The Art of Semaphore

Chart of Letter/Number semaphore flags and pennants - adventure products from Oddyssea Half Moon Bay. Explore. Create. Discover.

Have you ever wondered how long distance communication happened from ship to ship or ship to shore before the arrival of radios? Have you ever wondered what the real purpose of the crow’s nest was on a ship?

It turns out humans are pretty inventive and developed a system of communication using flags and pennants called semaphore (and you old Unix hacks out there know this because of the semaphores used in the OS, but I digress.) This was a means for a fleet of ships to communicate where the admiral could transmit orders to each ship individually or to the entire fleet using a series of flags and pennants which comprised letters, numbers, words, and phrases.

Each ship would station a look-out in the crow’s nest with a spy glass to read these communications and signal them down to the captain for action and/or response using the same mechanism. Since the crow’s nest is located high above the deck of the ship, it extended the effective distance of the semaphore system.

This same approach was used for ship to shore communications where high ground on land would be home to a flag pole that was used for land based semaphore. The most antivirals common usage today is in ports signaling weather conditions to mariners, usually wind and storm info via red pennants.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the system was when two ships met on open waters – the look-outs in the crow’s nest would first identify the nationality, or “flag” of the ship to determine what action would be taken next: retreat, attack, ignore, meet, etc. The term we hear now called “false flag” originates from the practice of a ship purposely flying the wrong flag to induce an action from another ship. Pirates would do this to lure in a potential victim before hoisting the Jolly Roger to signal their real intentions.

We love the history and lore of these sorts of things and celebrate them in the shop by offering assorted nautical flags and pennants. Our favorite right now is the Jolly Roger. Come in, learn a little more about the piracy in days of yore. Or simply grab your piece of history over at Oddyssea Online. It’s great to know the story that goes along with the object – you don’t need to fly a false flag or be a pirate to enjoy the Jolly Roger!