Optical Telegraph in India: The forgotten Saga

Electrical Telegraph Post and Optical Telegraph Tower

Electrical Telegraph Post and Optical Telegraph Tower

Introduction

From 15th July 2013 onwards the term “Post and Telegraph” service will cease to exist in India. Instead it will be only Postal Service. Starting from 1855, Electrical Telegraph service had a glorious period in India. Getting a Telegram was no ordinary incident. The service was used for sending urgent information and before the arrival of Trunk call in 1960; it was the fastest mode to send information over long distance.

But when Electrical Telegraph leaves the stage with its head held high, few will remember that India too had an Optical or Visual Telegraph line, which extended over 400 miles from Calcutta to Chunar. Some information is available in the old Gazetteers of early 20th century and few books. In this article I will try to assimilate such information and reconstruct the line of events involving the advent of Optical Telegraph in India.

The Mystery Towers

If you are driving from the heritage town of Bengal – Bishnupur to Kolkata via Kamarpukur through the Arambagh Kamarpukur road, just before Goghat Bakultala you might have noticed on your far left an old Brick circular tower of around 100 foot in the middle of nowhere. It is quite different from the Brick Kiln towers or Rice Mill Towers which falls on your way in this route. You may have also seen as many as three such towers while on train from Bishnupur to Purulia. More near to Kolkata, one such tower exists on the middle of a busy city road at Andul – Khatirbazar, Howrah.

Tower Near Goghat

Tower Near Goghat

Tower as seen from Train  near Chhatna. Photo courtesy : Nishesh Singh

Tower as seen from Train near Chhatna. Photo courtesy : Nishesh Singh

If you take an interest and drive to this tower for taking a closer look, you will find that the four storied tower looks nearing two centuries old. The structure has both side entrance and some of them still have a brick base. The towers are totally hollow from inside with huge windows on its each side on each tier, lined up just above the entrance. There are thin rims around the circumference just below the windows in each floor. In the interior you will find circular edges on the walls on each tier, indicating the presence of a floor or platform. Looking up you will see age old wooden planks hanging from the walls. There is no ceiling in most of the structures.

Different types of Semaphore Towers in India

Different types of Semaphore Towers in India

There are more similar looking towers in Bengal and Jharkhand. You will find them in Bankura, Purulia, Hazaribagh and even in the Steel City of Bokaro! The towers are generally of four storied ranging from eighty to 100 feet. There are two three storied towers too, where the second floor is larger than the four storied one. Finally there are two storied towers too, but these are essentially located on top of hills. More interestingly if you plot them in a map, you will find them more or less on a straight line.

The locals have fascinating stories about these towers. The most common is that they were watch towers used to alert attacks by ‘Bargis’, the Maratha Invaders who plundered Bengal for ten years (1741 – 1751). In Bengal the towers are referred as “Girje” and the bus stop near to them are referred as “Girjatola”. In Bankura and Jharkhand locals refer them as “Machan”.It may be relevant to mention here that at Parbbatichak, one local gentleman told us a story of a “magnet’ being dug up from the base of the tower by local thugs and getting away with it!!!

However, if you go into the old colonial aged documents of Bengal and relevant books, you will find that they were not watch towers built by any Indian rulers. These were optical Telegraph towers alias Semaphore Signaling towers built by the East India Company during the period of 1816 -1828, ages after the Bargi invasion. At that period, the only way of delivering messages were through runners or by horse riders.


Advent of Optical Telegraphy in France

To discuss about the Semaphore towers in India, we need to first travel back to the end of 18th century at France. There was a rush to find out effective solutions for a faster communication. It was in 1792 when a young lad named Claude Chappe and his four brothers came out with the first practical system of Optical Telegraphy through Semaphore Signaling.

Chappe Telegraph from "Wonders of Science" 1868

Chappe Telegraph from “Wonders of Science” 1868

Claude Chappe gave a demonstration of his device to the Legislative assembly on 22nd March 1792. Chappe named his system as “Tachygraphe”. The system was approved and finally the plans were bought by the Government in March 1793, when there was an outbreak of war between France and England. England was backed by its allied countries. It may be worth mentioning here that the word “Télégraphe” (Telegraph) was actually suggested by Miot de Melito of Ministry of War using the Greek words “Tele”(far) and “Grafein”(to write).

Chappe’s semaphore comprised of black movable wooden arms (indicators) on the each end of horizontal beam (regulators) fixed on a 33 feet wooden post. The position of the indicators indicated alphabetic letters. With counterweights (forks) on the arms, the Chappe system was controlled by only two handles which was simple and robust. Each of the two 2-metre-long arms showed seven positions, and the 4.6-metre-long cross bar connecting the two arms had four different angles, for a total of 196 symbols (7x7x4). However, night operation with lamps on the arms was a failure.

Chappe Towers Sequence from the book Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments by Jonathan Shectman (Page 172 -173)

Chappe Towers Sequence from the book Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments by Jonathan Shectman (Page 172 -173)

The wooden post was fixed on brick towers erected 10 miles apart. In the next tower another operator would read the semaphore signals through a telescope and retransmit the message to the following tower. Generally the towers had basic accommodation, kitchen and toilet facilities. The timing of the operators would mainly be in the daytime.

By 1794 communications towers within line-of-sight of each other allowed the French to send a signal from Paris to Lille – a distance of some 191 kilometres in bare five minutes. Later Napoleon used this system to his advantage. He even carried with him a portable semaphore system. At the end of Napoleonic era, there was 224 semaphore stations spread over 1112 miles in France.

