Recently, I was reading Justin E. H. Smith’s The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, when I came across what is perhaps the most humorous instance of con-artistry I’ve ever encountered:
In the middle of the nineteenth century a French anarchist and con-man by the name of Jules Allix managed to convince at least a handful of Parisians that he had invented a “snail telegraph”, that is, a device that would communicate with another paired device at a great distance thanks to the power of what he called “escargotic commotion”. The idea was simple, if completely fabricated. Based on the widely popular theory of animal magnetism proposed by Franz Mesmer at the end of the eighteenth century, Allix proposed that snails are particularly well suited to communicate by a magnetism-like force through the ambient medium. …
Against this theoretical background, Allix takes, or pretends to take, two snails that have previously copulated, and he places each of them in its own small slot on its own device, each of which corresponds to the same letter of the French alphabet. Then the two devices are removed from one another, and messages are sent from the one to the other by successively manipulating the snails in the appropriate slots in order to spell out French words. In a feigned demonstration put on in Paris in 1850, Allix receives the message: LUMIÈRE DIVINE (DIVINE LIGHT) from a correspondent purportedly in America (it is not explained how all the snails were transported so far after copulation, without any of them perishing in the voyage).
So, the theory is that two snails that have, err… mated become entangled in such a way that they can transmit information between themselves “through the ambient medium”. In other words, spooky snail action at a distance.
Oh, and naming the phenomena “escargotic commotion”? *Chef’s kiss* Wikipedia has an entry for this con with the title Pasilalini-sympathetic compass 1 which, while less catchy, is also a fantastic name for such a stupid concept. And yet, somehow, the story gets better:
Allix predicts that at some point it will be possible to make pocket-sized devices using particularly tiny species of snails, and that we will then be able to send messages throughout the day – “texts”, you might call them – to our friends and family as we go about the city. He envisions being able to receive the newspapers of the whole world on these devices, and to follow the deliberations of parliament.
In other words, Allix predicted an internet of snails. You can’t make this stuff up (well, I guess someone could). This whole story has a steampunk-esque retrofuture vibe that I find fascinating. Of course, it’s a grift. If you believe in snail-based communication, then I have a bridge to sell you. And yet, if you squint at this story, you see elements of rather modern concepts: quantum entanglement and smartphones. While it’s more likely that technology is grounded in the past’s imagination, than the past’s imagination being a precursor for current technology, it’s still remarkable that a 19th-century scam artist willed into existence a sort of biologically inspired proto-internet.
But alas, all good cons come to an end:
When he is exposed as a grifter, Allix absconds from Paris, having already taken the money of his gullible investors. He reappears a few years later on the isle of Jersey, leading séances in the presence of, among others, a skeptical Victor Hugo.
So, this anecdote gave me a good chuckle, but it also reminded me of a project I recalled seeing several years ago, which sought to answer a similar question to Allix: What if we actually made an internet of snails?
RealSnailMail is (probably) the closest thing to Allix’s escargotic commotion that has ever actually existed. RealSnailMail was essentially snail-mediated email: you’d send an email to the service, it’d be placed in a virtual queue, and then a real live snail in a real live terrarium would transport your message by “picking it up” at one end of it’s terrarium and dropping it off at the other end, facilitated by RFID tags. Once your email was successfully transported by the snail, your message would be sent (digitally) to the intended recipient. In their own words:
The moment you click ‘send’ your message travels at the speed of light to our server where it awaits collection by a real live snail. Yes, that’s right we’re not called real snail mail for nothing! When time is worth taking RSM is the service for you.
Our snails are equipped with a miniaturised electronic circuit and antenna, enabling them to be assigned messages. Your message is collected from a despatch centre at one end of their enclosure. Once associated with the tiny electronic chip on the snail’s shell your message will be carried around until the snail chances by the drop off point. Here more hardware collects your message and forwards it to its final destination.
RealSnailMail started as a 2008 SIGGRAPH “slow art” exhibition and ran, as far as I can tell, until sometime in 2014. They even made a documentary:
Each of the snails (or, “agents”, as the project referred to them) had a name, and the system would tell you which snail was carrying your message. This project has the ethos of the early “maker culture” of the late-aughts, and is an instance of internet whimsy that I sincerely hope makes a comeback.
I submitted a message to be sent via RealSnailMail in 2008. A full 6 years later, my message was picked up by by “Tristan” the snail:
… and it took the little guy about 11 hours to transport my message:
If I’m honest, I’d totally forgotten about the project when my message finally got picked up and transferred. So, it was a bit of a nice surprise to know that while I’d been living my life, my message had been sitting in a queue that was being continuously serviced by a tank of snails, somewhere in the world. It has to be said: maintaining a service like this, even as a joke, for 6+ years is seriously impressive. This isn’t just keeping an EC2 instance online; this is feeding and restocking a snail terrarium. Kudos.
So what have we learned? Ultimately, Allix’s escargotic commotion and RealSnailMail had opposite goals: Allix wanted to speed up the world by providing instant (well, in theory) communication over large distances, and RealSnailMail sought to slow down the world, by using these creatures to mediate the instant communication methods that developed over the centuries which separated the two projects.
It looks like the “Pasilalinic-sympathetic compass” was developed by Jacques-Toussaint Benoît, who was a friend of Jules Allix. The Wikipedia entry makes it sound like Benoit was the real driver of the project, and that Allix was merely involved in the demonstrations. Personally, I’ve exhausted my appetite for snail pseudo-science research, but I just wanted to mention that there might be more to this story… ↩︎