Seldom has the race to create a secure and instantaneous means of communication seen a more bizarre episode than Jacques Toussaint Benoît ’s 1850s experiments with the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass, or snail telegram.
The occultist Benoît, working with an American colleague, Monsieur Biat-Chretien, managed to convince investors, journalists, and—albeit posthumously—a Paris communard, that his invention, which employed 24 pairs of mated escargots, could transcend geographical and temporal boundaries to revolutionize communication. It was to render the Morse telegraph—which could be compromised by the inconveniences of atmosphere and ocean—obsolete.
Benoît made up for what he lacked in finances and scientific rigor with sheer chutzpah. His theory was not unprecedented; the concept of “flesh telegraphs” dated back to the 1500s, and in 1839, Irish doctor and cannabis enthusiast William O’Shaughnessy had experimented with using human skin to transmit and receive electrical signals. Benoît’s invention, however, was to be much more portable and reliable. It required only a few pieces of hardware and 24 pairs of sexually frustrated snails.
Benoît and Biat had determined that snails, once mated, remained not only monogamous but, through the exchange of “sympathetic fluids,” bound in a lifelong telepathic bond. Poke a snail with an electrical current in one location, they decided, and its partner, however distant, would react in kind as a result of a phenomenon they termed “escargotic commotion.” By placing a letter next to each snail, this evolutionary loophole could be exploited to transmit messages at the speed of thought, across any distance.
The pair lacked the funds to put their ideas into practice, so Benoît somehow charmed Monsieur Triat, the wealthy manager of a Paris gymnasium, into supplying him with lodging along with an allowance to conduct his experiment. Jules Allix, a journalist from La Presse, was talked into witnessing its unveiling.
When initially asked what he needed to build the device, Benoît replied that he merely required a few pieces of wood; Triat took him to his carpenter’s shop and allowed him to make as much use of the man’s time and energy as his project required.
The device grew in both complexity and cost; when it was finally unveiled on October 2, 1850, to an increasingly impatient and frustrated Triat, it was a scaffold composed of 10-foot-long beams that supported the zinc bowls in which the snails were glued using copper sulfate. While Benoît assured Triat that he had been in communication overseas with Biat using the device, when it came time to test it, he did not even permit the use of a curtain to separate the two compasses, which were set up in the same room.
Nevertheless, the experiment went ahead. Allix was to touch the snails to the letters on one device to transmit his message to Benoît , operating the other device. The transmission was inaccurate; Allix’s “gymnase” became “gymoate” on Benoît ’s compass. Triat sent “lumiere divine” to Allix, who recorded “lumhere divine” on his end.
The results, though imperfect, impressed Allix, who published a breathless account of the experiment’s success on October 17, 1850. Not only did Allix foreshadow the popularity of communication devices as fashion—the Apple Watch had nothing on his suggestion that the compass could be worn on “the waist-chains of ladies”—but he hailed the invention as a revolution in global understanding:
We cannot penetrate the decrees of Providence, but we must nevertheless hope that this will not always be so, and that, thanks to the very discovery of Messrs. Benoît and Biat, with men now able to better listen to and understand one another, the sacrifices of inventors will not have been in vain, that they will on the contrary be able to enjoy, during their lives, the glory and the honors that until now have only been accorded to their memories.
Triat was less pleased with his investment, and demanded a second, stricter test. Benoît agreed, only to vanish on the day of the trial itself, dying penniless in Paris in 1852.
Despite being mocked in the satirical magazine Punch, Allix did not give up on the concept. Benoît ’s invention re-emerged in 1871, on the barricades of the Paris Commune. During the uprising, the need to securely pass messages became a matter of urgency, and Allix’s story was to briefly find a champion in Marquis Rochefort, president of the Barricades Commission, who had earlier dismissed as outlandish strategies to drop hammers from hot air balloons and set zoo lions loose on the besieging army.
Needless to say, the snail telegram proved to be no more effective in 1871 than in 1850, and failed to save the communards from massacre and exile.
Benoît’s invention lives on, however, in the realm of fiction. In 2000 it appeared in the form of a “snail phone” in Eiichiro Oda’s anime and manga One Piece. The animated device is the sole vestige of an alternate future where psychic snails brought a disparate humanity together.