Writing in the Air
At a quarter to eight on a breezy spring morning in 1804, Francis Beaufort of the Irish Telegraph Corps came racing up the broad upper slopes of Croghan Hill, his militiamen close on his tail. He was instantly at work. He jammed 'at least nine ounces' of tobacco leaves into a lead pipe, pulled out a match, held it close and let it catch. The flare ignited, smoke coiled into the morning air. In seconds Beaufort and his men were engulfed by the thick, earthy aroma of tobacco. In a letter to his sister Fanny written two days later Beaufort declared proudly that his flare 'made the hollow between the little moat and the summit of the hill look like the crater of Mount Vesuvius in an eruption'.1
Beaufort was a short man, not much over five feet. On mornings like this his men might catch sight of the sabre scars on his arms, reminders of his days at sea. Now they had a moment to rest at the top of Croghan Hill, a whale-backed elevation that sloped out of the Bog of Allen in the Irish Midlands, and watch the smoke rise. This was part of a predetermined plan, Beaufort's way of signalling their location to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the Chief Telegrapher, who was lodged nine miles away in the hamlet of Kilrainey.
Beaufort had woken late that morning. Anxious that he was going to miss Edgeworth, he had set off on a fifteen-minute scramble up the hill. In his letter to Fanny he noted that he had almost broken his neck on the way. His sister would have recognised the description. This childlike, superabundance of energy characterised all he did. Even his letters home rang with exclamation marks, or skipped from one sentence to the next in a chain of breathless dashes.
But this was just one side of Beaufort, a passionate edge reserved for an intimate few. Outwardly he was a practical man. He had a tidy, scrupulous mind that had served him well during his ten years of service in the Royal Navy. Now he was bringing this experience to bear overseeing the construction of Ireland's first ever optical telegraph line. This was the brainchild of Beaufort's brother-in-law Richard Lovell Edgeworth. It consisted of a chain of hilltop stations out of which a tall pole rose fifteen feet into the air. To the top of this pole was fastened a large isosceles triangle that could be turned around like the hands of a clock to any one of eight distinct positions. The whirling of the triangle corresponded with a vocabulary that Edgeworth had invented so that words or phrases could be transmitted along the line, with one station mimicking the movements of another.
It was an exciting project with stations planned to link Dublin on the east coast with Galway on the west. If the machines worked, and Edgeworth was certain that they would, it should be possible to transmit messages between the two places in minutes - a dazzling thought. For the past six months, Beaufort's job had been to lead his militia from one location to another: sourcing the raw materials, building guardhouses and stations and training men to understand the telegraph code. Little by little they had progressed, and throughout the winter and spring months of 1804 telegraph stations had been appearing on the landscape, looking to the untrained eye like diminutive windmills.
It was difficult work but Beaufort loved being out in the open air. That morning on Croghan Hill, with his flare burned out and his militiamen 'cold and tired', he decided to enjoy the view. He discharged his men and remained on the top alone. Beaufort was used to analysing the atmosphere and watching its subtle shifts. Now in his solitude he gazed out across one of the most exhilarating views in Ireland. Many were drawn to the top of Croghan Hill to enjoy the panoramic vista and on that spring morning the terrain of his homeland stretched out in miniature beneath him. Far to his east were the Wicklow Mountains, rising and falling, on the horizon. Closer were the deep brown hues of the bogs, a treeless barren country, notoriously perilous for those on foot, but cast in glossy morning light even they glowed with lustre. To the north the shifting patterns of the sky were reflected in the shallow water of Lough Ennell, a locale that, tradition held, had inspired Jonathan Swift's miniature kingdom Lilliput a century before.
In his letter to his sister Fanny, Beaufort wrote:
It was a most great and sublime scene ... the honesty of my situation - the anxiety about the heights - and the awful magnificence of the still, silent and half visible world, far above which I seemed to be elevated - the brilliancy of the moon and the rapidity with which the clouds flew overhead (from my nearly being in them) - kept my thoughts sufficiently and delightfully employed.2
Beaufort's letter is steeped in the language and passions of his age. He responds to the view more like a Romantic poet than a military man. His eyes are attuned to the 'brilliancy' and, paradoxically, 'awful magnificence' of the world around him. The racing, pulsing atmosphere has brought on a giddiness, a tightening of fibres, a sensation that he is eager to convey to his sister. This was a typical response. Beaufort basks on the hill, overawed by an atmosphere that seems beyond comprehension. Like others of his time - he was born within four years of Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth - he remained in thrall to the philosophy set down by Edmund Burke half a century before: the Sublime, that exquisite combination of terror and bliss, and its effect on the soul.
* * *
Edgeworth's optical telegraph had been commissioned as a part of the Irish response to Napoleon Bonaparte's gathering armies on the French coast. A prototype had been displayed and tested before Lord Hardwicke, the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, and was now the source of considerable excitement. Should the French attack, as seemed likely at the start of 1804, it would give the government a way of communicating the news across the country and perhaps even the chance to raise the militia in response.
For years before, governments had been forced to rely on hilltop beacons or flares - like that burned by Beaufort on Croghan Hill - to spread news of invasions. Other methods had been tried too: church bells, trumpets, cannon fire, carrier pigeons, drums and torchlight had all been used with varying degrees of success to send simple dispatches of life or death, peace or war. But each method had been hampered by its own specific difficulty. Well into the eighteenth century written letters remained the most reliable way of transmitting complex messages across distance. But even in urgent cases these could only travel as fast as the gallop of a horse. More often they crawled between the cities and towns, towns and villages, bearing tidings of events that had long since happened.
So slow was the trickle of information that people remained almost completely ignorant of anything that happened beyond their own personal sphere. Reports, for example, of Captain Cook's murder in Hawaii in 1779 took eleven months to reach England. A decade later, in July 1789, ten days passed before Parson Woodforde heard the news in Norfolk of the Storming of the Bastille in Paris. Matters had improved gradually throughout the eighteenth century with the expansion of the turnpike network in England. This offered a steady and straight surface for the red, maroon and black mail coaches that rolled sluggishly along them (at 7 mph on a good day). But in Ireland with its dangerously rutted roads, overgrown bridleways and meandering country lanes, a letter written in Dublin would commonly take a week to arrive at its destination in Galway.
