Saturday 29 November 2014

Please adjust your dress


While I don't actively plan my visits around the presence of Victorian cast-iron urinals, it's always a joy to come across them - at the National Railway Museum, York, the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, and most recently, St Fagans National History Museum, Wales. 

The Welsh example is technically Scottish, since it was cast by the omnipresent Walter Macfarlane & Co at their Saracen Foundry. However, it spent nearly a century in Llanwrtyd Wells before moving to St Fagans in 1978. 

Like all Macfarlane's work, the urinal is full of elegant and decorative detail. A particularly nice feature, though, is the admonition cast into a panel of each stall to 'please adjust your dress before leaving'.

Monday 17 November 2014

Crystal Palace in Paris

The amazing Crystal Palace, star of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and later of Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, was destroyed by a fire in 1936. However, it lives on in a model in Paris - where it is shown still under construction. 

The Cité d'Architecture et de la Patrimoine in the Trocadéro is dedicated to exploring France's architecture. However, it recognises the importance of the Crystal Palace as a pioneering work of pre-fabrication, and has a marvellous model in 1/100 scale, made by Philippe Dubois and Michel Goudin. 

Behind the famous facade, the builders are still at work assembling and erecting the cast-iron framework. Most of the glass is yet to be put in place. The Park's elm trees, famously incorporated into the interior of the central hall, are visible here.

The depiction of wooden cranes seems anachronistic at first glance, but is correct: this extraordinary structure was built before powered cranes had been developed. 

Of course, there is much more to the Cité d'Architecture than this tribute to a British masterpiece. Perhaps the most striking exhibits are those in the cast galleries: plaster replicas of building features from all over France. 

The Crystal Palace has a natural home here, perhaps: the Palais de Chaillot was itself built  for an International Exhibition in 1937 (replacing the earlier Palais constructed for the 1878 Universal Exhibition). Its windows offer excellent views of a landmark from the 1889 Universal Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower. 

Saturday 8 November 2014

Speaking arms - the Chappe telegraph

In the eighteenth century, it took the best part of a week to get a message from Paris to the naval port of Brest and receive the reply. By 1800, it could be done in an hour. The reason? Rather than sending a messenger on horseback, the French state was now using a visual telegraph system named for its creator, Claude Chappe.

It was his family's intention that Claude would enter the church, but that career was disrupted by the French Revolution. However, as the nephew of an astronomer, he was already interested in the physical sciences and with his brothers, turned to invention. They worked to devise a practical system of semaphore signalling which would allow messages to be sent and received quickly and efficiently. The word 'telegraph' was coined to describe it.

Although we think of semaphore systems as involving flags, Chappe realised that much better visibility could be achieved if the message was communicated by angled arms. A string of towers could be set up, each one ten or fifteen miles apart, and operators with telescopes would send and receive the signals along the line. The government eagerly took up his invention, with the first line between Paris and Lille operating from 1794, and lines soon extended between key locations across France. They would prove invaluable to Napoleon in wartime, and continued in use until the mid-nineteenth century when overtaken by new technology: the electric telegraph. Perhaps its last use was in the Crimean War, when a mobile system was employed.

To understand how the system worked, there is no better place to go than the Musée Télégraphe de Chappe at Saint Marcan in north-east Brittany. There, one of the towers survives and has been restored to working order. Visitors can not only learn about the system, but watch it in action and even set signals themselves. (My own attempt suggested that I have not missed my vocation!)

The key to the system's speed and security can be found on the museum's sign. The signals did not proceed letter by letter, but communicated a number between 1 and 92. Each pair of numbers gave the page and line of a signal book; by turning to the page and reading the relevant line, the message recipient obtained anything from a word to a complete phrase or sentence. Thus even a long message could be reduced to a fairly small number of signals; without the codebook, it was meaningless, so even the operators did not understand the message they were relaying.

Once it had been encoded into pairs of numbers, the message would be transmitted from station to station. Each one was a small but solid stone building: sturdy construction was required to support the weight of the mechanism on its roof.

The operator worked on the first floor, looking carefully for messages from neighbouring stations on the line. When a signal appeared at the previous station, the operator would replicate it on his own signal. The main arm would be diagonal as he worked, and swung into a horizontal position when the signal was complete. He would then watch to see that it had been correctly reproduced at the next station before returning his signal to the neutral position (all arms vertical).

The towers were on high points, for obvious reasons of visibility. That resulted in some startling locations: many church towers were used, while the station to the east of Saint Marcan was on Mont Saint Michel. Nonetheless, messages could only be sent when daylight and weather conditions allowed sufficient visibility.

The Parisian starting point for the telegraph was at Menilmontant. The site of the Chappe telegraph station is now commemorated by street names, plaques - and the local Metro station, Télégraphe.