The Royal Signals .. Mechanical Telegraphy Page 1

Recording Signalling Methods, Technology, Equipment & History for Posterity

The following is a compilation of many different sources and information by Petra, some she found from on-line web sites, some from books, some translations from German sources and a lot is simply written by herself, including the noticeably "odd" inclusion of her very twisted humour from which everyone distances themselves! (even Petra) That said you can hopefully still learn a lot and have fun? So anyone who is unhappy with the content of this free newsletter or datasheet can ask for a full refund under our standard Policy.

The small print: A copy of the policy can be purchased for three hundred pounds sterling including P&P from Petra directly.


Visual Signalling via Mechanical Telegraphs and other Methods

This Datasheet is the Forth in a Series that covers the pre-Royal Signals period of the British Army (and Naval) Signalling. It will cover Visual Signalling with Flags which were for many centuries an important method of communications for both British ground and sea forces. Be Warned! It contains the occasional outburst of odd "Petra" humour…

Reminder of the story so far…

All of the visual signalling datasheets have an integral and inseparable interface to the Royal Navy, for reasons that become clear later. Indeed up until WW1 the Navy and RE signallers used much the same systems and worked closely together. Here is another part of why the Royal Engineers were so intertwined with the Navy.

The History of the Royal Signals and their Origin in the Royal Engineers is well known and documented on many on-line web resources. But what is not so diligently covered is the fact that the First School of Field Instruction (including Signalling) was a joint effort of the Admiralty and the Royal Engineers and established in Chatham Dockyards in 1812.During the research for this datasheet, I have also discovered that contrary to popular belief, the Jimmy (In particular in use with Military Telegraphy) goes back to 1815 and maybe earlier… and maybe brought to the R.E. by General Sir Charles William Pasley, KCB, FRS, DCL who was very keen on Signalling.

The Engineers had in many sieges and battles tunnelled under enemy forts, laid massive charges and were experts in Demolition and Fortification (including building forts to prevent the enemy doing the same to them!). In fact it is due to this Tunnelling that the good old land mine got its name "Mine" as did the sea mine. The Engineers for their part were entrusted with two Key Naval Functions. 1). Supplying the Corps of Submarine Miners, (Divers) and 2). Supplying the knowledge and resources to build and run Forts along the British coast and Harbour entrances. Obviously it was important not to sink any British returning ships yet still be able to fire on approaching enemy ships long before their cannon became a risk to the moored up fleet in Harbour, or before the enemy ship could be sunk or form a Blockade and make the fleet useless.

The ship to shore signalling including mechanical telegraphy, and nearer to shore Flag Waving and Heliography, was thus firmly in the hands of the Royal Engineers by the mid 1800s.

Naturally it made sense that the Engineers and Navy used the same signalling systems, and also wherever possible learnt the same set of ordinance skills and defence tactics.

Indeed the Chain of inland signalling stations as well as shore to ship and shore to offshore signalling were so well in the hands of the Admiralty and Royal Engineers by 1880 that the GPO seeing their profits and business opportunities being eroded armed their postmen to send them with their post sack full of a mixture of letters and grenades out to regain their rounds…

After The GPO attacked the Foreign markets of the Engineers, for example Egypt (as shown below), they agreed to split the world, the GPO keeping the Royal Mail rights in the UK and the R.E. the Field Post Office (later BFPO) rights world-wide. Due to traps in the contract, the GPO later also picked up rights for electrical Telegraphy and Telephone in the UK.

Royal Signals ... General Post Office Rifles 1882

Figure 1 The General Post Office Rifles in 1882, (From a 1932 Cigarette Card)

Had they have not fought so bravely then maybe today the person delivering the letters to your house would knock and say "Mornin' War-Department, here are some bills for you!" and wives confiding to each other might say, "…well Jim thinks he is the Father, but his dad is really in the War Department. Very Hush-hush!"

Seriously though, the GPO rifles served with honour together the R.E. Telegraphists in many different communication roles, and in WW2 were part of the Engineers Anti-Aircraft forces which also employed many Signals identical services such as radio-wireless and wired field telegraphy, etc. from Observation Post to both searchlight batteries and gun emplacements. Also in military Mechanical Telegraphy both the Pasley and GPO signalling was used.

The History and Development of Mechanical Telegraphy

Although it may sound stupid, today many people would not realise that the word "Telegraph" was invented by a Frenchman and referred to what we today tend to call a mechanical Semaphore, Shutter Telegraph, or even Armed Telegraph. But the Telegraph in question was Optical, and had more to do with permanent ways, and/or shore to ships, being that of the "armed (Forces)" telegraph, and that has no relationship to the Combat-Linesman, then here the word Armed means just that Arms… A sort of flailing Magnus Pike like hybrid combining the best and worst of a Robot and a Windmill. Indeed the Admiralty were so convinced of the superiority of the Semaphore Signalling Mast, that they turned down offers of workable electrical land-line telegraph shown to them long before Samuel Morse "Invented" it, and continued to build such devices on hill tops across the nation and onto the tops of ships including ironclad battleships well into WW1.

Extract from the March 2003 RSO-Newsletter (on the subject of Morse code)

Incidentally even Morse's claim to his "Inventing" the single wire telegraphy was like Ex-President Clinton's claim not to have had "Sex" with Monica Lewinsky, i.e. depending upon what you understand by the word, and what he actually meant! Then it was already invented in England in 1816 by Joseph Henry and Sir Francis Ronalds who proposed a single wire telegraph and that Sir Francis Ronalds demonstrated in his garden at Hammersmith. Like many good ideas the UK Government (and Military) do not share his vision, and his ideas, published in 1823, went largely ignored. In the words of the British Admiralty, to whom Ronalds offered the invention, "Telegraphs of any kind are wholly unnecessary..."

The Signalling of the Army was for many years so closely intertwined with that of the Navy that such a decision also affected and delayed the introduction of Wired Telegraphy and if it were not for Pasley having a deeper interest in matters outside his ordered task, might have remained so until WW1, then Pasley was also very interested in the Railways, and observed what was going on world wide, especially in the USA where due to the enormous distances single track working and distances to great to use station to station visual signalling were not practicable made the adoption of the Morse and Vail electrical Telegraphs very attractive.

Pasley was (in his spare time, of which it is remarkable he had any!) the Head of Railway Safety in the UK, and helped migrate Mechanical Semaphore signalling to the trackside management of trains (then the attempts to attach telegraph wires to the locomotives broke whenever the trains moved) and surely influenced maters such as "passing tokens" and the introduction of the wired telegraph service we in Britain associate with Chappe's word "Telegraph"

Again it is important that the reader understands how part of the naval military needs and power to specify and accept new technologies, or not, influenced the Government and Army. Then these are needed to fully understand the origins and developments of the Army signalling. Also while the Navy used Army Signallers for certain ship to shore communications, and marines action, the Admiralty were busy establishing their chain of land lines and had their own land force to operate their semaphore stations, so up until the end of Victoria's reign there was no simple clear separation of the forces or their duties. The RAF refused to take sides and blamed lack of the invention of aircraft as a reason to stay out of both the squabbling between the Navy and Army, and also out of all wars before 1914.

The Admiralty and the Royal Engineers as mentioned in Datasheet No. 1, jointly set up a School of Engineering and Signals in the Chatham dockyards, General Sir Charles William Pasley, KCB, FRS, DCL (Oxon.) (1780-1861) became the first director of field instruction at the new Royal Engineer Establishment at Chatham in 1812, promoted to brevet-Major, where he then remained for thirty years. He became regimental Colonel in 1831. Underwater explosions were a speciality of his, as well as construction and demolition of fortifications, sieges, and the reason for mentioning him again here was his direct involvement with the development and deployment of optical telegraphy.

Palmerston ordered a series of Forts and in particular offshore Solent forts to be built, and who better to construct them and provide the signalling to and from them and to Naval Shipping, than the Royal Engineers who were also experts in Deep Sea Diving and establishing the in places 17 feet under Lowest spring Tide Mark foundations. The Solent is a difficult place to work, having four high-tides and four low-tides per day, and due to the funnelling "throughput" of water moving east west and west east, some very torturous and strong currents, as even modern divers have found.

Royal Signals ... Solent and Spitshead

Figure 2 The Fortification of the Solent and Spithead (Portsmouth and Isle of Wight)

The Engineers were only responsible for the buildings and signalling, the armaments were firmly in the hands of the Royal Garrison Artillery and Royal Field Artillery, but since the Engineers were a derivative of the Royal Field Artillery, having split from them only a few years earlier (like the Royal Signals originated from the Royal Engineers in 1920) there was a lot of common ground and shared history to bond them together well.

In Good weather it was possible to use the Optical signalling from Portsmouth to London, etc. and so establish faster communication than that possible with Horse Rider. In bad a Horse messenger was sent. However the Horse proved useless in both good and bad weather when wanting to communicate with the Isle of Wight or with the Solent Forts, and these were critical locations and early warning post for the defence of the Fleet in Portsmouth and Southampton.

Someone sold the Prime Minster of the day (Lord Henry Palmerston) a copy of a Goon Show Script that had fallen through a Time warp, and he not being aware of a hundred year later BBC Steam wireless type humour, believed it was a true report of things to come, then not only on one side was a copy of "Napoleon's Piano" but on the back were the scratchy twitterings of a Spike Milligan, and the long lost "Unfinished Goon Show Script."

This is the one where the French invaded the Isle of Wight via a cardboard copy of a Hovercraft, cut the mooring ropes that hold the IOW so close to England, and sailed it south over the channel to hold it captive with the other British Islands they had somehow "acquired" the show was to be called "The Channel Island Prisoners" staring John Nettles as Sergeant Jim …

The Isle of Wight is almost the smallest county in the country (after Rutland). It is a Diamond shape, measuring 23 miles from east to west, and 13¼ miles from north to south, giving a total area (including inland water) of 94,146 acres, or 147 square miles. Newport is the all-Island capital, even though Ryde (where Petra grew up) is the larger town. Given that later Queen Victoria lived (and in 1901 died) on the Island (Osborne House, Cowes) it becomes clear how important both the defence and speed of communications to and from the IOW were.

Royal Signals ... Lord Palmerston and Queen Victoria

Figure 3 Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria and Lord Melborne

Many today think that Victoria was the driving force for the continued Fortification of the Isle of Wight and Surrounding area, but if Queen Victoria had have had her way there would not have been another penny spent on them, then she strongly disapproved of Palmerston and his ideas.

Then even in his earlier role as the Foreign Secretary, Palmerston believed the main objective of the government's foreign policy should be to increase Britain's power in the world. This sometimes involved adopting policies that embarrassed and weakened foreign governments. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, on the other hand, believed that the British government should do what it could to help preserve European royal families against revolutionary groups advocating republicanism. This was very important to Victoria and Albert as they were closely related to several of the European royal families that faced the danger of being overthrown.

