“We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered, we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell” – James Stephens
French Occultist Jacques Toussaint Benoit had an unhealthy obsession with snails, not that I’m entirely sure what a “healthy” obsession with snails would look like. Given he was already dabbling in the occult, so a mild fascination with gastropod reproduction was probably the least of his problems, what with all the other esoterica bouncing around in his head. One piece of fairly standard occult wisdom that stood out was the notion of “sympathy” as in sympathetic magic, which when coupled with his intensive, if somewhat disturbing observations regarding the mating habits of snails, amounted to a rather wacky, but philosophically consistent hypothesis. On top of this, it seems Benoit was a French patriot. This is usually a recipe for disaster, or at least a very quirky cult. For Benoit it meant a potential breakthrough in improved communications, an essential activity in that favorite human pastime, war. Or maybe he was just concerned with where his next meal was coming from. At any rate, Benoit would find himself eternally associated with a strange amalgamation of occultism and technology, forever after referred to as “the snail telegraph”, or more technically “the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass”, ultimately a failure (and some say a deliberate hoax), but nonetheless prefiguring what we now refer to as quantum communication.
Hold on their cowpoke, you’re probably saying, what do 19th century French occultism, snails, and quantum entanglement have in common? I’m glad you asked. Well, let’s start from where we are today with communications. The quick and dirty explanation of quantum entanglement should probably be left to a physicist. The one I have locked in the closet is not cooperative. My interpretation will have to do. Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance—instead, a quantum state must be described for the system as a whole. The long and the short of it is that the universe seems to have no problem with two particles that change in relation to each other regardless of separation in time and space. In an “entangled pair”, it appears that one particle “knows” what measurement has been performed on the other, and with what outcome, even though there is no known means for such information to be communicated between the particles, which at the time of measurement may be separated by arbitrarily large distances. The essential weirdness of this physical fact is called the EPR Paradox, and big-brained boys like Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen for which said paradox is named, perplexed by this apparent violation of the current description of physical reality gave it the appropriately creepy moniker of “spooky action at a distance”. Coincidentally, this is the same thing I call it when my wife knows I’m at my local watering hole enjoying a tasty scotch, even when she’s in a different city. Then again, that’s not witchcraft. Just common sense.
Now in 1850, nobody had ever heard of quantum entanglement, nor likely would have cared if they did. I mean, the Taiping Rebellion was on, everybody was reading the newly published Scarlet Letter, and the U.S, and Great Britain were busy negotiating the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty, allowing both countries to share Nicaragua and not claim complete control over the proposed Nicaragua Canal. Panama was unimpressed. The 1840’s kind of sucked in Europe. There were a series of crop failures and food shortages. Food riots were a common pastime, and public discontent led to revolutions in France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary. Liberalism and nationalism were vying for the hearts and minds of the populace. A major recession set in, increased industrialization was leading to massive unemployment in many countries, and the general disillusionment with political and socio-economic conditions was leading to a spasm of conservatism and oppression. Britain and France were dominating European politics, but Russia and Prussia were making a lot of noise. Peace on Earth wasn’t looking like a priority.
War must have seemed inevitable. And every good general knows that war is all about good communication. You can’t conquer the world if you don’t have good information on what’s going on along the margins of your territory. Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar each developed an elaborate system of relays by which messages were carried from one messenger post to another by mounted messengers traveling at top speed. Genghis Khan used homing pigeons. By the 18th Century, those crazy Europeans armies were using a visual telegraph system devised by Claude Chappe, employing semaphore towers or poles with movable arms (basically smoke signals on crack). Flags, lights, and all manner of signaling were experimented with to get messages from the front to the big brains behind the lines, and by 1840 folks were playing around with electrical signaling (actually suggested by clever Scotsmen as early as 1753). The problem was that good communication tended to depend on a lot of factors out of your control. Good weather, clear skies, the guys at the semaphore tower being sober, or the integrity of your electrical lines. A good wire clipper could really screw you over. It was at this time that an ingenious, yet dubious solution was suggested in France.
It was just about this time, 1850, that an ingenious Frenchman propounded the idea of dispensing with communicating wires altogether, and of transmitting messages to any distance by the utilization of animal magnetism. This was one Jacques Toussaint Benoit, who, in conjunction with a mythical French-American, named Biat-Chretien, submitted to the wonder lovers of Paris a scheme for telegraphing by means of—snails. As described in the French newspapers of 1850, this “discovery” was a reputed evolution of galvanism, terrestrial and animal magnetism, and of natural sympathy. The base of communication was said to be a sort of special sympathetic fluid—strongly suggestive of Sir Kenelm Digby’s sympathetic powder—which was composed of the blending of the galvanic, magnetic, and sympathetic currents by a certain process (Dickens, 1890, p179).
