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In my pre-electricity world, fast communication is achieved by means of lighthouses, each being able to direct strong and precise beams of light towards distantly visible lighthouses.

However a problem is encountered whenever the weather turns. Many meteorological conditions, such as fog, rain, hail, snow, or various mirages, can interfere with these signals and prevent reliable communication.

Since such conditions, especially fog, are very common in certain areas, an alternative form of distant communication is required.

The usage of messengers is not a viable solution since certain lines of communication are disrupted to traffic on foot, e.g. one pair of signal towers signals to an island surrounded by strong currents.

The question is now, what other techniques could be used to send messages?

Edit: The messages sent function as the government 'internet'. As a result messages are often highly compressed (think of a shorthand-like correspondence), but there are large amounts of them.

Rural regions may get by with only emergency communications, but suburbs and more densely populated or important regions have a significantly higher bandwidth requirement.

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    $\begingroup$ Probably relevant: What are some ways that fast, long-distance communications can exist without needing to have electronic radios?. Optical transmission is mentioned but there are other alternatives, too. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Sep 25 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I was expecting kerosene or similar fuels to provide sufficient light when focused properly. Otherwise reflections could be used, since the signal towers are directing the light in a fundamentally different direction. Think of the glare of the sunlight reflecting off a window. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 25 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds a bit like the "Clacks" system in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Might be a source of ideas.... $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Sep 25 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ gocomics.com/saturday-morning-breakfast-cereal/2019/09/19 $\endgroup$ – nzaman Sep 25 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have an answer so leaving this only as a comment, but the benefit of using light to send messages is that it can be a directed beam and not easily intercepted if one is not in line with the beam. However, sound doesn't offer that directed signal nearly as easily, so sound-based solutions may not be ideal if one only wants to communicate with a single partner and not everyone within earshot. $\endgroup$ – Milwrdfan Sep 26 at 16:00

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Bells.

A large (hence deep-toned) bell can be heard for many miles. Couple with a reflective sound concentrator as in @L.Dutch answer, and bells should be audible for about as far as you could see a lighthouse.

"Wait, you can't hear individual sounds over a great distance!"

Well, you can't now -- but the world was quieter before there were cars and diesel trains and factories and whatnot everywhere. In Napoleonic times, one could hear the cannon fire from a battle for tens of miles, and it's claimed that people heard the eruption of Krakatau in Europe -- literally on the other side of the world.

As a bonus, since the pitch of the sending bell for any given listening station will be well known, it's possible to use a resonant tube at the focus of the reflector to both amplify the sound further, and filter out other noise. This would work somewhat like the resonant tubes under the keys on a marimba, or like the way a brass instrument forces specific tones onto the generic buzz of the player's lips in the mouthpiece. This would extend the effective range, and greatly raise the level of noise that can be worked through.

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    $\begingroup$ Funny trivia: in my hometown it was folk wisdom, up until WW2, that one could only hear the bells from a neighboring town (few kilometers away) when a storm was approaching. Therefore kids were always told "When you hear the bells from X, run for shelter!". One of those kids was once in town X during market day, and fled upon hearing the bells, leaving his stall unattended. Imagine the rest. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ Krakatoa was LOUD though. Like really loud. No, louder than that. Really really really loud. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 25 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ You could use a multiple pitch set of bells to send more compact messages than can be done with a single bell. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Sep 25 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon To get to two bits, all you need for Morse code or ASCII, all you need are three bells different enough for most people to be able to distinguish increasing from decreasing pitch. Just pull the middle bell alternately with one of the others. Encoding with a single bell requires the ability to distinguish long or short gaps between rings. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Sep 25 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ +1 But actually, one problem with this solution is that it is actually better than the light solution. Pre-WW2 England had an array of Acoustic Mirrors used for coastal defense. With these devices, you could in theory carry out a two way conversation over vast distances. $\endgroup$ – Aron Sep 26 at 8:25
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I'm kind of surprised that no one has mantioned the obvious time tested method of long range communication:

Drums

Lots of people have brought up using sound, and even the very clever use of acoustic reflectors, but Drums avoid many problems associated with things like guns (ammo ain't cheap, and how much bandwidth could you get out it). They are lighter than large bells. Another advantage is that individual impact sounds on a bell could be hard to discern, but a drum gives a much shorter tone.

In this wiki page even has a section on Slit Gongs which are directional and can be heard for several miles. Imagine coupling that with an acoustic reflector.

I would also wonder about using something like railroad rails. Long stretches of rigid but resonant metals. You could use this in places where line of sight is not possible.