In 1802 at the age of twenty-two Palmerston, a Tory wanted to get into politics and power. He paid £1,500 to become the MP for Horsham. The legality of the election was challenged and the following year Sir Leonard Holmes, arranged for Palmerston to become MP for his pocket borough of Newtown on the Isle of Wight (Say Ahh for the good ol' days when you clearly knew where an MP's heart and Money was, and corruption was open and easy to understand).

Queen Victoria also objected to Palmerston's open sexual behaviour. On one occasion he had attempted to seduce one of Victoria's ladies in waiting. Palmerston entered Lady Dacre's bedroom while staying as Victoria's guest at Windsor Castle. Only Lord Melbourne's intervention saved Palmerston from being removed from office.

In the summer of 1850, Queen Victoria asked Lord John Russell to dismiss Palmerston. Russell told the queen he was unable to do this because Palmerston was very popular in the House of Commons. However, in December 1851, Palmerston openly congratulated Louis Napoleon Bonaparte on his coup in France. This action upset Russell and other radical members of the Whig party and this time he accepted Victoria's advice and sacked Palmerston. Six weeks later Palmerston took revenge by helping to bring down Lord John Russell's government.

Communications to and from the Isle of Wight and from end to ten on the Isle of Wight, were as important if not more so than from Portsmouth to London, then the deployment of troops stationed on the island to counter any invasion force getting a foot hold on the Island from whence to strike the mainland. A central located signalling station and several barracks full of troops to act as a rapid deployment force in any direction, was set up on the highest hill nearest the centre of the island. The Engineers were tasked with the construction of a Military road to interconnect the islands south coast defences and even the start of Tunnel under the Solent in 1886 to allow quicker reaction of , but the idea for a tunnel was abandoned when the cost was recalculated.

Incidentally the Site of the Mechanical Telegraph Mast, at Camp Hill, Newport Isle of Wight was supported by an extensive group of Barracks, and at a name that today if anyone says they were there for a few years, is not a "proud boast of their military service", but rather a sign of a Holidaying on the IOW at her Majesty's Pleasure i.e. "Parkhurst" "Albany" and "Camp-Hill" Prisons, all once a Key Response Force and Signalling establishment. The Barracks at Parkhurst had been used to house prisoners pending shipment to the mainland for a few years before 1869, but in 1869 a section was permanently designated for this purpose.

The Island also had one of the most intensive railway systems in the world in such a small space, and the fact that seven different companies used them to service 31 different stations, made the development of inter-working and safety systems critical, so that many of the Railway signalling systems invented and proven on the IOW were adopted and used on the mainland and even in USA.

The Mechanical Telegraphs to the Solent forts and the Isle of Wight were used long after the mainland chain had been replaced by trackside wired telegraphy. When the Weather allowed it the Heliograph was also employed.

Also the RE's submarine miners oversaw observation and creation of electro-mechanical minefields for the Admiralty until well into the first world war, and laying the first under water electrical cables to detonate these proved to be crucial in the development of submarine Telegraph cables. Marconi also established his radio-wireless telegraph station on the Island in 1897 at Alum Bay. Also one of the first Radar Stations built on St Boniface Down was built and tested on the Island in 1938, as well as being the start point for P.L.U.T.O. on D-Day.

Before electrical wireless, getting a message to the forts or the Island was only possible in good weather, then unlike the route London-Portsmouth , the Signallers could not fall back on a dispatch rider when fog, storm or rain/snow made visibility impossible.

Signallers sent to the Island by horse had a habit of drowning, at best only drowning their horse, and besides the water made the ink of the messages run. Trying to keep signaller and message dry by using a horse drawn boat also failed.

As the picture below shows, the only workable option required a large barge, a compliment of sailors and two horses (one in case one was too sea sick at other end to be ridden) besides the signaller who was to sit upon his horse for the entire crossing regardless of how rough the sea was pitching,. The signaller can be seen in his Khaki Uniform leading his spare horse up the ramp... very close to Captain Birdseye…

Royal Signals ... Dispatch Rider

Figure 4 Embarking the Dispatch rider and Horses to carry the message to the IOW

The Germans also were keen to find ways to get their message across large stretches of water and turned to inflatable sausage skins they then called Zeppelins.

Royal Signals ... Zeppelin

Figure 5 Here a postcard of an experiment with the Mammoth drawn Zeppelin

Caption on Photo "One of Germany's Mammoth Zepellins" (note pre WW1 spelling)

German plans for Experiments with Mammoth floundered when they could not find any mammoths, then they turned to horses and Elephants (Elephants are capable of swimming 20 miles a day, and so could cross the 7 mile Solent but not the English channel )

Horse drawn Zeppelins to cross vast areas of water were eventually abandoned when Neddy Seagoon (Seagoon was just another name for Palmerston's follies) invented the "Hairyplane" a full year before the Wright Brothers… and these were based on Earlier British attempts to use Horse Drawn Boats and Seahorse Mounted Cavalry to reach the forts and the Isle of Wight in bad visibility, which also failed!

If you think none of this is true, then consider the following. The War Department (having in their possession a copy of the "Mammoth Zeppelin" post card shown above), and knowing that the nearest living relative to the Mammoth left alive by the 1940's was the Elephant. Took special interest in these potential airship motivators.

The very first bombing raid by the Allies on Berlin during World War II killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo. (True fact!) Indra. Died on 22nd of November 1943, at 5 years of age, when the elephant house was hit by RAF Lancaster Bombers trying to hit an aircraft engine factory.

Bomber Harris reputed later to have conceived the idea of the Jumbo Jet as early as 1942, said on a Pathe News interview "The raid was a complete success, then that is another Gerry Zeppelin left up the creek without an Elephant!" Asked if "Indian or African?" he took his pipe from his mouth and after a short thought-pause replied "Indian, then it must have been a Bombay Elephant (Bomb-bay?)"

One thing we were able to then, and still are able to now, do is to outgun the Germans when it comes to humour (good and bad)…. For proof, here the respective part of the Goon Show…

Grytpype: Splendid! Now Neddy, what does this aeroplane do?
Seagoon: It flys.
Grytpype: It flys?
Moriarty: You realise, that this means the end, of the horse drawn zeppelin!

(see "Wings over Dagenham" Goon Show Series 7, Episode 15, Broadcast 10th Jan 1957, Recorded 30th Dec 1956

Herman Goering was furious, and announced in one of his Tirades on the Radio… "For every German Elephant the British RAF Kill in Berlin, our Luftwaffe will Kill 1,000 of their London based Elephants!" The Elephant and Castle pub quickly changed its name for the duration…

Palmerston's Follies (the name given to his defences around Portsmouth) had by the turn of the century two major disadvantages, 1). they were useless in the Zulu and Boer Wars, being most difficult to move, and 2). for home defence only helped against sea warfare, which while then the only kind known. The Germans considered the old "If you can't go through something" routine, and concluded they must either go under (with U-Boats) or over and such defences, and so the German Navy avoided the Forts and their horizontal firepower by turning to "Airships."

Count Ferdinand Zeppelin, a German army officer studied the increased use of costal forts like those along the French coast, and around Britain, and began developing his ideas on using airships to fly over them in 1897. The first Zeppelin flew on 2nd July 1900.

The first Zeppelins had no radio-wireless, but instead relied on visual signalling (Mechanical semaphores) for their airship to airfield and mooring mast, or Navy ships underway to establish manoeuvring commands and communications. Naturally they were quick to adopt both radio and simple radio guidance systems similar to the British OBOE from WW2, to get to their targets.

The LZ-3 Zeppelin was accepted into German army service in March 1909. By the start of the First World War the German Army had seven military Zeppelins, by now also with Radio.

The Zeppelin developed in 1914 could reach a maximum speed of 136 kph and reach a height of 4,250 metres. The Zeppelin had five machine-guns and could carry 2,000 kg (4,400 lbs) of bombs.

In January 1915, two Zeppelin Naval airships 190 metres long, flew over the east coast of England and bombed great Yarmouth and King's Lynn. The first Zeppelin raid on London took place on 31st May 1915. The raid killed 28 people and injured 60 more (Trampled by the Elephants maybe?) . Many places suffered from Zeppelin raids included Gravesend, Sunderland, Edinburgh, the Midlands and the Home Counties. By the end of May 1916 at least 550 British civilians had been killed by German Zeppelin.

Zeppelins could deliver successful long-range bombing attacks, but were extremely vulnerable to attack and bad weather. British fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners became very good at bringing down Zeppelins. A total of 115 Zeppelins were used by the German military, of which, 77 were either destroyed or so damaged they could not be used again.

In June 1917 the German military stopped used Zeppelins for bombing raids over Britain.

South Coast Defences

The Admiralty had a great part to play in setting up the R.E. school of signalling and in return were benefiting from the deal. Most engineer companies stationed in Britain and overseas were termed Fortress Companies which meant that they maintained and supported the coastal defence batteries, but some remained to be termed Submarine Miners, and who proved more effective getting into and out of deep water than the 15th Seahorse cavalry.

The Placement of Massive Forts in the Solent (which still exist today) also allowed relaying to take place and messages to be passed from Southsea Castle near Portsmouth and Puckpool Battery to the east of Ryde on the Isle of Wight.

Royal Signals ... Isle of Wight Solent defence Forts

Figure 6 The Solent Defence Forts between the Isle of Wight and the Mainland

Due to my Involvement with the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes in the late seventies and early eighties, and the construction of remote (radio) controlled Buoys and Navigation aids, as well as participation in the Marshalling of the various races (Mainly being then on finishing line Radio and Timing duty at the observation post in the Trinity watchtower of fort Gillkicker, Gosport). I had an opportunity to visit many of these forts (which were still under crown control) and apart from seeing more pigeons than I had ever seen in my life, and off course dirt, rust, decay, Dead seagulls and Pigeon and Seagull droppings, also got a first hand look at the Victorian defences and accommodation. There were however no Victorian Guns then these were melted down in both WW1 and WW2. The big gun in the above picture is from a similar British Fort in Malta.

St. Helens Fort (less than a mile of the coast of St. Helens IOW) and Spitbank Fort, (Less than a mile from Southsea and Portsmouth Harbour entrance), are asymmetrical, in that the back (Shore side) of the forts are not so heavily built and fortified as the side facing any potential enemy ships. The telegraph mast, like many other superstructures on the forts were either pulled down due to becoming dangerous (rusting away) or for much needed war scrap, like the old guns.

