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The Strange Case of the Optical Telegraph

Date and Time: 
Wednesday, April 6, 2016. 05:00 PM - 06:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Stanford Humanities Center, Board Room
Workshop: 
Seminar on the Enlightenment and Revolution, 1660-1830
Meeting Description: 
The first telegraph—the device for which the word was invented—predated Samuel Morse’s electric system by a good half-century. Claude Chappe’s “télégraphe,” which debuted in 1792, was actually an optical device. For most of the first half of the nineteenth century, telegraphic communication took place via a semaphore system. Towers evenly spaced throughout the countryside transmitted messages using sets of moveable arms manipulated by a human operator. For those on the ground—for the citizens watching this take place—the effect was omnipresent and striking. One observer described the movement of the machine as creating “a great number of cabalistic signs in the air…like the writhings of some monstrous spider.” This presentation will engage with literary and cultural figures’ responses to the optical telegraph. It will focus in particular on the strange phenomenon that this device foregrounded: that of being forced to observe communication without being able to participate in it. For some onlookers, this becomes the impetus to meditate on the mechanics and indeed the very meaning of the transmission of messages.
 
Matthew Tiews has worked to implement the university-wide Arts Initiative since 2010, first as Executive Director of Arts Programs and currently as Associate Dean for the Advancement of the Arts. Tiews was formerly at the Stanford Humanities Center, where he oversaw programming and operations, and was particularly active in developing collaborations bringing together the arts and humanities. Prior to that, he served at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley, the Stanford Humanities Laboratory, and as managing editor of the journal Modernism/modernity. Tiews trained in acting and piano performance, holds a B.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. from Stanford in Comparative Literature, and is coeditor of the multidisciplinary publication Crowds (Stanford University Press, 2007), which won the Modernist Studies Association book prize.

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