The emergence of the optical télégraph in France promised to revolutionise this. News of its invention had spread through British society, in August 1794, when a design for the device was discovered in the pocket of a prisoner in Germany. Newspapers seized on the story, equally exciting and terrifying, that their revolutionary enemy had invented a machine that allowed them to communicate across hundreds of miles in a flash. The télégraph was the invention of Claude Chappe, a bright and determined engineer, displaced clergyman and member of the Société Philomatique in Paris. Forced from his clerical living at the start of the Revolution, Chappe had turned his mind to invention and, with the help of his brothers, conceived the idea of a machine capable of sending messages with clarity, speed and confidentiality. After several prototypes he settled on a design that, the Annual Register observed, imitated the form of the human body. The télégraph was fifteen feet tall and had two adjustable arms that were fixed to an upright pole. 'Were two men to make signs to each other at a distance,' the Register had explained, 'too great for seeing the ordinary motions as made by dumb people, they would move their arms as Monsieur Chappe moves his telegraph.'3
Mounted at stations twenty miles apart so that messages could be relayed with great speed, Chappe's telegraph was truly ground-breaking. Eager to show its potential, enterprising businessmen held telegraphic demonstrations in London's theatres. The British actor and writer Charles Dibdin seized the moment to produce a ballad, which thundered:
If you'll only just promise you'll none of you laugh
I'll be after explaining the French Telegraph!
A machine that's endow'd with such wonderful pow'r
It writes, reads, and sends news fifty miles in an hour4
The abrupt appearance of this device had shattered existing notions of velocity. The very word télégraph - a fusion of the Greek tele and graph that literally meant 'far-writer' - became a fashionable euphemism for speed, efficiency and confidentiality. That a gentleman might divulge intimate conversation to another in a distant place without being exposed was a tantalising prospect. That William Pitt the Younger in Downing Street might be able to converse, harry, jostle or intrigue with the Lord Lieutenant in Ireland over his nightly bottles of wine or direct faraway battles from the solitude of his study was an idea that had set imaginations ablaze.
A decade had passed since Chappe's first télégraph line had been completed in northern France and since then a rich variety of designs had been created and tested across Europe. There were shutter telegraphs that winked and blinked, others that waved and whirled. If Edgeworth's device was to work then, like the French, the Irish would theoretically be able to send encoded messages at the speed of light. It would be a visual nerve that stretched the breadth of the country.
To oversee his plans Edgeworth had turned to a talented acquaintance Francis Beaufort. Now aged thirty, Beaufort's life had already followed a colourful course. He had travelled to the far corners of the world, survived a shipwreck, served King George a dozen times in battle and discovered the allure of exploration, a thrill that would come to dominate his life. For Beaufort, at a loose end back in Ireland, the country of his birth, Edgeworth's telegraph project was a chance to plough his talents into a scientific, patriotic pursuit. They both believed that their Irish telegraph was going to change everything. It was a perfect match.
* * *
From boyhood Francis Beaufort had been marked for his talent. Quick-witted and naturally curious, in the 1780s he had filled notebooks with formulas and theorems in an immaculate copperplate hand. An entry from one book kept by his father gives a revealing snapshot of Francis at the age of fourteen. It was penned on a winter's night in Dublin. Long after dark he had lain awake at the family home in Mecklenburg Street, staring into the sky. His attention had been caught by an intriguing circle that ringed the moon. It shone with subtle brilliance. On a scrap of parchment entitled an 'Observation of Francis Beaufort' he recorded what he saw.
Beaufort is awed by the lunar halo, a sight that he had most likely never experienced before. Rather than letting the moment escape he bottles it for future reference like a botanist with an unidentified specimen. He jots down the time of his observation, and adds quantitative detail to his description, preserving a picture of the scene. This was characteristic of Beaufort. It shows his natural desire to capture and record. It reflects his flair for empirical study: to watch, analyse and distil subjects into a legible form.
It was an early sign of Beaufort's organising mind. Another was a cryptic code invented for himself and his elder brother William - a combination of Greek letters, astronomical symbols and twirling lines - to enable the two to communicate in secret about risqué or forbidden topics like sex and religion. Knowing their father would notice the code, Francis once appealed to him, 'never take ill of my writing things [to] William in a concealed hand or manner, for let me assure you 'tis only little jokes or trifles between us.'6
Francis' father could hardly be annoyed, as it was just the kind of behaviour he would have indulged in himself. Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort was the guiding force in Francis' young life. Daniel - known affectionately as 'DAB' to his friends - was no ordinary man. Among his many and varied accomplishments was a beautifully accurate map of Ireland. This was his crowning achievement but he was also a classicist, gentleman farmer, architect, hobbyist philosopher and all-round society man who played a role in establishing the Royal Irish Academy. Talented though he was, Daniel Beaufort was constantly hindered by his Micawberish propensity for debt. The state of the family finances meant the Beauforts could never live the cosy life enjoyed by many clergy families. Always in the shadow of the bailiff, they lived a cat-and-mouse existence, fleeing from one place to another. During the first sixteen years of Francis' life they uprooted on six occasions: from Navan in County Meath - Francis' birthplace - to Chepstow in England, then Cheltenham, Dublin, London and, finally, Collon in County Louth in 1789.
Francis' education suffered as a result. He managed just a short spell at a marine academy in the 1780s in Dublin but for much of his boyhood he was schooled at home. His father's contacts did, however, bear fruit in 1788 when he was entered for a spell of private tuition with Dr Henry Usher, Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College Dublin. The classes came at a perfect moment in Francis' intellectual development. At dusk he would set out from his home in Mecklenburg Street, down past the legal chambers on Marlborough Street to the noise and bustle of Bachelors Walk and Ormond Quay on the north bank of the Liffey. He would pass the hospital, Royal Square and cut through the market gardens and open countryside of Phoenix Park and the winding road up to Castleknock, away from the dirt, damp and lamps of the city to the clear air and open skies above the newly founded Dunsink Observatory.