Royal Signals ... Isle of Wight

Figure 7 Here the view of the Isle of Wight (7 miles away) from the Gillkicker fort

Several generations of Portsmouth people have given the nickname "Palmerston's Folly" to the Victorian "Hill forts" up on Portsdown Hill. The Stone UFO's in the Spithead, which rise like artificial islands out at sea are sometimes and unfairly included in this comment. The term actually referred only to the forts on the crest of the hill overlooking the town and harbour but actually face inland, and to some people look the wrong way possibly for defending Portsmouth from bus load of Yorkshire elderly tourist, and their taking over a café where you were planning to have a cup of tea!.

Yet the development of new armaments plus the perceived threat of invasion, Prime Minster Lord Henry Palmerston, commissioned a revue and implementation to strengthen Portsmouth and the entire surrounding area. If there was an attack on Portsmouth from the North, none of the existing fortifications would be able to protect the dockyard and harbour against bombardment from Portsdown Hill. Neither Hilsea Lines, nor the newly-proposed line of forts between Gomer and Elson on the Gosport peninsula would be far enough advanced.

The Royal Commission received its instruction in August 1859, that it should begin work by considering the defence of Portsmouth. The report was submitted in 1860, the recommendations were: 1) To prevent landing from the enemy on the Isle of Wight. 2) Protection of the anchorage at Spithead. 3) Defence of the Needles passage. 4) Protection of the harbour mouth. 5) The land defences. These were divided between the Gosport defences and the hill forts.

Work began during the 1860's on these defences. These included: Isle of Wight and Needles passage, the recently rebuilt Hurst Castle, the four Solent Forts, Spitbank, St. Helen's, Horse Sand and No Man's Land were built. Also improvements to the strength of the Square Tower, Kings Bastion, Point Battery, Southsea Castle, Lump's Fort and Fort Cumberland were undertaken.

The moat separating the north part of Portsmouth half-Island from the mainland was widened and walls strengthened at Hilsea Lines. The Gosport side of the harbour, Fort Blockhouse (now H. M. S. Dolphin) was updated. Besides five new batteries constructed along the sea front, there were six new forts built, Gomer, Grange, Rowner, Brockhurst, Elson and Fareham.

The Royal Engineers were also responsible for the basic design of these land defence "hill forts" around Portsmouth, to defend from a land attack from the north (maybe those Tourist from Yorkshire?). Colonel, later Lieutenant General, Sir W. R. Drummond Jervois R. E., was put in charge.

The design of the Hill forts was that they should be surrounded by a deep ditch on the West, North and East sides. Access is gained from ramps down to the bottom of the ditches from the fort entrances on the South side at the back of the fort. There was also a dry moat with varied depth from 40 - 60 feet and width from 30 - 70 feet around the five forts.

Why did the locals call them Pamerston's follies? Well despite the investment of several million pounds, and the confiscation of thousands of all the hill forts built, only one, Fort Southwick, completed in 1870, was actually used by the armed forces. Then along with Southwick House at H. M. S. Dryad, it was used as D-Day Headquarters and featured heavily in the preparation and operation of OVERLORD in 1944. The coastal and Sea Forts however were extensively used both in WW1 and WW2 by Shore defences, Anti-Aircraft batteries and between the forts and shore also for anti-submarine nets and monitoring systems.

Royal Signals ... palmerston Forts Heliograph

Figure 8 Members of the Palmerston Forts Society employ the Heliograph

Palmerston Forts Society    Link

The options for signalling between the forts, (especially over water) and from fort to ship, or mainland fort to Island fort / or Newport Telegraph hill, were multiple varied and depended upon many factors. When the Sun shone the Heliograph could be employed and was even capable of making long hops end to end, without using the Solent forts as relay stations. But not if the Sun (or Daily Mirror) was not available at either end, or if the sun caused sea haze to prevent seeing the other side.

However on sunny days in High winds, the Heliograph could be used when the arms of the mechanical semaphore would be at risk to damage (wind sheer) due to their considerable area, and flags were to "streaming backwards or toward the target" to be read. Flags were only useable for short distances, but could be used on dull days when no sunlight broke the clouds. Strong winds into or away from the coast, and in the direction of the target station, meant the other side could not see enough flag area to clearly read anything, and no matter how furiously the Flagman worked, seldom could he defeat a strong sea wind. Also working in high winds was very tiring, which lead to increased errors. The only advantage the British had with their flag-wagging was that the signalman could turn and face away from the stinging salt spray while working. His mate on the Telescope however could not.

The mechanical Semaphore telegraph was also subject to the problems of fog and darkness, but was quite effective for a reasonable amount of the time. The Heliographs and Flag-wagging were only employed to keep the Signallers skill in these alternatives up to scratch, and rarely (other than when defects occurred to the Mechanical tower) used for real traffic. The Telegraph having arms between nine and twelve foot long, and the salt-spray affecting the grease on the chain linkage was often broken or being given routine maintenance so the fall back on flags and heliographs was a valid option. Other factors where that differences in Fort heights meant that often that either the Hill forts were in the clear, but at sea level thick fog prevented any visual signalling. Or conversely at sea level forts were clear, but the hill forts were in either low cloud or rolling fog coming down the hills.

Portsmouth & The Isle of Wight

Here an overview of the Portsmouth fortifications to show just how extensive the constructive work of the Royal Engineers in this area was…

                                 Mainland Forts Isle of Wight Forts
 Fort Blockhouse  Fort Purbrook  Fort Albert
 Fort Brockhurst  Fort Rowner  Fort Bembridge
 Browndown Battery  Southsea Castle Battery   Cliff End Fort
 Crookhorn Redoubt  Fort Southwick  Cliff End Battery
 Fort Cumberland  Stokes Bay Lines  Culver Battery
 Eastney Battery East  Steynewood Battery  Freshwater Redoubt
 Eastney Battery West  Fort Wallington  Golden Hill Fort
 Fort Fareham  Fort Widley  Hatherwood Battery
 Farlington Redoubt    New Needles Battery
 Fort Gilkicker  Solent / Spithead Forts  Old Needles Battery
 Fort Grange  Horse Sand Fort  Point Battery
 Hilsea Lines  No Mans Land Fort  Puckpool Mortar Battery
 Hurst Castle  Spitbank Fort  Redcliff Battery
 Langstone Redoubt  St. Helens Fort  Sandown Barrack Battery
 Long Curtain    Sandown (Granite) Fort
 Fort Monckton    Fort Victoria
 Fort Nelson    Warden Point Battery
     Yarmouth Castle
     Yaverland Battery

For more    Click

From a 1904 list of regular RE companies, which included the following R.E. Submarine Mining Companies, and needless to say, each also had their contingent of six to eight R.E. Signallers comes the following list:

4th Gosport
21st Felixstowe
22nd Isle of Wight
27th Bermuda
28th Malta
30th Plymouth
33rd Cork
34th Gravesend
35th Pembroke Dock
40th Halifax, Nova Scotia
48th Victoria, British Columbia

Plus the Coastal Defence Battalion which had companies at North Shields, Cardiff, Greenock, Paull, Middlesbrough, Broughty Ferry, North Queensferry, Liverpool, Falmouth and Weymouth.

The Signallers were of paramount importance to ensure the shore batteries did not fire upon their own ships, and the use of optical telegraphs with massive arms enabled the identification of ships well before they entered the 3 mile zone and were under the risk of being fired upon.

There was also a similar communication need to the shore from the Palmerstone Forts in the Solent, then what good was it getting past the first outpost, only to be fired upon when approaching Portsmouth harbour between Gillkicker and Southsea? Incidentally these forts and establishments are well known to me (Petra) from both my pre- and post-Royal Signals time, when I lived on the Isle of Wight. One day when Commuting back from work on the IOW ferry, surrounded by day trippers and tourist, I heard one explain to his son, who had asked what the forts were?, that "They were Ack-Ack-Flack forts, built to defend Britain against Napoleonic Aircraft attack during the British - French wars!" and he (unlike my deliberate jokes here) was quite serious!!!

The Long Arms of the Telegraph

By the 1870s two methods of Signalling families were identified, WIRED (Telegraph-lines) and WIRELESS, (Flag, lamp, heliograph, mechanical telegraph or semaphore, beacons, cannon or firework and later "Verey pistols", the horse and later motorcycle dispatch rider, and often forgotten, the dispatch cyclist and the human runner or animal messenger).

It is difficult if not impossible to separate the different types of signalling methods, then they blend into each other so easily. The mechanical shutter of the oil-lamp was slower to send Morse than that of the key on the electric lamp, but the key was the same as on the wired telegraph and later radio-wireless. I specifically add the word "radio" to "wireless", then in the late 1800s signalling via heliograph, flags and lamps, etc. were also termed to be "wireless".

An example of just how intertwined these technologies were can be found by a view of an early French electrical telegraph, which was nothing more than an electrical version of the double jointed Long arm mechanical Telegraph (or semaphore) invented by Claude Chappe (1763 - 1805) and in use in England and France.

The name télégraphe, (Telegraph) or "far-writer", was actually coined by Claude Chappe, so when someone said send a "telegraph to…" we are lucky that unlike Ampere and Voltaire he did not grand his name to the device, or we would say "Send a Chap round to the…." and maybe the Key-Telegraphists would have been called the "Chap-tapper"?

Royal Signals ... Claude Chappe (Paris)

Figure 9 A statue (since melted down for munitions) to Claude Chappe in Paris

Claude Chappe believed better communications would prevent war and increase national unity and diplomacy abroad. He supported the Revolution and defence, but was against the expansionist aims of Napoleon, or any aggressive military use of his invention, and threw himself to his death in a well in 1805, aged 42, rather then continue to improve and work on his device for Napoleon. His Brother (Ignace) who had worked with him on his invention was then pressed into taking over his work and soon a network was established throughout France. To add insult to injury his statue was melted down to make shells, and was never restored.

Chappe had another problem with Napoleon, then Bonaparte instituted a scale of fines for sex offences, which included 35 francs for a man guilty of lifting a woman's skirt to the knee and 70 francs if he lifted it to the thigh, and 100 francs for lifting an invading Scotsman's Kilt. What was a Chappe to do if these simple pleasures of French life were suddenly declared illegal?

The system Claude invented was originally designed to remotely lift skirts, but adapted found to be useful for signalling. It was simple and easy to read against the contrast of the sky. The sender changes to the next letter (Sign) when it is seen to be repeated onwards at the next instrument.

Royal Signals ... Read the Telegraph

Figure 10 Crowds regularly gathered to "Read the Telegraph" with its simple code

Royal Signals ... Palais de justice in Metz

Figure 11 Two Telegraph Stations on the Roof of the "Palais de justice" in Metz

Unlike the British system the Chappe Telegraph also had individual lower case and upper case alphabets and of course all the French Graves and Accents, brackets and punctuation marks, signs for both Sch, and Ch, and even two zeros for use in "100", etc. and so was better suited to transmitting any form of written message than the British system.

