History is filled with examples of pseudoscience and quack inventions, often described in glowing terms meant to attract investors. While some of these supposed discoveries were outright scams meant to separate foolish people from their money, others appeared to have been proposed by inventors who were often as deluded as the people who came to believe in them. And, once in a while, there are some quite spectacular examples of pseudoscience that were a bit of both.
Much like the story I am about to share with you....
While we tend to regard the "wired society" as a fairly modern development, finding better and more efficient ways of sending information over long distances has been an obsession for tinkerers and industrial barons over the centuries. Despite early attempts using semaphore flags, reflected lights, smoke signals, etc, it was that mysterious force known as electricity that provided the first practical form of telecommunications. Following early experiments by Ampere, Oersted, and Summering, the 1830s saw a flurry of inventors developing electric telegraph systems that were rapidly put into effect across Europe and the United States. Though patent wars would be fought over who should have the credit for first developing the telegraph, the familiar telegraph tower became a common sight on both sides of the Atlantic. Instant communication over long distances became a reality and life would never be the same again.
Unfortunately, while the new telegraph was a success in linking cities and countries across dry land, there were still technical problems involved in sending messages across large bodies of water. Though the first cable was laid between England and France in 1850, it wasn't particularly successful. The cable kept breaking and the costs of repairing it added up over time. Considering that the English Channel was a fairly narrow strip of water, it was hardly surprising that many pundits began arguing that laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean would never be practical.
In 1851, not long after news came out that the cable across the English Channel needed to be repaired (yet again), a curious article was published in the French journal La Presse. The article was written by a somewhat eccentric writer and inventor named Jules Allix. Largely known as a die-hard socialist and feminist, Allix also had a fascination for fringe science, which happened to include a strong belief in the idea of animal magnetism. Decades after Franz Mesmer's animal magnetism cult had come and gone, practitioners of "animal magnetism" continued to pack lecture halls and give demonstrations purporting to show the strange power associated with the energy of living things. While animal magnetism would eventually lead to our modern understanding of hypnosis, the suggestion that a mysterious force existed which could be exploited in the same way that electricity was was hard for many people to resist.
And, according to Allix's article, two previously unknown savants had apparently accomplished that and also solved the problem of long-distance telegraphy once and for all. These two savants, M. Jacques Toussain Benoit de l'Herault and M. Biat-Christien had used their expertise in animal magnetism to develop "a new system of universal intercommunication of thought, which operates instantaneously."
So, who were these two inventive geniuses, you might ask? Allix was actually vague on that in his article, likely since he didn't really know himself. All that can be determined about Jacques Benoit, is that he didn't have any scientific credentials to speak of but did seem to be blessed with a gift for selling his ideas to credulous investors. As for "M. Biat-Christien", there doesn't seem to be any real evidence that anyone of this name even existed. It likely just added an air of verisimilitude to Benoit's fancies to have an "American inventor" sharing the credit.
In describing this great discovery, Allix went on to say that:
"The discovery of MM. Benoît and Biat depends on galvanism, terrestrial and animal magnetism, also on natural sympathy, that is to say, the base of communication is a sort of special sympathetic fluid which is composed of the union or blending of the galvanic, magnetic and sympathetic currents, by a process to be described shortly." He then elaborated by stating that " And as the various fluids vary according to the organic or inorganic bodies whence they are derived, it is necessary further to state that the forces or fluids here married are: (a) The terrestrial-galvanic current, (b) the animal-sympathetic current, in this case derived from snails, (c) the adamic or human current, or animal-magnetic current in man. Consequently, to describe concisely the basis of the new system of intercommunication, we shall have to call the force, 'The galvano-terrestrial-magnetic-animal and adamic force!"
In basic terms, Benoit and Biat supposedly discovered that common snails, when brought into contact, continued to have a "sympathetic link" due to an invisible fluid they secrete. Based on the principle of animal magnetism, this "escargotic fluid" was similar to the thread of a spider except that it was completely invisible and unbreakable. Using the Earth as a conductor, the escargotic link would allow the full exchange of information no matter how far the two snails were from each other. Also, because water was no barrier, there were none of the difficulties associated with laying expensive telegraph cables either.
To make this "snail telegraph" (also known as the pasilalinic sympathetic compass), Benoit designed an elaborate communication system which, among other things, required metallic bowls with a snail at the bottom of each one. Each bowl rested on top of a galvanic spring delicate enough to respond to the reaction of the snail as it received a sympathetic vibration. To allow the full exchange of messages, 24 snails were used, one for each letter of the alphabet. The total apparatus reportedly had the shape of a mariner's compass, hence the name "pasilalinic sympathetic compass."
To get the money to build this wondrous new invention, Jacques Benoit convinced a Parisian businessman named Triat to fund the research (and also to provide him with a place to live). According to Sabine Baring-Gould, Triat was a man of "common sense, but not much of education." Carried away by Benoit's enthusiasm, Triat allowed him to continue his work with no real oversight. Still, after months of stalling, Benoit eventually received an ultimatum: build a working model of his machine or else lose his funding. Not long afterward, Benoit announced that his invention was ready to be tested.
The bizarre contraption he devised filled nearly half of the apartment Triat had rented for him. Not only was it mounted on an enormous scaffold but featured twenty-four sympathetic snails glued to their bowls (and undoubtedly trying everything to escape their strange captivity). According to Benoit, his friend and co-inventor Biat in America had built an identical device and they communicated on a daily basis. While Triat insisted on a demonstration, Benoit did everything he could to put him off by warning that other inventors might steal the idea. He eventually agreed, though.
Finally, on October 2, 1851, Jules Allix and Monsieur Triat arrived at Benoit's flat for the demonstration. While they had misgivings about both of Benoit's working devices being located in the same room (it was a one-room apartment), Benoit insisted that it couldn't be helped. For the demonstration, Benoit would be on one device sending a message using his snails while Allix tended to other device to ensure there was no cheating.
And then the demonstration began...
To be continued