Dunsink, four miles outside the city's bounds and 275 feet above sea level, was the finest setting for celestial observation in Ireland. The splendour of the observation house with its lofty dome reflected the importance of astronomy at a time when the limits of the universe were being redrawn by astronomers like William Herschel whose recent discovery of Uranus had delighted the scientific world. At Dunsink Francis received tuition and was given the use of powerful telescopes, charts of the sky and sextants. He learnt to sweep the heavens for stars like Sirius or Polaris, for comets, and to calculate longitude and latitude by celestial observation.
Dr Usher's classes caught Francis on the cusp of adulthood and they would prove invaluable to him in his chosen career at sea. Later he said his heart had been set on becoming a sailor from the age of five and, after a decade of waiting, in 1789 he left Dublin with his father for London where he was 'torn from the paternal wing and launched on the boisterous ocean'. Through DAB's connections, Francis had secured a berth on board an East Indiaman. It was the beginning of a seafaring career in the golden age of sail.
Despite being the 'guinea pig' of the crew, within three weeks Francis had assumed responsibility for the midday latitude measurements. And when not on deck he would spend hours in the crow's nest, watching the world revolving about him. It was a world rich with new words - eddies, fathoms, hawseholes, furling, reefing - and ideas. Sailors still lived in fear of Davy Jones, the spirit of the sea. For luck they carried the caul of a baby or the feather of a wren. They told stories of sirens - sea nymphs who charmed with their melodious voices - and Aeolus, who kept the winds locked up in a mountain and 'loosed them at his pleasure; to afford a passage to the mariner, or to ruin him by a storm'.7
After an initial bout of seasickness passed, Francis thrived. By the time his ship, the Vansittart, had reached Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, he had grown so confident in his observations that, using a borrowed sextant, he was able to amend a previously accepted and erroneous calculation of the city's latitude by three miles. 'I am so conceited as to think my Lat. is much nearer to the mark as I have got so many [observations] and none of them disagree more than 20° from each other,' he noted.
From the calm of Batavia's Observatory, Francis could not have anticipated the turn his naval career was about to take. Just days out of harbour the Vansittart would strike a shoal in the Gaspar Straits and sink, along with its enormous treasure of £90,000 - more than three times as much as George III had paid for Buckingham House (later Palace) twenty-nine years earlier. Francis survived the wreck and miraculously avoided all subsequent perils in an ocean awash with Malay pirates. It marked the beginning of a roving period in his life. Having made passage back to Britain Francis joined the Royal Navy shortly before the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France. He went on to serve at the Glorious First of June and in a handful of other skirmishes against marauding Spanish and French vessels in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
Francis' earliest surviving weather diaries stem from this time. A journal kept during his year on HMS Latona in 1791 shows his devotion to recording the passing weather in the conventional language of the day - moderate, light airs, clear or cloudy.8 By the time he was serving on HMS Aquilon in 1792 his journal had expanded to eight columns that detailed the day of the week, the date of the month, the wind, course, distance, latitude, longitude, and 'place where bearing taken'. Beaufort was remarkable for his skill in observation - he would later dub it a 'hobby or insanity' - and also for the breadth of his knowledge. He sifted books, gathering facts like a magpie, building up a vast floating library that included works by the poets Pope and Dryden, Edward Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Tobias Smollett's magnificent picaresque novels Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. He read in English, French and Latin and added notes in Greek and Italian.
Throughout the 1790s Francis was borne upwards through the ranks. Trusted as both an expert navigator and a leader of men, by the turn of the century he had been gazetted an officer. As first lieutenant of the battle-hardenedPhaeton Beaufort criss-crossed the Mediterranean hunting for prizes. It was then, on a warm October afternoon in the Mediterranean, that Lieutenant Beaufort's fortunes turned. Storming a Spanish brig off the town of Fuengirola, he nearly lost his life. Clambering onto the quarterdeck of the prize with his infantrymen, he was shot at point-blank range with a musket and set upon by a man with a sabre. The second of the two blows Beaufort took to his head might well have killed him, he later reasoned, but for the cushion of a silk handkerchief folded in his hat.
His injuries - nineteen in total, he recorded with typical exactitude - were enough to curtail his promising career. He lost all feeling in three fingers, a shotgun slug lay embedded in his left lung and other shrapnel had torn holes into an arm - 'into one of which I could just cram an inkbottle'. These would heal in time, but during the year he was convalescing in Gibraltar and Lisbon, the Revolutionary War drew to a close. By the time he arrived back at the Admiralty in London in 1802 the Navy was busy paying off officers of surplus ships. Without influence, Beaufort was advised by Earl St Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty, to quietly accept his promotion to commander, along with the traditional half-pay pension of £45 12s. 6d, and leave for home.
Years later when he had become a venerated man of science, Beaufort would appreciate the value of his spell back home in Ireland. At the time, though, he hated it. Stripped of his naval duties for several years Beaufort was essentially rudderless. Approaching his thirtieth birthday - approximately halfway through life by the standards of the age - he had little money, no home or wife and he had been forced to languish under his parents' roof at Collon in County Louth.
Prone to depression - Beaufort dubbed it his 'Blue Devils' - he spent months dogged by low spirits, hankering after nothing more than a secluded farm and a successful conclusion to his long-running courtship of Charlotte, Edgeworth's beautiful daughter. He gained neither. In one of a series of long, introspective letters to Charlotte, he complained, 'I have been mending spectacles, and filing and riveting, and fixing up pulleys, and growling all day, and almost swore in my mouth that I would immediately mount my nag and be off to seek my fortune in some happier clime where my ire would have time to evaporate.' He rounded off with a dispiriting coda, 'I fancy I shall think better of it and continue to vegetate here.'9
In the autumn of 1803 Edgeworth saved him from this miserable, listless existence when he offered him a job on his telegraphic project. For Beaufort it was the ideal challenge. Not only was it the prospect of steady work, but it was an opportunity to work at close quarters with a man who had lived and learned and schemed with some of the most accomplished minds of his time.