Not only did the British code not have an option for lower case letters, but of the Alphabet it had the same sign had to be shared for the letters I & J and a shared sign for U & V, as well as shared signs for the numbers on Alphabetical signs, i.e. A = 1, B = 2, etc.

Royal Signals ... Pasley's 29 signs

Figure 12 Comparing the 77 French Signing Characters to Pasley's 29 Signs

An added advantage of the Chappe code, was that the French used mirrored signs for lowercase, so it was quite possible to read the code (in inverse case) easily from the back and yet still make good sense of it. " tHE qUICK bROWN fOX jUMPS oVER tHE lAZY dOG "

There was a special sign for repetition of the previous sign should it needed in words with double letters like "wood", "feed", etc., since the sign had to change each time before the next could be sent, and an extensive codebook for cipher messages.

Royal Signals ... chappe Stations Signalling

Figure 13 A Chain (the name given to a semaphore line) of Chappe Stations Signalling

The younger brother continued the development of this optical telegraph system until 1830, date on which further development was definitively stopped, and a migration to electrical telegraphy took place.

The defect of the Chappe telegraph based at Cap, is that it simply does not function during the night nor in times of fog. This defect had a considerable importance on French history: During the return of Napoleon in the hundred days war, His ship unloaded on March 1st, 1815 with 1200 men at the Gulf Juan, but Paris, then under the reign of Louis XVIII, only learned of this with delay and by the telegraph from Cap five days late, due to a week of fog. So Napoleon was not as successfully intercepted as he might have been had there been more time for preparation for battle, at the lake of LAFFREY Grenoble, on March 7th, 1815.

Royal Signals ... French Shore to Ship Telegraph

Figure 14 French Shore to ship Telegraph in use during British Raid on Cherbourg (1822)

The Admiralty refused to use the Chappe Telegraph which was very fast, efficient (optically could be read at greater distances than the Murray Shutter Telegraph) and was easier to operate and learn, on the basis that their boffins could invent a square wheel and so claim not to be copying the French. Over the next few years the Admiralty approved, built, scrapped and replaced three different systems, none on which were as good as Chappe's.

The British eventually settled on a system (Designed by Pasley) which comprised of two arms between six to twelve feet in length, depending upon range to next station, which moved in 45 degree indents like a the hands of a clock, but of equal length. But more about the British system later.

On the field transportable mechanical version (the T bar being 15 feet high) the operator would stand in front of two wheels, by cranking the wheels clockwise and/or anti-clockwise, he could create indented settings of 45 degree indents to make any semaphore code.

The electrical version was similar, and had a display (incoming signal) and working levers (outgoing) both on a white background, representing the mechanical arm positioning, while the settings (once made) were then "Telegraphed" sent by pushing down both of the levered switches on the outside edge of the unit.

Royal Signals ... mechanical version of Chappe Telegraph

Figure 15 The Field-Portably Mechanical version of the Chappe Telegraph.
(Animation by Philippe Morin)

Royal Signals ... Electrical Chappe Telegraph

Figure 16 The Electrical version of the Mechanical Chappe Telegraph.

Note that to this day the signalling device on a ship (Bridge to Engine room, and vice-versa) is still called the Telegraph which also uses a pre-select then send lever and a different display for the returned signal, much like the principles of the electric version of the Chappe telegraph shown above!

In the service of the Revolution

The device was very welcome in the time of the French Revolution, then not only was it a military tool, but a political tool. The process of centralization begun under the Ancien Régime becomes ever-more pronounced. The telegraph has a part to play, its beginnings coincide with a new calendar, a new way of dividing the year and the months. New measurements for volume and weight. The Revolution wants to change yet standardize at all costs! Regional particularities must be absolutely erased. During this same period, it becomes illegal to speak any regional language. Everywhere this same principle of Unity. AND… only one language, the romantic sound of "Frog-Croak" must be spoken everywhere.

The spread of the telegraph was linked to the growth of the Republic. It's seen as an instrument of propaganda and control. The telegraph had become a precious instrument. It had profoundly modified the art of war and of governing. The transmission of orders (and assurance of their execution) between the central government and its civil or military agents gained in speed and efficiency. New lines were built.

In France, the Chappe telegraph network was built out and apart from the stagecoach post, became the first proper telecommunications network, it was also the first state run monopoly and remained in the service of the State despite vain efforts to develop its commercial applications.

Chappe was a supporter of the use of his device for the French Revolution, and also to cement this for military use, (including wars of defence) but he wanted also that it be made available for normal (Commercial) use, to improve trade and standards of living.

He however wanted under no circumstances that it be used for any wars of aggression, and so fell out big time with Boney who loved this tool for managing his foreign campaigns .

The First Jimmy (Employed for Military Signals use)

During my research into this datasheet and Claude Chappe, I discovered that the Forms used for communication with Naval Headquarters in Brest (Printed in 1815) had a Flying Jimmy on them. Flying with a Telegraph in one hand, and a caduceus in the other, over the water between Stations on the mainland and an island. Maybe our motto should have been " rapide et sûr "

Royal Signals ... French Telegraph Form

Figure 17 French Telegraph Form and detail from 1815 with the first "Jimmy"

With all probability the 1815 form was a reprint (due to demand) and as used from 1795.

The Winged feet and Helmet are the same as our Jimmy, but a cloak over the shoulder and between his legs provides the additional modesty which the "Moralist" Napoleon insisted on. (Remember his introducing fines for skirt-lifting, mentioned earlier).

See also this link for a reversed copy of the header

The British brought back many items (including uniform ideas, etc.) from Waterloo, Pasley probably brought back many documents and such forms as well as dismantled "Chappe" equipment back from his battles with the French, and I believe these also strongly influenced Major CFC Beresford in selecting Hermes/Mercury as the fitting sign for Telegraphists Troop of the Royal Engineers Some 70 years later, when first used by the R.E. in the Upright pose (with great similarity to today's badge), in the Battalion magazine, Military Telegraph Bulletin, on 15 September 1884, and was also used on the R.E. Telegraph headed notepaper.

The Dépêche Télégraphique form shown above was printed 1815, and the example shown was used (Sent) in 1826. The message (according to notes on it) took just eight minutes to send error free end-to-end…with each letter confirmed before the next was sent… (Paris to Brest, 600 Kms / 360 miles, via 56 stations), which would have taken more than over thirty hours to get there, and thirty hours back by the fastest relay of determined dispatch horse riders…

In fact due to the insistence of the French to fit their horses with yellow glasses, ride on the wrong side of the road, and be diverted around all towns by road signs saying "Toutes Directions" resulting in the rider continually stopping to ask "Excusez-moi, s'il vous plaît" "Est-ce que ce la route à correct vers Brest?" the Journey in fact took days and not hours.

The extent of the French Chain of Telegraphs

The first Test line was built from Paris to the North in (Lille) 1793 under the auspices of the National Assembly. When on August 30, 1794 it brought news of a famous victory, that the Republican armies had retaken Condé-sur-Escaut. in a quarter of an hour, instead of the typical twenty-five hours required by a messenger on horseback, its future was assured.

It proved impossible for it to be really considered a dependable and permanent means of communication. Not only could the Chappe telegraph only be used during the day, but it was very costly in terms of personnel. For instance, the Moscow - Warsaw line, opened in 1838, had 220 relay stations and required (not including administrative personnel) 1320 operators (who had had to be trained in the operation of these precision machines).

By 1852 the network of optical telegraphs in France alone had grown to 556 telegraph stations, covering roughly 4800 km (3000 miles). The network connected 29 of France's largest cities to Paris. With two operators on duty at each station, the network employed well over 1,000 people, including nearly forty telegraph inspectors and twenty directors.

Only the rapid growth of the Railways in Britain and Germany can be compared to this kind of development.

Royal Signals ... French Telegraph Rputes

Figure 18 The extensive network of French Telegraph Routes as established by 1820

Commercial Use

The French Government refused to allow any commercial use of their network, and apart from a well organised fraud to get stock prices early (which ran for over three years before detection) there was never an indication that the State would allow Claude Chappe's invention to be used as he had dreamed. A more serious challenge to the state monopoly and control would come in 1831 when a private citizen, Alexander Ferrier, opened a public telegraph line between Paris and Rouen, funded by stockholders.

He charged 20 francs per 100 French miles (444 km). Ferrier's telegraph consisted of two rotating pointers, placed five meters (16 feet) apart, each pointer with a 30 cm (one foot), counterbalanced, disc mounted at the end. Each pointer could be set in one of eight positions. At night, each pointer carried two lights, one in the centre, one at the disc. Ferrier advertised that he could transmit at least 10 messages per hour over 100 French miles, allowing an average of 12-15 words per message. The first station of Ferrier's line was placed on the Boulevard MontMartre, another in a private house on the MontMartre itself.

The line failed to make a profit, though, and was abandoned within one year. Ferrier then moved to Brussels to try his luck there.

More private telegraph companies appeared and disappeared over the years. Fearing a proliferation of communications networks that would be hard to control in the long run, the French government soon moved to ban the establishment of private telegraphs. A bill to that effect was passed on 14 March 1837 in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house). It was confirmed by the Chamber of Peers (the upper house) and became law on 17 April 1837:

Anyone performing unauthorized transmissions of signals from one place to another, with the aid of telegraphic machines or by any other means, will be punished with an imprisonment of one month to one year, and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 Francs.

Virtually the same law is in effect today. In the current text the term telegraphic machines has been replaced with telecommunications apparatus and the fine has been increased to 3,600 to 36,000 Francs

Commercial Optical Telegraphs.

The British Admiralty also never allowed its installations to be used for anything except Admiralty business. There was a commercial need for a system to signal the approach of homeward bound ships to the major ports

The first telegraph established for this purpose was between Holyhead and Liverpool. The line was surveyed by a "Lieutenant B.L. Watson, R.N.", and brought into use in 1827. Three pairs of semaphore arms were mounted on a 27ft. mast, and there were a total of eleven stations. The first vessel to be signalled was the American ship Napoleon.

There is some doubt as to whether "Lieutenant" Watson was ever a genuine naval officer at all, but he was certainly energetic in promoting the optical telegraph for civilian purposes. He initiated proposals for systems along the Liverpool & Manchester, the Grand Junction and the London & Birmingham Railways. He was also instrumental in promoting a line from Spurn Head to Hull which opened in September 1839 with five stations.

Watson also set his sights on Bristol which was a major sea port and was considered to be very much at risk should an invasion be launched by the enemy, France. It is known that signal posts were erected around Bristol but no evidence suggests that full blown optical telegraph systems were ever put into use. Rather, a flag or similar was raised to warn of an approaching enemy ship. Certainly a telegraph system was proposed on several occasions but it was always put on the back burner due to lack of funds.