Depillion Semaphore

Depillion Semaphore

The Term “Semaphore” however only came into existence only in 1801, when a former artillery officer named Depillon devised a signaling system which comprised of a mast with three arms which furnished upto 301 symbols for Ship to Shore communication. It was approved by the Ministry of Marine in France. Depillon termed his signaling system as Semaphore, which in Greek meant “Bear a sign”.

Advent of Optical Telegraphy in England

The English got information of Chappe’s Optical Telegraph system in 1794. Lord George Murray proposed a system of Visual Telegraphy for the Admirality in 1796. Rev, J. Gamble proposed a machine to be used, which was ignored.

Murray Shutter Semaphore from the book History of Telegraphy By Ken Beauchamp

Murray Shutter Semaphore from the book History of Telegraphy By Ken Beauchamp

Murray intentionally built a device for signaling which was based on shutter system. He wanted to create a system which did not resemble with Chappe as there were hostile relations between France and England. Murray built a large open wooden frame to which were fitted six boards (shutters) pivoted on a horizontal axis. The shutters were controlled by pulling on ropes from inside a specially designed building surmounted by large and heavy shutter system. The buildings were 10 meter high with the shutter system adding 5 metre. The buildings were perched on the top of hills. Till date they are known as Telegraph Hills. George Roebuck, latter added more variation and a message from London to Portsmouth took only 15 minutes.

However Murray and Roebuck’s system was abandoned in 1815, as after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars they were no longer necessary. Modeled on the basis of the 3 arm French Semaphore made by earlier mentioned Frenchman C. Depillon, Sir Home Riggs Popham devised a signaling system which consisted of single fixed vertical 30 foot pole, with two movable 8 foot arms.

Popham - Pasley Semaphore from the book History of Telegraphy By Ken Beauchamp

Popham – Pasley Semaphore from the book History of Telegraphy By Ken Beauchamp

Claude Chappe had always mentioned that poles and wooden post had a better visibility than shutter. It took Englishmen 20 years to understand that Popham’s model was much more visible than those of the Murray semaphore.

In 1822 Popham’s design was revised by Colonel (later General) Charles William Pasley. The new system still had two movable arms, but this time each arm could be set in one of eight positions, producing 8×8 or 64 code combinations, and of course resembling the Depillon system even closer.

Pasley’s telegraph was used to reconstruct the line from London to Portsmouth, which had been abandoned in 1816. London to Portsmouth Line was operational from 1822 until 1847. However due to rising cost of tower erection and lack of skilled operators, no further semaphore telegraph lines were being constructed.

Optical Telegraphy in India

When it was decided to rebuilt the Optical Telegraph line in England, the British had started their thought process on building up a similar chain of Semaphore based Telegraph Towers in their colonies, especially in India.

During the nineteenth century, mail was delivered in India solely by mail-runners. With a Javelin in one hand and the sack full of letters, they ran through tough terrains to deliver message. In the night they had to carry kerosene lanterns to show the way.

Indian Runner . Image courtesy ; http://www.stampsofindia.com

Indian Runner . Image courtesy ; http://www.stampsofindia.com

In 1813, it was suggested to start Visual or Optical telegraph system in India. The task was not easy as the terrain and the people were still not very familiar and favorable for the British. However, to rule a vast country like India, it was necessary to send message at a fast pace. Optical telegraph system involving sending Semaphore Signals through towers seemed the only solution. The system was intended to start experimentally only for military purpose.

Several lines were proposed based on the city of Calcutta which even included telegraph line between Calcutta and Bombay. The first such line on which survey was to be done was that between Calcutta and Chunar. Sir George Everest was given the charge on 21st October 1817 to survey a distance of around 400 miles between Calcutta and Chunar. He was assisted by Lieutenant Fergusson of Ramgarh Battalion.

Semaphore Tower on Silwar Hill on the old Benaras Road. A  sketch by D'Oyly, Sir Charles on February 1823 ( courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

Semaphore Tower on Silwar Hill on the old Benaras Road. A sketch by D’Oyly, Sir Charles on February 1823 ( courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

Everest received information near Sherghati that he has been appointed as chief assistant to Colonel Lambton, the Superindent of Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. However Everest decided to complete his survey and then only return to Hyderabad to join Lambton. He completed his survey till Chunar and started his return journey on 16th October 1818. The line of towers were to be built through Howrah, Hooghly, Bankura, Purulia, Chas, Chandankiari, Gumia, Hazaribagh, Katkamsarai, Kanhachatti (Near Chatra), Sherghati, Dhangain pass into Gaya and finally to Chunar. This was through the Old Benaras road or the Military Road, which ceases to exist after the advent of G.T. Road.

 A painting of Chunar Fort as on 1795  (Wikimedia Commons.)

A painting of Chunar Fort as on 1795 (Wikimedia Commons.)

Semaphore tower on Silwar Hill, Hazaribagh. From the book "Bihar - The Heart of India"by Sir John Houlton.

Semaphore tower on Silwar Hill, Hazaribagh.
From the book “Bihar – The Heart of India”by Sir John Houlton.

India has a variety of Landscape. Especially from Bankura onward there are many hillocks, some of which are smaller version of mountain. Also the climate is entirely different from Europe. The British had to think of improvising their methods of building Semaphore Towers. For Manbhum (Now Purulia) and Bihar (Part of it now Jharkhand), they built up two storied towers above the Hills. The Semaphore essentially needed to be black, so that it could be visible against the sky.

The main operating station would be of course at Fort William at Calcutta. A 100 feet tower was built in 1824 to provide vantage point for providing Semaphore Signaling to ships passing by. Much later in 1881, the Calcutta Commissioner installed a huge Ball on it as a time piece for shipping. It would be raised at 12:55 hours and lowered at 13:00 hours daily to indicate the correct time. From then it is known as the Ball tower.