* * *
In 1803 Richard Lovell Edgeworth was fifty-nine years old and known as one of Ireland's most enlightened men. He was both a man of literature and a man of science, blessed with formidable creative intelligence and versatility. During his long career he had gained friends such as Sir Joseph Banks, Thomas Day, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton and Thomas Beddoes. To Daniel Beaufort, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was 'my learned and ingenious friend'.10 It was a soubriquet that stuck: The Ingenious Mr Edgeworth.
The Beaufort and Edgeworth families had been drawn together while Francis was away at sea in the 1790s. Sharing an educated, inquisitive outlook, they were a good fit, and with Edgeworth's recent marriage to Francis' sister Fanny - she became his third wife - ties had been strengthened. As Maria, Edgeworth's novelist daughter, would write, 'It seldom happens, that, when two large families are connected by marriage, they suit each other in every branch of the connexion ... but, happily, all the individuals of the two families, though of various talents, ages, and characters, did from their first acquaintance coalesce.' And the most firm of all the friendships that blossomed was that between her father and Francis.11
Edgeworth was almost exactly thirty years Beaufort's senior and was full of advice. He taught Francis scientific skills and an enquiring attitude - a way to think and test a problem. This was the continuation of a pattern. For many years in his youth Edgeworth had lived in England where he had joined a philosophic dining society based in the Midlands around Lichfield and Birmingham, later remembered by Joseph Priestley as 'The Lunar Society'.
Other leading members were the engineer James Watt, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, the industrialist Matthew Boulton and the medical doctor Erasmus Darwin. These men formed the nucleus of a group of supremely gifted thinkers who applied their imagination to the problems of the age. There was no limit to their interests. They discussed Watt's plan for a steam engine, Priestley's ideas on photosynthesis, Wedgwood's invention of his iconic Jasperware and Darwin's ideas about the transmutation of species, forerunner of his grandson's theory of evolution by natural selection. For Josiah Wedgwood 'they were living in an age of miracles in which anything could be achieved'.12
The Lunar Society did not operate to set rules and there was no membership list. It was the union of a group of friends who enjoyed and were stimulated by each other's company. They were not bound by modern conceptions of science. The word science itself, derived from the Latin scientia (knowledge), had a much broader meaning than it does today. It encompassed all theoretical knowledge, from nature, rhetoric, religion and language. Nor had the descriptive term 'scientist' been coined. Instead they considered themselves philosophers, sages who speculated 'on the nature of things and truth'. They called their pursuits 'philosophic endeavours' and working in the Midlands they were free to nurture their identities as they could not have in the cloistered academic environments of London, Oxford or Cambridge.
The Society met about once a month, usually at Boulton's Birmingham home at full moon so they could find their way home through the dark streets. These meetings were jovial affairs. They experimented together, sometimes seriously, sometimes playfully. They examined gases, metals, rocks, animals. They invented clocks, speaking machines, carriages, wind vanes, barometers. Erasmus Darwin - the most ambitious of them all - once conceived of a horizontal-axis windmill for Wedgwood that he claimed would be three times more powerful than the conventional vertical ones. Sometimes Darwin let his imagination wander to even grander visions. One plan was to unite the navies of the world to tug icebergs from the poles to the equator, where he thought they would equalise the global temperature.
It was the late 1760s when Edgeworth had met Darwin and his fellow 'Lunaticks'. He was then a footloose young man of twenty-three, free from the hereditary bind of his estate in Ireland and just down from Corpus Christi College in Oxford. With nothing to occupy his time, Edgeworth was enjoying a carefree stay in England, flitting between the boisterous West End clubs of Georgian London and his domestic retreat in the picturesque village of Hare Hatch in the Berkshire countryside. Here, in his own laconic description, he had begun to 'amuse himself with mechanics'. Among his inventions were a highly efficient turnip cutter, a one-wheeled chaise, a beautifully precise clock, a velocipede - the ancestor of a bicycle - and a sail-propelled carriage that travelled along at phenomenal speed, to the terror of the neighbourhood.
It was in this whimsical phase of Edgeworth's career that he had first conceived an idea for a machine to transmit intelligence across space. One night in the summer of 1767 Edgeworth had joined Sir Francis Delaval and his friends, the 'turf club', at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea. The talk was of an imminent horse race at Newmarket. Two of the finest horses in the country were to compete. They were, Edgeworth remarked, 'in every respect as nearly equal as possible'. Desperate to profit from the vast bets being placed, one of them, Lord March, had told his friends he would await the result at the Turf Coffee House and that he planned to 'station fleet horses on the road, to bring me the earliest intelligence of the event of the race, and I shall manage my bets accordingly.'13
Hearing this, Edgeworth asked March what time he expected to know the winner; March replied at about nine in the evening. 'I asserted,' Edgeworth remembered,
that I should be able to name the winning horse at four o'clock in the afternoon. Lord March heard my assertion with so much incredulity, as to urge me to defend myself; and at length I offered to lay five hundred pounds, that I would, in London, name the winning horse at Newmarket at five o'clock in the evening of the day when the great match was to be run.14
In a superb surge of bravado the wager spiralled. 'Sir Francis having looked at me for encouragement, offered to lay five hundred pounds on my side; Lord Eglintoun did the same; Shaftoe and somebody else took up their bets; and the next day we were to meet at the Turf Coffee House, to put our bets in writing.'
