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Transits, Travels and Tribulations, III

J. Donald Fernie

Early Setbacks

Figure 1. Chappe's journeyClick to Enlarge Image

Chappe initially hoped to reach St. Petersburg, the halfway mark of his journey, by ship, traveling around the coasts of northwestern Europe. He further hoped to avoid the wretched war between France and Britain by booking passage on a Dutch ship, but a delay in organizing "un appareil considérable d'Instruments" made him miss the sailing. He later dryly noted his consolation was that this probably saved his life when the ship ran aground on the coast of Sweden. Travel by land it would have to be, aiming for Strasbourg, Vienna, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Moscow and then striking out across the Siberian plains and over the Urals for Tobolsk. Chappe's expedition left Paris in late November 1760.

It says something of the times that even within civilized France the journey to Strasbourg, a matter of hours in a car today, took eight days over highways so bad that every thermometer and barometer was broken, and the carriages were damaged beyond repair. What must Chappe have thought, considering that this was only the first small step of his journey and that conditions to come would be much worse? But again in tune with his times, he simply set himself to making a new set of instruments, while new carriages were arranged. He did, however, decide to head first for Ulm and then go by boat down the Danube to Vienna. He was strongly advised against this, since it was the season when heavy river fogs could delay boats for days, but he took to the river nevertheless.

Again one is struck by the "Renaissance Man"nature of these 18th-century scientific expeditionaries: No lounging around the boat for Chappe. He was busily mapping every turn of the river, since France lacked maps of the upper Danube. When fog on the river left the boat immobile, Chappe was off climbing the surrounding mountains, barometer in hand, to determine their altitudes.

Vienna was reached on the last day of 1760, and after a reception by Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, and her husband, Francis, the Holy Roman Emperor, as well as meetings with local astronomers (comparing barometers, magnetic compasses and the like) Chappe left Vienna on January 8, 1761. It was a cold day, with temperatures around –23 degrees Celsius, and soon Chappe and his men were having to smash their way by foot through half-frozen river crossings. By January 22 they were in Warsaw, where Chappe heard he was awaited in St. Petersburg "with great impatience." Crossing the frozen Vistula, the expedition for the first time transferred to sleds, with Chappe reporting on "the ease of travelling with sledges; we went on with the greatest velocity…."

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