Semaphore Flag History

Mar 2nd, 2017

Semaphore flag is the term given to a method of communicating with flags. The person holding the flags position them in specific positions to represent letters of the alphabet or numbers.


In 1792, Claude Chappe developed the first visual messaging system. The method became the primary means of communicating in military and other applications in France. Chappe’s semaphore design involved building numerous towers that had pivoting arms attached to a crossbar.


Image courtesy of Lokilech at German Wikipedia


Chappe’s design led to the development of semaphore flags. The most famous involved the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when the British Royal Navy engaged in a fight against the Spanish and French during the Napoleonic Wars. British ships used the semaphore system by positioning flags to communicate messages between its ships. This worked very well during daylight, but the flags could not be seen if it was rainy or there was heavy fog.


By the 1850s, the system had become very popular. As a result, it was no longer a feasible way to communicate because the enemies, and anyone else that knew the system, could easily read the messages.


Samuel Morse, Joseph Henry and Alfred Vail invented the electrical telegraph system in 1836. Because the semaphore system was working well and electrical wires could be cut, the invention was rejected. Once the semaphore system became common, and no longer feasible, Morse’s electrical telegraph came into being. Messages were transmitted by using Morse Code, a method of seeing, in earlier days, or hearing the clicks on the telegraph machine and translating them. Today, Morse Code is mainly used by amateur radio operators and for emergency signals.


Semaphore flags are still in use today, but have evolved into square flags on short poles. The signalman holds a semaphore flag in each hand and holds his arms in a variety of specific positions to convey a message to someone else. When the system is used at sea, the flags are red and yellow, and, when on land, the flags are white and blue. Flags are not required, but do make the characters that are transmitted easier to see.



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