The Internet of Snails

The snail, class Gastropoda, is noted for a number of exceptional traits. For one thing, it contains a model of the universe in its self-secreted shell: the whorls of hardened mucus instantiate the same logarithmic expansion, sometimes called e, that we see in the spirals of galaxies. For another, some naturalists have observed peculiar powers associated with the snail’s reproductive faculty. They have observed, in particular, a sort of sympathetic bond that endures, across any distance and for the duration of their lives, between any two snails who have once brought their slimy peristaltic rods together in courtship. It has not escaped human curiosity to see whether this bond might be seized upon and used for certain technological applications.

Paris, October 1850. A young man, a former law student and radical candidate for the Constitutional Assembly by the name of Jules Allix, publishes in the feuilleton of La Presse an article describing a new invention.1 He is not himself the inventor, but is only speaking, he claims, on behalf of his associates, Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoît from Hérault near Montpellier, and a man identified only as “Monsieur Biat-Chrétien, the American” (later referred to simply as “Biat”). The discovery is of a “pasilalinic sympathetic compass” that will facilitate “universal and instantaneous communication of thought, at any distance whatsoever.”

In the article, Allix dissimulates, stalls, takes an inordinate amount of time to tell us what this machine actually does. He moves at a leisurely pace through a survey of theological positions on magnetism. The distinguished men of Notre Dame, he tells us, are prepared to see it not as a trick or an illusion, but as the crowning mystery of God’s creation, a constant announcement, in the seeking out of metal by metal, of God’s wisdom and might. If we are prepared to admit gravity, why not other forces too? Why, for example, should we not admit the “galvano-magnetico-mineralo-animalo-adamical sympathy” that governs the pasilalinic sympathetic compass?

Unlike the electrical telegraph, we are eventually told, the compass has no conductive wires, but only two unconnected and portable boxes, each containing a voltaic pile, a wooden or metal wheel ringed with copper sulphate–lined metal troughs. And, in each of these troughs, a snail.

A snail? Allix dwells in excessive detail on irrelevant points, and breezes right past relevant ones. He checks off the most recent scientific shibboleths—Steinheil’s advances in telegraphy in Munich, Matteucci’s in Pisa—and he frontloads the technical terminology like Lieutenant Sulu explaining the impossible physics of warp drive. After a long digression, however, we are offered a bare-bones description of how the machine is to work. Allix explains, first of all, the natural phenomenon, observable only in snails, of “sympathizing,” which is to say of creating an indivisible bond through copulation:

After the separation of the snails that have sympathized together, a sort of fluid is released between them, for which the earth is the conductor, which develops and unfolds, so to speak, like the nearly invisible thread of the spider or that of a silkworm, which one could unfold and elongate in an indefinite space without breaking it, but with this one difference, that the escargotic fluid is completely invisible and that it has as much speed in space as the electrical fluid, and that it would be by means of this fluid that the snails produce and communicate the commotion of which I have spoken.

Why is this sympathy found only in snails? Allix does not say explicitly, though he does remind us that snails are hermaphrodites, “which is to say male and female at the same time.” We are perhaps invited here to recall the myth, or something like it, of the original androgyne, attributed to Aristophanes by Plato in The Symposium. In the beginning, the philosopher recounts, every human being had four arms and four legs, two heads, and two sets of genitals, and so every human being lacked nothing, and longed for nothing, and the body was in perfect communication with itself. For Allix, then, to be male and female at once is to have it all, and it appears that, at least in snails, this perfection is distilled into the sexual fluids, so that, once exchanged, each hermaphroditic snail now shares in the other’s being completely.

But let us return to the mechanics. A pair of snails—which have previously sympathized with one another and which, therefore, remain in perfect and instantaneous contact—are placed in two separate boxes. When one of the snails is manipulated, it triggers an “escargotic commotion” that causes its partner to move. By having numerous such pairs—each representing a single letter of the French alphabet—divided between corresponding troughs in the two boxes, successive manipulations of particular snails in one box would transmit words that could be read through the motions of the sympathetic snails in the other box.

