Or “Snail mail”
It has been a while since this blog has given you something that is just weird and has no law implications, but as I am on leave this week, and I’ve learned about the Pasilalinic-sympathetic compass, I thought that I would like to share it with you.
In the mid 19th Century, a French occultist named Jacques-Toussaint Benoît was giving thought to the issue of communication over long distances. The telegraph had recently been invented, but the laying of transatlantic cables was proving arduous and the salt in seawater was rotting the cables. Something better needed to be invented, and Benoit was nothing if not inventive.
A hundred years earlier, some Rosicrucians had devised the system of the sympathetic alphabet – two people would have a portion of skin removed from one another’s arms, and transplanted onto the other, tattooing letters onto the new piece of skin, and considered that they could communicate remotely by pricking the desired letters on the tattooed portion, causing a sensation in the other person’s arm.
If you’re thinking – hmm, that sounds as though it might not actually work, buckle up buckaroo, because we’re just getting started.
Benoit’s starting point for creating a device that would allow two people to communicate over long distances was, naturally, the principle that once two snails have been in love they remain connected for life. Whatever happens to one snail would thus occur to the paired snail.
And of course, once you have thought about this principle, it is a small step to begin construction of a device involving twenty four snails, a ten foot scaffold, zinc bowls and copper sulphate. One person has one device, consisting of twenty four snails, each having mated with their pair that belongs to the other person’s device. (each snail corresponding to a letter of the alphabet – moving snail A on contraption one would cause snail A to be propelled on contraptation two – because once the snails have been in love, they are linked forever no matter what the distance, remember?), and so you could painstakingly spell out a message on what was effectively a giant snail typewriter. 24 rather than 26 because French was the language being used and they only use the letters W and K for words imported from other languages)
Benoit would need funding though, and for that he approached the owner of a gymnasium, Monsieur Triat, who I can only presume was blessed with the twin assets of being both solvent and gullible. Benoit told Triat that he would just need to acquire a few pieces of wood to make the invention work, and Triat allowed him to have free food and lodgings whilst the invention was perfected.
A year later, Triat became impatient (I’m not sure impatient is the mot juste there, it seems extraordinarily patient to have given this scheme more than 20 seconds ) and wanted to see the machine and have a demonstration.
Benoit initially stalled (hmmm, wonder why) but had to acquiesce and finally on 2nd October 1850 Benoit invited both Triat and a journalist Jules Alix to observe the machine and to demonstrate it. Benoit explained that at this point, he was in regular snail conversation with a collaborator in America, but for the purpose of this demonstration he had constructed two machines in the same room.
At one end of Benoit’s apartment rested a huge wooden frame, a large horizontal disc suspended beneath. In the disc were twenty-four holes, each containing a zinc dish lined with a cloth soaked in copper sulphate solution. The cloth was fixed by a copper blade, and in the dish, secured by glue, sat a living snail. Against each dish was written a letter of the alphabet. To transmit the letter, the operator would touch the snail in the dish, causing a sympathetic reaction in the corresponding snail in the other half of the apparatus – a device of identical construction at the other end of the room
Benoit explained that Triat would be at machine one, and would convey a word through the manipulation of the snails, and that Alix would be at the other. Triat asked if the machines could be separated perhaps through a curtain and Benoit explained that this was sadly not possible.
During the demonstration, to supervise closely and ensure that it was being done properly, Benoit stood very closely to the machines and walked between the two of them. Despite this less than perfect test condition, the word transmitted was still wrong.
Triat was very sceptical, but Alix wrote a glowing review for La Presse, even suggesting that this communication method, once refined, might even be worn by ladies as an accessory wrist band allowing them to communicate and look stylish – with 24 snails wrapped around their wrists.
On 27 October a glowing article appeared in La Presse: `…snails which have once been put in contact, are always in sympathetic communication. When separated, there disengages itself from them a species of fluid of which the earth is the conductor, which develops and unrolls, so to speak, like the almost invisible thread of the spider, [but] the thread of the escargotic fluid is invisible as completely and the pulsation along it as rapid as the electric fluid.’
Triat demanded a second demonstration, under properly strict conditions. It is almost as though he suspected that someone walking to and fro between the two devices could have just been conveying the word that was being transmitted though the medium of a whisper. Benoit agreed and a date was set.
But not kept. Benoit disappeared, and the Pasilalinic-sympathetic compass was never put into mass production.
During the 1871 barricades of Paris, Marquis Rochefort floated it as an idea for communication. He had previously rejected ideas such as ‘dropping hammers out of hot air balloons on our enemies’ and ‘release lions from the zoo to attack our enemies’ as outlandish, but something in the lovelorn telepathic snail telegram struck a chord in him.
There’s a very good episode on this on the Ridiculous History podcast, and also a great Atlas Obscura article, here
and this one