In the 1780’s and 1790’s scientist Luigi Galvani, the father of electrophysiology, after noting he could make the muscles in a dead frog’s legs twitch with the application of electricity, was busy researching what he called “animal electricity”. It seemed pretty cool, and led to speculations on whether there was some sort of invisible natural force exerted by animals (an “animal magnetism”, or because of its association with Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, “Mesmerism”) that could have physical effects. Earlier in the 17th Century, English natural philosopher, diplomat, courtier, and privateer Sir Kenelm Digby had played around with what he called “The Powder of Sympathy” (by most accounts green vitriol or ferrous sulphate), based on the old idea that a mysterious concoction applied to a weapon which had caused a wound would have curative properties over that wound. This is of course, sympathetic magic, pure and simple, relying on basic ideas of correspondence and contagion. And while it probably didn’t help much, his treatise on the subject went through at least 29 editions. But it started people thinking. In 1678, an anonymous pamphlet called “Curious Enquiries” (which may or may not have actually been meant as satire) was published suggesting the application of the powder of sympathy in an attempt to solve the longitude problem. It’s pretty easy to figure out your latitude when out at sea, but figuring out your longitude is a lot harder and requires keen observations and a good seaworthy clock, which of course had not yet been invented. Navigation errors tend to result in shipwrecks and vanishing islands.
How do you solve the longitude problem with the powder of sympathy? Well, you send a wounded dog along on board your sailing ship. Some reliable individual back on shore would dip a piece of a bandage used on the unfortunate hound into a solution of the powder of sympathy at noon each day. Presumably the dog would then yelp. When the captain heard the dog yelp, he could reasonably conclude that the sun was on the meridian back home, from which he could then calculate his longitude with reasonable accuracy. It’s not clear that anybody ever actually tried this. This may be due to the fact that whosoever was such an intrepid experimenter probably wound up wrecked on a reef or drowned cursing the dog for his imprecise yelping. This is all in service of saying that learned men of the time were thinking about the concept of natural sympathy and its application to a variety of problems. Sir Digby spent a lot of time exiled to France for his royalist leanings, where he addressed gatherings of contemporary intellectuals regarding his theories about the powder of sympathy. Whatever his failings, Digby is also credited with inventing the modern wine bottle. Coincidence?
This brings us to Jacques Touissant Benoit, who was interested in developing a form of communication that could not be intercepted or otherwise compromised by one’s enemies. The electrical telegraph was working pretty well on dry land, and had largely replaced the optical telegraph systems preceding it. They’d even laid some undersea cables connecting France and England, but they kept breaking. Communicating across the ocean or sea still presented a huge problem. Benoit had the notion that a particular species of snail formed a permanent telepathic bond when they mated. Details are a little sparse on how exactly he came to this conclusion, but it probably involved a lot of forced mating and poking of snails to see how they reacted. Folks were very excited, and the newspapers of the day began to breathlessly report this latest novelty.
Jules Allix after a long preamble in La Presse, in an article signed by himself, announced that a French inventor, M. Jacques Toussaint Benott (de I’Herault), and a fellow worker of Gallic origin, living in America, M. Biat-Chretien, had hit on “a new system of universal intercommunication of thought, which operates instantaneously.” After a long introduction in true French rhodomontade, tracing the progress of humanity from the publication of the Gospel to the 19th century, M. Allix continued, “The discovery of M. Benoit 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. 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!’” Is not this something like a piece of Jules Verne’s delicious scientific hocus-pocus? Will the reader believe that it was written in good faith? It was, there can be no question, written in perfect good faith. The character of La Presse, of the journalist, M. Jules Allix, would not allow of a hoax willfully perpetrated on the public. We are quoting from the number for October 27th, 1850, of the paper. “According to the experiments made by M. Benoit and Biat, it seems that 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, or that of the silk worm, which can be uncoiled and prolonged almost indefinitely in space without its breaking, but with this vital difference that the thread of the escargotic fluid is invisible as completely and the pulsation along it is as rapid as the electric fluid (Baring-Gould, 1890, p189-190)
All that remained was to construct an apparatus to capitalize on this snail telepathy, but Benoit was lacking in capital, and the mysterious M. Biat-Chretien was a shadowy figure who nobody had ever actually seen and may not have existed at all. Benoit convinced a Paris gymnasium manager named Monsieur Triat to provide room, board, and a lab space in which to construct a working prototype of his pasilalinic-sympathetic compass and harness the power of snail magnetism. Benoit experimented for a year without showing any results, and Triat started to get suspicious. At long last, Benoit offered a demonstration to Triat and the reporter Jules Allix. Allix described the mechanism that emerged.
