really impressed no-one but myself.

I did have a vague hope that if people read about the history behind some of my books they might go on to read the books themselves. Let’s just say that if one in a hundred of those 3,000 people a month were to decide to buy a book, I would not still be trying to persuade my publisher to take the next in the Burke series.

I don’t blame you, I really don’t. I feel guilty enough about all the excellent authors whose blogs I read but whose books I don’t buy without adding to your guilt burden. Plus, for some reason that I must admit I don’t understand, a lot of people who are otherwise quite generous feel that they really don’t want to spend money on a book. Perhaps it’s that they think that if they do they will have this unread novel haunting their Kindle, like the ghost of summer reading yet to come. Honestly, I’m not proud. I’m really happy that you’ve bought one of the books – I’m not going to insist that you read it too (although you might enjoy it if you do).

Anyway, given that everybody talks about monetising blogs, I have decided that, if you feel so inclined, you can Buy Me a Coffee. Somewhere on this page (top of right sidebar if you are on a computer, somewhere at the bottom if you are on a phone) there is a cheery little orange box that you can use to send me the price of a cup of coffee. At least, I hope you can. It’s new, so let me know if you have any problems (comment below or use the ‘Contact’ page).

Alternatively, please leave a comment occasionally. Blogging allows writers to talk to readers (and non-readers – it’s not a private club) and for them to talk back. I know WordPress can be annoying, but you shouldn’t have to register or anything. I do read all the comments I get and I like hearing from you. If you haven’t commented before, I do have to approve your comment. This is mainly to protect you from the oceans of spam that would otherwise flood the page: it’s not evil censorship or anything.

Anyway, that’s me for this week. Normal historical ramblings and other chat will be resumed shortly. Meanwhile, if you know anyone who wants to commission a regular column or who is in the market for some historical non-fiction (I’m branching out), point them in my direction.

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading.

Book reviews in 2018

My blog is not a book blog, but on Tuesdays I quite often review books that have caught my eye. By and large I only write about ones that I’ve enjoyed, so here’s a canter through this year’s reviews which may give you some ideas for reading matter in 2019.


Historical Mystery stories

Given the general theme of my blog, I favour reviews of historical novels. There seems to be a lot of crossover between historical and detective fiction so for fans of whodunnits, here are a few possibilities. (Links are to my reviews.)

The Gilded Shroud (Elizabeth Bailey) Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie when the Marchioness of Polbrook, is strangled in her bed.

The Esther and Jack Enright Mysteries Victorian murder mysteries, with an inevitable nod in the direction of Jack the Ripper.

The Duke’s Agent (Rebecca Jenkins) It’s 1811 and when the Duke of Penrith’s agent suddenly dies, the extent of his peculation is revealed.  Raif Jarrett agrees to use his leave from the Army to sort out the mess, but things are worse than they seem. Soon there is murder and riot and the agent himself finds his life at risk. Great fun and decently researched history.

Dear Laura (Jean Stubbs) As much psychodrama as detective story, I loved this book for its portrayal of the sheer awfulness of the lives of many women in the Victorian period.

General Historical Novels

The Custom of the Trade (Shaun Lewis) First World War submarine adventure by an ex-submariner who writes with authority.

Pleasing Mr Pepys (Deborah Swift) Definitely one of the best books I read last year. Highly recommended.

Chants to Persephone Book 5 of Jennifer Macaire’s series featuring Alexander the Great and a time-travelling historian. Huge fun and more solidly fact-based than you would expect.

The Last Roundhead (Jemahl Evans) Spies and battle in an incredibly well researched story of the English Civil War.

A Kestrel Rising (SA Laybourn) Romance set against the background of the air war in World War II. Excellent.

New Grub Street (George Gissing) Technically this isn’t a historical novel because it wasn’t historical when it was written. It certainly does give a wonderful insight into the world of publishing at the end of the 19th century.

My own books

I think I’m admirably restrained in the amount that I write about my books but these are the links to posts about my own books in 2018.

Burke in the Land of Silver

Burke and the Bedouin

The White Rajah


Back Home



I read spectacular amounts of non-fiction while researching but I don’t generally review them. I read this one because it was published by my own publishers, Endeavour Media, and I reviewed it because it was a fascinating book and well worth having a look at.

Roger Casement (Brian Inglis) Biography of the Irish Nationalist hanged by the British in 1916.

Thrillers and Detective Stories

When I’m not reading history for historical novels, I really enjoy relaxing with a good thriller or mystery book. These books are harder to write than people think and I’m happy to be able to point to some good ones.

Redemption Point (Candice Fox) Excellent Australian detective thriller.

Two very different murder mysteries that are still strangely similar I’ve reviewed The Mystery of Three Quarters (Sophie Hannah) and The Katharina Code (Jorn Lier Horst) together, comparing two very different takes on the murder mystery.


Assorted Sherlock Holmes pastiches Why is Sherlock Holmes still so popular? I had a look at books by Bonnie MacBird and Anthony Harowitz to see what the appeal is.

Dr Morelle Endeavour Media are republishing Ernest Dudley’s Dr Morelle books from the 1940s and 50s. They aren’t the best of the Golden Age detective stories, but the 1950s atmosphere is a treat. How can you not love a story which features a character called Aces La Rue?

Collateral Damage (James Long) Another one from Endeavour and well worth a look. Brilliant page-turner of a thriller set against the background of the first Gulf War.

The Darkness (Ragner Jonasson) Icelandic-noir. Very, very noir.

General Fiction

Ed Reardon’s Week (Christopher Douglas & Andrew Nickolds) The book of the radio series about an impoverished jobbing author. Brilliant.

Tipping Point (Terry Tyler) Dystopian near-future ‘Walking Dead’ but without zombies.