Ann McCaffrey also used communication Drums in her Dragonriders of Pern series. Could be a good source of inspiration.

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  • $\begingroup$ The biggest advantage of drums is you can actually use them to talk as in have a simple conversation, not just send a signal. You can imitate a language sounds partially with drums and form sentences so long as both sides know the conventions. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Sep 26 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ Given that the majority of major communication on Pern was via the medium of telepathic, teleporting dragons we don't think of it for realistic options :) $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 26 at 7:54
  • $\begingroup$ True, but there was at least one book about the drummers :) $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Sep 26 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix: Dragon-based telepathy was useful only for Pern-level military communications and required an appropriate interface point. In more plain Pernese, only a dragonrider can share thoughts with a dragon, so Thread-fighting messages get handled well ahead of Hold business. $\endgroup$ – Codes with Hammer Sep 26 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ @CodeswithHammer I am humbled by your knowledge of things Pern! I need to go back and re-read those wonderful books. It's been YEARS $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Sep 26 at 13:53
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You already mention homing pigeons. Another alternative is to use sound and a suitably shaped reflector to focus the sound beam toward the receiver, who will in turn use a similarly shaped receiver to listen.

Something similar was used during WW1, where acoustic mirrors were used to detect enemy planes flying toward England over the Channel.

acoustic mirror

Since you are in the pre-electric era, you cannot use a microphone, but you have to sit a person in the listening station.

Small explosive charges or cannons can be used as means of producing loud sound, which should allow reaching greater distances. This would however limit the transmission rate.

Wind and temperature gradient might influence the propagation direction, and background noises (think of a thunderstorm) might likewise affect the signal to noise ratio.

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  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps, if cannons were to be used, various different pitches could be achieved or successions of multiple cannons? And what would the effects of weather be? $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 25 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ Sound does not propagate in a straight line unless there is no wind... And one would definitely not want to be near the originating blast. Expect many nuisance lawsuits. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 25 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, I think OP is thinking of the historical period when kids were pushed up to chimneys to clean them, and then have their wounds and burns brushed with salt. Lawyers had other priorities back then. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ I think in a pre-industrial society, acoustic communication will be more efficient than a lighthouse, easier to build than a hawsers system, and faster than birds. I don't think you need explosives though, drum communications worked well without parabolic reflectors. $\endgroup$ – ShapeOfMatter Sep 25 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ @ShapeOfMatter that reflector is at the receiving end, not the transmission. Its designed to help detect faint sounds by focussing them on the listener, like a giant ear-trumpet. $\endgroup$ – gbjbaanb Sep 26 at 8:49
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Ropes

You can build "physical telegraph" with manned relay stations a kilometer or two apart from each other using cables or hawsers. On one side a man plus a lever, on the other side a bell rings or some semaphore changes its state.

There were even pilot (and not only pilot) projects of such kinds of communications, but the optical telegraph appeared to be better.

Weather interference is overrated - in most cases you just need to wait less then half an hour for "peak" to pass and then you can continue transmission. And if you couldn't - you have some other things to worry about, like where your roof is going to land!

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    $\begingroup$ That is a fair point you make with the weather passing fairly quickly. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 25 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ A kilometer-long free hanging ropes in preindustrial era... $\endgroup$ – Alexander Sep 25 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ At the given technology level, ropes are also affected by weather. In wet conditions, they'll stretch, in dry conditions they'll shrink, and ringing a bell several kilometers away will be unreliable. $\endgroup$ – Mark Sep 26 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention that a rope dingling in wind will transmit false positives $\endgroup$ – infinitezero Sep 26 at 6:11
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    $\begingroup$ Run the ropes through clay pipes along/under the ground? That would protect them from the weather. (I would also point out that the "Weather interference is overrated" paragraph is highly location based. In some areas of the planet, storms regularly last for days at a time.) $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Sep 26 at 9:30
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You do realise you've just reinvented Terry Pratchett's "Clacks" system, don't you? Anyway, solutions...

Put the towers closer together

Over long distances, sure, weather is a problem. Over shorter distances though, bright lights will still be visible even though rain and fog, and the operators can drop their data rates to improve reliability. Of course the weather could get so bad that nothing is visible over any distance, but that should be rare. The right tower spacing can be worked out for an area to give maybe 10 days down a year.

Messengers

As Andrew Tanenbaum said, "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway." Critical messages can be accumulated over a day and sent off with a courier on a fast horse. Other messages can wait for the weather to improve.

