Tuesday, February 7, 2012


A Drawing of the System in Action
Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Today we examine a system used by the Romans which allowed them to effectively coordinate military maneuvers. How? They telegraphed commands from one point to another.

Yes, we know that the telegraph was invented in 1844 by Samuel. B Morse who also, somewhat conveniently, developed a code of dots and dashes for the letters of the alphabet. But long before Morse send his famous “What hath God wrought?” message from Washington to Baltimore, other signaling systems let people communicate over distances. These were visual systems that relied on flags or lights. Messages were usually passed from one hilltop to the next via a system of relays. 

We have early evidence of such a system by the Jews. The Lachish Letters, also known as The Hoshaiah Letters are a group of letters written in carbon ink in Ancient Hebrew on pieces of fired clay…probably broken pots. They were written by Hoshaiah, a military officer stationed in a city close to Lachish to Joash, possibly the commanding officer at Lachish (modern Tell ed-Duweir). The letters, which are kept in a British Musuem, were written shortly before Lachish fell to the Babylonians in 588/6 BC during the reign Zedekiah (Jeremiah 34:7). Letter Three contains the following reference: “…And may my lord be apprised that we are watching for the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signs which my lord has given, because we cannot see Azeqah. 

Similarly, the Book of Judith 7:5 states, “But in spite of their fear, all the Israelites took up their weapons, lighted signal fires on the towers, and remained on the guard duty all night.”
All of these systems, both modern and ancient, relied upon a pre-arranged message that instigated a predetermined action. They communicated a single fact…”The enemy has been sighted,” etc. In other words, they lacked flexibility. The Romans used a system originally developed by the Greeks that surmounted this difficulty by creating a preset group of codes.

Museum Replica of the Telegraph System

The system relied upon the fact that water drains out of two identical containers at the same rate. The sender and receiver had identical water clocks with identical rods mounted inside them. The rods had a series of marks along them, each corresponding to a different message. Each man had the same book of codes. The message was transmitted based on the time the clock was allowed to drain. 

For instance, to send message VIII, the sender raised their flag or flaming torch if at night, and waited until the receiver acknowledged it. Then the sender lowered his flag or torch and raised it again, starting their clock as they did. When the sender’s water level reached point VIII, they lowered their flag again. The receiver should have started their clock when the flag went up for the second time, and stopped it when the flag went down. In which case, the water level on both clocks would correspond to number VIII. Message sent and received. If the command post had a central location, the message could be sent to several points simultaneously. 

Next time we will have another installment in our Metals of the Ancient World series when we look at Silver: The Queen of Metals.

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

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