The Snailmail Solution (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

When Jacques Benoit agreed to demonstrate his snail telegraph, he likely wasn't expecting quite so much skepticism from his sponsor Triat and the writer Jules Allix.   Even though both of his communication devices happened to be located in the same one-room apartment, he was adamant that physical distance didn't matter to his sympathetic snails.  Posting himself on the receiving end and allowing Allix to send the message seemed like a reasonable enough precaution to rule out any trickery.   

Or, at least that was the idea.   In reality, Benoit kept shuttling back and forth between his two communication devices.   Usually on the pretext of needing to ensure both devices were in good working order, Benoit was rarely away from either device for long.   While he insisted that his test was valid despite all this shuttling back and forth, you can hardly blame his guests for being, er, less than impressed.  

Another problem was that the messages were prone to distortion with frequent mistakes being made.   Even when Allix and Triat entered their own messages, what supposedly came out the other end was usually misspelled.   Just getting the snails to do what Benoit wanted them to do was next to impossible.  Finally, Benoit decided to cap off his demonstration by sending a message to the (probably fictitious) Biat in the United States.  Holding a snail in his hand, he then touched the four snails corresponding to the four letters in  Biat's name.  A few moments later, the snails then poked out their horns and the message "CESTBIEN" was received.

Jules Allix seemed c0nvinced that the snail telegraph was genuine and proceeded to publish the La Presse article praising this new discovery.   Monsieur Triat, on the other hand, was less gullible.  He flatly told Benoit that he was withdrawing all funding.   After some pleading, Triat relented, but only if another test, one that was a little more rigorous, proved that the device actually worked as promised.   Triat then recruited Emile de Gerardin, the founder of La Presse, and they worked out what they considered to be a much fairer test of Benoit's device.   This time, one of Benoit's compasses would be set up in Triat's gymnasium and another one would be set up in a side apartment out of sight of the first machine.  Fully prepared to be generous if he were proved wrong about Benoit's device, Triat offered to pay the inventor one thousand francs a day if his device actually worked.

As for Benoit, he agreed to all the conditions quickly enough and even consented to having his heavy scaffolds removed from the apartment so they could be set up at the gymnasium.   Then, in what was likely the least surprising development of all, Benoit disappeared without a trace on the day the demonstration was scheduled to begin.   And, that was it for Jacques Benoit.   While he would be seen from time to time wandering Paris' streets (one witness described him as "very thin, with eager restless eyes, apparently partially deranged.."), nothing more was even heard from him.   He died in 1852.

Despite JBenoit's sad demise, his invention still lived on, more or less.   Certainly Jules Allix did his best to keep the dream alive with his La Presse article.   He even suggested that women could carry portable versions of the snail telegraph so they could call for help if needed (which makes for a fascinating mental picture, if nothing else).    But Allix knew enough to give up eventually considering the international scorn he was beginning to receive.  Even Charles Dickens and the venerable Punch magazine weighed in with their own satirical take on sympathetic snails and the quest for wireless communication.    From that point onward, the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass was largely forgotten while the "unsolvable" technical problems associated with laying a transatlantic cable were soon solved.  Global communications became a reality by 1860 and there was no need for a magical snail telegraph to send messages around the world.

Until 1871, that is...

Following the ouster of Napoleon III and the siege of Paris by Prussian troops, a radical group of workers took advantage of the turmoil and created their own independent government which they called the Paris Commune.    The "Communards" as they called themselves found themselves fighting a war on two fronts:  along with the Prussian army, they also had to deal with the French government itself which was determined to crush the new  movement.  While searching for a way to pass messages without being detected, one of the leading Communards, a politician and writer named Henri Rochefort recalled Allix's long-ago story about the Benoit-Biat telegraph and decided to have a working model made.  As head of the Barricades Commission, Rochefort had enough clout to override any objections other Communards might have had about squandering limited resources by experimenting with sympathetic molluscs. 

To nobody's surprise (except for Rochefort presumably), the snail telegraph was as unreliable as ever.  The project was abandoned, the Commune was crushed by French troops after just a few months in power, Rochefort fled the city in disguise, and that was pretty much it for the Benoit-Biat telegraph.   Aside from a chapter in Sabine Baring-Gould's 1889 book, Historic Oddities and Strange Events, the wondrous snail telegraph has been largely forgotten.  

Unless you happen to be a fan of Japanese manga.   The popular manga series One Piece features, among other things, Transponder snails that can be used as rotary phones, fax machines, and surveillance cameras.   No word on whether One Piece's writers were inspired by Jacques Benoit to come up with this particular innovation. 

Along with manga fame, Jacques Benoit's story represents an intriguing example of pseudoscience in action.  Benoit's story certainly contains all the elements to be found in other, more well-known, examples I could name.   First, we have a charismatic inventor offering a radical new discovery that would transform the world based on some obscure principle that sounded scientific enough.   Add in the media interest (without any attempt at verifying these claims) and financial backers with more money than sense and, well, just about every example of pseudoscience pretty much ends the same way.

So, was Jacques Benoit a huckster or did he actually believe in his own discovery?  You be the judge.


Related Stories

  • The Snailmail Solution (Part One of Two)
  • The Hitler Hoax
  • Brother XII


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