The Semaphore


A semaphore tower – courtesy Wikipedia

Riepl’s Law, put forward by the German newspaperman Wolfgang Riepl in 1913, states that when new media emerge old ones don’t simply go away, they adapt and change. A contemporary German media CEO, Mattais Dorphner put it in contemporary terms this way here:

… media do not replace existing media. Media progress is cumulative, not substitutive. New media are constantly added, but the old ones remain. This law has yet to be disproved. Books have not replaced storytelling. Newspapers have not replaced books; radio has not replaced newspapers; and television has not replaced radio. It follows that the Internet will not replace television or newspapers.

In an apparent contradiction to Riepl’s law, Kris De Decker of Low-tech Magazine reminds us here (Hat tip Instapundit ) of the unarguably obsolete visual telegraph or semaphore system developed by Claude Chappe in France at the end of the 18th century.


Every tower had a telegrapher, looking through the telescope at the previous tower in the chain. If the semaphore on that tower was put into a certain position, the telegrapher copied that symbol on his own tower. Next he used the telescope to look at the succeeding tower in the chain, to control if the next telegrapher had copied the symbol correctly. In this way, messages were signed through symbol by symbol from tower to tower. The semaphore was operated by two levers. A telegrapher could reach a speed of 1 to 3 symbols per minute…..The transmission of 1 symbol from Paris to Lille could happen in ten minutes, which comes down to a speed of 1,380 kilometres an hour.

But Mr Dorphner has an answer:

CDs really did replace old vinyl records; and mp3 technology is currently in the process of replacing CDs faster than anyone suspected. The same applies for DVD and video. And this is where things get interesting, for neither the CD nor the DVD nor the mp3 are really new media, they are merely improved technologies. The product itself, the creative medium of music or film, has not been changed by this new transfer medium. Which is why these examples, too, actually confirm Riepl’s Law.

So in Dorphner’s view transfer media are different from what he argues are basic or fundamental media. Relatively simple changes in technology as distinct from truly new media. McLuhan would argue that the differences in form are always critical and usually glossed over because we focus on content. I’m not sure if the distinction always holds, but I think it is useful and applies to the problem raised by the semaphore being quickly and completely replaced by the electric telegraph. Looking at the subsequent history of the electric telegraph Kris De Decker provides further insight into Dophner’s use of the idea of a transfer medium:

Not the telephone, nor the railroads, nor radio or television made the telegraph obsolete. The technology only died with the arrival of the fax and the computer networks in the second half of the 20th century. Also in rail-traffic and shipping optical telegraphy was replaced by electronic variants, but in shipping the technology is still used in emergency situations (by means of flags or lamps).

So what is the underlying medium? Kris De Decker argues that it is coded communication:

The optical as well as the electrical telegraph are both in essence the same technology as the Internet and e-mail. All these means of communication make use of code language and intermediate stations to transmit information across large distances; the optical telegraph uses visual signs, the electrical telegraph dots and dashes, the Internet ones and zeroes. Plumes of smoke and fire signals are also telegraphic systems – in combination with a telescope they would be as efficient as an optical telegraph.

An email making its way from server to server or a fax from machine to machine is technologically similar to a smoke signal making its way from hilltop to hilltop or a semaphore message from tower to tower. All are nodal networks transferring coded messages. But this technological similarity is not sufficient to explain why the telegraph finally became obsolete. Something is missing. What was fatal to the telegraph was the increased bandwidth and accessibility of fax machines and computer networks. More information can be transferred more conveniently than with the telegraph.

At some point I believe we have to think of such changes as changes in media too. The increased bandwidth of computer networks is so much greater that the data is no longer a highly constricted coded message but something more akin to a letter as the name
‘electronic mail’ asserts. So I think it is proper to say that these new media are functioning as transfer media only for the very restricted communications once transferred by the telegraph and its precursors. To the extent they are creating whole new worlds of human communication such as social media – to cite a single example – they are much more than transfer media.

Crossposted at Newmedaitheory.

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