Friday, January 31, 2014

The Tibetan Invention of the Cell Phone

Sure, I think I can recognize the likely sources of your hesitancy. You’re thinking to yourself, ‘What? Not another rave about ancient Tibetan technology and out-of-place artefacts!’ Well, yes, I guess it is, sort of. I know you’ve been bamboozled before, and that’s what makes it hard for you to trust other people with their strange ideas ever again. But I do plan to have a look into the sources of authority, and the authority of that authority, if I have time for it. Before that I want to quote from something you will have to agree is a most impressive testimony to Tibetan knowledge of the cell phone long before it became the quotidian headache it is today. The source is a very reputable one. In fact, it’s the Journal of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society, volume 26, part 2 published in the year 1940, in an article by Captain V. d'Auvergne, M.C., D.C.M., M.S.M., entitled “My Experiences in Tibet.”  Notice that date nearly 75 years ago when your grandparents were mere saplings. Now go ask them what kind of phones they were using way back then. I’m sure they’ll still remember if they remember anything at all.

Another thing you should notice is that right in the title, we already know that it isn’t just some official talking head or armchair observer... No, this person was there and personally experienced what he’s talking about. There, on pages 109 through 111, you may read, and I quote:
“While staying at the Moru-amo Lhaga, seated one afternoon in the Zug-kang with Pezu Lama, who on account of his great age went by the simple name of Goppoo (which means — old man), he suddenly stopped talking and held himself as if to listen—then from the breast of his tin-lo (robe) withdrew a small metal cylinder-shaped article about 8" in length by 2" in diameter, from one end of which he removed a cover, and held the open end to his ear for a moment, then reversed it and opened the other end, into which he spoke a sentence or two in a whispering voice, after which he closed the instrument and returned it to his robe. On seeing my astonishment and curiosity that I could not hide — he calmly informed me that he was talking to his young brother who was a lama away north in the Tzagan Ora Mountains, over 200 miles from Moru-amo. I felt so confused on hearing this, that the only remark I could manage to think of was to ask him what might be the age of his young brother?  ‘Oh!’ he replied in a slighting manner, ‘he is not 120 as yet.’ I thought it best not to ask any more questions, but during the months of my convalescence with the Dzurmo, I mentioned this matter. He smilingly informed me that it was a simple little convenience called the L'en sang-wa (or secret messenger) at one time extensively in use with the ancient Gyal-Dzom. The little instruments were made in pairs only, and by some process—en rapport—with each other in such a manner that certain very delicate vibratory action was set up by the voice on the fine tissues of the other. An instrument was no use without its particular pair. The chemical from which the tissues were prepared was of some kind of composite mineral, and vegetable extraction, the secret of which was jealously guarded by the ancient Gyal-Dzom, but it appears that the secret leaked out and seems to have filtered down the ages, but still carefully guarded by a few of the elect. I learned later that the tissues of the instruments deteriorated after a certain time, but could always be renewed by chemical treatment. Here again is interesting work for research.”

The Tibetan name the Captain gives for the secret messenger is l'en sang-wa. I guess that is likely to be Tibetan lan gsang-ba, and that it means something more like secret response.  

Did you ever hear of the Baghdad battery? The Dendera lightbulbs? Well, if you haven’t, you ought to look into it. I see that our trusty Captain also found lightbulbs in Tibet.
“Approaching one of the lights, I found that it was but a lump of common stone-crystal about 4" in diameter placed on a plate of some kind of metal, grey in colour, about half an inch thick and one foot in diameter, all of which was hung by bronze wire loops from an arm at right angles from a wooden upright. Over and around the plate ran an ornamental tracing in thin lines of gold hieroglyphics resembling the characters on the cave writings. Needless to say, I was keen to get an explanation...”
Keen is the word for you, too, if you are like me. In case you need this reassurance, everything does have a reasonable explanation. Whether you’ll be ready to accept it or not, I’m not so ready to say.
“The Che-sho willingly informed me that the sound of the gong penetrated the metal plate from which a vibrating force emanated, that had the effect of infusing to the crystal particles a bright luminous glow that gradually grew to a certain intensity in accordance with the volume of vibratory sound. If the gong was struck with a metal hammer, the glow would be so great that the human eye could not stand it without a head covering of thick cloth—and still neither the crystal or plate had a particle of heat.
“Che-sho said that he had no knowledge of what kind of metal the plate or the gong was made of, as they were received in his Monastery hundreds of years ago. He could not say from where or from whom; but personally, I have no doubt that it is another of the ancient Gyal-Dzom's scientific secrets.”
As if we hadn’t had our fill of amazing information, the Captain tells us about the dong-are Kong-mi, his Tibetan name for the Abominable Snowmen.  I’m guessing there is a small fault in the typography, and emend it to dong-dre Kong-mi; then it comes closer to meaning what he says it means, which is devil snowmen. Still, I’d prefer the translation bear snow men, assuming the true spelling to be dom-dred gangs-mi. That much seems reasonable. I also liked the vines that were made to grow so rapidly — ten feet in one day — they could be made to form bridges. That sounds very useful, so long as it’s not the dreaded kudzu vine. Forget about cell phones; I’d be overjoyed to learn that Tibetans never invented anything so harmful.

