Mysterious Visual communication towers of West Bengal built by the British

Semaphore Tower off Barrackpore Trunk Road

Onda Semaphore Tower Wikimedia Commons

To day communication plays a vital role without which it is impossible for us  to exchange messages with  our people and employers. Way past we had trunk calls - long distance phone calls  for personal use and business. In the last one decade plus, the cell phone has revolutionized the communication; so is the Internet. Centuries ago during the early and middle ages, messages were exchanged between rulers of different regions through horse-borne riders. In the US, messages and letters were sent from one place to other through ''Phony Express''.  How did the early English settlers in India handle the communication? How did they pass on the messages to their counterparts elsewhere?
Semaphore Tower at Mandaran Dilakash, Hooghly

Dilakash Tower ...Surveying Empires

Tucked far beyond the human habitation in the thick jungles, on hilltops, along the busy roads and railroads in parts of north-west  West Bengal and Jharkhand, and all the way to Chunar near Varanasi (UP),  one could see damaged tall towers made of bricks  representing an era that disappeared like the willow-the wisp. In the rural and semi rural landscape, these tall towers that look like sentinels, appear odd and out of place. Some of  these mysterious  towers  do not seem to have wilted in the last 200 plus years!!  However, many of them, due to  human neglect and pilferage became severely damaged and are on the verge of collapse. Some of them were crumpled due to vagaries of weather  and aging. An exciting fact emerging out of these giant towers is that they were constructed  in a 'straight line of vision' from Fort William in Calcutta, then the capital of the Bengal Presidency, to Chunar -  a distance of 694 kms.

Any stranger  to West Bengal or other places close-by will mistake the tower for a  chimney of a kiln. It is not  a watch tower  either to keep vigil  for security reason as one would  find it in the forts. In  rural Bengal agricultural lands, the presence of such giant towers is an unexpected thing.  Tagged as  ‘machans’ (watchtowers; in Bankura and Purila) or ‘girje’ (church; in Howrah and Hooghly) by the locals, the belief has been that in West Bengal Malla Kings had  built these towers to  discourage attacks from Maratha soldiers. Surprisingly, these giant towers were built for a purpose other than security reasons, etc. Believe it or not, these so called  forgotten Semaphore Towers of India were  built by  none other than the earliest looters in the Indian subcontinent - the British East India Company  which later became a proxy government for the British crown.  The towers were meant to transmit messages across great distances, constituting a well-defined system  of visual communication called the Semaphore Telegraph’ ( also called a 

Semaphore Tower at Khatirbazar, Howrah.Kinjal Bose -

a Visual or Optical Telegraph).  This kind of telegraphic system conveys information through visual signals using towers with shutters.  The encoded information is sent though signals from one tower to another by means of telescope

The above system was in use before the discovery of  electrical telegraph. The apparatus consisting of two movable ‘arms’ (indicators) at either end of a crossbar or beam (regulator) that was mounted at right angles, in the middle, on a pole, was then fixed atop a tall brick or stone tower so that it was visible from a great distance. 
Interior of Andul Semaphore Tower.  Live History India

How could the message is extracted from this system?  Two persons with  a telescope, stationed at windows on either side of each tower.  Some  Semaphore telegraphs used movable paddles or shutters in the place of wooden arms as the all worked in the same way. The movable elements or indicators pivoted and changed position, and when they along with the crossbar were viewed together, they symbolized an alphabetic letter. The words, phrases and symbols thus formed would be fed as codes into  a system for quick  transmission of information. With the help of the telescope, they could  ‘read’ the signal from the adjacent tower and convey it to the semaphore operator, who would then repeat the signal from his tower by cranking handles connected to the wooden arms or indicators.  First introduced in France by  Napoleon in 1790s, it is a system of conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting shutters, also  called  blades or paddles. The signals thus  observed from  near-by  tower would be passed on to the near-by tower  by means of telescope. This system had its roots in French revolution and the French  revolutionary army wanted a  visual system to pass on the message.  Invented by Claude Chappe to cater to the needs of the revolting army it was  Napoleon Bonaparte who recognized the potential of this system and began carrying a portable semaphore while on his military campaigns.  Using this technique, it is believed, that on a clear day  messages were passed from Fort William in Calcutta to Chunar in just 50 minutes. The English company had a proposal to extend the towers to Bombay (Mumbai) all the way from Kolkata via Nagpur. However, the proposal was dropped with the arrival of electricity. 

Claude Chappe’s invention of 1794 was implemented in England in 1813. The British, who were badly in need of a proper communication system to administer the vast subcontinent land,  during 1816 -1830  introduced  Semaphore system with the construction of  series of towers  between Calcutta's  Fort William and Chunar Fort of Varanasi (Benaras) aligned as a straight line. The  80 to 90 feet tall  towers had a spacing of 9.5  to 13 km between them to maintain the connectivity. This system of visual communication was not executed in other parts of India controlled by the East India company. This strange communication system quite prevalent in Europe became declined with the introduction of electric telegraph in India in 1854.

Many of these  towers  do not have a stairway to go to the top. A few towers might have had a wooden platform that was damaged for reasons of variable weather. Surprisingly, in some towers, the wooden platform remains not much damaged.  As to the number of towers that are still around, there is no proper record. Much older than  telegram,  the towers were quite indispensable for the army so that they could  relay military information across large distances. The historical worth of the semaphore towers of Bengal and Jharkhand is not well understood to day.  According a senior official of  ASI -  
Archaeological Survey of India, Kolkata circle, “There are several structures such as the semaphore towers that are not under our protection. It is not necessary that every old monument has to be covered by us. It would be better to give a written application to the ASI and then we would look into it.”