The British chain of Semaphore Towers

James Watt was tasked by the Admiralty to build a similar system of telegraph stations (a bit different from railway stations) from London to Portsmouth, then in the 18th century the fastest possible communications between the Admiralty in London and the fleet ports was by 'Pony Express'.

A relay of riders could cover the 70 miles from London to Portsmouth in less than five hours meaning about ten to twelve hours for a message to be sent back and forth, but this was way too slow for urgent messages. During the Napoleonic wars and commencement of hostilities with France in the 1790's, gave impetus to the apparently simultaneous development of the semaphore telegraph system in both countries. In the UK temporary structures (Wooden towers) were erected on high vantage points with a system of pivoting shutters operated by ropes from below to spell out coded letters and numbers.

Royal Signals ... Bell Ringers

Figure 19 Like Bell ringers, the Operator teams had to "pull together" to make code

The method the Admiralty first selected was a Murray six shutter Telegraph by Lord George Murray, later to become Bishop of St. Davids which was strongly based on the ten shutter Swedish system invented by poet and scientist Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz, a Royal Counsellor to the Swedish King. His apparatus consisted of a stout vertical framework, on which was pivoted six rectangular shutters, which could be rotated independently about a horizontal axis, and pulled with ropes like a bell in a church tower. When the ropes were pulled the disk (if round) or Boards (if square) simply moved from the vertical / solid (Shutter closed) to Horizontal (Opened and therefore invisible) position and so up to 64 different combinations could be made and used to send code. The shutters however must all be moved together to prevent any wrong readings.

Typical test message that was sung in these pre-ITV television days, by the choirboys of St. Davids, between normal message services "Murray six, Murray six, its too good to Hurry it!"

Of course to "sell the system" to the Lords of the Admiralty, he told them it was a one man show, and you do not even need one man to work it, as you could employ very young children…! I wonder if his interest in young children and bell ringing was what made him go to the clergy?

Design notes written by Murray at the time

To make the telegraph shutters and their movements most visible to the eye and most independent of the position of the sun and the clarity of the air, I have, partly for optical reasons and partly based on experiments, found it suitable first of all to paint the shutters black, as matte and non-reflective as possible, and second to raise the machine so that it is visible to the viewer above the horizon so that the sky creates the background for the shutters. This may sometimes be difficult to realize when building the telegraphs, but it is so important that without it hardly any kind of telegraph, except those intended for night time use, could be generally and continuously usable. An elevated position for the telegraph is advantageous first of all because fog, smoke, and the many vapours that cover the ground to a certain height, are less likely to interfere with the line of vision and are often just below it.

A second reason is that so-called mirages, which are the result of refraction, especially above lakes where the air is filled with rising vapours displaying a distant horizon which is elevated above the normal one, are less likely to interfere with the view. Third, and most important, the visibility of the telegraph, which depends on the contrast between its colour and the background against which it is seen, is then generally the greatest.

If the colour which has the greatest ability to reflect light is placed next to the one with the least, the difference between them, or the clearness of the contours will be the greatest. White reflects the most light and black the least, consequently black objects on a white field, or white objects on a black field are the most easily visible. Therefore a board painted white, placed behind the black shutters of the telegraph would have been the most useful, had I not, for several reasons, found it better to use the sky or the blue air instead of a white field. It is true that the brightness of the whitest object facing the sun is more than double that of the brightness of the air, but first of all the brightness of that object is reduced when the angle of the sun's rays is changed, and second, the brightness of the air at the horizon, where the telegraph is viewed, is much greater. Third, this ratio changes even more on cloudy days, when often the brightness of the air is greater than that of paper. Fourt h, the air at the horizon is clear in the morning before, and in the evening after the sun can be seen, when opaque objects can hardly be discerned at ground level. Fifth, when fog occurs, which is one of the telegraph's most common obstacles, it is more abundant at ground level and darker when all the light from the sky hits the layer that is just above the horizon. Consequently, dark objects are more easily discerned above than below the horizon.

All these factors have caused me to try to elevate the telegraph always above the horizon, and also to provide the shutters with as matte a surface as possible, to avoid that they could, with the sun in a certain position, act as mirrors and lose their black colour.

Operating Instructions (for the later "ten shutter" system)

THE TELEGRAPH INSTALLED IN LONDON; (Also from a report from the time)

After this treatise was completed, I received an engraving from London, depicting the telegraph that was installed on the Admiralty building on February 1796 together with the following description,.

When the telegraph has all the shutters open, it is not in operation; when the shutters are closed it is beginning operation and indicates that the next telegraph station should pay attention and respond.

When it does, with all shutters closed, the opening of the first shutter indicates the letter a, the second b, the third c, the fourth d, the fifth e, the sixth f, which together is called the first course. In the second course the telegraph at first looks like it did when out of service, i.e. with all shutters open, their closing will then indicate the letters g, h, i, k, l, m, in the order shown by the figure. In the third course the telegraph looks like it does at Ready: the opening of the closed shutters and the closing of the open shutters indicates the letters n, o, p, q, r, s, as shown by the figure. The fourth course begins with the position shown at D, after which the opening or closing of one shutter indicates the letters t, u, v, w, x, y, z. Special positions of the telegraph, E, F, G, etc., indicate to which port, fleet, or admiral the orders are being sent, as well as the direction a fleet should take, and so on.

It is easily seen that this device, which as far as the shutters are concerned is similar to the one I have described in this treatise, and which I reported and realized as early as in 1794, is otherwise quite different. All other telegraphs usually require at least one signal per letter. This system seems to require two separate signals in order to express every letter in the alphabet, and in consequence appears twice as slow as ordinary telegraphs, but six times as slow as those telegraphs where one signal can indicate syllables of three or four letters.

The basic number of signals on this machine is sixty-four, but if you use combinations of signals there is no limit to their number on this, or on any other, telegraph. Since the positions here are not expressed as numbers, one has to memorize their meaning, or consult a table after observing each signal, which might cause problems and lead to mistakes. This machine, the external or internal construction of which I know nothing about, does not seem to be build in such a manner that the shutters can show against the sky. Since the shutters are also fairly close to each other, it must encounter great problems from the shimmering of the air, both when the air is clear and when it is not.

Recent newspaper reports stated that the telegraph has now been taken down, because it could be used at most twenty-five days per year. I do not know whether it has been replaced with another design.

With the construction described in Paragraph 20-21, one person will suffice to operate even the largest telegraph, especially at the terminal stations. The telescope, which should be available at every station, should be placed close by, so that the operator can observe and operate the shutters; however, for the sake of greater accuracy, and especially at the intermediate stations, where observations need to be made with two telescopes and in two opposite directions, two people should be at hand to relieve each other in the observations while the machine is idle. This does not require any more understanding than possessed naturally by most people.

Almost the only skill required is the ability to write numbers and to add the numbers 1, 2, and 4. During the experiments that I carried out for the past 1/2 years, young children could easily be employed. They could be trained in a few hours. That is why I thought that, especially for the largest machines, I should sacrifice some of the simplicity of design and construction for the greatest simplicity and ease of operation. When one is often forced to utilize less trained people, it is important not to burden their memories or their understanding with too many different facts

All stations in the chain have a station number, Station 1, 2, 3, etc.

All telegraphic communication begins with a signal indicating a wish to transmit called a speech signal, which should be displayed until the recipient gives the corresponding attention signal. Two speech signals 722 and 227, that can be used between two adjacent stations, are included in the table, where up and down refer to the position in relation to the sun. Otherwise, and when several stations are communicating, unless their number exceeds seven, the easiest speech signal to remember is one that contains two digits separated by zero, where the first digit indicates who is communicating and the last with whom. Thus when the sixth station wants to communicate with the third its speech signal is 603.

If the number of stations is greater than seven, the speech signals could be increased in number with the help of shutter A, but such cases should be rare, since the intermediate stations at long distances are not communicating, but only repeating. When necessary, it is most easily accomplished in the following manner: the first five shutters indicate who is communicating, and the following five with whom. If we give them the values assigned in Figure 22, speech and attention signals for 31 stations can be expressed. For instance, the signal in Figure 23 means that the 30th station wants to communicate with the 28th. Two attention signals are also given in the table, corresponding to the speech signals 722 and 227; that is 557 and 755. When other speech signals are composed for several stations, their codes in the table, subtracted from A777, are used as attention signals. Therefore, attention signal 174 responds to speech signal A603, and 102 to A675, and so on.

A communication between two telegraphs can be established either directly or with the help of intermediate stations, depending on the distance. Suppose that among the stations A, B, C, situated one after the other, A wants to communicate with the closest station B. First the message is composed, using numbers from the table, using as few signals as possible. Then the speech signal for the station is raised and maintained until B notices it and responds with its attention signal. When that happens A lowers the speech signal and sends the first signal of the message itself. B lowers its attention signal and repeats the new signal from A, showing that it has understood it correctly, and so on with all the other signals.

Again, if A wants to communicate with C through the intermediate station B, A raises its speech signal to C, which is repeated from B to C, which responds with its attention signal to A. This is repeated back by B, and A begins the transmission which is repeated signal by signal first by B and then by C. The same thing is done if there are more intermediate stations.

If an incorrect signal should be transmitted by mistake, it can be corrected before the next signal is transmitted, by sending 272, which according to the table means error, and then the correct signal. In this way the correction will follow the error through all stations. During a communication there are often other fixed signals, besides the signals from the table and the attention signals, which can be useful, though not necessary, to learn by heart. With some practice their particular function will be learned. If a signal cannot immediately reach the station for which it is intended, because of fog or other factors, the station where it is stopped will answer with its attention signal, and the message stops there until circumstances will allow it to reach its destination. It might happen that the station transmitting the message cannot see well, whereas the station sending the attention signal does. In such cases, and in general when the clarity of the air is in doubt, it is best to transmit the attent ion signal with the help of a flag which because of its greater surface can be discerned even when the telegraph signals cannot.

The Swedish system upon which Murray based his system, was claimed to be quicker than the Chappe Telegraph, but was never proven in anger. It consisted of ten shutters, arranged in a pattern that could be easily read off at a distance. However for some reason the 1794 Model of Lord George Murray's Admiralty Signalling System was based only on a Six-Shutter Design.

Soon after it was built, another row was added to make it a nine shutter system, and just when all the operators were getting used to the new possible coding permutations, then came an additional single shutter on top. The continuous rebuilding and adding bits on, made the entire arrangement less than reliable, and the changes made it difficult for the operators to remain fit.

