Thanks to fiber optics, the future of communications will be written in lines of light. Yet optical networks are not a completely new development. Although it has largely been forgotten, by the middle of the 19th century Europe was tied together by a high-speed communications network that relied entirely on optical signals.
Sketchy references to the Greeks, Romans and other cultures having used "heliographs" or mirror-polished shields to flash signals date back more than 2,000 years. The first certifiable long-distance network, however, can be traced to the end of the 18th century, when it was born amid the French Revolution. Claude Chappe, a clergyman-turned-physicist, invented a system for conveying information from one tower to another. (Given the dominance that electromagnetic communications later attained, it's ironic that Chappe built this optical system after frustrating failures to send signals practically by wire.) Chappe's success quickly inspired Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz, a Swedish nobleman, along a similar course.
This article was originally published with the title The First Optical Internet.