Sunday, September 13, 2015

Wreckless Eric – "Semaphore Signals" (1977)

Semaphore signals to the girl I love
Semaphore signals coming down from above

Train semaphores are used to signal railroad engineers when there is trouble on the track ahead. 

The simplest railway semaphores consisted of pivoting arms attached to poles.  If the arm pointed straight up, the track was clear.  If the arm was at 45 degrees, the engineer needed to slow down and proceed cautiously.  An arm in a horizontal position was a stop signal.

Here's a photo of a restored train station on the W&OD rail trail in northern Virginia.  I think its semaphore is signaling bikers to stop and visit the station, which has been converted into a small museum:

You might think that the most significant invention to come out of the French Revolution was the guillotine. 

But the French did not invent the guillotine.  Beheading machines had been in use in England and Scotland hundreds of years before the French Revolution. 

However, the French did invent the first successful optical telegraph, which was given the name "semaphore" (a coined word meaning "bear a sign" in Greek).  

French engineer Claude Chappe's semaphore system relied on a 4.6-meter-long crossbar mounted on a tall mast.  A 2-meter-long arm was attached to each end of the crossbar. 

By positioning the crossbar and the two arms at different angles, a semaphore operator in one station could transmit thousands of different coded words and phrases to the telescope-equipped operator in the next station, which was several miles away.  That operator would then transmit the signal to the next station, and so on.

Claude Chappe's semaphore
Chappe first constructed 15 stations between Paris and Lille, a distance of about 140 miles.  The typical message took about half an hour to go from one end of the Paris-Lille line to the other. 

The French eventually constructed 224 semaphore stations, which connected Paris to all corners of France.  That semaphore network enabled Napoleon's headquarters staff to receive military intelligence and to transmit orders to their armies in the field in the minimum amount of time.  

Flag semaphore, which is most often used on ships, is a very different type of optical telegraph.  The signalman holds a flag or paddle in each hand, then extends each of his arms in one of eight possible directions:

For example, if one flag is held straight up and the other straight down, that indicates the letter "D" (or the number "4").  Extending both arms at a 45-degree angle below the horizontal indicates the letter "N."  Extending both arms at a 45-degree angle above the horizontal indicates the letter "U."  

Semaphore flag alphabet
Signal flags offer another way for ships to communicate at sea.

The current International Code of Signals assigns a unique signal flag to each letter of the alphabet and each digit.  That makes it possible to spell out a message, one letter (or number) at a time.

When I visited the Old Village Store on Cape Cod last month, it had signal flags flying above its front door:

Here's a closeup of those signals flags, which spell out "WELCOME."

Using signal flags to spell out a message one letter at at a time is a clumsy way to communicate.  But individual signal flags can also be used as a form of shorthand to transmit entire messages as well as single letters or numbers.  

For example, the flag used for the letter "O" is also a signal for "man overboard," while the flag used for the letter "W" also means "I need medical assistance."

One of the great independent record labels of all time was London's Stiff Records, whose roster of artists included Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Ian Dury, and Wreckless Eric – who was born Eric Goulden in 1954.  

"Semaphore Signals" was the B-side of Wreckless Eric's best-known single, "(I'd Go The) Whole Wide World," which was released in 1977. 

Here's "Semaphore Signals":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment