Sunday, September 21st, 2014
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1846 / Paris

New Media



The most remarkable and strangest thing we saw in the House of Physics was a force that carries news from one place to another in an instant with complete clarity and accuracy, even if the two places are far apart, because it is done with writing. The way they did it was with a disk of brass like the face of a clock, engraved with all the letters (and the vowels too, because the vowels are letters for them). This disk was firmly fixed to a stand, which had as many holes in its sides as there were letters, a hole under each letter. Across from it was another disk, lying flat, that was also marked with all the letters, with a pointer at its center. The two disks were connected by two wires that vibrated. If one person wished to talk with another, he would turn the first disk so that the needle lodged in the hole below the letter desired; the pointer on the second disk would stop at the same place. So it went until the words were complete and perfectly understood—all with the greatest speed. They claim that the force between these two disks can carry words instantly from one place to another. Even if there were thousands of hours of travel time between them, it would take just a second, that is, one-sixtieth of a minute.

This device completely staggers the senses, but one who has seen it with his own eyes will not doubt it. We tried it ourselves with a few words and could not move our eyes from one disk to the other before the pointer stood at the correct letter. They claim that they have set this up between Paris and Orléans, a distance of ninety miles, and also between the chamber where they gather to make their laws and the palace of the sultan, by means of a device hidden underground with an attendant at each end. They talk to the sultan from the chamber while he is in his palace, and he answers them, although they are a great distance apart.

On Thursday, the twenty-third day of the month, we went to the house for printing books called the “astanbā,” which is another of their amazing crafts. First of all, you should know that the letters are cast in tin, thick at the bottom and narrow at the top. Some letters are single, and others are made of two letters joined together. The printer takes the letters he wants and puts them in a frame the size of the page to be printed, setting them in straight lines like writing. The letters are held tightly with a clamp that keeps them in order. Then they coat them with ink and lay a sheet of paper over them, pressing it down firmly by means of a vise. When the paper emerges, it is completely covered with writing. This is a general description of it. Now let me tell in detail about what we saw in this place.

First we entered a room with an oven where the workers cast the letters in copper molds the size of the type; the letter is engraved on the bottom of that mold, like the letter “sīn,” for example. When the melted tin comes out, the letter at its head is reversed, but when they print with it, it comes out straight like any stamp. These workers cast letters in many types, both Arabic and non-Arabic. In the next room there were many workers, more than in the first; their task was to straighten and polish the letters, removing the bumps so that they would fit smoothly together in the frames. There were others who sorted the letters into compartments, one for each letter.

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About the Author

Muhammad as-Saffar, from an official account of his trip to France. Serving as the secretary to the Moroccan ambassador, as-Saffar traveled to Europe in 1845 and 1846 and recorded his impressions of French society and industry; he was impressed by the railway, which he referred to as the “road of iron.” He also noted the French desire for news national and international, for which “they have the gazette”: “The owner of a newspaper dispatches his people to collect everything they see or hear in the way of important events or unusual happenings.”

Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out?
Alfred Hitchcock, 1962
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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