Martha Coston (1826 – 1904)
For a century or more the Coston flare system was the usual way by which ships could communicate with the shoreline and vice versa. Indeed, its use was a requirement of marine insurers. The signals were produced in the form of cartridges which were fired into the air from a signal-pistol. There were three colours, white, red, and blue, and by sequencing them a rudimentary form of messaging, akin to semaphore but one that could be used at night, was developed. The light emanating from the pistol was so bright that the signaller was advised not to look at it. The point, of course, was that it could be seen from a distance.
So whose brainwave was it?
Step forward, Martha Coston, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame. Her tale is one of triumph over adversity. If being widowed at the age of 21 in 1848 with four children to look after was not enough, further misfortune befell her when two of her children and her mother died shortly afterwards. She needed to find a way of supporting herself.
Going through her deceased husband’s papers, Martha found that he had been working on a system for signalling at night. Benjamin’s papers consisted of plans and chemical formulae and whilst there was a kernel of an idea, a lot of work would be needed to bring it to reality. Indeed, it took ten years of hard work for Martha to create a workable system. As she wrote, “The men I employed and dismissed, the experiments I made myself, the frauds that were practiced upon me, almost disheartened me; but … I treasured up each little step that was made in the right direction, the hints of naval officers, and the opinions of the different boards that gave the signals a trial. I had finally succeeded in getting a pure white and a vivid red light.”
Needing a third colour, the breakthrough came when she was watching a fireworks display in New York City to celebrate the completion of the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. The blue fireworks were particularly luminous and visible – a blue flare would complete her system. On 5th April 1859 a patent, number 23,536, was granted for a night signalling system. Sadly for Martha, the inventor on the patent was named as Benjamin, her involvement being relegated to that of administratrix of her husband’s estate.
The US Navy were interested in the flare system and placed an order for $6,000 worth of flares from the Coston Manufacturing Company, which Martha had established. She then went on an extended tour of Europe, getting patents for her invention in England, France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands. Returning to the US in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, Martha persuaded Congress to buy the US Patent to her invention but they were only prepared to pay $20,000 rather than the $40,000 she wanted.
The US Navy used the Coston flare system extensively during the conflict and they were particularly key in coordinating efforts in the battle of Fort Fisher in 1865 and spotting blockade runners. The Coston Manufacturing Company were knocking the flares at less than cost price and after the war, Martha calculated that the government owed her $120,000 in compensation. With some reluctance, they offered her a measly $15,000.
In 1871, Martha was awarded a US patent in her own right, number 115,935, for improvements to the night signalling system and by the mid 1870s all the US Life Saving Service stations were equipped with Coston flares. Martha also sold her signals to navies, shipping companies and yacht clubs around the world.
Business boomed until the adoption of ship radios. But Martha said she always had to be “ready to fight like a lioness” against chauvinism, prejudice and attempts to rip her off. She persevered and for this is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame. Indeed, her presence lights it up, you might say.
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