Morse with gongs/bells

Slower data rate, but still ok if (as above) the towers are reasonably close together. Different towers can have different pitched bells so that operators can tell who they're talking to. Heavy rain will probably take them out too, but rain that heavy doesn't usually last too long.

Whistling

Andorran mountain folk have a whistled language for communication over long distances in the hills. Apparently it works well. You may only be able to have a couple of km between people, but there's the advantage that no extra equipment is needed. In a society of peasants, people are cheap.

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    $\begingroup$ For optimum speed of messenger traffic, set up remount stations only a few miles apart, so the rider is always on a reasonably fresh horse, not one that has been ridden for several hours. See the US Pony Express. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Sep 25 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ If your culture does not have horses, consider runners. They have been used e.g. in Peru. Again, a relay system will let each runner go a few miles before throwing the pouch of messages to the next runner. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Sep 25 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ Came here for a Clacks answer - was not disappointed +1 $\endgroup$ – HomoTechsual Sep 26 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ @HomoTechsual GNU Terry Pratchett $\endgroup$ – Aron Sep 26 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham it's a university physics department - we're essentially Unseen University with fewer pointy hats. Some of us even specialise in flashes of unusual coloured light, though it's not exactly spells we mutter over our lasers when they don't work properly. $\endgroup$ – Chris H Sep 27 at 6:17
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I found a nice history of warning signals from the US Lighthouse Society. The problem seems to be that the things, such as fog, that interfere with light also interfere with sound propagation. One of the possibilities that you should consider is that there will exist times with communication blackouts. In such times, a pony express type service for critical signals. They also developed underwater sound signaling from shore to ship to shore using coded signals. The method was in use until WWII because everyone can hear the sound.

There are multiple problems with sound. First, its distance is weather specific. Signals rated for four miles often only made it one or two in the wrong wind and climate conditions. The same sound signal could be heard eight miles away in other conditions. The other problem is that sound can ricochet in adverse weather. It was a frequent problem that sea captains couldn't determine the direction that the sound was coming from. In fact, the bending of sound was taken advantage of in several places by constructing objects to trigger purposeful bouncing.

Finally, the transmission is going to be slow because you will have variable ranges where towers will have to be silent. If multiple towers are transmitting it may be impossible to distinguish signal from noise.

Even canons had a range of two to six miles depending on the weather.

For signal propagation by water, it was discovered that coded messages could be transmitted up to fifty miles by underwater signals, originally they were bells.

The actual method of signal communication in use in Europe was a variety of forms of semaphore and horse with underwater signaling for ships. The U.S. Pony Express could cross the United States in ten days. You do not need that. You only need that for critical signals in adverse weather. If you had to cross water, you could use submarine bells.

There is a massive advantage for semaphore over lighthouses. See the BBC article on it. It is a bit less robust than a lighthouse but it has many advantages over a lighthouse. You can restrict the line of sight for military purposes. The Napoleonic system has 98 combinations of possible signals using a trinary system. That made it faster than Morse. However, you should read Terry Pratchett's Clack's system. You should read The Fifth Elephant where it is introduced or Going Postal where it could be thought of as a primary character or a McGuffin.

If it were me, I would ask myself a set of questions.

  1. What signals could be delayed when semaphore was down?
  2. Is the added cost and slower speed of a lighthouse worth enough to not use the faster semaphore system?
  3. Is there enough signal volume to partially include a Pratchett like Clacks system using light?
  4. Who is paying the bills for a sound or pony express system to cover briefly befogged or blizzard conditions?
  5. How often would the alternate systems be down such as during a blizzard? There may be historical data on this in Europe.
  6. A number of telegraph confidence games were played on people by compromising the telegraphy system for profit during the 19th century, even before electrical telegraphy. The first steganography issues were semaphoric. The first "viruses" were semaphoric not computer networked. How will you secure your system from nation endangering fraud?
  7. Is the system robust to war? The internet was designed to be robust in the event of nuclear war. It is quite a bit more fragile now for many purposes but for standard purposes, it is surprisingly resilient. Can I bring the entire network down by capturing one tower? Does the system collapse with the sudden heart attack of a single semaphore operator?
  8. In the much slower world that used to exist, what is so critical that an hour of fog would change the world?

I would remind you that during the Cuban missile crisis there was no direct communication system between the United States and Russia. They passed handwritten notes between the President of the United States and the General Secretary of Russia. That was during the twentieth century. Napoleon's system was actually faster than the US-Russian system. That is why the hotline was built. To understand how slow the world used to be when Kennedy was assassinated there was no way to get the news onto a visual broadcast at the time of the assassination.