The wager, on which a small fortune now rested, seemed fixed firmly against Edgeworth. The roads of eighteenth-century England were notoriously bad. In many places they were in a worse condition than when the Romans had left them 1,300 years before, and the chance of a message being transmitted across the sixty-six-mile route in anything less than five hours seemed impossible. The Green Dragon Coach that ran a twice-weekly service between London and Newmarket took the best part of a day. Yet Edgeworth had a different plan. Lord March's boast had reminded him of two monographs: one by the seventeenth-century polymath Robert Hooke and another by an old Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, who had produced a tract called Mercury: or the Secret and Swift Messenger.
The argument of both books was that an idea might be transmitted across distances by a set of predetermined signals - a simple, optical vocabulary agreed on by the two parties. Hooke, an incisive and prolific experimenter, had invented a system that used deal boards of various shapes - squares, triangles, octagons - to represent letters of the alphabet: these were displayed in a large frame and viewed through a telescope. In a paper read to the Royal Society in 1684 Hooke had championed his idea, describing the distance between stations, the use of a telescope to view signals and the substitution of the deal boards at night for a series of lanterns. His idea, he revealed, had been tested across the Thames and with good operation he thought the same character might be seen in Paris the minute after it was shown in London.
Eighty years later Edgeworth planned to use a similar method to transmit results of the Newmarket race. He sketched his plan.
After we went home, I explained to Sir Francis Delaval the means I proposed to use. I had early been acquainted with Wilkins's 'Secret and Swift Messenger'; I had also read in Hooke's Works of a scheme of this sort, and I had determined to employ a telegraph nearly resembling that which I have since published. The machinery I knew could be prepared in a few days.
Sir Francis immediately perceived the feasibility of my scheme, and indeed its certainty of success. It was summer time, and by employing a sufficient number of persons, we could place our machines so near as to be almost out of the power of the weather.15
Days before the race and with Edgeworth's plans developing, the parties met again at the Turf Coffee House. 'I offered to double my bet, so did Sir Francis,' Edgeworth recalled. 'The gentlemen on the opposite side were willing to accept my offer; but before I would conclude my wager, I thought it fair to state to Lord March, that I did not depend on the fleetness or strength of horses to carry the desired intelligence, but upon other means.' Edgeworth's candour undid him. Lord March thanked him for his honesty and, now suspicious, decided it was better to quietly withdraw. 'My friends blamed me extremely for giving up such an advantageous speculation,' Edgeworth later conceded.16
Edgeworth may have lost his chance of considerable bounty, but he left the Turf Coffee House with the nucleus of an idea. He spent the next weeks in partnership with Delaval, experimenting with his signalling device. Edgeworth installed four prototype machines across London: at Delaval's town house in Downing Street, one in Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury, one in Piccadilly, and one far away in the village of Hampstead. Edgeworth does not disclose how his invention worked, although a later source indicates that it involved lamps. He merely concluded that 'this nocturnal telegraph answered well, but was too expensive for common use'. Nevertheless, the image of Edgeworth and the roguish Delaval transmitting surreptitious messages by night across a bustling, unsuspecting Georgian London is an enticing one. What advantage, if any, the friends gained from their invention is not documented. What is clear, however, is that Edgeworth had manufactured a device quite unlike anything else.
It was about this time that Edgeworth met Erasmus Darwin on a visit to Lichfield. Darwin was won over, thrilled by Edgeworth's mastery of mechanics and showman-like talent for practical demonstration. He wrote excitedly to Boulton,
I have got with me a mechanical Friend, Mr Edgeworth from Oxfordshire - The greatest Conjurer I ever saw - G-d send fair Weather, and pray come to my assistance ...
He has the principles of Nature in his Palm, and moulds them as He pleases.
Can take away Polarity or give it to the Needle by rubbing it thrice on the Palm of his Hand
And can see through two solid Oak Boards without Glasses, wonderful! astonishing! diabolical!!!
Pray tell Dr Small He must come to see these Miracles17
It was the beginning of a friendship that would endure for the rest of their lives. When Edgeworth moved back to Ireland in the 1780s they continued to correspond regularly about their latest preoccupations. By now Edgeworth had given up on his telegraph, there being no obvious market for one. Instead he concentrated on his educational philosophy and an improved system of land management. Darwin's interests remained eclectic as ever and in the 1780s he had begun to turn to meteorology.
Erasmus Darwin's latest passion grew out of the contemporary belief that climate had a profound influence on human health. As a practising doctor, he resolved to keep an eye on the weather. He had a pointing-device installed on the ceiling of his study that was connected to a weather vane on his roof, so that he would always know the direction of the wind. To measure wind speed he ran a tube up his chimney that was connected at the top to a windmill sail. When the wind blew the contraption twirled around like a modern anemometer and Darwin counted the number of revolutions with a series of cogged wheels.
These instruments gave Darwin an unusually strong grip on the changing weather. He kept observations and turned them into theories in an attempt to explain global wind patterns. Even for Darwin, this was ambitious stuff. For centuries meteorology had been characterised by mystery and superstition. While many sciences - geology, botany, physics and chemistry - had flowered under enlightened analysis, meteorology had barely progressed from its classical conception as a science of 'meteors'. To the modern mind, 'meteor' conjures up images of glowing balls of extraterrestrial rock. But in classical meteorology 'meteor' related to any event that happened in the so-called sublunar zone, the uncertain territory between the earth and the moon. In his Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755, Dr Johnson defined meteors as, 'Any bodies in the air or sky that are of a flux and transitory nature.'18 It was a suitably roving definition for a variety of phenomena that ranged from a shooting star to the appearance of a rainbow; the onset of a storm or a solar halo, a flash of lightning or a gust of wind.
For almost two millennia meteorological thought had been based on the ideas set out by Aristotle in his treatiseMeteorologica, produced during the fourth century BC. Like others, Erasmus Darwin had been brought up on Aristotle. For Aristotle the meteoric zone was filled by two principal and distinct agents that he termed exhalations. These lay at the root of all meteoric activity. The first was warm and dry, generated by the light of the sun falling on the earth's surface. The other was cool and wet and was the result of sunlight mingling with the water of the oceans, rivers and lakes. The hot and dry exhalation would rise into the fiery sphere of the globe where it produced shooting stars, comets and the Milky Way. The cooler and moist exhalation clung to ground: clouds, dew, rain and snow were the result. Winds were distinct hot and dry rivers of air, fast-swimming vapour, while thunder was either the sudden escape of a hot exhalation caught in the condensation of a cloud or the violent collision of a wind and a cloud, the force of the impact generating lightning.
