It is for me hard to imagine that major events, like the end of a war, etc. could only be transmitted at the speed of a ship across of the Atlantic although we frequently read this. However, a combination of, for example, carrier pigeons and semaphores might serve to speed the results of a "binary" event. Is there any evidence of at least realistic attempts to transmit information across oceans faster than ships moved?

EDIT: I would add that ships might be involved in the semaphore process although I was thinking land-based semaphore stations. Multiple stationary ships, although it would take probably hundreds, might work. Such a scheme was proposed for navigation but afaik not implemented. By allowing ships to move in a narrow range, the number of ships could be reduced. A truly expensive approach, I realize.

closed as unclear what you're asking by Alex, Kobunite, KillingTime, John Dallman, congusbongus Aug 9 '17 at 2:26

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    For the purposes of this question what would constitute an "at least realistic attempt"? What sort of distance would count as a minimum for the message to travel (i.e. are you only talking about trans-oceanic messaging)? – Steve Bird Aug 7 '17 at 20:28
  • @SteveBird: I am aware of smoke signals, semaphore stations, using sunlight but all on land or ship-to-ship. There were silly/magical things that were mentioned in the book Longitude (injuring a dog which somehow another dog would feel remotely) -- Longitude also mentioned a line of stationary ships for navigation which presumably could also be used for communicating all sorts of messages but the practical problems with this meant it was never tried so perhaps the answer simply is, "No, the speed of a ship was the fastest any message crossed the Atlantic." – Jeff Aug 7 '17 at 21:43
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    According to the first paragraph on the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable Wikipedia page, it was 10 days. – T.E.D. Aug 7 '17 at 23:37
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    The title and body of the question appear to be asking completely different questions. Can those be made consistent? – T.E.D. Aug 8 '17 at 20:01

Stationary ships (eg ... admirals extoll'd for standing still, Of doing nothing with a deal of skill) were used by the British fleet(s) off Ushant, Finisterre and elsewhere along the French Coast during the Napoleonic War, as part of the port blockade. However the practical gap was only about 10 nautical miles IIRC. This was only maintainable during good weather, as storms blew all the ships off their posts.

Note that this required large numbers of expensive, sea-worthy ships (frigates and ships-of-the-line), well crewed and officered, and easily supplied by remaining close to ports with fresh water and food.

Also, the messages that could be efficiently sent using signalling flags was quite limited. The straight-forward message England expects that every man will do his duty, sent by Nelson before Trafalgar, required 12 lifts and would have taken several minutes to send. Note that the flags of each lift must be raised, dropped, and of course left flying long enough to be read.

A similar system was used by fleets searching for another, as by Nelson searching for Napoleon's fleet before the Battle of the Nile in 1800. A screen composed of all small ships of the fleet would be thrown forward in an inverted V, so that all vessels crossing the path of the screen would promptly be made known to Fleet Command. This task is what the flag system was primarily designed to accomplish.

In the final analysis, one must ask what benefit would be accrued by the massive expense of a trans-Atlantic signalling fleet? It's size would have dwarfed even the Royal Navy of the 19th Century, and the messages capable of being sent more efficiently than by packet rather uncommon. What events, besides unfriendly Declarations of War occurring only a few times that century, could have even approached being of sufficient value?

Update By my count the Royal navy employed 219 ships of the line and roughly an equal number of frigates during the span of the Napoleonic wars. With a distance of 3519 statute miles from Bristol to New York, a distance between stations of 10 statute miles on average, and an assumption that two ships would have been needed per station to allow adequate resupply, the entire Napoleonic era Royal Navy would have had insufficient ships (~700 required, ~450 available) to maintain such a telegraph, if it performed no other role. Clearly the astronomical cost of such a telegraph made in unfeasible to even consider implementing.

Update #2 As for pigeons, the world record for a homing flight is from Arras, France, to Saigon, Vietnam in 24 days. A distance of ~7200 miles, that gives an average speed of 300 miles per day; exactly the same expectation as for a ship-of-the-line crossing the North Atlantic. Where pigeons had an advantage was over land rather than water, where daily travel distances were typically much less.

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    Even with the blockading fleets, the majority of messages (including all those of any length or complexity) were transmitted by ships sailing with the information, rather than signalling to each other, over long distances. – Steve Bird Aug 7 '17 at 20:34
  • @SteveBird: Yes - even single simple sentences, such as Nelson's famous signal, required a large number of flag lifts. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 7 '17 at 20:52
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    A good rebuttal of a weak question. – Tom Au Aug 7 '17 at 23:44
  • @TomAu: Pretty sure questions are not "rebutted." Arguments are subject to rebuttal. Dictionary, I suggest. – Jeff Aug 8 '17 at 17:25

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