It used to take twenty minutes to half an hour for a camera to power up for transmission. Instead, the transmitted a blank screen with sound only. It was essentially a placard being transmitted with sound. The news networks were not notified by phone either. They received wire signals, which is still telegraphy.

The news in 1963 used a series of bells to notify them that a news story was being transmitted and its priority. When Kennedy was shot one reporter happened to be in a car with a radio phone. Otherwise, it would have taken at least ten more minutes to relay the message. It still took ten minutes to go from reporter to a signal being received at network stations.

Newspeople also blocked transmission. When the first reporter used a payphone for the one private line out of the hospital he had the other side not hang up. Under the old phone system, neither party could use either phone until both parties had hung up. By keeping the other side off the hook, the one private line out of the hospital was disabled. No other reporter could send their stories at the hospital, they had to run to other locations to find a phone.

A canon or sound-based system could have that problem. You can block the signal by transmitting sound with no purpose except to block the relay stations surrounding the transmitting station. You could send the message "The President has been shot. In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth," and continue through the Book of Revelations. Terry Pratchett took advantage of that problem in Going Postal.

Look at the problems at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11.

Sunlight, with telescopes, is your friend. Relatively frequent lighthouses would be a little less friendly. Canons and horns that blast over a wide but variable radius will work but be costly. Horses and submarine signaling systems are reasonably stable and reliable.

You can build a mixed system for redundancy.

EDIT With regard as to how semaphore is better, consider two optimization functions G and U. Let us imagine that the purpose of G is to train an Olympic sprinter while U is to train a high school basketball player. They will share many elements in common and differ on a few key elements.

When engineering something, the goal is almost never to build the best thing but a thing fitted to the service it is being used for. A simple example of this was the PC wars of the 80s.

By any technical measure, the computers by Commodore and those by Apple were vastly superior to those produced by IBM. Commodore went bankrupt. Apple would have gone bankrupt but Microsoft injected massive amounts of money into Apple, acquiring 40% of the company. It did so because Microsoft would have had a monopoly in the operating systems market and its shenanigans would have instantly become illegal under federal law. Fit to purpose is different from building the best.

Terry Pratchett's Clacks system is a McGuffin or maybe even a passive character. It is, in practice, a lighted semaphore system. A traditional signal light using something like Morse code would be comparably slow. However, it begs the question of whether something like the Clacks would be built. Pratchett uses it as a metaphor for cell phones and to explore the information society we have been building. It never serves an actual engineering purpose.

In a world without lightbulbs, everything stops at sundown. There is no need for night signaling. The only organization that could possibly need signals at night would be the military. If a light suddenly came on at midnight, every intelligence agent in that country would know that it was a critical military signal and it would be recorded.

Without electricity, the world slows down. While it may be valuable for merchants to have price and volume data on a slow delay, not much else requires near real-time communication in such a world.

Directed light is more fragile than semaphore and costs more. You need fuel. It is costly to repair. The towers cannot be made of a flammable material so you have to have higher building and repair costs. Your operating crew would be your engineering crew so you would carry higher levels of training and salary costs. An actual Clacks system, such as Pratchett's would be very costly because of all the mechanical parts. Because they could not be engineered at the site, you would also have to carry a significant parts inventory. Your people would be insanely skilled. Essentially, you would be scooping up the nation's watchmakers.

Smoke signals and light signals have been in existence for thousands of years, yet semaphore replaced those systems. I believe the only remaining smoke signal in use is with regards to the election of the Pope and that is a binary communication. Light signaling with lasers exists but only where point-to-point, high criticality messages are involved.

If fidelity and distance are your concern, then a light signaling system may be better. However, the bulk of the messages will be "the price of iron in Kent is three pounds per ton of ore," or "send money fast." What about those messages require high fidelity?

What purpose is the builder of your system trying to optimize?

For Pratchett, it was a discourse about modern life.

For the real ones built before electrification, they were all semaphore systems. The most famous is Chappe's because it only took two hours for a signal from Venice to reach Paris, but Hooke, Edgeworth, and others built semaphore systems throughout Europe, Canada, India, and the United States.

Lighthouses exist to send one narrow, repeating signal. It is "if you lose track of the position of this very bright light, then you will die." It is a high criticality message. Semaphore would not work for this as you could not see it at night when it is needed. Bells and cannons were used for this on foggy days but they did not carry other messages. If they had then they may have confused shipping since bells are distinctive.

