Sunday, 15 May 2016

Online poker? No, heliograph chess!

What, you may be thinking, has this got to do with my novel The Housemaid's Daughter? Bear with me! It's an interesting story...

Do you know what a heliograph is? They're no longer used but in the 19th and early 20th centuries they were the device of choice when you were faced with communicating over long distances from remote locations - no telephones, definitely no facebook or Snapchat in those days! Heliographs are simple telegraphs that work by using the sun, a mirror and a vantage point. By pivoting the mirror, or blocking the beam with a shutter, flashes of sunlight become Morse code signals that can travel many miles. The record was achieved by US signal sergeants in 1894, when they managed to send messages 183 miles from Utah to Colorado.

Heliographs need clear skies and a line of sight, so you must always choose a mountain or an elevated spot to set up your telegraph. In South Africa, during the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902, the heliograph was crucial to both sides. It allowed roving Boer commandos to stay in touch, and relayed vital information between remote British forts. During the sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking, the only way for the beleaguered garrisons to connect with the outside world was by heliograph during the day and Aldis lamp at night.

In doing research for The Housemaid's Daughter, I came across a rather delightful anecdote which predated my story. Try as I might, I couldn't find the opportunity to include it in the book, but it's always stayed with me.
It's often said that war consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. During the Boer war it was no different, it seems. In the mountain forts near Cradock and across the Karoo (perfect helio country - vast distances, clear skies) officers were desperate for distraction.So they turned to their helios. And so was born: heliograph chess!
Now that's what I call long distance entertainment!