Optical telegraphy

Optical telegraphy

Map The history of optical telegraphy in Russia begins in the year 1824 when a telegraph line was set up between St. Petersburg and Lake Ladoga - not a long line. When Nicholas I ascended the throne, a bigger emphasis was put on the construction of optical telegraphy lines. In the year 1833 a connection was made between The Winter Palace and the fortress of Kronstadt. In 1835 telegraph lines between St. Petersburg and the imperial summer residencies of Tsarskoye Selo and Gatchina were opened. The next challenge was to build a line from St. Petersburg to Warsaw. This was completed 1839. There were 149 towers along this line in all. The operating staff consisted of 1,908 persons. The service was maintained even at night. The expected superiority of the budding electrical telegraphy was probably the main reason why further optical lines were not constructed. But when hostilities between Russian and allied Turco-Anglo-French forces seemed inevitable, a decision to build a new line along the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland was promptly made.

The Imperial Decree ordering the construction work to start was received by the Governor-General on 23th of February, 1854. A member of the Finnish senate, Major Gen. Baron Casimir von Kothen was appointed as the head of the construction works. In all, 42 stations were to be build from Kronstadt to C. Hanko (Hangöudd). The task was finished with astonishing rapidity a couple of months later.

The distance between stations was 3-7 nautical miles. As a rule, distances were usually longer but to avoid atmospheric disturbances in the vicinity of seashore shorter distances were preferred. In the worst case when fog or rain prevented from seeing the next tower, it was ordered that a horseman must be available to forward the message. When there was no land connection, the message was carried to the next station by a rowboat.

Various systems were devised for signalling. In the locally adopted system, the position of wooden boards on both sides on the central pole was used for signalling. A cloth ball was hoisted up to the pole when the station was ready to send. When the next station hoisted its ball, the transmission could be started.

The use of the telegraphy system was discontinued when the first hostilities ceased in August, 1854. However, a new order to reestablish the line, and even to build a continuation to it, was given at the beginning of the next year. The line was continued to Turku (Åbo) and Uusikaupunki (Nystad). This was a precautionary measure. The whole line was run by 22 officers and 460 men. The importance of optical lines declined rather soon after this and they were superseded by electrical telegraphs.

However, in 1885 when British and Russian interests where in conflict in Afghanistan, military preparations were ordered to be done on the coasts of Finland. Also the old optical telegraphy line was inspected. No military actions followed, and the line was not used.

The text is largely based on Einar Risberg's book "The History of the Finnish Telegraph Office 1855-1955" (Suomen Lennätinlaitoksen historia). The 1885 note is from an interview of one of the inspecting officers, Major General (then Colonel) Lennart Munck af Fulkila, 85, in the Coastal Artillery Yearbook (Rannikkotykistön vuosikirja) of 1937.

A map of Helsinki in 1855 showing the optical telegraphy line going through the town.
The fortifications of 1885 in Lauttasaari.

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