Ball Tower of Fort William. Sketch by Ayan Mallick

Ball Tower of Fort William. Sketch by Ayan Mallick

This tower still exits inside Fort William premises and you can see it clearly rising tall amongst the tress on your left, while getting down the second Hooghly Bridge while entering Kolkata. It is difficult to shoot it from the bus; I have to try again for a couple of times to get a perfect shot. Meanwhile my dear friend Ayan Mallick presented me with a sketch of the same, which I am sharing here.


Description of the Indian Semaphore towers

Different type of Gates / Doors of Semaphore Towers in India

Different type of Gates / Doors of Semaphore Towers in India

As mentioned earlier the masonry towers had two doors facing each other. On the same line of the doors, there were two windows on each floor of the towers. The doors were of the same shapes and size with one or two exceptions (displayed in photographs above). Both the windows and doors had proper frames. Remaining of window frames exists as well as edges on the wall on the ground floor entrance where a door clamp might have existed. I found circular holes in all floors, generally two in each floor. In some occasions there are four such holes too. I take these to be ventilators. Some of the window frames still exists at towers of Babudih, Aararah and Chhatna.

Remains of Window Panels on Semaphore Towers at Chhatna and Babudih

Remains of Window Panels on Semaphore Towers at Chhatna and Babudih

Ventilators of Semaphore towers. Sometimes they one on each side of the wall, sometimes they had two.

Ventilators of Semaphore towers. Sometimes they one on each side of the wall, sometimes they had two.

Inside the tower there are square holes in the walls of each floor from which you can see wooden beams hanging. In the most of the towers, there is not much remaining of the wooden planks. However in Andul and Dilakash most the wooden beams are more or less intact. If the planks at Andul are closely observed, one will find that the spaces between them are not equal. Comparing this with the structures of two ceilings, which I found intact at Parbbatichak and Satanpur Hills, I felt there may be an entry point in this area in each floor for the people to climb up.

Wooden Beams in the interiors of Andul Semaphore Tower.

Wooden Beams in the interiors of Andul Semaphore Tower.

Huge hole dug inside the Tantipukur Semaphore Tower by Relic hunters

Huge hole dug inside the Tantipukur Semaphore Tower by Relic hunters

I did not find any sign or the remains of any staircase. It may be safely assumed that ladders were used to climb up the floors. The walls were plastered both inside and outside. Many portions of the plasters exist. The most interesting is the tower inside the jungle of Tantipukur near Bishnupur. Here a huge hole has been dug almost till the internal foundation of the tower. It made me remember the fascinating but rather baseless magnet story (!) which I heard at Parbbatichak. Also the tower at Ramsagar has an interesting shape as lighting fell on it. It has cracked from inside and dense undergrowth inside prevented me from going to its interiors.Many of the towers still retained the base.Specially the Base of the Goghat Tower will give a clear idea about its structure. Thank God that there were no relic hunters in that area.

Base of Goghat Semaphore Tower

Base of Goghat Semaphore Tower

Ruined Semaphore Towers at Ramsagar, Bankura

Ruined Semaphore Towers at Ramsagar, Bankura

From the construction of the ceilings and the deep circular insertion at each wall, I felt that each floor was made using Surki, Clay and Lime with support of wooden beams below it. As mentioned earlier there was a square entry point in each floor. This is evident from the ceiling entrance of the two storied tower on Satanpur Hills at Dhanbad. The ceiling of Parbbatichak tower also indicates this.

Ceiling of Satanpur Hill Semaphore Tower at Bokaro. The square space indicates the presence of a door.

Ceiling of Satanpur Hill Semaphore Tower at Bokaro. The square space indicates the presence of a door.

Ceiling of Semaphore Tower at Parbbatichak, Hooghly. The round shape in the middle indicates the place from where the semaphore mast may have been inserted.

Ceiling of Semaphore Tower at Parbbatichak, Hooghly. The round shape in the middle indicates the place from where the semaphore mast may have been inserted.

An Interesting information may be mentioned here. At Satanpur, I found one tower each on the top of each of two hillocks. This is surprising as the towers were supposed to be built at least 20 km apart. However I discovered one of the towers to be a crude replica of the first, the bricks looking rather new. Locals informed it was only around 70 years old.

On the ceiling of Parbbatichak tower, one can observe in the centre of the ceiling an inserting gap from where the main mast of the semaphore was being fixed. There are interesting gaps in the ceilings, both in Parbbatichak and Satanpur Hill towers. I believe this is where clamps may have been inserted to attach the semaphores to the floor of the ceiling.

Besides this I noticed that in all towers on both side of the top floor outer walls, there are three long rectangular insertions. These insertion looks like channels dug on the wall. The middle channel is straight, while the other two are at exact opposite angular position. In many towers they are clearly visible.

Channels on the walls of different Semaphore Towers

Channels on the walls of different Semaphore Towers

There are square holes just below these insertions. At towers of Dilakash and Babudih wooden pegs can be seen still protruding out of these square holes. There are three such holes on each side of the walls just below each insertion. It seemed the ropes were tied to the wooden pegs and placed through these channels to tie up the semaphore. The channels prevented the rope from swaying in the wind and getting torn in the process.

Digitized Version of Semaphore Tower Wall with Ropes and wooden pegs to fix the Semaphore

Digitized Version of Semaphore Tower Wall with Ropes and wooden pegs to fix the Semaphore

Roof design and positioning of the pegs  to attach ropes

Roof design and positioning of the pegs to attach ropes


Some of my viewers after reading the blog have suggested that there may be wooden planks instead of ropes. They have opined that the middle channel is quite wide for fixing a rope and I may also try out a digitized version of how it would have looked if there  have been wooden planks. I am putting up here a rather amateurishly done digitized version with wooden planks just to give an idea.