Aristotle's Meteorologica was the product of observation rather than experimentation. He drew on the prior work of Hippocrates, Democritus and Empedocles to explain rainbows, halos, rain, clouds, hail, snow and dew. In doing so he founded the subject of meteorology, or, literally translated, 'the study of things on high'. Today Aristotle's treatise forms a delightful, eccentric read. It is monumental in scope and ambition, and entirely wrong on almost every count. Even so, Meteorologica dominated intellectual thought for centuries. The concept of meteors and exhalations would have been familiar to such disparate individuals as Galileo, Descartes, Cook, Newton, Columbus and Shakespeare. The poet laureate John Dryden would still be advancing Aristotle's ideas in verse in the seventeenth century: 'Then flaming meteors, hung in air, were seen, And thunders rattled through a sky serene.'19
By Erasmus Darwin's time, this old edifice was beginning to crack. Instruments like the barometer and thermometer had been in general use for about a century, enabling people to study the weather in ways unknown to Aristotle. Edgeworth's telegraph, too, had potential use as a meteorological instrument to warn of coming storms. Such an idea had already been mooted in France by a member of the Assembly, Gilbert Romme, in 1793, who wrote of 'the possibility for predicting storms and for giving warnings to sailors and farmers'.20 Surprisingly, this idea never occurred to Edgeworth. Instead when news of Chappe's telegraph broke in the newspapers Edgeworth's instinct was to resurrect his old design as part of a defensive shield to protect the Irish from an expected French attack. Darwin felt the same. In 1795 he urged Edgeworth to place telegraphs around the Irish coast, like 'Friar Bacon's wall of brass round England'.21 It was a typically playful note from Darwin. A few years later, in April 1802, he would be halfway through another letter to Edgeworth, telling him of his latest schemes, when he suddenly collapsed. His death brought to an end their thirty-five years of friendship. It was in the months following Darwin's death that Beaufort returned to Ireland and a new partnership was born.
Edgeworth enjoyed Beaufort's vitality and aptitude while Beaufort drew on Edgeworth's many years of experience. Edgeworth gave Beaufort a template for thinking, a way of attacking a scientific question. Science was the great tool to thrill, to simplify, to improve, to progress; as Wedgwood had once said, 'to unleash wonders upon the world'. The mantle was passed down. Darwin, Edgeworth, Beaufort - one of the formidable lineages in British science.
* * *
Edgeworth and Beaufort formally began work on the Irish telegraph on 4 November 1803 after a successful trial near Dublin. 'Yesterday I tried the telegraphs at Castleknock before Lord & Lady Hardwick, Lady Hosgall, Mr and Mrs Wickham (of whom I wish to see more) & a variety of Lords and Ladies - Everything including wind & weather succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectations,' Edgeworth had written home.22
Edgeworth had waited for this moment for decades. He had been horrified in 1794 to discover that his old idea had been independently invented and perfected by Chappe in France. Soon after news of Chappe's telegraph was made public an anonymous letter had been published in London's Morning Post, pointing out that Edgeworth had designed the same machine years before. Although Edgeworth denied writing the letter that did not stop him from quoting it whenever he had the opportunity. It was all, though, to no avail. He had to wait almost a decade for his chance to rectify the situation and it was in 1803, with the resurgence of Napoleon's grand armies across the Channel, that he finally got his chance.
The opening years of the nineteenth century were some of the rockiest in British history. There had long been fears that Revolutionary France was targeting the Wicklow and Cork coastlines for invasion, the French military command having pinpointed them as Britain's weak underbelly. Only a terrible stretch of winter gales had prevented a force of 16,000 from landing at Bantry Bay in December 1796 and now the likelihood of a repeated attempt was growing.
By 1803 Napoleon had amassed an army of 200,000 at Boulogne, where they awaited a fine spell of weather to execute their crossing. The preparations had continued in public and fear across Britain was mounting. The Bayeux Tapestry had been carried on a celebratory tour of the French coast and at the Paris Mint a die for an invasion medallion had been cast with the words 'Struck in London 1804'. The British press, obsessed with Napoleon, had relayed accounts of his movements to their readership. In July a typical dispatch from The Thunderer informed readers, 'The First Consul reached Calais at 5 o'clock on Friday afternoon. His entry, as might be expected, was in a grand style of parade. He rode on a small iron grey horse of great beauty ... The whole place resounded with Viva Bonaparte!'23
Time was of the essence so from the beginning Edgeworth and Beaufort adopted distinct roles. As Edgeworth politicked in Dublin, Beaufort was put in charge of the practical execution of the project: establishing the stations - often on elevated forts, isolated hills or churches - sourcing the raw materials for the towers, guardhouses and stations; drilling the corps of 'telegraph men' and teaching them the telegraphic vocabulary, the importance of accurately transcribing signals and how to react in an attack. Each station was manned by a captain and two or three militiamen who were under the command of 'confidential' officers in Dublin, Athlone and Galway. Edgeworth had assigned himself the role of overseer of the whole enterprise, 'an all seeing eye'.24
Beaufort was a man of action. He travelled the breadth of the country on his little grey colt, riding the sodden lowland lanes and climbing isolated hills, scouring the land for suitable elevations: sites that were both accessible and commanded clear views of up to twenty miles. He was constantly on the move. In November he was with Edgeworth in Dublin. In January he was in Galway. Two months later he was camping out near Athlone. An account book kept by Edgeworth reveals that most stations were built within a fortnight as the line stretched westward. The project also gave his daughter Maria, always keen-eyed, the opportunity to observe Beaufort close up. She was impressed. In December she noticed how he had invented a lexical system, 'a set of words of command' that helped the militia learn their drills more effectively. The system had 'some analogy with their soldier language & consequently was easily learned by rote & not easily forgotten',25 she noted. It was a sign of what was to come.
