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Dead medium: Union telegraph balloons, Confederate microfilm
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): SPIES AND SPYMASTERS OF THE CIVIL WAR by Donald E. Markle, 1994. Barnes & Noble Books, ISBN 1-56619-976-X

War and espionage seem to be great generators of dead media. They produce desperate extremes in which communication is a matter of life and death, and in which normal means of communication are subjected to severe enemy attack. Necessity gives birth to invention, and when necessity ceases those inventions often vanish, into legendry or utter obscurity.

Diplomacy, espionage, courier service, scouting, reportage, and postal service are generally seen as distinct activities, but the lines between them blur under stress.

Markle's book on US Civil War espionage and its tradecraft offers interesting period parallels to the 1870-1871 siege of Paris, with its microfilm, mail balloons and pigeon post.

page 35

"Late in the war Confederates reportedly used an advanced form of photography to prepare their messages for courier movement to Richmond."

(((Markle quotes the following letter.)))

United States Consulate

Toronto Prv Jany 3, 1865

Honorable W. H. Seward

Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

Sir- The following facts having been given to me:

The Rebels in this city have a quick and successful communications with Jeff Davis and the authorities in Richmond, in the following manner. Having plenty of money at their command, they employ British subjects, who are provided with British passports, and also with passports from Col (((blank))) which are plainly written; name and date of issue on fine silk and are ingeniously secreted in the lining of the coat. They carry dispatches, which are made and carried in the same manner. These messengers wear metal buttons, which, upon the inside, dispatches are most minutely photographed, not perceptible to the naked eye, but are easily read by the aid of a powerful lens.

This information is reliable, from a person who has *seen* the dispatches, and has personal knowledge of the facts....

Your Obedient Servant,

R.J. Kimball

"What Consular Kimball was reporting is in fact known today as microfilm! The technique had been developed by a Frenchman, Rene Prudent Dagron in 1860. The images were on a 2 X 2 mm. diameter glass plate, and could be viewed using a lens developed by Lord Stanhope around 1750."

(((Dagron the microfilmist and war profiteer featured largely in Dead Media Working Note 04.4, which concerned Dagron's crucial activities with balloon, pigeon and microfilm during the Prussian siege of Paris. It is very gratifying to learn for the first time that his full name was Rene Prudent Dagron. Dagron may have invented his microfilm technique in 1860, as Merkle claims, but his "Traite de Photographie Microscopique" was first published in Paris in 1864, according to John Douglas Hayhurst. It is therefore astonishing to see Confederate/British spooks apparently employing Dagron's microfilm technology as early as January 1865. Was this an independent invention, or an unpaid adaptation of Dagron's work -- or might it have been that Dagron hinself sold his technology to the Confederates? If this were so, it would go far to explain why Dagron suddenly appeared in 1871 to boldly offer his microfilm services to the tottering French government.)))

(((Concerning balloons.)))

page 37:

"Professor Thaddeus Lowe believed strongly in the military value of hot air balloons. On June 18, 1861, he conducted a hot air balloon experiment for President Lincoln. He ascended about Washington, D.C., in a balloon with a telegraphic keying device on board and the telegraphic wire hanging out of the balloon to a ground station. He succeeded that day in transmitting the first air-to-ground telegraphic communication. (...) (((See

Dead Media Working Note 02.6)))

"Professor Lowe is also credited with taking the first aerial photograph, again from one of his balloons. (((It was my understanding that this distinction belongs to the French aeronaut and photographer 'Nadar' -- bruces)))

"These successes so impressed Lincoln as to the potential of the balloons that he made Professor Lowe the head of the Union Balloon Corps. (((It would be gratifying to know if the Balloon Corps had its own uniform and official insignia.))) The Union found that while the balloons did give the scouts a real advantage, not only were they regularly shot down (as they ascended or descended) but the balloons tended to spin in the air, making the scout on board very sick. The Union Balloon Corps was officially disbanded in May of 1863.

"The Confederacy, while envious of the Union efforts in the area of ballooning, made only one balloon attempt in the entire war. That effort is best described in the words of General James Longstreet:

'While we were longing for the balloons that poverty denied us, a genius arose... and suggested we.... gather silk dresses and make a balloon. It was done, and we soon had a great patchwork ship.... One day it was on a steamer down on the James River, when the tide went out and left the vessel and balloon high and dry on a bar. The Federals gathered it in, and with it the last silk dresses in the Confederacy.'"