Royal Signals ... Ten Shutter Telegraph (Murreys design

Figure 20 A Ten Shutter Telegraph as eventually used in Murray's last design

Because of these factors the Admiralty were not very happy with the system and continued to look for better methods, but these may not be too useable, and for these reasons they turned down the first workable long wire electrical telegraph, (Years before Morse "invented it") nor did they want to use the German "Six semaphores" arms or the Dutch rotating bats system. And in no circumstances the French Chappe T-armed telegraph.

The Dutch six disc system

Specific drawings of only the Curaçao optical telegraphs are yet to be found, however there are incidental images of them in paintings and photographs of such conspicuous landmarks as Fort Amsterdam and the Waterfort. For example, a 1855 painting by P. Crébassol of the fort, shows the optical telegraph mast, and a 1880 lithograph shows the telegraph mast with a flag atop it.

By 1910, it appears that the Waterfort wooden telegraph mast was replaced by metal poles, and an additional mast was placed facing east to the adjacent Rif Fort, no evidence of a return telegraph mast has been yet found at the Rif Fort. However, it is of interest to note that electrical telegraphs were being introduced to the island from 1909, with the Rif Fort used as the main office.

Soon after it was built, another row was added to make it a nine shutter system, and just when all the operators were getting used to the new possible coding permutations, then came an additional single shutter on top. The continuous rebuilding and adding bits on, made the entire arrangement less than reliable, and the changes made it difficult for the operators to remain fit.

Royal Signals ... Dutch six disc Telegraph

Figure 21 The Dutch Six Disc Telegraph system from 1839

One oral history account about Carlos Heykoop, who was signal master at the Oost Seinpost site until his death in 1917, reports that although required to observe for ships every ten minutes, he would regularly leave his post to go have meals and drinks at the adjacent Plantation house Fuik.

Carlos Heykoop was reputed to have invented a sentence even used occasionally today in the Royal Signals… "Fuik this for a game of soldiers…I am off for a drink (or meal)!"

Nonetheless, the Curaçao optical telegraphs seem to have become obsolete by the 1940's when the station was demolished and a coastal defence gun was placed at the Waterfort location.

Royal Signals ... German Berlin (Koblenz) Telegraph

Figure 22 The German Berlin to Coblenz (Koblenz) Telegraph from 1833

The German system had six arms each having four positions, so over 4096 combinations and looked very similar to a multi-stacked set of Railway signals, each arm capable of Straight out (shown Yellow in above drawing) 45 degrees up, 45 degrees down, and straight down (all marked red in above drawing).

Back to the British "Chain"

If the views were good, the "reader could sit in the signal shed, if not he had to go up the tower. Many towers therefore also had Crows nest, and Operators stood on top of the towers with telescopes reading the message from the next tower and shouted the read results down a speaking tube (Telegraph tube) for the operator below to crank into the ongoing copy and thus transmitting it down the line.

The shutter telegraph system that was set up to convey signals from the Admiralty in London to Portsmouth (10 stations) and Deal (15 stations), with later extensions to Plymouth and Great Yarmouth was only a temporary "Wartime" thing, so some discomfort was allowed. While this and the continuous modifications to it, operated successfully from 1796 to 1815, it was eventually abandoned after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the Admiralty then decided to install a permanent system in the 1818, with two major changes, the structures were to be of brickwork, and would use the system of semaphore arms jointly proposed by Popham and Pasley. and completed the new permanent link from London to Portsmouth with the construction of 14 stations in robust brick octagonal towers in the two years up to1820.

Popham, who often went in a different direction than that which his Bosses ordered, and fought for the recognition of Morse later, was a keen supporter and student of the Director of the Chatham school, Pasley. Pasley noted that the latest British Murray system needed as many as five people per station on duty, and was not only very labour intensive (despite Murray's suggestion to use children), but due to "pulling errors" often resulted in a lot of sometimes costly errors. The French system could be worked by one man, plus another to read the upstream source. And since the device was being operated by only one person, the chance of combination errors between team members, was virtually nill.

Pasley who was keen on both new technologies and also simplicity, to reduce dangerous errors, suggested a similar system to Chappe's, but with only two moving arms either on concentric axis or on different heights of a mast, or different ends of a non moveable horizontal bar. The latter while getting both arms to the highest point, looked too much like the French system even it the bar could not tilt, so first the vertical offset system (Popham) The Popham system could not be rotated, so had to be worked in two directions, Pasley's third arm (Near the bottom of the mast, was later added to show A). when in use, and B). in which direction a station was speaking. The Popham arms were vertically arranged on a land based station, and horizontal on a ship, which also took some getting used too. then after a few years of use, the original "Universal" soloution from the now deceased Pasley (his Concentric arm system) was eventually adopted.

The system had less combination options than the French system, but was far easier to build and install, and could be quickly learnt.

Popham's offset semaphore system which was quite similar to the French system, just that the arms were fixed on a vertical (or at sea, Horizontal) pole, was found to be much better than the shutter one first adopted by the Admiralty, replacing the cumbersome shutter telegraph on the line to Portsmouth. It does not seem to have been as rapidly adopted at sea, which is remarkable, but quite in line with the classic stupidity of the Admiralty at these times.

Chatham and Portsmouth was the next route to be tackled and was completed by 1822.

Having completed the lines to Chatham and Portsmouth it was then decided in 1822 to build a new line to Plymouth, although this was never finished.

The selected route was through Chatley Heath, Worplesdon and the Hog's Back. A wooden tower was built to the side of St Mary's Church the same height as the church tower. This is a distance of 8½ miles from the Chatley. Heath tower and just over 6 miles from the tower near Seale where the Hog's Back Hotel now is.

The system could not function in bad weather or at night, so we had to negotiate with our potential enemies only to attack during good weather and daylight. By cunning plan and agreements with the Weather Gods, this reduced the number of days Britain needed to defend itself to just a few in the summer ;-) In fact the British had tricked several nations into signing agreements not to Attack on any day which ended with a letter "Y" in its English name. Claiming that on precisely these days agreements had been made with the weather gods like Thor (Thursday) that it could rain and storm.

Indeed because of the weather the other nations decided they would rather invite our forces to them for a fight, rather than get cold and wet!

The Signal system was in operation for over 25 years until the invention of the "round-the-clock, all weather' electric telegraph and the Morse Code made the system obsolete. Electric telegraph lines were installed at the side of railway lines and the semaphore towers closed down in 1848.

But semaphore telegraphy could not be replaced by trackside wires to the Isle of Wight, to the solent forts, nor to the ships, and such systems (and shore based stations to work them), were in use even up till the commencement of WW2. as the 1937 Signalling booklet below shows.

Royal Signals ... Semaphore Signals

Figure 23 The 1937 Signalling booklet, Section on Semaphore Signals

The 60ft. Tower at Chatley Heath (and the last one in existence today) shown in figure 24 was one of those built in 1822. On top of the towers were signalling masts by which messages would be sent backwards and forwards, (Signal is to read true only if a lower pole marker was pointing left) and so be visible to those in next tower.

The mast had three arms, two long ones for signalling the code, and a smaller one that was raised halfway down the pole to show if the system was sending, and if flipped over left to right, which way the signals were to be interpreted. For example it was necessary to know if the semaphore arm going out from the mast was showing three o clock, or nine o clock. Which if seeing only the silhouette was very difficult to decide. Depending upon the typical backgrounds different colour schemes were employed, mainly black with a white bar, or white stripe, down the middle, but also yellow and reds were used.

The Popham semaphore, consisted of two arms on a thirty foot cylindrical wooden pole. It was the rigging to keep the pole upright even in autumn storms, that prevented the mast from being rotated. The arms were pivoted 12 ft up and at the top, so that if the top arm were facing straight down, the lower arm could rotate over the apex with two foot clearance. Then each arm was 8 ft long and 15" wide. Each arm could take up six active positions (Straight up and Straight down meant no signal for that arm), enabling in all 48 separate signals to be made.

It was used for this purpose until 1848 and eventually restored by Surrey County Council in 1989 and is now opened to the public. Inside are exhibitions and working models and on top there is a telescope with views across London and surrounding areas.

Royal Signals ... Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower

Figure 24 The Chatley Heath Semaphore Tower and the front and back arm details

The tower can reached by a footpath through Chatley Heath. Details can be found under…the website for this historic site run by Surrey County Council

The Press and the Lines (Chains)

A poem from "The Satirist", from 1813, urging the Admiralty not to abandon the Chain and install electrical telegraphs:-

Our telegraphs just as they are, let us keep, They forward good news from afar; And still may send better - that Boney's asleep And ended oppression and war. Electrical telegraphs we all must deplore.

John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, replied to Sir Francis Rowlands, who had offered his invention of an electric telegraph to them years before Morse "invented" it:-

... telegraphs of any kind are now totally unnecessary, and no other than the one now in use will be adopted.

The "one now in use" at 1816, being the experimental semaphore telegraph from London to Chatham. Two years later the Semaphore arm telegraph was adopted, then trials had established that semaphore was more effective than shutters. A government decision approving the permanent chain (Brick towers and semaphore arms) was described in an 1824 (special supplement) Encyclopaedia Britannica under "Telegraph"

An Act, 55 George III cap.128, has been passed 28 June 1815, (11 days after the Battle of Waterloo), Establishing Signal and Telegraph Stations. A new system had begun. Thomas Goddard, purser of the Royal George, was instructed to seek suitable sites.

The Portsmouth semaphore line ran as follows:-

from London,
via Putney Heath,
Commbe Hill near Kingston,
Claygate Hill,
Chatley Heath,
Pewley Hill,
Bannicle Hill near Witley,
Haste Hill near Halsemere,
Older Hill near Midhurst,
Beacon Hill (West Sussex)
Compton Down (West Sussex)
Camp Down, Havant
Lumps Fort, Portsmouth
Portsmouth Magazine, (See print below) was the end station

Note: Even the Portsmouth Weekly Newspaper of 1800-1865 was called the Telegraph…

Royal Signals ... Portsmouth Magazine Semaphore

Figure 25 The Portsmouth Magazine Semaphore at the Harbour entrance (1841 print)

From the original description:

The Semaphore was erected, in 1823, over a magazine situated at the head of the harbour. Telegraphic signals, by means of it, reach the Admiralty in the almost incredibly short space of three minutes. But it is not to the Semaphore as a building that attention should be so much directed as to the stately vessel entering the harbour. To point attention to it is sufficient; for to those who cannot appreciate its beauty, no description could assist, and to those who perceive, it would be needless to attempt to enlighten. It is a scene truly naval and English; its equal was never before witnessed in any country, and probably never may be again in any other.

