Thursday, November 12, 2009

Signal Stations: What Was Their Purpose?

So far, you have seen pictures of Mount Nelson (and today you'll see a few more!), but my darling husband told me he wanted more words, so more words it is!

Yesterday I took you up to the Signal Station to show you the view. Thick fog, however, changed that (but don't worry, I will take those photos for you!). I studied Tasmanian Literature and history when I was at university, so I think I tend to take it for granted that everyone knows what the purpose of the signal station was. For those of you who don't know, here is a brief outline of the purpose of the Mount Nelson signal station.

A corner table in the signalman's cottage, now transformed into The Station Cafe. This table would usually overlook Storm Bay and the Tasman Peninsular, but on Tuesday fog was the only thing to be seen.


The signal station on Mount Nelson was the first one to be constructed in Tasmania, back in 1811. It was situated in a very strategic place and served two purposes. Before telling you what these purposes are, I'll explain what the signal station would have looked like.

The original signal station was a tall pole, to which flags could be attatched to send signals to Hobart. In 1829 a new type of semaphore (or signal station) reached Tasmania: the moveable arm semaphore. Like the orginal one it was a tall pole, but had moveable arms to which flags could be attatched. This particular system had three arms, and could send several hundred different messages. The Mount Nelson semaphore was unique in that it was used for two purposes. As a result of its dual usage, it had two sets of arms and was 80 feet tall (24.4 meters).

Here is a picture of what it looked like: 

 A portion of the text below the picture: The Last Semaphore Signal. John Beattie, c. 1890.The last semaphore signal code, 343 "Forgotten" was sent from here to the Mulgrave Battery Signal Station at Castray Esplanade, Battery Point around 1890 as a farewell to visual telegraphy. The semaphore was dismantled shortly after.

The lower set of arms was used to send shipping information, and the higher set was used for communicating with Port Arthur, a large penal settlement on the Tasman Peninsular. It was Charles O'Hara Booth who saw the importance of having a way to communicate rapidly between Port Arthur and Hobart (for example, if a prisoner escaped) and he set up a system of signal stations between the two locations.

Apparently, if it was a fine day, a short message and reply could be completed in about quarter of an hour. This is quite impressive, especially when you compare it to current modes of communication. A telephone call could easily take just as long, particularly if you can't find the phone number. Email also takes a few minutes each way, longer if the internet connection is slow, and much longer if the receiver is away from the computer.

The semaphore system worked well, but in 1880 the electric telegraph arrived and the signal station was no longer needed. The last signal was sent soon after this: 343 "forgotten".

I love the gloom in this picture, but I'm certain signalling would have been impossible in this kind of weather.

Are you interested in more information? As a starting place, look here to see where I got mine.

Just a little postscript.
It seems appropriate that it is on Rememberence Day that I write this (even though it will not be posted until the 12th). Just as the Signal Stations are still remembered, neither are the men who gave their lives so we could have freedom "forgotten".
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

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