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Martha Coston - Maritime Signal Flares
Martha Coston invented a pyrotechnic signaling system known as maritime signal flares.
patent drawing
U.S Patent #23,536 Issued 1959
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Martha Coston
Pyrotechnic Signaling System - Martha Coston
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Loss of USS Monitor, December 31, 1862. The use of the pyrotechnic night signal is shown here.
Loss of USS Monitor, December 31, 1862. The use of the pyrotechnic night signal is shown here.

Martha Coston perfected then patented her deceased husband’s idea for a pyrotechnic flare. Coston’s husband, a former naval scientist, died leaving behind only a rough sketch in a diary of plans for the flares. Martha Coston developed the idea into an elaborate system of flares called Night Signals that allowed ships to communicate messages nocturnally. The U. S. Navy bought the patent rights to the flares. Coston’s flares served as the basis of a system of communication that helped to save lives and to win battles. Martha Coston credited her late husband with the first patent for the flares, but in 1871 she received a patent for an improvement exclusively her own.

Martha J. Coston's drawings of international code chart.

1871 patent

Martha Coston invented a system of maritime signal flares based on color and pattern. Using various color combinations, these flares made ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication possible.  In February 1859, C.S. McCauley, Captain and Senior Officer of the United States Navy, recommended the signals to the Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey. Coston sold her system to the U.S. Navy for $5,000, and later sold the U.S. patent rights to the Navy for $20,000. Her system was also adopted by the governments of France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Haiti.

As of the late 1970s, the Coston Supply Company established by Mrs. Coston remained in business. This system of bright, long-lasting signal flares revolutionized naval communication and continues to be in use.

Other women who have made notable contributions to the 19th century maritime industry include Ida Lewis, lighthouse keeper; Mary Miller, licensed pilot; and Mary Patten, clipper ship captain. (Images D.O.T.)

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