Allix promises that, with this device, “all men will be able to correspond instantaneously with one another, at whatsoever distance they are placed, man to man, or several men simultaneously, at every corner of the world, and this without recourse to the conductive wires of electrical communication, but with the sole aid of what is basically a portable machine.” The machine will serve as the basis of a global system of instant wireless communication: an Internet of snails.

Before the public appearance related in the article, our salesman and future communard had been in hiding following the 1848 “June Days,” a popular revolt in Paris in response to the closing of the National Workshops that had been set up, after the revolution of February of the same year, to provide training for the jobless.2 He would be arrested one year later in connection with another uprising, and soon after would find his way into the company of the occultist and charlatan Jacques Toussaint Benoît, who had been cooking up a plan to gain sponsorship for the above-described snail compass from the investor Hippolyte Triat, born Antoine Hypolitte Trilhac, who had for his part recently founded the first modern athletic gymnasium in Paris.

On 2 October 1850, the experiment described by Allix in his article for La Presse was carried out in Benoît’s Paris apartment. Messieurs Benoît, Allix, and Triat were all present. And, if Allix’s account is to be believed, Biat was there as well—at least in a modality that would later come to be known as “teleconferencing”—participating from an undisclosed location in America.

Allix was far more impressed than Triat. The prospective investor had been installed with one of the two boxes behind a curtain, with Allix and his own box on the other side, while Benoît set himself up between them to observe. It is not clear exactly what happened, but it appears that Benoît found a constant supply of pretexts for walking back and forth between the two men on either side of the curtain, influencing Triat’s actions and gleaning hints and signs in a less than rigorously scientific way. If we believe a possibly embellished account by the nineteenth-century Englishman Sabine Baring-Gould, Triat was indignant, and insisted that the experiment be tried out again.3 Benoît agreed, only to disappear into the night before Triat could have the satisfaction of exposing this dastardly fraud. And a few years later Allix was to become a footnote to the biography of Victor Hugo, when, hiding from the authorities on the island of Jersey, he once again attempted to communicate by means of escargotic force, to the great amusement of the participants in the French author’s “talking table” séances.4

Allix had taken on the task of drumming up public support, and the La Presse article, written before Benoît’s disappearance, was a dazzling display of salesmanship, erudition, and gumption. Perhaps most remarkable of all, in our present age of shrinking machines, is his promise that although Benoît’s first models were more than two meters high, eventually the public could expect to enjoy more convenient models, transformed into stylish furniture or even jewelry made of wood or metal or any material one might wish. They would be found everywhere, from government offices to ladies’ dressers and even their watch chains. The original iteration had, according to Allix, been built to accommodate snails representing every letter or character of every known writing system in the world, while future streamlined models, made for the larger public, would conveniently contain only twenty-five troughs, one for each letter of the French alphabet. And as each trough could be filled by any species of gastropod whatsoever, and as there are many species that are very small indeed, no larger than the head of a pin, soon, Allix assures us, there would be pasilalinic sympathetic compasses no larger than pocket watches. Ordinary men and women would carry them along as they went about their daily errands, from time to time sending off quick escargotic missives—texts, if you will—to their friends and loved ones down the street and around the world.

Allix promises that by means of the compass there will soon be “electrical newspapers, electrical mail,” spreading across the entire world, as if by magic, at a minimal cost. Beyond just a “national press,” one in which the news will be published in regional towns at the same hour as in Paris, readers will also be able to browse “the English press, the German press, and that of all the countries of the world.” It is not entirely clear how all this—what we today would call electronic communication—would work technically: if there can only be communication between snails that have previously copulated, it would not seem possible for information to be broadly disseminated, unless perhaps there were special “server” snails that had copulated with many others. But let us not get hung up on details.

The activity of government, too, was to be transmitted via the compass, and the walls of the parliament buildings “turned inside out” as invisible, dematerialized orators were “infinitely multiplied before an innumerably large audience,” their words circulating “as rapidly as thought to all points in the world, thanks to the mysterious agent of the invisible sympathetic fluid, bringing with them not only the passion that drives the orator, but also the beating of his heart and the least vibrations of his soul!” 

Allix quickly reels himself back in, wipes the sweat from his brow, reassumes his scientific composure: “I must remember,” he says, “that I am not to give in to enthusiasm.” 

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