If you want to know when the first real walky-talky was invented, look here.  Interesting...

§  §  §

I don't know much about the author, except that he wrote two books (or would that be just one book?) that are still available from used book dealers:

Zindari A daughter of the Indian Frontier and other Thrilling Tales of the Indian Frontier by Captain V. D'Auvergne (1939).

Folk-Tales of the Indian Frontier  I’m not so sure if this title isn’t just one of the many reprints of the title just listed.

I guess I should have included sound-activated light switches among the subjects of today’s blog. Next time maybe I’ll go into the issue of when the first Tibetan man-lifting kites may have been invented. If you are like me — and I guess you are like me more or less — I know you won’t want to miss it.  Now you can find it here.


  1. Re "vines that could be made to form bridges" look at the 'living root bridges' of Meghalaya, on this blog for example:
    D'auvergne sounds like something of a fabulist but I'd love to know more about him. Any idea of what route he claims to have taken into Tibet and when?

  2. Dear K,
    Very good questions about d'Auvergne. Nobody out in the internet seems to have a clue who he was, or they make conjectures on the basis of the 1940 article (a British captain of French origins?). The places he says he went are all very mysterious to me. Ditto the timing. Thanks for the fascinating "living root bridges" link. Yours, D

  3. Hi,

    Perhaps V d'Auvergne is a descendant of Philippe d'Auvergne (Philip Dauvergne, or Philip de La Tour d'Auvergne) a family (of policemen and constables) based in Jersey, that moved to England to make career in the army, but was likely originally from Auvergne.'Auvergne

    Another d'Auvergne in the army is both named James Stuart D'auvergne Innes and James Stuart D'auvergne.

    The names alos appears as Dauvergne. If the first name of V. D'Auvergne is Victor, he could be Lt George Victor d'Auvergne Innes, who became captain in 1911.

    Mind you, 29 long years without another promotion does sound a bit gloryless. Perhaps this tabloid story was his last attempt to make himself a name? :-)

    What a wonderful tool the Internet is!

    1. Hi H.A., Yes! Victor! That must be our man. I found a brief statement in a review of a book at German-language Amazon that reads, "einen belgischen Capitan Victor D'Auvergne (1879-1957) (...), der in den 1930er Jahren als Offizier für die britische Armee Tibet erkundete," Some sources say he enlisted in 1901, which gives him quite a long career before publishing his book and article. What's interesting here is the added information that he was located in Tibet. He "explored" Tibet for the British Army. Good to know. At another site it appears that a thick pile of papers about him are kept at the National Archives:


  4. Oh my, I just paid a couple of pounds and got a page of records from the National Archives. Don't ask me why I did it. I never paid for digital information like this before. I was curious, I guess. I can't say I learned a lot from it. He was wounded in action, had problems with his wife, and drank too much ("his daily consumption of alcohol being frequently excessive," as it says, as I suppose it could be said for everybody).. After 44 years of service during which he was more than once not considered for promotion (in 1931 he failed the prescribed examination), he twisted his ankle coming down from a water tower that he had climbed for a reconnaissance.
    I don't see a word there about where he was stationed, and certainly not a word about Tibet, although I don't know if that means anything. Hmm. At least it does flesh out his identity as a real entity. He was born in Glasgow on 21 August 1882, to a father named Charles Edward Septimus Innes. I see his father was chief constable of Cambridge, even found a photograph of him on the internet.

  5. Captain Charles Dauvergne was engaged in the British Army as field assistant to the duke of Marlborough. His son Philippe d'Auvergne ( 1754 in Jersey -1816 in Westminster (London) studies in England and in France and through relations of his father joins the Royal Navy and amongst other facts fights against the French. In the fight over the Channel Islands he works as an informer about the ennemy positions. We would say a spy (a double spy ?). And the French had not forgotten his spying activity when he turns up in France (in 1802) for an official ceremony. He will be arrested, his goods confiscated and he will be thrown out of the country. He continues to work as a spy and leads a spying network.

    If you’re from an old family of constables, army officers and, who knows, spies from father to son, you will probably have more chances to be asked to work as a spy or informer. If Victor d’Auvergne was working as a spy or informer in Tibet etc. would his activities be recorded in simple army archives ? His file is desperately empty. Unless it was another Victor d’Auvergne ?

    But I think he may have been a 007. « Problems with his wife, and drank too much » ? Say no more.

  6. Captain Verner D'auvergne was born in Orleans France in 1865 son of Ralph D'auvergne and Ida Unknown. He served in the military in India and married at Rawal Pindi Bengal,in 1894 to an Alice Grose (1875-1911) They had 5 children, all born in India.
    Unknown what happened to Verner and when he died...recently found a notation on "Geni" quoting his daughter "he was a secret service man in WW2"
    Also he is noted for stating he saw the Abominable snowman in the Himalayas...lecture in 1940 at Rawal Pindi Bengal.


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