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The Sun-Writer

The Heliograph, or sun-writer, is a form of visual telegraph which transmits coded signals by reflecting sunlight from a mirror, in the form of a series of flashes. This flash is created by a “keying” or tilting of a small mirror with a centered translucent viewing lens, mounted upon a tripod and directed toward the receiving location by aligning the viewing lens with the sighting vane. Though the technology dates back to the Native Americans in a primitive form (“As Told by Heliograph”, 213), the most prolific form of the Heliograph was a model invented by Henry C. Mance of the British Army in 1876 for field operation, distinct for it's portability, rifle scope sighting vein and regularized tilting mirror (Journal of the Society of the Arts, 163). The Heliograph can be seen as a remediation of the physical transfer of information over space, such a telegram, into an optical mode of transfer. Developed to increase the range and speed of communication, the advances achieved by the complex and precarious Heliographic system are in fact accompanied by profound limitations.

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Mark V. Mance Heliograph

Heliographic Warfare

Primarily used as a technology of warfare, the design of the Heliograph can be seen as closely addressing the demands of battle, but also, embedded in those very solutions, new logistical complications arise. A letter from British troops in Afghanistan (1880) conveys military appreciation for its speed and durability , “The value of the Heliograph in war operations is becoming more apparent every day ; the message could not have been delivered so speedily by electric telegraph. The Heliograph does not require the route to be kept open. The line of communication can not be cut. “ (Science: A Weekly Record of Scientific Progress, 22).

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Literally traveling at the 'speed of light' the Heliographic message cuts through the air protected both by coded encryption and it's immateriality. The rifle scope sighting vein parallels the precision of a firearm, affording the operator heightened control over the spatial destination of the information projected. The light weight and small size of the Heliograph affords a mobility advantageous during warfare, an immaterial replacement, and remediation, of information over wires. However, in these same physical components formed to address and solve problems lies new problems for the transfer of information, especially unsuited to warfare. The portability of the apparatus creates the problem of initial contact, requiring an additional mode of communication to direct the attention of the receiver, instructing him where and when to look. Although the 'bullet' of information travels speedily through the air, unobstructed by the enemy troops below, a problematic dependency on ideal topography and weather conditions arrises. Although not cut by enemy hands, the line of communication can indeed be severed.

Light In-Formation: Writing with Light, Flashes as Text/Image

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The Heliographic transfer of information can arguably be understood as a type of writing, information translated into code and inscribed onto the retina of the observer. Replacing the true materiality of the written word, the light is a stylus of inscription, creating a visual experience which conveys the semiotic message behind the flash, on the level of seeing the flash as code as well as translation from code to message. The “double inscription” of 'light-writing' reveals the dual nature of Heliographic messages,“inscriptions insistently belie their own double character, both material and semiotic” (Gitelman, 10)The light embodies the physical form of the code as Iris and the code carries with it the message as Hermes carries a letter.

Gone in a Flash: The Ephemerality of the Heliographic Message

The Heliographic flash, produced by manipulating sunlight reflecting off a small mirror creates an ephemeral visual experience. While Morse Code was a prevalent encryption system, rendering it an obvious choice, the visual pattern of short flashes seems to have been arbitrary, and in fact some advocated for the change to a constant beam interrupted by short instances of darkness instead, based on the increased visibility of the steady flash this is more logical but rarely adopted but do the necessity of standardization (Meyer, 251). Unlike physical writing, once the flash occurs it almost as quickly disappears, archived only in the observer. Sharing the vulnerabilities of misinterpretation occurring in written text, the same ephemeral quality of 'the flash as disappearing text' that protects it from enemy hands also creates conditions of unreliability and un-verifiability, a mistaken reading lurking in a momentary blink or sneeze of the observer. Conversely, Purkyně's exploration of 'after images' bring into question the potential visual durability of the flash image as well as the objective nature of the senses. “The reception of an [optical] impression is no longer the decisive factor but, instead, imagination and memory “become active themselves in the sense organs. . .senses then become 'mediators'” (Crary, 200).