This apparatus consists of a square box, in which is a Voltaic pile, of which the metallic plates, instead of being superposed, as in the pile of Volta, are disposed in order, attached in holes formed in a wheel or circular disc, that revolves about a steel axis. To these metallic plates used by Volta, M. Benoit and Biat have substituted others in the shape of cups or circular basins, composed of zinc lined with cloth steeped in a solution of sulphate of copper maintained in place by a blade of copper riveted to the cup. At the bottom of each of these bowls, is fixed, by aid of a composition that shall be given presently, a living snail, whose sympathetic influence may unite and be woven with the galvanic current, when the wheel of the pile is set in motion and with it the snails that are adhering to it. Each galvanic basin rests on a delicate spring, so that it may respond to every escargotic commotion. Now, it is obvious that such an apparatus requires a corresponding apparatus, disposed as has been described, and containing in it snails in sympathy with those in the other apparatus, so that the escargotic vibration may pass from one precise point in one of the piles to a precise point in the other and complementary pile. When these dispositions have been grasped the rest follows as a matter of course. M. Benoit and Biat have fixed letters to the wheels, corresponding the one with the other, and at each sympathetic touch on one, the other is touched; consequently it is easy by this means, naturally and instantaneously, to communicate ideas at vast distances, by the indication of the letters touched by the snails. The apparatus described is in shape like a mariner’s compass, and to distinguish it from that, it is termed the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass (Baring-Gould, 1890, p192).
The demonstration was a little questionable. Jules Allix and Triat poked snails on one side to spell “gymnase”, and the snails on the other end spelled “gymoate”, “lumiere divine” came through as “lumhere divine”. Snails are not known for their spelling abilities. A test was then conducted with the elusive Mr. Biat in America (who supposedly had yet another test apparatus in sympathy with Benoit’s snails). Benoit sent “Biat?” shortly receiving the reply C’est Bien. Allix were astounded, but Triat was less impressed, since he noticed Benoit spent the whole time running back and forth checking on the snails (ample time to poke a snail here and there). Triat told Benoit that he would happily continue his participation if Benoit could set up an experiment that transmitted a single word between separated snails without Benoit himself moving between them. Benoit happily agreed. And the day before the proposed test was set to take place, disappeared. There were occasional rumors that he was later spotted in Paris, wandering about in a starving and deranged state and that he died in 1852, his Snail Telegraph unrealized.
Was Benoit a con man or a madman? Was he fabricating his American partner Biat-Chretien or hallucinating him? Was it a deliberate hoax or an unproven hypothesis taken to its logical conclusion? Obviously, we are not awash in snail telegraphy, and the whole episode has long been relegated by historians to hilarious attempt to use what amounts to sympathetic magic to achieve technological results. But maybe Benoit was just ahead of his time and a little too specifically into snails. After all, aren’t today’s quantum physicists now discussing how to use the quantum entanglement of particles to convey information instantaneously? We can look back and laugh at the ludicrous notion of a snail telegraph, but every once in a while science catches up and recapitulates magic. As author Gail Tsukiyama said, “Even a snail will eventually reach its destination”.
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. Historic Oddities and Strange Events. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1890.
“Animal Magnetism and the Snail Telegraph”. Buchanan, Joseph R. (Joseph Rodes), 1814-1899, and Harry Houdini Collection (Library of Congress). Buchanan’s Journal of Man v3. Cincinnati, Ohio: J.R. Buchanan, 1851.
Carpenter, William Benjamin, 1813-1885. Mesmerism, Spiritualism: Historically & Scientifically Considered, Being Two Lectures Delivered At the London Institution, With Preface And Appendix. New York: D. Appleton and company, 1877.
Dickens, Charles ed., 1837-1896. “Early Telegraphy”. All the Year Round 3:3. London: Charles Dickens , 1890.
Gregory, William, 1803-1858. Letters to a Candid Inquirer, On Animal Magnetism. Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1851.
The Year-book of Facts In Science And Art. London, 1852.