In 1793 France began building a revolutionary line-of-sight telegraph communications system—one that would employ visual signals, placed on a line of stations positioned every few miles so that brief messages could be passed from one to another and, ultimately, between key cities. Eventually, the system was expanded to include some 556 stations, spanning 2,800 miles and linking Paris with major administrative centers around the country.
Not surprisingly, the idea quickly sparked interest—and imitators—in other countries. The British Admiralty fashioned a prototype that enabled authorities to send a message from London to Plymouth in just three minutes. American Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith also was intrigued by the concept. In August 1807, he asked U.S. diplomats in London to purchase “one hundred of the most approved telescopes for telegraphic communication.”