2 October 1850: The ‘snail telegraph’ experiment

Spare a thought for the poor, old Gallic snail. When it’s not being dipped in garlic butter, it’s being ‘aroused’ with an electric current. At least, that’s what happened on a Wednesday evening on the third floor of a Paris apartment in 1850.

This was the year made famous by the laying of a cross-Channel telegraph cable between Britain and France. But what good is a cable, reasoned French eccentric Jules Allix in La Presse, if it can be destroyed by the sea? A much better idea would be to use snails.

‘Animal magnetism’ had fascinated scientists for years. The idea was that snails acquired a kind of ‘bond’ with their partners after mating. This ‘bond’ took the form of an invisible and unbreakable thread that used the ground as a conductor to transmit signals from snail to snail, whatever the distance.

When one snail was ‘stimulated’ (Allix used the term “commotion escargotique”), the other snail would respond. Mark the letters of the alphabet next to your snails, and voilà, you have a telegraph system. And that’s exactly what the deranged Jacques Toussaint Benoît intended to prove.

On 2 October, Allix joined Antoine Hippolyte Triat in Benoît’s one-room apartment for the demonstration. Triat was a wealthy entrepreneur who had amassed a fortune in running a gym, and had stumped up the cash for the research.

Benoît revealed his device, which he called the “pasilalinic-sympathetic compass”. It comprised of an enormous battery and metal cups, each containing a letter of the alphabet and a snail. On the other side of the room was a corresponding ‘compass’ of snails. Benoît manned one end, while Allix took the other. In the event, Benoît just ran between the two.

Not too surprisingly, the experiment raised eyebrows, including Triat’s. The London satirical magazine, Punch, thought it was it a hoot. It declared that “Mr Punch” had repeated the experiment and that “If he had squelched every one of the former [snails], not one of the latter would have been hurt in the least.”