Heliographic Contortions: Limitation and Distortion

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In the analysis of the Heliograph as a medium for the transfer of information, the question of distortion is an important critical perspective. Most obviously the intended distortion lies in the codified message, though morse code is not secret, it is nevertheless a distortion through translation, limiting the message to alphanumerical representation. In contrast to the claims of precision and ease, Heliographic transfer affords various possibilities for distortion and confusion. The imperfect replication of the sun's light when reflected off the mirror, is then distorted into a flash, the intensity and direction of which is dependent upon a fallible operator who is vulnerable to human error and visual fatigue. Furthermore, in the reception of the signal, the observer creates limits based on visual ability, even a perfectly projected flash could be confused by inattention and distorted by observational eye as a lens through which information is refracted.

The distortional risks inherent in the perceptual experience relate to the Heliographic image in terms of the objective/subjective divide. The first view, typical of the 18th century and earlier allows the Heliographic message to stand as the objective, distorted by conditions of transmission and reception but still accessible through the lens of reason. Distortion, here, is a possibility rather than a necessity, “It was crucial that the distorting power of a medium, whether a lens, air, or liquid be neutralized, and this could be done if the properties of that medium were mastered intellectually and thus rendered effectively transparent though the exercise of reason” (Crary, 64).

Conversely, the 19th century shift to a visuality privileging the subjective human-mechanism, as demonstrated in Schopenhauer's classification of “perception as a biological capacity that is not uniform in all men or women” (Crary, 84), reveals the transfer of information within the Heliographic system as necessarily distorted. Observing information as being passed from one subjective human being to another, both as operationally “defective physiological apparatuses” (Crary, 92), raises the questions: Is the Heliographic machine more or less distorting than the physiological human-machine? How different are they really?

Surveying the Heliographic Multi-demential System

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Although the Heliographic apparatus appears as a tool separate from and controlled by the operator, an exploration of the multi-dimensional system involved in the Heliographic transfer of information reveals a more complex web of relations, causation and control.

Johannes Müller's identification of the body as a “multifarious factory-like enterprise” (Crary. 88) signifies the breakdown of the organic/inorganic distinction between man and machine. Crary led us to ask “how is the body, including the observing body, becoming a component of new machines, economies, apparatuses, whether social, libidinal, or technological?” (2). The body in operation of the Heliograph can indeed be seen as engaged in this convergence, wherein the body is demanded, by the apparatus, to perform regulated mechanized movement. The US War Department Manuel (1910) stresses the need for “perfect adjustment” achieved by “constant attendance” of the operator as well as the importance of the cultivation of “mechanical movement of the mirror”(Visual Signaling, 378). In Foucauldian terms,“the soldier has become something that can be made; an inapt body, the machine required can be constructed; making [the body] pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit” (Foucault, 135). This mechanization of the body complicates classification of automation, in a sense the body is striving toward becoming automatic itself, although in actuality, the automatic nature of the Heliograph is isolated to the stabilizing and reflecting automation of the physical structure.

The body can be seen not only as subject to the apparatus itself but also to the larger system of Heliographic transfer in terms of spatial location. The establishment of two or more Heliographic stations in communication with each other, acts to create a spatial grid, literally charting territory and imposing meaning upon the spatiotemporal bodies present. Not only does the Heliograph project its message, it also relays it's spatial relation within the system. Communication occurs in the context of the spatiotemporal coordinates, implicitly commenting on relational locality of the systemic components, that is, the operational and observational bodies in relation to each other, the sun, topography and the apparatuses. The Heliotrope, a device very similar to the Heliograph, is use for land surveillance (Meyers, 256) demonstrating the close connection between heliotropic communication and the mechanized position of the body in time and space. In the remediation of the Heliographic communication into electric telegraghy, the communicative function was passed on but the locational function began to fade, an erasure culminating in the digital age of email and the virtual collapse of the spatiality of communication.

Works Cited

“As Told by Heliograph”, The Land of Sunshine, a Magazine of California and the Southwest, Los Angeles, October, 1896: 213. Print.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Oberver: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford, California: Standford University Press, 1999. Print.

“Journal of the Society for the Arts.” Volume XXIII. November 20, 1871 – November 12, 1875: London, York-Street.

Meyer, Albert J. Manuel of Signals for the Use of Signal Officers in the Field for Military School, Etc. Washington: Government Printing Office 1879. Print.

“Science: A Weekly Record of Scientific Progress.” Volume 1. New York. July to December, 1880: Print.