#23,536 Issued 1959
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 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,
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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