Royal Signals ... Portsmouth Dockyard Semaphore

Figure 26 The Portsmouth Dockyard & Semaphore Tower Fire (20th December 1913)

The Telegraph was moved to the Admiralty Building in the Harbour (Next to the royal Yacht Pier) where it continued to be used for ship to shore communications until the building and the Telegraph mechanism was destroyed by a major fire in 1913, with the loss of two lives…

Above a vintage postcard showing a photographic image of a sketch titled Great Dockyard fire and semaphore tower, Saturday, December 20th 1913 with two lives lost. Captured the demise of the Original two armed Popham system. The raised pier in the foreground was the Royal Railway extension (South Railway Jetty ) branching out from the Normal Portsmouth harbour station and going directly to the mooring position of the Royal Yacht, which can be seen tied up an the left hand side.

The London Plymouth line

An extension of the semaphore telegraph system to reach Plymouth was reported in The Times, 15 April 1822:-

An immediate survey is to take place for the most eligible situation to erect telegraphs between London and Plymouth.

On 13 July 1825, Barrow instructed the Navy Board, to have 30 semaphore apparatuses ready for the line.

The line branched from the Portsmouth line at Chatley Heath, to
Worplesdon, (See detail bellow)
Poyle Hill on the Hogsback
Poyle Hill (Surrey)
River Hill, Binsted
Farringdon Common, Four Marks
Merifield, West Tisted
Cheesefoot Head, Itchen Valley
Farley Chamberlayne, Hursley
Sherfield English,
Woodfield Green (Wiltshire)
Rushmore Hill (Wiltshire)
and, in plans, was to go on through Dorset to Devon.

This line was never completed; progress slowed in the late 1820s and ceased altogether in 1831, when the construction of railway lines and trackside telegraph (electric) made the mechanical system redundant.


The prominent position of Worplesdon church led to the reason the site was selected as a station on an early "information super highway.", just as today many Cellular telephone operators place their antennae in the towers of churches overlooking towns for the optimum coverage. The original settlement of Worplesdon was around Perry Hill - Worplesdon means path up to a hill - "Jack and Jill it seems, used to Worples-down a lot!" but the church in its commanding position on top of the hill has now been separated from the village green and the early houses by the busy A322 road.

The 1913 Signalling Handbook

The 1913 Standards of Knowledge Required in Examinations for Naval Signal Ranks and Ratings, was also applicable for the Army and anyone trained as a regimental signaller.

The skills learned included Morse code and various methods of transmitting messages such as heliograph, flags, signal lamps and direct Morse-key line signalling. Note however that the minimum speed of sending is no different for the skilled Senior rating, than for the Boy, the emphasis was instead being placed on higher accuracy, demanded from the more senior ranks.

A factor of this was also the ability to spell, then the educational levels of the boys were not as high as the Seniors, and a certain degree of ongoing education or adult training was also necessary and common for those lucky enough to have gotten a Signalling Job.

Then thanks to the Vision of Sir Charles William Pasley the Army had adopted a systematic approach to training, and invested in ongoing development of their soldier's education and skills. Naturally these farsighted ideas (for the time) were also applied to the dedicated RE Signal School wing that was established at Chatham in 1870 within the above described School of Field Instruction.

Royal Signals ... Ships Bridge Mounted Semaphore

Figure 27 A Ship's Bridge mounted Semaphore (Left) and Quayside Semaphore (Right)

As shown in our engraving, the arms are manipulated by means of chains which pass around drums which are turned by handles. The whole signalling apparatus is mounted on a platform which can be turned so as to permit of the signalling device be turned directly facing the vessel or shore establishment which is being spoken to.

Most signal arms were either white or black, or a mixture of both. Depending upon the typical background against which they are to be seen. On the ship there were often two types, the Mast head version with arms nine feet to twelve feet length, and the "bridge" mounted version (Shown above) with arms of six to eight feet length… The fixed shore mounted devices, on docks, forts, Quays, etc. could be rotated through an arc or if the direction of a ship (or other station) was only possible in a narrow field of vision, then the apparatus could be static, such as showing from the dockyard, out of Portsmouth Harbour towards the Solent.

The shore based devices also, depending upon the background they were to contrast against, could be solid black, white or as was discovered by experimentation and adopted as best, be red or yellow, with white or black bands or even lengthwise stripes. These were then also the colours that the railway companies adopted for their Signal Semaphores.

But why use mechanical Telegraph for such short distances as involved with tying up and manoeuvring in the harbour or docking? Surely the Hand held semaphore flags, or flag-wagging would suffice? From a report in 1913, justifying cost, came the following statement…

Unfortunately, the use of flags is not sufficiently rapid for long conversation and signalling becomes difficult at great distances, because the colours blend together, and in the case of calms or very brisk winds it is nearly impossible to distinguish the signals. It is to avoid these inconveniences that the semaphore has been introduced for marine signalling, permanent arms being secured to the semaphore, which give signals analogous to those on the railways or those of the old Chappe telegraph. The actual signals are made by three arms which are articulated to the pole. These arms can be freely moved to various positions with the utmost precision by the mechanism. Eighteen signals can be made by combinations of these arms, which correspond to the eighteen flags of the international code.

Royal Navy Semaphore Procedure

The following description is for the use of Mechanical Semaphore Telegraphy in the RN has been taken from the 1913 edition of the Handbook of Signalling, printed by the Admiralty.


How Signals are to be read.

The Alphabetical Sign shows from which side the signs are to be read.

Rules for Semaphoring.

  1. It must be remembered by the Sender that the semaphore arms should be presented to the observer with a strongly contrasting background; it is best to have the sky as a background, but where this is not possible, the background should be that which throws the semaphore arms into the greatest relief.
  2. The semaphore arms must be placed at the exact position indicating the letters or signs, the arms being moved from sign to sign by the shortest route; a distinct pause being made at each sign, according to the rate of sending.
  3. At the end of each word or group the arms are to be dropped to the closed position. When double letters occur, the arms are to be dropped to the closed position after the first letter is made and then moved out again to the second letter without pausing.
  4. As a general rule, with ships in Close Order, semaphore messages should be transmitted at the rate of 15 words per minute on the semaphore, or 20 words per minute with hand flags.
  5. When using the mechanical semaphore it is important that the positions of the arms should exactly agree with the positions of the handles, and that there is a minimum of backlash in the chains.
  6. When using hand flags the signs are formed in the same plane as the shoulders of the Sender, arms and staves at their full extent, forefingers along the staves. When at the closed position the arms should hang straight from the shoulder.
  7. Code and Cipher Messages are not to be passed by semaphore but are to be made by Morse.

The Semaphore Flag.

  1. Flag "E", (a conventional cloth flag) is to be hoisted either singly or inferior to Distinguishing Signals, and denotes that a communication is about to be made by semaphore. The arms of the semaphore are, at the same time, to be set to the Alphabetical Sign.

Method of Answering

  1. The Answering Pendant is to be hoisted at the dip immediately the ship or ships addressed see the signal and hoisted close up when they are ready to read and write down.
  2. It is to be dipped when a word is lost, and the ship making the signal is then to repeat preceding words until the Answering Pendant is again hoisted close up.


  1. When the ship or ships addressed have answered, the following procedure will be carried out:
Preamble: Hercules - Exmouth (full stop sign)
Message - time of origin
  1. If there is no doubt as to the Ship of Origin or the ship addressed, the preamble to a signal is unnecessary and should be omitted, but it is always to be included in signals passed through a ship, or made to more than one ship, or if either the Sending or Receiving Ship is in such a position as to render her identity uncertain.

Special Signals

  1. A Semaphore Signal is commenced with the Alphabetical Sign.
  2. The Alphabetical Sign is also to precede each distinct message.
  3. The Numeral Sign is always to precede signs on the Semaphore when they represent numbers.
  4. The Annul Sign denotes that the word or group immediately preceding it is erased; the Alphabetical or Numeral Sign will then be made, followed by the last word or group sent correctly, and the message continued.
  5. If, after a message has been concluded, it is required to alter any particular word, words, or group, the Annul Sign should be made, followed by the word, words, or group to be erased, and then the Alphabetical or Numeral Sign followed by the correct word, words, or group.
  6. Should it be required to cancel the whole message, the Annul Sign followed by the word "All" is to be made.
  7. In order to render the text of a message to be semaphored perfectly clear, the following signs are to be made use of:
 Full Stop  AAA
 Tack-line or Break Sign  II
 Words to be in parenthesis  KK
 Words to be underlined  UK
 Words to be in inverted commas  RR
  1. Any of the other Signs employed in "Post Office Morse" may also be used if required.

When Figures should be Spelt

  1. Unless there are special reasons to the contrary, figures and times which occur in the text of a message are to be spelt out by the Sender.

Time of Origin

  1. All Signals made by semaphore are to conclude with a "Time of Origin", which is to be considered as part of the message but is made by numerals.
  2. The "Time of Origin" is to be the actual time at which the signal was ordered to be made.
  3. It will be indicated by a group of four figures, representing hours and minutes; the first two being the hours, and the last two the minutes. The hours will be reckoned from Midnight 00 to Midnight 24.


Hints when Semaphoring

  1. Small Affirmatives or Answering Pendants should not be left at the dip. If the sending ship does not stop in a reasonable time, the Affirmative or Answer should be hauled down, and a repetition called for.
  2. "Dip and hoist" is also a useful check, though not infallible, as cases have occurred of two ships making it at the same time.
  3. In large fleets it will be found convenient to arrange special flags for answering certain ships.
  4. Whenever possible, each sender should have a copy of the signal, and a hand to dictate. Where semaphores are widely separated and one person attempts to dictate to two or more at the same time, mistakes are bound to occur.
  5. In the case of a ship repeating, it is very important that the man reading another ship should be close alongside the man repeating.
  6. An acknowledgement or a repeat back should be requested for all important signals when there is any possibility of an error.

Royal Signals ... Pasley Universal Semaphore Code

Figure 28 The Pasley Universal Semaphore Code (used 1822 - 1937)

The Last Mechanical Signalling Semaphore System?

Royal Signals ... GPO Morris Minor

Figure 29 The Battle ready 1948 GPO Morris Minor Mobile Semaphore Station…

The GPO rifles unwilling to give up their hold on The ownership of Telegraph mast in the UK, (which to stop anyone else trying to put semaphore arms on them and using them for signalling, strung long trip wires from mast to mast which they claimed were telegraph, later telephone wires) launched their Mobile signalling station…

Fitted with two Semaphore Arms, and a roof top ladder for locations where the "telescope operator / reader" needed to climb high to read distant signals…

To try to trick people into thinking they were the more professional Army Signallers, they even tried painting their vehicles in Army Green, and even had many Left Hand Drive vehicles ready for invading France or Germany when the call came… (Picture detail; Lucas, Solenoid Operated Semaphore Arm). The GPO / BT even employed ex-army signallers like Brian Streetly

Was this the end of the Mechanical Semaphore?