Away from the fireside at Edgeworthstown in Longford it was hard, demanding work that stretched through the Irish winter. Beaufort was compelled to lead men deep into rural areas where revolutionary sentiment against the British government had long festered. There they encountered more than political hostility. Their strange equipment drew a suspicious response from the peasantry. 'Telegraphs, of course, became the subject of conversation,' he wrote to his sister Fanny.
No wit of mine could make anyone comprehend them. But when I told them that I was just going up the hill to converse with a man at Kilrainey, and some ladies in the county of Longford who were 26 miles distant - they almost shrieked. They climbed on to the table and said it must be by the black art. I made her look through the first telescope she ever saw, I held it out in one hand and she saw the candle in her eye. I turned it and held it by the other and it appeared as far off as Phillipstown ... In short these good people were so simple, so ignorant, so enclosed and so much entertained that I instantly got the hero of my tale.26
By April a string of stations had been completed, spanning sixty Irish miles from the Royal Hospital in Dublin to Athlone. Progress had been fast but it had not come without difficulty. Ireland's notoriously wet climate was a constant frustration for Beaufort. Conditions were often raw or blustery with storms gambolling in off the Atlantic, opaque clouds hanging low overhead, sucking the definition from objects and the saturation from colours, making it impossible to see stations fifteen or twenty miles away. In the mornings low black skies, fogs and mists would create an atmosphere hazy with humidity, often reducing visibility to below a hundred yards. Once Beaufort wrote to Edgeworth, 'None but telegraphic minds can feel the delights of a fine day, and a clear day, after unceasing storms, fogs and deluges.'27
Such weather slowed the process of selecting stations and, even worse, plunged the entire idea of visual communication into doubt. Although Edgeworth maintained that his telegraph would work on all but one day in a hundred - a fact he claimed to have established in his own weather diary - Beaufort remained quietly sceptical.
There were other problems too. When scoping out stations Beaufort encountered a backlash of 'nimbyism'. One resident who found out that a station was to be built near his garden told Beaufort 'he would look upon it as a very great grievance whatever others might make of it, - the men coming down to his house to ask for a light to make a fire or for to beg a drink of buttermilk!' 'The race of Levites is not yet extinct,'28 Beaufort grumbled. A further problem stemmed from the aptitude and attitude of the telegraph corps, a unit raised from local militias. These were particularly unsuitable for the work which required a high degree of accuracy. Often the telegraphers were illiterate, and those who were not spent too much time composing letters of complaint.
By late spring 1804 Beaufort was writing fretfully to his father about 'the casual smoke of Dublin and the storm which always blows on the top of Caston Tower'.29 Although on fine days a message might travel well enough, on others scrambled, incomprehensible messes would return, leaving Beaufort and Edgeworth's device looking less like a marvel than a jabbering infant. It was becoming obvious that any invention that depended on bright blue skies in Ireland was not assured of a long, prosperous future. In Edgeworthstown there was talk of 'provoking disappointments', unseasonably violent storms, 'men tired & quitting their stations'.30 Beaufort's composure was slipping too. After a bad test communication he dashed off a fiery letter to Edgeworth, 'Good Heavens, what does this all mean? Is it that after eight months' practice not one word out of the whole should come right? I am almost out of my senses.'31
By the end of June the line was completed and on Monday 2 July Lord Hardwicke and a group of influential politicians were invited to a gala opening. As written up in Freeman's Journal the following week, it was an unqualified success. Edgeworth managed to send a complete message to Beaufort, who was stationed 130 miles away, in just seven minutes. In five minutes more Beaufort replied in acknowledgement. 'The velocity of this mode of communication is astonishing,' Freeman's Journal reported. 'Intelligence sent from Dublin at eleven o'clock, for instance by the sun dial at the Royal Hospital may be received at seven minutes and a half after eleven by the dial in Galway.'32
But for all the outward confidence, politicians were becoming nervous. The telegraph was growing more expensive, the militia proving troublesome, and the number of successful transmissions was worrying. Within a week news had reached Edgeworthstown that the government had lost faith in Edgeworth's plans. He was to be replaced as chief telegrapher with immediate effect and responsibility passed to the Army. It was the last that history would hear of Edgeworth's long-cherished optical telegraph.
* * *
The government's duplicity stung Beaufort, who chalked it up as another of life's cruel blows. Writing to his brother William he raged, 'At present I am nothing, I have nothing, I expect nothing, I am doing nothing and have nothing decidedly in view.'33 In his anger, though, Beaufort overlooked what he would later come to appreciate. His time working with Edgeworth had been an invaluable education. Edgeworth had proven helpful in another way too. Over the last two years he had been using his influence on Beaufort's behalf, and it was through Edgeworth's contacts that he eventually found his way back into the Navy.
By July 1805 Beaufort had swapped the green hills of Ireland for the chaotic bustle of the Royal Dockyard at Deptford, the British naval base near London. There he had been promoted to his first command. His ship was the Woolwich, a fifth-rate, 44-gun vessel, once a keen and fleet fighting machine but now converted into a storeship. It was a bittersweet moment for Beaufort, the joy of promotion tempered by the ignominy of his ungainly command.
He felt the shame keenly. As far as he was concerned the Admiralty had simply thrown a drowning man an anvil. He took to his journals in despair:
To a storeship! Good Heavens! It is for the command of a storeship that I have spilled my blood, sacrificed the prime of my life, dragged out a tedious economy in foreign climates, wasted my best hours in professional studies ... For a storeship, for the honour of carrying new anchors abroad and old anchors home! For a ship more lumbered than a Dover packet, more weakly manned than a Yankee carrier - four fourths of her arms and ammunition on shore, three feet deeper than her trim, and with jury masts and sail! - So that she can neither fight nor run; in short, for a ship where neither ambition, promotion or riches ... can be obtained!34
Matters were made worse by the fact that the war against Napoleon had entered a critical phase. The French Grande Armée was just a short distance away across the Channel and Beaufort was forced to endure the misery of reading newspaper accounts of Nelson's pursuit of Vice Admiral Villeneuve across the Atlantic. On Thursday 7 November 1805, while anchored at Spithead in the Solent, he heard news of Nelson's spectacular and tragic victory over the combined fleet at Trafalgar. It was a blithe and bucolic setting, too gentle a place to hear such magnificent news. History was happening elsewhere.