Digitized version of Semaphore tower wall with wooden planks

Digitized version of Semaphore tower wall with wooden planks

I have not been able to find any schematic internal diagram of these towers. But after visiting 14 such towers spread over Bengal and Bihar I have made a sketch of the interiors as well as the exteriors. I am sharing first the Interior sketch.

Sketch of Semaphore Tower Interiors  (based on available information)

Sketch of Semaphore Tower Interiors(based on available information)

Which Semaphore to Use ?

There were several options for the type of Semaphore to be used in India, keeping in mind its climatic conditions. The English gave a serious thought to the construction of Semaphore as can be understood from the following excerpts taken from ‘Description of the universal telegraph for day and night signals’ By Sir Charles William Pasley.

Palsey writes “A friend acquainted with effects of climate in India has recommended, that in that country, no Iron shall be used in the construction, and no wood , excepting the post, which may be of teak and the nocturnal indicator rod, and brace, which may be of bamboo. The panels of the arms and of the day indicator, to be of light copper plate. All the other parts to be of brass, or of bronze.”

Pasley further added:

“If Telegraphs were introduced into British India, or into any other of our foreign possessions, a number of military phrases and sentences, and a great number of local word and phrases would require to be introduced, which are not found in Sir Home Pophom’s Book.”

In the book “The Worldwide History of Telecommunication” by Anton. A. Huurdeman, it is mentioned that Kolkata to Chunar line had as many as 45 semaphore stations erected between them. Initially it had a semaphore system using four 1.2 m to 1.8 m Balls pioneered by one William Boyce.

There were several others inventors approaching with their system on Semaphore Invention to be used by East India Company. Among them was one Colonel Macdonald who had developed several Semaphore Telegraph systems including one Twelve board Telegraph system. He even came out with a Dictionary of Telegraph.

Macdonald twelve Board Semaphore

Macdonald twelve Board Semaphore

However his plan was rejected by The Telegraph Committee on October 26th, 1818 who commented that Macdonald’s Semaphore was extremely large instrument , too complicated in design and liable to be affected by the heat and moisture of the country. Government wanted a full proof instrument, less affected by Indian weather and easily adapted by Indian troops.

The person who drafted the letter to Colonel Macdonald representing The Telegraph Committee was the secretary of the committee, Captain G. Swiney. Swiney was an enthusiast too in this matter and he came out soon with his own Shutter Semaphore Telegraph design

Captain Swiney's Semaphore

Captain Swiney’s Semaphore

On 1822, the ball system Telegraph was replaced by a system closely resembling to Swiney which had four 6 ft squares. The Semaphore line was planned to be extended to Nagpur from Chunar. I have no idea how that Semaphore system looked like. So I have designed an Indian Semaphore tower with Swiney’s Semaphore on it.

Semaphore Tower with Swiney's Semaphore

Semaphore Tower with Swiney’s Semaphore

Although the Pasley Semaphore was doing great guns at England, the British Government opined that in Indian Climatic conditions six foot square will be more visible than a long wooden post with arms

Location of the existing Semaphore Towers in India

The Towers at Hooghly however took some time to be built. In the book “A brief history of the Hugli District” by Lieutenant Colonel D.G. Crawford, it is mentioned that in 1821 Lieutenant Weston was at work, building the towers required for the purpose in Hughli district. He was succeeded in 1825 by Captain Playfair, who appears to have finished the towers.” There were 6 total towers in Howrah and Hooghly. They were located in Mohiari ( Khatirbazar at Andul), Baragachia, Dilakhas (9 km from Sitapur), Haiathpur (9 miles north-east of Khanakul), Mubarakpur (at Parbbatichak on Bandar Road)and at Nabasan (Goghat). The towers of Baragachia and Haiathpur have crumbled down, while the rest still exist. I have already shared the photograph of Goghat Tower. Now I am sharing the photographs of rest three towers of Hooghly and Howrah

Some Semaphore Towers of Hooghly and Howrah

Some Semaphore Towers of Hooghly and Howrah

Further down towards Bankura, there are still five towers existing at Tantipukur jungle, Ramsagar, Salghata at Onda, Chhatna and Arrarah Village near Jhantipahari. There were two more, one of which was in Bankura town itself. Though it has collapsed long ago, still the area where it stood is known as “Machantala” at Bankura!

Semaphore Towers at Chhatna  and Aararah near Jhantipahari, Bankura

Semaphore Towers at Chhatna and Aararah near Jhantipahari, Bankura

At Purulia, I have been able to locate only one two storied tower atop Joychandi Hill near Adra. At Jharkhand near Chandankiari, there is a four storied tower at the village of Babudih. Other hill towers which I have been able to locate are atop Satanpur Hill at Bokaro, Silwar Hill of Hazaribagh, Unknown Hillock at Pabra village near Hazaribagh and atop a high hill infested with many trees located somewhere between Kotkamsari and Itkora . I have only personally visited the Satanpur hills. Rest have been visited and photographed by my friends at Jharkhand. There are supposed to be two more hill towers at Jharkhand near Chatra and Gumia, which I am yet to locate.
Such Towers were built in the style of “Martello Towers” or simply “Martellos”, which were small defensive forts built on Hilltop in England during 19th century.