Lighthouses are preposterously expensive, especially when compared with a wooden tower, a telescope and a few mechanical arms. The fact that light, smoke and sound signaling was replaced by semaphore in the real world over dozens of countries, independent of each other, tells you they are inferior.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't quite understand how semaphores would be better than lighthouses. You can direct the light in a focused manner and have the possibility of using shutters or a similar system. A traditional semaphore must be observed through a lens at great distances, but this is not the case with lighthouses. Increased bandwidth could be achieved by setting up multiple lights/reflectors to differentiate signals (although this would certainly be much more costly than a semaphore). $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ Actuually, I suspect that night transmission would be far easier. When doing the initial triangulation grid across canada (A series of 5-20 mile triangles to get the initial grid coordinates) they had portable towers, and would use a candle lantern. This made an easy to use target for the transits they were using at the time. In addition to being a good target, the air had no heat shimmer to it. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Oct 3 at 12:39
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Homing pigeons provide a viable alternative, since although they may be slower they may carry considerably more information than a visual signal.

They also posses an incredible range and are not dependent on line-of-sight.

Precipitation and strong winds make flying impossible though, so communication via pigeon can only take place under very limited circumstances.

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Hydraulic Telegraph

The use of hydraulics offers a few means of communication that would not be impacted by poor weather for the most part. And they can be build of relatively inexpensive wooden piping.

How to actually send communications down a pipe can be done in several ways. If you can build your stations relatively level with one another [Such as putting one end on a tower as the network runs down a hill, or otherwise build the stations at the same height] then you can use a direct pressure and pointer system: Push down on the lever at the sending end, and it causes the needle to point to a sign on the receiving end.

But we can also adopt a more "telegraph" solution. Water is a great carrier of sound. A pipe, buried in the ground, could be made into essentially a giant drum. Hammer on one end, and someone on the receiving end can hear the beat. Different beats can denote different data states, and various error correction methods can be applied.


Pneumatic Tube Transport

However if your society really needs to send a lot of information faster than a human can run with it before we have electricity, then some manner of pneumatic tube transport may be your real go-to if you need it to work reliably in nearly any weather. While expensive to build and maintain, a society that truly valued it could have developed and maintained a large network of such systems along the lines of "Stuff data in a case, and fire it off to the next station".

While they would require stations that are far closer than the typical semaphore tower system would be able to get away with, they would also be able to send VAST amounts of data. [Think of how many words you can cram onto a document that can be rolled up into a foot long cylinder... Now fire several of those off every minute... While the packet may need to pass through several more stations, a whole book can be well on its way into the network before the first semaphore station has even finished its first paragraph.]

A steam launcher firing packets through relatively straight wooden pipes could be highly effective to rapidly hurdle messages several hundred meters at a time. [And a need for regularly spaced large steam boilers offers the citizens reliably and easy access to centralized heating as a bonus!]

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Silbo Gomero

This is the whistling language used in the Canary Islands to communicate complex messages for distances of up to 5 km. The language requires skills, but no equipment. It should get through fog pretty well.

Another answer mentioned whislting in Andorra, but the Canary Islands are more widely known for this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silbo_Gomero

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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting, although I believe much of the distance achieved is due to the surrounding stone, allowing the sound to reflect well under ideal circumstances. This makes it similar to alphorns. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 12:27
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Signal Flares

A little basic knowledge of gunpowder is all you need to make a signal flare that can be visible from a great distance even in the daytime. There are even chemicals you can mix in to make a number of different colors of flares.

You'd have limited bandwidth for what kinds of messages you could send, but you could elaborate by sending multiple flares if needed. E.g. You've got flares in Red, Orange, Yellow, and Green (all fairly basic colors that could be made with Victorian era chemistry), you could say that "Red-Red" means one thing, "Red-Orange" is another, etc. 4 colors with 2 flares gives you 16 possible messages. 3 flares gives you 64, and so forth. You'd make your most commonly used messages require only a single flare (so as not to waste more material than necessary), and only use the multi-flare signals when needed for more detailed messages.

If you want to keep the messages inscrutable to others who might see them, you could even have a form of encryption, like each color or combination means different things depending on the day of the week, or some other previously agreed-upon coding.

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Whether you use light or sound, weather is going to get in your way. While sound is able to bypass a fog, it's easier to put a visual system on a hill to have line of sight above low lying fog. Visual communication is far more reliable over distance, visual recognition is more efficient than listening out for audio signals - at least when we are not trying to stuff it down a wire in an early telegraph that's basically only capable of morse code...