But as so often when an active mind like Beaufort's is left idle, it wandered. In August 1805 he was thinking about the storage of the Woolwich's hold, estimating how the spread of the ballast could best benefit the speed of the ship. By the turn of the year another problem was occupying him. His weather diaries were growing increasingly detailed. Sometimes they included four different records of wind direction in a day and they always began with an estimation of speed - 'fresh breeze', 'moderate breeze', 'squally', or 'light airs'.
By using this terminology Beaufort was simply reflecting naval culture. Throughout the eighteenth century there had been no successful scientific explanation of wind. It was a rushing stream of vapour: each wind distinct from the next. The best that could be done was to note down its characteristics in lively prose. A dashing breeze off Southampton, a galloping gale near the Goodwin Sands, a sudden gust, a Shakespearian tempest off Plymouth. Each different wind presented a creative challenge.
Beaufort realised the limitations of this practice. Descriptive records might leave behind a vivid picture of the scene, but the data was not scientific. This problem had been satirised by Daniel Defoe in his panoramic account of the Great Storm of November 1703. In an opening chapter of The Storm he had lamented the differing perception of winds and weather among English and foreign sailors.
Such Winds as in those Days wou'd have pass'd for Storms, are called only a Fresh-gale, or Blowing hard. If it blows enough to fright a South Country Sailor, we laugh at it: and if our Sailors bald Terms were set down in a Table of Degrees, it will explain what we mean.
A Top-sail Gale.
A hard Gale of Wind.
A fine Breeze.
A Fret of Wind.
A small Gale.
A fresh Gale.
English vessels, Defoe argued, were so superior that this distorted the sailors' impression of the wind. 'If theJaponeses, the East Indians, and such like Navigators, were to come with their thin Cockle-shell Barks and Calico Sails; if Cleopatra's Fleet, or Caesar's great Ships with which he fought the Battle of Actium, were to come upon our Seas, there hardly comes a March or September in twenty Years but would blow them to Pieces, and then the poor Remnant that got Home, would go and talk of a terrible Country where there's nothing but Storms and Tempests.'36
Proud and patriotic, Defoe was nonetheless making an important point about the relative merits of subjective or objective record-keeping. And in the century between Defoe's book and Beaufort's appointment to the Woolwich there had been several attempts to establish a clear, quantifiable wind scale. The lighthouse engineer John Smeaton, the naval hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple and a Dutch surveyor, Jan Noppen, had all devised schemes, though none of them had come to be universally applied.
This was the problem that Beaufort was grappling with at the beginning of 1806. All British commanders were required to keep a ship's log. Why not then make a virtue of necessity? On 13 January 1806 he sat down to write an entry that would enshrine his name in history.
Hereafter I shall estimate the force of the wind according to the following statement, as nothing can convey a more uncertain idea of wind and weather than the old expressions of moderate and cloud, etc. etc.
1 Faint breeze just not a calm
2 Light air
3 Light breeze
4 Gentle breeze
5 Moderate breeze
6 Fresh breeze
7 Gentle steady gale
8 Moderate gale
9 Brisk gale
10 Fresh gale
11 Hard gale
12 Hard gale with heavy gusts
Beaufort did not stop at that. Having set down the beginnings of his quantitative wind scale he continued: if the strength of the wind was to be measured by a series of numbers, then, he felt, the letters of the alphabet could be employed to describe the state of the atmosphere. It was a logical extension. In the same journal entry he continued to write out a code of twenty-nine distinct symbols - either single letters of the alphabet or a combination of two letters - to describe different types of weather: blue skies (b), sultry (s), hazy (h), damp air (dp), foggy (fg), rain (r), squally (sq), thunder (t) and so on. All of these and twenty-one other states of atmosphere were to be recorded in a column, with each type of weather separated by a comma. It would allow him to record not just wind direction, speed, barometric pressure, temperature and time, but also, in a flexible and simple framework, all the many fluctuations of the atmosphere around him.
Beaufort put his method to the test. It was Monday 13 January 1806, four days after Nelson's state funeral in Westminster Abbey, ten days before William Pitt the Younger would die and three days after the surrender of the Dutch to the British at Cape Town. In Woolwich on the Thames, the iconic imperial waterway, where Beaufort lay at anchor, the wind was blowing from the north with forces between 4 (a gentle breeze) and 10 (a fresh gale). The skies above were blue (b), the atmosphere squally (sq).
Beaufort's idea was beautifully simple. Historians have long examined the origins of the system that would go on to become a world-famous, crucial building block of modern meteorology. It is true that it evolved from previous ideas, work of men like Dalrymple and Smeaton. But it was also influenced by the time he spent with Edgeworth on the telegraph in Ireland. It was there that Beaufort wrestled with the art of communication. Working daily with the telegraphic vocabulary, he was forced to form his own series of easily understood signals. Beaufort had a natural aptitude for scientific observation but it was the time he spent with Edgeworth that gave his raw skill shape and purpose.
Beaufort's wind scale is often considered the solution to an old and frustrating problem, but in reality it was more of a beginning. Embittered and angry, among the din and drama of Woolwich dockyard, without even knowing it Beaufort had started a process that would develop as the years passed. Hunched over his journal in solitude Beaufort may have felt like the most powerless man in Britain. Yet in the way he planned, observed and recorded he had set a template for the experiments and achievements that followed. He had caught a glimpse of the future. A long process of civilising the skies had begun.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Moore