Semaphore Tower on Joychandi Hill. Photograph Courtesy : Prasanta Karmakar

Semaphore Tower on Joychandi Hill. Photograph Courtesy : Prasanta Karmakar

Semaphore Tower in the village of Babudih between Chas and Chandankiari, Jharkhand

Semaphore Tower in the village of Babudih between Chas and Chandankiari, Jharkhand

Two storied tower at Silwar Hill , Hazaribagh. Such Hill towers were built on the style of "Martello" Towers at England.Photograph Courtesy : Nishesh Singh

Two storied tower at Silwar Hill , Hazaribagh. Such Hill towers were built on the style of “Martello” Towers at England. Photograph Courtesy : Nishesh Singh

Semaphore tower on a hillock at Pabra village near Hazaribagh. Photo courtesy Nishesh Singh

Semaphore tower on a hillock at Pabra village near Hazaribagh. Photo courtesy Nishesh Singh

Semaphore Tower on a hill near Itkori. Photo courtesy : Subhashis Das

Semaphore Tower on a hill near Itkori. Photo courtesy : Subhashis Das

Parallel to this a Semaphore Line existed between Calcutta and Barrackpore, which was an army Cantonment. The Semaphore tower here is of three storied, which exists inside the Flagstaff Bungalow residence. You can view this tower from The Mangal Pandey Ghat at Barrackpore. To get inside the Flagstaff Bungalow premises, however you need to get permission from the Raj Bhawan, Kolkata.

Painting of Semaphore Tower of Barrackpore with Flagstaff Bungalow by Colonel Robert Smith - 1815 -1819. Photo Credit : British Library

Painting of Semaphore Tower of Barrackpore with Flagstaff Bungalow by Colonel Robert Smith – 1815 -1819.
Photo Credit : British Library

The rising cost of maintaining a Semaphore line

Maintaining such a huge semaphore line was however becoming costly. A monthly expense of Rs 3,500 was being incurred in maintaining the Calcutta Chunar line. Building more towers needed more fund. Already in England itself Semaphore lines were not being extended. Besides the Shutter system was getting obsolete as the moveable arm Semaphore similar to the Pasley model was more acceptable model worldwide for its simplicity, durability and being user friendly. I believe getting a skilled operator who would sit whole day on the top of a tower in a hot humid day with eye on the telescope was becoming difficult too.

Finally the Calcutta to Chunar line was abandoned as a failure project on 1828. The fine masonry towers were abandoned. Many were broken down too.

Calcutta to Kedgree Semaphore Line

Later in 1831-1833, a semaphore line was made with 13 telegraph stations between Calcutta Exchange and Kedegree ( Khejuri). At Kedegree the Semaphore was used from the lighthouse of Cowcally (Kaukhali, a village near Khejuri). The other 12 stations were at were at Coverdale’s Tree/ Bluf (Kedgree), Mud Point, Middle Point, Lower Middle Point, Diamond Harbour House, Hooghly Point, Old Fultah Point, Lower Point, Royapore Reach, Moyapur Magazine, Powder Mills and Budge Budge Road.

In this line, two armed Semaphore adapting the Popham – Pasley system was used. It was mainly an initiative by the mercantile body of Calcutta which would help in receiving communication in town regarding the arrival of vessels within signal distance from the extremely southerly station (Kaukhali light house) within a few minutes. One Mr. Conolly was instrumental for the completion of the project.Total amount of Rs 25000 was spent by the Government in building these semaphore stations.

These towers were all severally damaged and some totally destroyed by the hurricane of 1847. The light house of Kaukhally still exists, but the village is not easily accessible. In many of these points three armed Tidal semaphores are still used to indicate the rise of the tide in the Hugli River. Although they have less significance as the whole system is computerized at present.
It may be noted here that such type of Pole Semaphore signalling were later adopted for using in Railways.

Hooghly Tidal Semaphore (From Sea - Seek Ebook Sailing guide)

Hooghly Tidal Semaphore ( From Sea – Seek Ebook Sailing guide)

Enter Electrical Telegraph of O’Shaughnessy

Dr William Brooke O’Shaughnessy  ( From Wikipedia Commons)

Dr William Brooke O’Shaughnessy ( From Wikipedia Commons)

The fate of optical telegraph in India was sealed when like many others experimenting on electrical Telegraph, Dr William Brooke O’Shaughnessy a 24-year-old assistant surgeon with the East India Company laid up successfully an experimental telegraph line near Shibpur Botanical Garden in the year 1839. He used bamboo for building Telegraph Posts and sent signals over a wire coated in gutta-percha (natural latex available in India), which served as insulation and enabled the wire to be placed under water. His principal assistant Shib Chandra Nandy was in charge of overseeing the actual laying of the cable.

Morse's Telegraph, Photo Courtesy : Stock Exchange Free Image

Morse’s Telegraph, Photo Courtesy : Stock Exchange Free Image

That was only two years after Samuel F.B. Morse built his famous demonstration system in the United States. But O’Shaughnessy was unaware of Morse’s work. When the British were aware of the progress the Americans were having with electric telegraphy over cable, O’Shaughnessy’s was asked to start afresh.

Backed by Lord Dalhousie, O’Shaughnessy resulted in transmitting the first telegraph message live through electrical signals between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour, a distance of about 50 km, on November 5, 1850. This line was later extended upto Khejuri (then Kedgeree).

First Indian Telegraph Office was established in 1852, connecting Khejuri with Calcutta. Lord Dalhousie reported to Court of Directors on April 23, 1852 – “We have the honour to transmit the accompanying report from the Government of Bengal, announcing the completion, by Dr. W. B. O’Shaughnessy of the line of electric Telegraph from Calcutta to Kedgeree”.

Dalhousie authorized O’Shaughnessy to build a full trans-India telegraph. O’Shaughnessy finished it three years later and the service was opened for the general public in February 1855. The first Telegraph Act for India was the British Parliament’s Act XXXIV of 1854. When a public telegram service begun in 1855, the charge was fixed at one rupee for each sixteen words (including the address) for every 400 miles of transmission.