Which brings me onto the real life precursor to the telegraph - the semaphore telegraph.

enter image description here

As with many questions here, the most realisticly feasible solutions have a pre-existing analogue either in nature, or in a past technology.

There were numerous different designs for semaphor telegraphs, many of them used in different countries and at different times, from the 1600s onwards.

A design used in Britain used shuttered panels that could be opened and closed - this resembles the clacks as referenced in an earlier answer, only that missed the fact that this is something that really existed and was used. enter image description here It wouldn't be hard to envision this with a fire / light behind to allow night transmission.

A far older design, working only over shorter distances was the Hydraulic Telegraph - messages could be sent by pushing water through a pipe - the level of water at the far end would then indicate the character being sent. This is completely immune to the weather, but is limited by the pressure available to the sender.

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    $\begingroup$ While absolutely correct, I'm afraid the semaphore does not solve the presented problem since it is still an optical system as therefore still subject to the initial drawbacks of the weather. It may even hold up worse due to the fact that lighthouses may penetrate light weather conditions due to the luminescence while the semaphore will be entirely invisible in low light and similar conditions. But complements to an otherwise very good answer. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 15:20
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Guns

With the right caliber, gunshots can be heard from miles away. So use the lighthouses when conditions allow for it, but when in a fog, go for guns. You may use something akin to Morse code, with two differently tuned kinds of guns for slashes and dots.

Gunshot sounds may also go around peaks and other terrain features that would break line of sight, and can also be used underground.

Guns can also be used to defend the lighthouses when the need arises. Usage of gunshot sounds here and there keeps dangerous animals away, and provides a source of income for weaponsmiths and otologists.

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    $\begingroup$ But how would a listening lighthouse know the difference between them being under siege or just sending a message? This could cause problems similar to what the Titanic faced, where their distress signals were mistaken for celebratory fireworks. $\endgroup$ – overlord - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @overlord Morse code. There is a difference between "Special expedited message from the kingdom of Ababwa" and "fgh3wgoh3pq8hpfawgdsvs vvlsd" $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 25 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Variation, put the message inside a cannonball and launch that at the next tower. Might need to dial in the aim very carefully, and have a way to retrive cannonball from landing field before the next part arrives, Or guarantee no less than n minutes between messages. $\endgroup$ – Criggie Sep 26 at 2:38
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You could also use a bullroarer:

The bullroarer, rhombus, or turndun, is an ancient ritual musical instrument and a device historically used for communicating over great distances. It dates to the Paleolithic period, being found in Ukraine dating from 18,000 BC.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange! Might I suggest that you embellish your answer a little, for example by describing this instrument, what advantages it has over other options and perhaps an image? Your usage of sources and quotes is commendable, keep up the good work. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 16:12
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Soundhouse

A house intended for long-distance communication with the use of musical instruments. This is a building equipped with different kinds of musical instruments that generate strong sound vibrations.

This is not something new. People in old ages used musical instruments for long-distance communications.

"2. Drums are used for communicating over long distances

Africans and Europeans developed a wireless communication system long before cell phones were invented! (...) Drums were used to send detailed messages from village to village much faster then a person could walk or ride a horse. The sound of talking drums could reach up to 4 to 5 miles. These drums have hollow chambers and long, narrow openings that resonate when they are struck. They are made out of hollow logs. The larger the log, the louder the sound would be. The drummer would communicate through phrases and pauses, and low tones referred to males while high tones referred to females..." -- 5 Ways Drums are Used to Communicate

Alphorn has been used in Switzerland to communicate with men and animals.

"Communication with humans and animals

(...) The main function of the alphorn was, however, for communication with the herdsmen on the neighboring Alps and with the people down in the valley below." -- Alphorn – the sound of natural tones.

Soundhouse would exist in the form of the circular stone plateau, located at high altitude, or as a tall building with a wide-open roof to accommodate musicians and musical instruments. Musicians would bring the instruments and send messages according to the rules of sound-communication. Any kind of communication must begin with an opening message and end with a closing message.


UPDATE


The sollution already exists.

"The Bora people in the northwestern Amazon use drums to send languagelike messages across long distances. (...) "They have this fantastic sound which resounds through the jungle and can be heard up to 15 to 20 kilometers away."

