Semaphore Flags is the system for conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands. Information is encoded by the position of the flags; it is read when the flag is in a fixed position. Semaphores were adopted and widely used (with hand-held flags replacing the mechanical arms of shutter for signalling, in a method similar to semaphore, but by opening and closing the sign, the Morse code equivalent of dots and dashes are used to convey the message. It was used in US Civil War times. A signal corpsman commonly stood on a platform about 6–10 feet off the ground, signaling to other units. The bright orange red and white flag made a primary target for the enemy.
Modern semaphoreThe newer flag semaphore system uses two short poles with square flags, which a signalman holds in different positions to signal letters of the alphabet and numbers. The signalman holds one pole in each hand, and extends each arm in one of eight possible directions. Except for in the rest position, the flags cannot overlap. The flags are coloured differently based on whether the signals are sent by sea or by land. At sea, the flags are coloured red and yellow (the Oscar flag), while on land, they are white and blue (the Papa flag). Flags are not required, they just make the characters more obvious.
CharactersThe following semaphore characters are presented as one would face the signalman:
Numbers can be signaled by first signaling "Numerals". To change back to letters, simply signal "J". (See discussion)
Japanese semaphoreThe Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...
ese merchant marine and armed services have adapted the flag semaphore system to the Japanese language
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...
, as shown in Japanese here. Because their writing system involves a syllabary
A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent syllables, which make up words. In a syllabary, there is no systematic similarity between the symbols which represent syllables with the same consonant or vowel...
of about twice the number of characters in the Latin alphabet
The Latin alphabet, also called the Roman alphabet, is the most recognized alphabet used in the world today. It evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet called the Cumaean alphabet, which was adopted and modified by the Etruscans who ruled early Rome...
, most characters take two displays of the flags to complete; others need three and a few only one.
The flags are specified as a solid white square for the left hand and a solid red one for the right. The display motions chosen are not like the "rotary dial" system used for the Latin alphabet letters and numbers; rather, the displays represent the angles of the brush strokes used in writing in the katakana
is a Japanese syllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system along with hiragana, kanji, and in some cases the Latin alphabet . The word katakana means "fragmentary kana", as the katakana scripts are derived from components of more complex kanji. Each kana represents one mora...
syllabary and in the order drawn.
For example, the character for "O" [オ], which is drawn first with a horizontal line from left to right, then a vertical one from top to bottom, and finally a slant between the two; follows that form and order of the arm extensions. It is the right arm, holding the red flag, which moves as a pen would, but in mirror image so that the observer sees the pattern normally. As in telegraphy, the katakana syllabary is the one used to write down the messages as they are received.
Also, the Japanese system presents the number 0 by moving flags in a circle, and those from 1 through 9 using a sort of the "rotary dial" system, but different from that used for European languages.
Non-maritime useAlong with Morse code
Morse code is a method of transmitting textual information as a series of on-off tones, lights, or clicks that can be directly understood by a skilled listener or observer without special equipment...
, the flag semaphore has seen use as a method of communication amongst adventurous children, as portrayed in the Swallows and Amazons
Swallows and Amazons
Swallows and Amazons is the first book in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome; it was first published in 1930, with the action taking place in the summer of 1929 in the Lake District...
series of children's books by Arthur Ransome
Arthur Michell Ransome was an English author and journalist, best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books. These tell of school-holiday adventures of children, mostly in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads. Many of the books involve sailing; other common subjects...
Semaphore flags are also sometimes used as means of communication in the mountains where oral or electronic communication is difficult to perform. Although they do not carry flags, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Royal Canadian Mounted Police
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police , literally ‘Royal Gendarmerie of Canada’; colloquially known as The Mounties, and internally as ‘The Force’) is the national police force of Canada, and one of the most recognized of its kind in the world. It is unique in the world as a national, federal,...
officers have used hand semaphore in this manner.
Also many surf-side rescue companies, such as the Ocean City Maryland Beach Patrol, use semaphore flags to communicate between lifeguards.
TriviaThe letters of the flag semaphore are also a common artistic motif. One enduring example is the peace symbol
A number of peace symbols have been used in various cultures and contexts, one of the most ancient being the olive branch. The dove and olive branch was used by early Christians and was later adopted as a secular symbol. It was popularised by Pablo Picasso in 1949 and became widely used in the...
, adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is an anti-nuclear organisation that advocates unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United Kingdom, international nuclear disarmament and tighter international arms regulation through agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty...
in 1958 from the original logo created by a commercial artist named Gerald Holtom from Twickenham, London. Holtom designed the logo for use on a protest march on the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, near Newbury, England. On 4 April 1958, the march left Trafalgar Square for rural Berkshire, carrying Ban the Bomb placards made by Holtom's children making it the first use of the symbol. Originally, it was purple and white and signified a combination of the semaphoric letters N and D, standing for "nuclear disarmament," circumscribed by a circle
A circle is a simple shape of Euclidean geometry consisting of those points in a plane that are a given distance from a given point, the centre. The distance between any of the points and the centre is called the radius....
. Famously, the album cover
An album cover is the front of the packaging of a commercially released audio recording product, or album. The term can refer to either the printed cardboard covers typically used to package sets of 10" and 12" 78 rpm records, single and sets of 12" LPs, sets of 45 rpm records , or the front-facing...
for The Beatles
The Beatles were an English rock band, active throughout the 1960s and one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed acts in the history of popular music. Formed in Liverpool, by 1962 the group consisted of John Lennon , Paul McCartney , George Harrison and Ringo Starr...
' 1965 album
A gramophone record, commonly known as a phonograph record , vinyl record , or colloquially, a record, is an analog sound storage medium consisting of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove...
Help! is the title of the fifth British and ninth American album by The Beatles, and the soundtrack from their film of the same name. Produced by George Martin for EMI's Parlophone Records, it contains fourteen songs in its original British form, of which seven appeared in the film...
was to have portrayed the four band members spelling "HELP" in semaphore with their arms, though the result was deemed aesthetically unpleasing, and the band's arms were instead positioned in a meaningless but aesthetically pleasing arrangement for the final version of the album art.
In a nod to the flag semaphore's enduring use into the age of the Internet
The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite to serve billions of users worldwide...
, a satirical proposal
April Fools' Day RFC
Almost every April Fools' Day since 1989, the Internet Engineering Task Force has published one or more humorous RFC documents, following in the path blazed by the June 1973 RFC 527 entitled ARPAWOCKY, which parodied Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem Jabberwocky...
by the Internet Engineering Task Force
Internet Engineering Task Force
The Internet Engineering Task Force develops and promotes Internet standards, cooperating closely with the W3C and ISO/IEC standards bodies and dealing in particular with standards of the TCP/IP and Internet protocol suite...
standards organization in 2007 outlined a method of transmitting Internet traffic via a chain of flag semaphore operators.
In the Arctic Monkeys
Arctic Monkeys are an English indie rock band. Formed in 2002 in High Green, a suburb of Sheffield, the band currently consists of Alex Turner , Jamie Cook , Nick O'Malley and Matt Helders...
2011 album, Suck It And See
Suck It and See
Suck It and See is the fourth studio album by English indie rock band Arctic Monkeys, released 6 June 2011 in the UK and 7 June in the US, following their 2011 North American tour. The band worked with producer James Ford on this album and promised a more "vintage" style. The music video for "Brick...
, in the song 'Reckless Serenade', the art of semaphore is mentioned:
- "Topless Models, Doing Semaphore, Wave their flags as she walks by and, get ignored'.