Communication among the Ancients, Walter Kellogg Towers


Signaling the Fall of Troy--Marine Signaling among the
Argonauts--Couriers of the Greeks, Romans, and
Aztecs--Sound-signaling--Stentorophonic Tube--The Shouting
Sentinels--The Clepsydra--Signal Columns--Indian Fire and Smoke

It was very early in the history of the world that man began to feel
the urgent need of communicating with man at a distance. When village
came into friendly contact with village, when nations began to
form and expand, the necessity of sending intelligence rapidly and
effectively was clearly realized. And yet many centuries passed
without the discovery of an effective system. Those discoveries were
to be reserved for the thinkers of our age.

We can understand the difficulties that beset King Agamemnon as he
stood at the head of his armies before the walls of Troy. Many were
the messages he would want to send to his native kingdom in Greece
during the progress of the siege. Those at home would be eager for
news of the great enterprise. Many contingencies might arise which
would make the need for aid urgent. Certainly Queen Clytemnestra
eagerly awaited word of the fall of the city. Yet the slow progress of
couriers must be depended upon.

One device the king hit upon which was such as any boy might devise
to meet the simplest need. "If I can go skating tonight," says Johnny
Jones to his chum, "I'll put a light in my window." Such is the simple
device which has been used to bear the simplest message for ages. So
King Agamemnon ordered beacon fires laid on the tops of Mount Ida,
Mount Athos, Mount Cithζron, and on intervening eminences. Beside them
he placed watchers who were always to have their faces toward Troy.
When Troy fell a near-by fire was kindled, and beacon after beacon
sprang into flame on the route toward Greece. Thus was the message
of the fall of Troy quickly borne to the waiting queen by this
preconceived arrangement. Yet neither King Agamemnon nor his sagest
counselors could devise an effective system for expediting their

Prearranged signals were used to convey news in even earlier times.
Fire, smoke, and flags were used by the Egyptians and the Assyrians
previous to the Trojan War. The towers along the Chinese Wall were
more than watch-towers; they were signal-towers. A flag or a light
exhibited from tower to tower would quickly convey a certain message
agreed upon in advance. Human thought required a system which could
convey more than one idea, and yet skill in conveying news grew

Perhaps the earliest example of marine signaling of which we know
is recorded of the Argonautic Expedition. Theseus devised the use of
colored sails to convey messages from ship to ship of the fleet, and
caused the death of his father by his failure to handle the signals
properly. Theseus sailed into conflict with the enemy with black sails
set, a signal of battle and of death. With the battle over and himself
the victor, he forgot to lower the black flag and set the red flag of
victory. His father, the aged Ζgeus, seeing the black flag, believed
it reported his son's death, and, flinging himself into the sea, was

In time it occurred to the great monarchs as their domains extended
to establish relays of couriers to bear the messages which must be
carried. Such systems were established by the Greeks, the Romans, and
the Aztecs. Each courier would run the length of his own route and
would then shout or pass the message to the next runner, who would
speed it away in turn. Such was the method employed by our own
pony-express riders.

An ancient Persian king thought of having the messages shouted from
sentinel to sentinel, instead of being carried more slowly by relays
of couriers. So he established sentinels at regular intervals within
hearing of one another, and messages were shouted from one to the
other. Just fancy the number of sentinels required to establish a line
between distant cities, and the opportunities for misunderstanding and
mistake! The ancient Gauls also employed this method of communication.
Cζsar records that the news of the massacre of the Romans at Orleans
was sent to Auvergne, a distance of nearly one hundred and fifty
miles, by the same evening.

Though signaling by flashes of light occurred to the ancients, we have
no knowledge that they devised a way of using the light-flashes for
any but the simplest prearranged messages. The mirrors of the Pharaohs
were probably used to flash light for signal purposes. We know that
the Persians applied them to signaling in time of war. It is reported
that flashes from the shields were used to convey news at the battle
of Marathon. These seem to be the forerunners of the heliograph. But
the heliograph using the dot-and-dash system of the Morse code can
be used to transmit any message whatever. The ancients had evolved
systems by which any word could be spelled, but they did not seem to
be able to apply them practically to their primitive heliographs.

An application of sound-signaling was worked out for Alexander
the Great
, which was considered one of the scientific wonders of
antiquity. This was called a stentorophonic tube, and seems to have
been a sort of gigantic megaphone or speaking-trumpet. It is recorded
that it sent the voice for a dozen miles. A drawing of this strange
instrument is preserved in the Vatican.

Another queer signaling device, built and operated upon a novel
principle, was an even greater wonder among the early peoples. This
was known as a clepsydra. Fancy a tall glass tube with an opening at
the bottom in which a sort of faucet was fixed. At varying heights
sentences were inscribed about the tube. The tube, being filled with
water, with, a float at the top, all was ready for signaling any
of the messages inscribed on the tube to a station within sight and
similarly equipped. The other station could be located as far away
as a light could be seen. The station desiring to send a message to
another exhibited its light. When the receiving station showed its
light in answer, the tap was opened at the bottom of the tube in each
station. When the float dropped until it was opposite the sentence
which it was desired to transmit, the sending station withdrew its
light and closed the tap. This was a signal for the receiving station
to stop the flow of water from its tube. As the tubes were just alike,
and the water had flowed out during the same period at equal speed,
the float at the receiving station then rested opposite the message to
be conveyed.

Many crude systems of using lights for signaling were employed. Lines
of watch-towers were arranged which served as signal-stations. The
ruins of the old Roman and Gallic towers may still be found In France.
Hannibal erected them in Africa and Spain. Colored tunics and spears
were also used for military signals in the daytime. For instance,
a red tunic displayed meant prepare for battle; while a red spear
conveyed the order to sack and devastate.

An ancient system of camp signals from columns is especially
interesting as showing a development away from the prearranged signals
of limited application. For these camp signals the alphabet was
divided into five or six parts, and a like number of columns erected
at each signal-station. Each column represented one group of letters.
Suppose that we should agree to get along without the Q and the Z
and reduce our own alphabet to twenty-four letters for use in such
a system. With six columns we would then have four letters for each
column. The first column would be used to signal A, B, C, and D. One
light or flag shown from column one would represent A, two flags
or lights B, and so on. Thus any word could be spelled out and any
message sent. Without doubt the system was slow and cumbersome, but it
was a step in the right direction.

The American Indians developed methods of transmitting news which
compare very favorably with the means employed by the ancients.
Smoke-rings and puffs for the daytime, and fire-arrows at night, were
used by them for the sending of messages. Smoke signals are obtained
by building a fire of moist materials. The Indian obtains his
smoke-puffs by placing a blanket or robe over the fire, withdrawing
it for an instant, and then replacing it quickly. In this way puffs of
smoke may be sent aloft as frequently as desired.

A column of smoke-puffs was used as a warning signal, its meaning
being: Look out, the enemy is near. One smoke-puff was a signal for
attention; two puffs indicated that the sender would camp at that
place. Three puffs showed that the sender was in danger, as the enemy
was near.

Fire-arrows shot across the sky at night had a similar meaning. The
head of the arrow was dipped in some highly inflammable substance and
then set on fire at the instant before it was discharged from the bow.
One fire-arrow shot into the sky meant that the enemy were near; two
signaled danger, and three great danger. When the Indian shot many
fire-arrows up in rapid succession he was signaling to his friends
that his enemies were too many for him. Two arrows discharged into the
air at the same time indicated that the party sending them was
about to attack. Three indicated an immediate attack. A fire-arrow
discharged diagonally across the sky indicated the direction in which
the sender would travel. Such were the methods which the Indians used,
working out different meanings for the signals in the various tribes.

Very slight progress was made in message-sending in medieval times,
and it was the middle of the seventeenth century before even signal
systems were attained which were in any sense an improvement. For many
centuries the people of the world existed, devising nothing better
than the primitive methods outlined above.


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