Christopher Intagliata, Drumming Beats Speech for Distant Communication

The drumms were robust and made entrely of wood.

enter image description here

This is the new model. The drummer is located in the dome-shaped house at the top of the structure. Sound is reflected from the roof and exits the dome in all directions. The second option is to use the horn and direct the sound in one of the four directions. This is a more economical solution. The horn is secured with wood on rails and can be rotated and directed in any direction.

enter image description here

Pyramid

for the purpose of transcommunications or communications with the use of telepathy. A person would enter a pyramidal building and fall in a meditative trance. In such a state, direct mind-to-mind communications are achieved. Another person, located in the same kind of building at any point on Earth, would be receiving direct messages and be able to transmit them to other recipients.

This kind of communication can be performed at any place. However, pyramidal buildings have the power to concentrate human energies. In such buildings, people experience higher energies, easier fall in meditation and generally feel healthier.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange! As it stands, your answer is a little short and vague. Please consider explaining why your answer is different from the others and provide a more detailed description. Sources, quotes and images backing your answer are all good ideas. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! I will be adding more explanations. $\endgroup$ – Marino Klisovich Sep 26 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ I would be interested in discovering more about this 'Soundhouse' of yours. Although the idea of telepathy for long-range communication is a very original one, the question is tagged with physics and engineering, which put it in the realm of our world. It is not explained why pyramids improve the conditions for telepathy, which would be very useful to understand. I'm sorry if this sounds like critisism, but I hope that my feedback will be useful. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ This is the most open-minded ST that I've come across. Telepathy needs to be understood with a different scientific background, where existence is simultaneously material and immaterial or spiritual. The psychic power of telepathy is one of the powers achieved in meditation. This is the most advanced method of communication. I think the scientists of ancient civilizations knew about spiritual technologies - a good material technology in combination and balance with the psychic powers of the accomplished meditator. $\endgroup$ – Marino Klisovich Sep 26 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ That is quite possible, but it still does not fit into either the realms of physics nor that of engineering. If you can find a widely accepted law of physics that allows for telepathy, or can inform me of a field of engineering that occupies itself with telepathy, then I will happily agree with you. As it stands, I would accept this answer if I were looking for a 'magic' answer. I do however find that the work you've done on your 'Soundhouse' is very good, keep up the good work! $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 16:43
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Ok, here is a funny one: communication by smell. I don't know if that was ever tested, but in theory this form of communication could be especially useful under foggy conditions, for not-too-long distances, for the more subtle communication (let's say you don't want to let the neighbours hear the bells).

Fog can smell. Usually gases and dust constantly break away from the ground and get away unnoticed by us. But when water vapour (=fog) condenses on fine dust particles and aerosols it builds up drops of water, dissolving some of these gases, which then end up in our nose.

Not only could smelly gases be used, but fine, strong smelling powders of herbs could do the deed. Each substance indicating different messages.

Edit: I have given this a little thought now and find the idea quite amusing. This method will rather suit coded messaging with low range (are there any statistics about how far smell can travel, assuming it is strong and the wind is in favour?). Sure, one can not use it at strong winds, but if we set this in a sheltered environment, eg a forest or svamp between tall mountains, it might be fairly functional. For the fun of it let's say a few people discover a conspiracy and in order to tell each other newest information without being discovered they release certain smells at certain times and in different combinations. Ammonia and lavender - the king is replaced by a fraud!