Later in 1857 during Sepoy Mutiny, Electrical Telegraph played a major role in saving the British from the revolting soldiers.

Khejuri was devasted in a hurricane on 1864. The town never recovered. The ruined post office of Khejuri still exists inside a jungle near the sea at Khejuri, five km from the Kaukhali village lighthouse. Both are not easy accessible. I am sharing here a photograph of Khejuri Post office taken by Arindam Bhowmik many years ago.

Ruins of Khejuri Post Office. Photo Courtesy : www.midnapore.in , Arindam Bhowmik

Ruins of Khejuri Post Office. Photo Courtesy : http://www.midnapore.in , Arindam Bhowmik

 

GTS tower on B.T. Road

GTS tower on B.T. Road.

Many will fondly remember electric telegraph because of its immense role in public service. However the optical telegraph line was a major effort in India by the East India Company, keeping in mind the unfavorable conditions they had to work in. Though it never was used for public service and was intended mainly for military usage, it gave George Everest the required experience, which he used later in conducting the Great Trigonometrical Survey.

Although the Towers used in Great Trigonometrical Survey(GTS) looked completely different from The Semaphore towers, yet some of the later structures were used successfully for the Survey. It may be worth mentioning that the towers of Parbbatichak and Goghat were used at GTS towers.

Rebuilding of Semaphore Towers and Tourism Prospects

Reconstructed Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower ( Source : Wikimedia Commons)

Reconstructed Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower ( Source : Wikimedia Commons)

Some semaphore towers at Europe have been rebuilt and people can actually visit these structures, which are functional like the old days. Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower in England, Gharghur Semaphore tower at Malta and a Semaphore tower at Nalbach based on Chappe’s system at Germany are some examples.

There was a model of Semaphore Signaling at The Birla Museum at Kolkata. However, the communication department has been shut down long ago so the model is no more in display.

Could we hope of rebuilding some of the semaphore towers at Bengal and Bihar, so that our present and future generations can know about the Semaphore Telegraph line built long ago by the British as a first effort for a faster communication system? This can be an added tourist attraction too. Otherwise these historical towers will get forgotten in deep jungles and fields. Eventually they will crumble like the others.

Will the Semaphore Towers of India will fade in the oblivion ?

Will the Semaphore Towers of India will fade in the oblivion ?

I will be on the hunt of more existing towers and more information on them, which I will share in blog too.

Special Thanks :

1. Rangan Datta, for accompanying me to most of my semaphore tower hunting ventures and participation in tower related discussions

2. Arabinda Singha Roy for helping in locating some of the semaphore towers

3.Banani Bhattacharya for providing me with some of the gazzeteers relating to optical telegraphy in India

4.Google Maps for helping me to pinpoint locations of most of the semaphore towers

References

1.Communications: An International History of the Formative Years by By Russell W. Burns. (Chapter 2 : Semaphore Signaling)

2. The Worldwide History of Telecommunications by Anton A. Huurdeman (Chapter 4 : Evolution of The Telecommunications)

3.History of Telegraphy By Ken Beauchamp
(Chapter 1 : Things Mechanical)

4.Description of the universal telegraph for day and night signals By Sir Charles William Pasley

5.The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named by John Keay

6.Everest : The Man and the Mountain by J.R. Smith

7.Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the 18th Century By Jonathan Shectman (Page 172 -173)

8.Science, Technology, Imperialism, and War , edited by Jyoti Bhusan Das Gupta
(Chapter 5 : Technology whats is it ? BY Saroj Ghose
Subsection IV : Profile of Colonial Technologists)

9. A brief history of the Hooghly district by Lieutenant Colonel . D.G.Crawford.

10.Bihar and Orissa District Gazetteers : Hazaribagh
By E. Lister, CLE. Indian Civil Services

11.Bihar – The Heart of India by Sir John Houlton

12.History of the British Colonies: Possessions in Asia By Robert Montgomery Martin

13.Bengal District Gazetteers by L.S.S. O’Malley

14.Conquerors of Time: Exploration and Invention in the Age of Daring By Trevor Fishlock

15.Journal of the Asiatic Society, Part U : July to December, 1844

16.Gazetteer of Manbhum by Coupland, 1911

17.The Good old days of Honourable John Company By W.H. Carey(1907)

18.The Asiatic Journal, Volume 6, September to December , 1831

19.The Asiatic Journal, Volume 3, September to December, 1830

20.The Asiatic Journal, Volume 10. January to April, 1833

21. The Asiatic journal, Volume 27, January to June 1829

22. http://www.midnapore.in/tourism_khejuri.html

23.L’inventeur des sémaphores côtiers : Charles Depillon 1768-1805 by François Cabane

24.Connecting the Nineteenth-Century World: The Telegraph and Globalization By Roland Wenzlhuemer

25. Science, Technology, Imperialism, and War edited by Jyoti Bhusan Das Gupta

26. Sea – Seek Ebook Sailing guide / Guide nautique
Bay of Bengal Indian Ocean February 2013

27. Bankura Jekar Purakirti by Amiya Bandopadhyay

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59 thoughts on “Optical Telegraph in India: The forgotten Saga

  1. Avishek says:

    Amazing.. I admire your passion and hard work to pull up such an elaborate write up on a not so popular subject.Looking forward to more such posts from you on such obscure subjects.

  2. Somen Sengupta says:

    One of the finest article I have read in recent time – while I bow before your energy, flair of writing & academic interest on this subject I stand doubtful on one point. All these semaphores towers were built during 1824 to 1850 ( till the time telegraph system was introduced in India ). Why British East India Company restricted it’s semaphore tower construction only in Bengal Presidency ? I do not find any reference of such tower in Bombay & Madras Presidency where British East India Company was conquering provinces in equal speed as fast as they were doing the same i east in that period.I am sure in some other article one day someone else will throw light on this.However once again I take my hat off on the author for giving us this delightful article – really enriched.

    • AMITABHA GUPTA says:

      Why British East India Company restricted it’s semaphore tower construction only in Bengal Presidency ?

      I think I have given answer to this in the section “The rising cost of maintaining a Semaphore line” of my article. In short the Calcutta Chunar line was shut down in 1828 due to various reasons of which maintenance cost was a major factor.

      In The Asiatic journal and monthly register for British India and its dependents, Volume XXVII, January to June 1829 ,John Bull mentions “”Government have judiciously abolished the Shutter line from Calcutta to Chunar Invalid Station, a distance of 400 miles which involved a monthly expenses of 3,500 rupees.”

      And the Semaphore Tower constructions continued only till 1833, but it was a short distance. (which I have mentioned in my article too). Also I have mentioned that Electrical Telegraph on a trial version became successful in 1839. And Finally in 1847 a Hurricane devastated probably the last Semaphore line of India (Kolkata to Khejuri)

  3. Rajesh says:

    excellent article. Mot important is that you did an important work for future generation. I hope all our heritage is preserved in words like this.

  4. Dilip Datta says:

    Excellent research work … very very important, specially when the P&T Deptt has shut down the telegraph services of 160 yrs old.
    Thanks .

  5. Asim Gupta says:

    What an amazing article! The painstaking work & dedication made by the author in bringing to light an almost forgotten History of the History of Optical Telegraphy is really commendable. History is speaking through this article. A must read article.

  6. Sujit Chatterjee says:

    Good article..full of contents…I have heard from my dad (since they were in Mirzapur, near to Chunar during pre-independence period) about the importance of Chunar Fort those days due to the similar reasons.

  7. Ramit Bose says:

    Very good work! Look forward to see more and more interesting and unknown facts through your eyes.. Further, my sincere regards to such a passionate research work on semaphore signaling system…. Keep it up!!!!

  8. Rajendra Nath Banerjee says:

    Excellent Article from Amitabha-da….In fact I had a long-time interest on the topic. If I am correct, two more semaphore towers exist….one in joypur (Near Kotulpur) in between Arambagh & Bishnupur while another one on Joychandi Hills, purulia…appear to me now as Semaphore tower. . .

    • AMITABHA GUPTA says:

      Thanks…. The one you mention Is near Joypur , but not near Kotulpur. It is actually inside the Joypur forest near Tantipukur, which I have featured here. Look at the Fourth Picture from the top. The middle one is that tower. It is three storied.

      Yes… The one Joychandi Hill is a Semaphore tower too. Check the subsection “Location of the existing Semaphore Towers in India” in my article. A photograph of that tower has been featured there, which has been taken by my friend Prasanta Karmakar.

  9. photographysimplified says:

    Man, you have got patience !!!
    This is real good stuff… I liked it so much that I went through it multiple time.

    I knew about your photography but was not aware that you are equally good at narration 🙂

  10. PJP says:

    Really thrilled by your great investigative presentation. I do business in the Radio data communication, one of the latest modes of administrative communication in Indian remote locations. But it was an eye-opener -new information and knowledge to me-to be frank!These towers are to be preserved for the future, to remind the new generations the great efforts taken in the olden days for the (tele)communication in our country! I can only say, thank you Amith,Good luck.

  11. Supratim Ghosh. says:

    Amitabha babu,
    It’s a real research work. That has a complete structure. Great thinking and a perfect timing. Not at all easy to think or work. So, thanks will be little for you. Hope it will bring a little more awareness to us or someone else. And here in our country history dies, shame to think and view a glorious era is waiting for a measurable death.
    Can’t this article be published in any leading news paper, so that the story can get a wide spectrum?
    Supratim

    • AMITABHA GUPTA says:

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, I have intention to publish it some newspaper or Magazine. I also intend to talk with the authorities for conservation of at least some of the towers.

  12. Pallab says:

    Excellent Research Work! I always thought about this as I spent my childhood days very near to one of these towers. But never know the real purpose of these towers. Many thanks for your thought-provoking work. Publish this review to any appropriate journal. I like your idea of converting some of these towers as tourist/historical attractions.

    Only one suggestion, it would be great if you can add a Google map here locating the known/existed towers and also indicate the suggested/possible location of other missing towers in Calcutta-Chunar semaphore route.

    Thanks, Amitabha!

    • AMITABHA GUPTA says:

      Thanks for your comments.

      I am adding the towers image one by one to my Flickr album and mapping them there. Pin Pointing them on a Map may be bit clumsy in the blog as they are not close.

      I have mentioned the Calcutta Chunar Route in my blog. There may be some in Purulia and definitely some more near Hazaribagh, might be on the road to Chatra. Chances are that these are all hill towers, inside jungles which are not safe now for several reasons.

  13. Amitabh Shukla says:

    Awesome research work, I am from Bokaro and have visited these towers in my teenage. I was always wondering what they are for. There are 4 similar towers in Bokaro Sector 12 hill near a local vegetable market ( hatia ) , The structure is prominent and can be seen from Muri to Bokaro railway line too….

    Sir, hats off to you for your commendable research and quest for knowledge. You have answered an unanswered question in my mind too. I did some data collection too but could never understand what these are for. I always thought they where watch towers built by British Army to keep an eye on people.

    I am basically from UP and born and brought up in Bokaro.
    As we travel from Jharkhand to UP we get to see some similar structures but at an intermittent distances all the way through. You can notice such structures near Sultanpur, Allahabad, Meerut and even in Karnal, Sonepat area in Haryana.

    Just a guess from myside there might be many other similar trunk lines existing.

    If you trace on map a you might be able to find link between cities.

    And also many scuh structures are modified now for a chimney of brick kilns.

    Thanks Dada, Awesome work sir.

    • AMITABHA GUPTA says:

      Thanks for your comment Mr. Shukla.

      I located 2 towers which were two storied atop Satanapur Hills near Sector 12 of Bokaro out of which one was a replica. I have mentioned that in my blog with the actual tower photographs in details. I could not locate any more such tower in the Sector 12 Hills.

      Have you any photographs of the rest 2 towers at Sector 12 which you are mentioning here ?

      There is another Such Hill Tower on Silwar Hill near Hazaribagh ( I have shared its photograph too in my blog).

      From Hazaribagh to Sherghati though Kotkamsari and Chatra there are many Two storied Semaphore towers on several Hills in the jungle. Unfortunately I have yet not located them, as the area is politically disturbed.

      As per the records I have obtained, the Semaphore line existed from Calcutta to Chunar only and it did not extend further. The line was supposed to extended to Nagpur and Mumbai, but the plan did not materialize.

      So the towers you mention seeing at Sultanpur, Allahabad, Meerut and even in Karnal, Sonepat area in Haryana might be GTS towers constructed during the great trigonometrical survey.

      I have also enclosed photograph of a GTS tower in my blog.

      • Sekhar says:

        The structures described by Mr Shukla are likely to be ‘ Kos Minars ‘ (singular – ‘ Kos Minar ‘). These were towers constructed on important roads (like the Grand Trunk Road) by Sher Shah Suri, and after him by the Moghuls. The ‘Kos Minars’ were built as towers so that they would be visible at a distance, and travelers could maintain correct direction by moving from one Kos Minar to the other. They are totally different from Semaphore Towers.

        There are some differences between structures of a Kos Minar and a Semaphore Tower, eg the roof of a Kos Minar is rounded, walls are sloping inwards, etc.

        ‘ Kos ‘ is a unit of distance (like a kilometer, but longer, approx. 2.25 miles), and ‘ Minar ‘ means tower. For details, see the following Wikipedia pages :
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kos_Minar (with pictures)
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kos_(unit)

        For locations of Kos Minars, go to the webpage http://asi.nic.in/asi_monu_alphalist.asp and click on UP or Haryana or Punjab for lists of ancient structures in the state, including Kos Minars.

  14. DR SANKAR KUMAR NATH says:

    WAITING FOR MORE AND MORE SUCH LABORIOUS WORKS FROM TO ENRICH OUR HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE, GOOD WISHES TO YOU

  15. soumitra mukhopadhyaya says:

    Dear Sri Gupta
    Going through the article was truly fantastic experience. I was returning from Udaynarayanpur to Domjur today when I saw the Semaphore tower in Dilakash. I am from Andul & the Semaphore tower at Khatirbazar, Andul was my companion from childhood. I did some research about the history of the towers. but the scope was limited for a physician like me. most of the common people dont know the true history.
    Ur extensive research has helped me get my questions. I wish to request the local Panchayat to place a board with the history near the Semaphore tower in Andul.
    Regards
    Dr Soumitra Mukherjee

  16. Som Sikdar says:

    Fascinating work – thoroughly enjoyed it.
    I grew up in the town of Bankura in the sixties. The town had a high degree of British-era construction from mid 1800s including the school (1840). The center of the town next to the court buildings has a six-way traffic intersection called Machan-tala. The semaphore tower (Machan) is hidden next to the front row of buildings. I was six years old when my dad told me the story of semaphore tower back in 1966. In those days the tower had two stories and had a metal water tank for the towns water supply. Later a taller and larger water tank was built and the Machan-tank was abandoned. It may have been taken down by now.
    The name of the crossing still leaves on.

  17. uplandpete1 says:

    Thank you for a great piece of research. My 4x great grandfather worked on the semaphore line between Cowcolly lighthouse and Calcutta in the 1830s. When I get home I will check out which ones he was posted on and look at your photographs of them 🙂

    If you are interested he was a boy on a pilot vessel before that, then later he worked on the Tripod Light at Saugor Island. He was second mate on a Floating Light Vessel before finishing as the Superintendent of the Saugor Lighthouse.

    • AMITABHA GUPTA says:

      Wow… that is great. I was looking forward to someone like you whose ancestor worked on Semaphore towers In India. I have not able to trace any existing brick Semaphore towers between Cowcolly and Calcutta. whatever is left are the bamboo poles which were used for semaphore signalling to the ships until recent times.

      The Cowcolly lighthouse is inside a jungle and is difficult to access. I have able to procure a photograph of Khejuri (Kedgree) post & Telegraph office it taken some years ago, but I do not have any photograph of the lighthouse.

      I will write you a mail separately.

  18. Asit K. Ghosh says:

    Incredible research work driven by an intense passion for our lost, neglected history of an otherwise complex and not-so-popular subject matter.

    Congratulations to you for what you have done for all of us.

    Thank you.

    Asit K. Ghosh
    Rockledge, Florida, USA.
    =============================================

  19. dp says:

    I lived close to the 2 satanpur towers for around 14 years and was always curious about their real purpose. The watchtower theory that I heard from the locals was never convincing. However, this makes complete sense. Good research work man. Hats off to both you and British engineering!! Today’s buildings won’t be able to stand for even half as long as those ancient towers 🙂

  20. Abhik Majumdar says:

    I came across this page entirely by chance. This is more than a magnificent piece of work, it’s downright unbelievable. First-rate research, and presented in an accessible style. Do please keep up this terrific endeavour.

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