Well no not quite, then even today some aspects are still in use, namely on the Railways, then Pasley our hero from before and originator of the Trade "Diver-Telegraph Operator", was also moonlighting as a Railway Safety Inspector for Railtrack (The company with hi-tech Victorian efficiency!) and had sold a "copy" of his ideas on signalling to the major rail companies that were springing up… But first we should ask how did he become so involved in signals?

Lt. Pasley, as he then was, began work on telegraphs while stationed in Malta. (Remember the Big gun from one of the forts at Malta I referred to earlier?) Then the fort to ship, and fort to fort (especially over water) communication was the biggest weak point of the British defence system. There was a simple single armed system called the Garnet, and looking like a Sword on a shield, but the number code this could send was limited 0 to 9 and off, and then only one number at a time. He planned to make communication more rapid by transmitting four symbols at a time, instead of only one. He also realised that by combinations many more signals could be sent at a time, and developed a four bit binary code. In the Chappe system that he had heard about but not yet seen, there were more than 200 possible positions of the arms.

Pasley's polygrammatic telegraph with four sets of two arms arranged side-by-side was devised in Malta in 1804. When he passed through England in 1807, he modified the telegraph to use a single vertical post on which the four pairs of arms were pivoted, one above the other.

It was not far from that design that he agreed with Popham (Flag code expert of the Admiralty) to design a two arm system that could sent the basic 18 flag codes of the Navy for longer distance communication., then the Admiralty could not understand too complex systems.

Here a short Historic overview of the different optical Telegraphy systems.

The invention of good telescopes about 1610 was the event that made optical telegraphs possible, reducing the number of stations and observers required along the route. The challenge was to devise a method of showing signs that could be read at the greatest distances, and rapidly changed. Although there were suggestions, and mostly impractical ones, development was surprisingly slow.

Optical systems were available such as windmills that never turned, but if they did warned of an invading enemy, but other than go or no-go, they could not convey intelligence in the form of any message. The telegraph however was the means to break that rule.

1684 Robert Hooke's telegraph displayed one of about 30 different distinctive shapes kept hidden behind a screen and slid into an open space to show a sign. Sliding out a Triangle with a point upwards for example could represent a letter "T" Robert Hooke described by some as "England's Leonardo" was a brilliant Scientist, Naturalist, Biologist, Architect, watch-maker, Astronomer, inventor and for many years the Curator of the Royal Society, and without his "Kick-Starting" the interest in mechanical signalling and setting some ground rules, the idea might not have developed so quickly…

Why did Hooke feel compelled to invent an Optical Telegraph (and such a slow one) when a horse rider could surely carry the message the distance just as fast? Well life tends to go round in ever decreasing circles, and Robert Hooke was Born in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in 1635.

He moved to London and worked closely with Newton and other greats of the time, but never forgot the need to communicate over relatively short straights of water.

More about him and his life can be found under "England's Leonardo: R. Hooke (1635-1703) and the art of experiment in Restoration England " Click    and    Click

The ongoing development first picked up a serious pace 100 years later…

Royal Signals ... optical Telegraph Systems

Figure 30 Some of the aforementioned different Optical Telegraph Systems

General Sir Charles William Pasley, KCB, FRS, DCL (Oxon.) (1780-1861) was a brilliant scholar, engineer and soldier, the founder of modern military engineering. He became the first director of field instruction at the new Royal Engineer Establishment at Chatham in 1812, promoted to brevet-Major, where he then remained for thirty years. The next year he became brevet-Lt Colonel, the next promotion to regimental Lt Colonel in 1831.

Underwater explosions were a speciality of his, as well as fortification, sieges, and optical telegraphy. He advocated uniform weights and measures and the decimal system, but opposed the use of the new French (metric) units considering them to be too large to form a base unit.

1841 he was promoted to Major General and it was in this year he became Inspector General of Railways, receiving his KCB when he stepped down from this position in 1846.

He was, without a doubt, the most technically expert of any Railway Inspector, and set the Inspectorate off on the right foot.

He became Lt General in 1851, and Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Engineers in 1853. In 1860, he was promoted to the highest rank, General.

Royal Signals ... Semaphore Systems

Figure 31 The Different Semaphore systems (from an 1826 print)

Captain Pasley, as he then was, was not aware of the French coast telegraph until he left the Mediterranean, but it attracted his intense interest as soon as he became aware of it on the Walcheren expedition. He described it in detail in Tillotson's Philosophical Magazine, vol. 35, p. 339 (1810).

Together with Pasley, Admiral Sir Home Popham devised land and ship semaphores that looked very much like both Pasley's and/or the French coast semaphore, but was quite simple and practical. There were some arguments between them over priority and so forth. Pasley was meticulous in giving credit to all contributors, and was offended by Popham's unwarranted claim to sole Inventorship.

Popham's semaphore (as it still became known) was adopted by the Admiralty in 1816, replacing the cumbersome shutter telegraph on the line to Portsmouth.

Pasley had realised that his polygrammatic telegraph was far too complicated, and required too many signalmen, and that simplicity was paramount. By 1822 he had designed his "Universal Telegraph", which he intended for general use, not simply for military use in the field or aboard ship. An essential addition was the indicator, the short arm that projected from one side of the mast, giving a reference position. The various positions, differing by 45°, were numbered from 1 (on the side with the indicator) to 7. The telegraph could display positions 1 to 7, 12 to 17, 23 to 27, 34 to 37, 45 to 47, 56 to 57, and 67, plus Stop and Finished. Some positions were reserved to indicate alphabetic (17), numerical (35), or dictionary (26) interpretation, and repeat (4). This was a much simpler system than Home Popham's, less subject to misinterpretation, and more flexible. This telegraph was later much used at sea.

The most remarkable part of Pasley's proposal was for night signals. Four lamps were used, one at the pivot of the arms, one as an indicator at the same height but a distance away, and two at the ends of the arms. Pasley strongly recommended the use of oil lamps, not candles, for night signals. This is the first use of position-light aspects, and would have been quite practical. However we will deal with lamps in another datasheet.

The first models of the Pasley semaphore had rectangular arms, counterbalanced by a lead weight at the end of a latticed extension. They were to be one foot long for each mile of distance they were to be seen at, and the width of about 1/7 or 1/8 of the overall length. The arms, normally 5 to 6 feet long, were 'strengthened' with some additional vertical slats, that could be made from light copper sheet and then the entire thing enamelled.

This style of arm, was also used for railways. The arms, placed outside the post front and back, were attached to sprocket wheels. Sprocket wheels were also attached to working levers at the base of the post, and the wheels were connected by an endless flat sprocket chain resembling that used on a bike, and giving a positive motion.

The arms were enamelled matt black and used with sky background, as was usual for semaphores. If a clear background was not available, the arms were to be painted white, or yellow, red, or even chequered, or in some other strongly contrasting fashion.

Very soon, the construction of the semaphore was again altered by Robert Howe, Clerk of Works at the Royal Engineer Establishment. As appearing in the Field Instructions for the Royal Engineers, p. 36, the mechanism for the arms were now placed within the signal post, a simpler construction that made the bearings much easier to fabricate. The arms shown were tapered, oddly, to be narrower at the ends than at the pivot, but the Admiralty semaphores had parallel blades. It takes very little imagination to notice that this is precisely the construction of the early railway semaphores.

On early railways (before 1840) the trains were worked on the 'time interval' System. Signals in the very early days of the railways generally were given by flags, lanterns and hand and arm signals. 'Policemen' stationed at intervals alongside the railway track were responsible for the safety of trains by signalling the time which had elapsed since the proceeding train had passed his position. For this reason signalmen were often referred to by railwaymen as 'Bobbies'.

As train speeds increased, the frequency of trains increased and track layouts became more complex, it was found that a man with a flag or lantern standing at track level could not be seen in time by the driver of an approaching train and means were sought to improve signalling by first erecting rotatable masts with shaped boards, much like the shutter telegraph, or the "road worker's Stop / Go lollypop" boards used in road construction in the 1950s and 60s.

The problem was that it was sometimes hard for a driver to tell if the board was showing red or green, then regardless of which way round it was it was the same silhouette in unfavourable lighting conditions or poor weather. Accidents happened, and Pasley was asked as a Signalling expert to attend a royal commission, (For which he later was made Inspector General of Railways in honour of his sharpness and expertise) Naturally his years of experience in shape, colour, size and movement (Position) meant he could quickly see the flaws in a system the designer had only really ever looked at under ideal conditions. It was soon evident the Disc had to go.

General Pasley suggested in late 1840, the use of a semaphore to a Mr C. H. Gregory (of the London and Croydon Railway) as a more safer and reliable means to communicate with the driver of a fast locomotive. Then it was "much more certain than the flag or disc signals" previously used, and also was able to be seen at a greater distance, which with faster trains and more complex track layouts, was now becoming an important issue. All Gregory had to do was to borrow an Admiralty signal mast, set it up and decide how it should be interpreted.

Despite the many options that could be signalled, at Pasley's advice (To keep things as simple as possible) Gregory opted for only a three position system. He elected to try to duplicate the basic arm positions of the Railway Bobbies, so at first the new semaphore signals could be set to three different positions;

  1. the arm "straight out" (horizontal) to indicate 'stop'
  2. at 45 degrees (sloped downwards) to indicate slow or 'caution' and
  3. Straight down (vertical), concealed in the slotted post to indicate 'all clear' i.e. nothing to signal you about… (Very much a function of the Popham-Pasley signalling school of thought.)

These were tried and successfully tested, and quickly adopted by the London and Croydon Railyway Co., in 1841.

Although these indications or aspects, replicated the displaced Bobbie's arm signals, there was little or no standardisation between railway companies, nor was there any great need for it in the early years. So Pasley had to go from Company to Company to convince them of the benefits of using the Semaphore arm over human arms, flags or spinning disc.

Oddly enough, integrated night signal lamps suggested by the General were not built into the first set of signals, but signalled instead by hanging coloured lamps directly onto the semaphore post.

Swapping lanterns was no big deal, then under each signal post stood an operator to work the signal, (daytime) or raise the lantern.

Control by a lever at a distance did not come into use for some years. It is said that a Bobby at Watford on the London & Birmingham Railway in 1846 devised the first system of operating a signal at a distance. To stay in the dry… (Signalmen are resourceful even if they are not in the Army!) He used a weight on the signal to pull it down, and a wire running to his hut to pull it up.

There is a very good book about optical telegraphs by General Pasley giving his own account of optical telegraphs in Description of the Universal Telegraph for Day and Night Signals by C. W. Pasley, LtCol RE, FRS (London: 1823; BL shelf mark T.1105.).

Some links of Possible Interest

UK Forts Club

Portsmouth Tourism/ Navel Defence

P Folly

D Moore

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