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    $\begingroup$ A major drawback is that it is difficult to control the direction of smell. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 25 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ "for not-too-long distances, for the more subtle communication (let's say you don't want to let the neighbours hear the bells)." how is smell subtle if you're using it to transmit information over distance? It's probably OK if you use it within a room, so people outside can't "listen in" but what you describe has about the same characteristics of shouting - it's not too long distance and it "protects" the information from bystanders about as much. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Sep 25 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ The distance of sound is certainly further than that of smell. Since sound travels further in fog let's assume neighbours who usually would not hear a bell suddenly could. Town A wants to get in touch with town B, but not town C which is further away. In that scenario it might be useful. Also, smell would probably travel slower, but I don't have any statistics for that. $\endgroup$ – Backup Plan Sep 25 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ So, if it's worse than shouting, we are talking...normal voice level? Why would you need a messaging system at that point? $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Sep 25 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for creativity -1 for application. $\endgroup$ – infinitezero Sep 26 at 6:16
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To prevent eavesdropping and concentrate your sound over long distances maybe your Victorian scientists could develop a version of hypersonic sound -- which essentially makes sound act as a laser-- keeping it concentrated in a tight beam.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe you are confusing hypersonic with logn-range acoustic devices, but I agree with your intended statement. Would you have any suggestions as to how this could be achieved? $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @A Lambent Eye correct, this is an LRAD, the video author describes it as Hypersonic Sound which I think is just a flashy name, and doesn't actually have anything to do with the definition of 'Hypersonic'. As to how to make it: "Instead of using one big, moving device to make all this sound, the LRAD uses lots of little ones. A speaker usually uses one rapidly moving diaphragm to make sound. The LRAD uses has an array of piezoelectric transducers. A transducer is simply a device that changes...electrical impulses into sound.". $\endgroup$ – Dugan Sep 26 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ Piezoelectric materials can be used to produce electricity through deformation of the material. So maybe they construct a speaker using piezoelectric transducers and then apply electricity by deforming another piezoelectric material to produce a current, and send out something like a morse code. $\endgroup$ – Dugan Sep 26 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ With a pre-electricity society (see the first sentence of the question) that may be difficult, but if you can come up with a purely mechanical, biological or chemical solution I would suggest you add it to your answer. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 26 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @A Lambent Eye. Yep. See above comment for reference to Piezoelectric materials. Essentially a material that can be bent or deformed and produce an electrical charge as a result. You could achieve a similar effect by building up a static charge by rubbing wool on metal. $\endgroup$ – Dugan Sep 26 at 18:58
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For slower, high-bandwidth communications, simply floating barges down a river loaded with pieces of paper that have been written on is hard to beat for cost/effectiveness. The societal conditions that require instant communication don't arise in preindustrial societies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE DonnMaddox, glad you found us. We have a tour and help center you might wish to check out. While your solution is absolutely perfect in conditions where it works, it would work only in a few very limited situations (and then someone has to take the barge back upstream). It's not an answer to the OP's question because there aren't rivers in the right places. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 27 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ I believe "we are under attack" is something that requires instant communication and exists since ever. Alexander the Great did get a boost from fast communications in his time. $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 27 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange! I really like the idea, but is limiting in that communication can only be one-way, since no river flows back up-stream. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye Sep 28 at 10:42
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If you're trying to penetrate fog, best go with something specifically designed to penetrate fog:

Foghorns

ye olde foghorne

(Image by the Cardiff Council Flat Holm Project, via TR001 at Wikimedia Commons.)

A foghorn uses high-pressure steam or compressed air to produce extremely loud, low-pitched notes; low-frequency sounds travel farther and penetrate bad weather much better than high-frequency sounds (the very name "foghorn" reflects their original use, which was to signal to ships in zero-zero visibility). Seeing as we're talking Victorian-era technology, steam power is certainly available in quantity, and the same is likely also true for highly-compressed air.

Unlike a bell or cannon blast, a foghorn signal can have an arbitrarily-long or -short duration, its sound characteristics do not change significantly over the length of the signal, and the signal's loudness can be increased without limit by increasing the pressure of the steam or air used to sound the foghorn (potentially even enough to drown out thunderclaps). This makes it easy to use a foghorn to send messages in (say) Morse code. The main disadvantage would be that, at very high power levels, deafness would be an occupational hazard for the operators; invest in hearing protection!1


1: The hearing protection would be worn only while actively sounding a message (during which any incoming messages would be inaudible anyways), and taken off as soon as transmission was completed.

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  • $\begingroup$ This kind of horn is not good for complex sound-communications. It is good only for signaling ships just like lighthouse. People do complex sound-communications either by using talking-drums or wisthles. So @A Lambent Eye, you should have a house to amplify strong vibrations of drums. $\endgroup$ – Marino Klisovich Sep 28 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ @MarinoKlisovich: Its original purpose was merely to signal ships, but it can also do just fine at more complex messages if you use something like Morse code. $\endgroup$ – Sean Sep 28 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ It would be funny to hear that. Foghorns are run by large quantities of high-pressure air and it's very dangerous to make sudden disruptions in the airflow. Better to use the existing language of talking drums and connect the resonant chamber with the foghorn. You can hear them 25km away. I think foghorn and the resonant chamber would even further increase the hearing distance. $\endgroup$ – Marino Klisovich Sep 29 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ @MarinoKlisovich: You wouldn't have to shut off the high-pressure air (or steam) flow; merely turning a valve to momentarily divert it down a non-sound-generating pathway would work just as well. $\endgroup$ – Sean Sep 29 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ I see. Still, I would rather play the drums than have to build a complex mechanical device for Morse code. How would you compress the air in non-electric world? You would have to pump it somehow. The language of talking drums is more elegant that the Morse code. $\endgroup$ – Marino Klisovich Sep 29 at 2:00

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