R7529 'Signal semaphore at Port Arthur', 1872

R7529

Description

This is a black-and-white drawing by George Smyth Baden-Powell of a semaphore signalling station in Tasmania. The tall semaphore pole has three sets of moveable wooden arms, and it appears that a flag is being raised. The station also has two small brick buildings, one of them in a fenced area. In the background is a series of low hills. The drawing measures 7 cm x 10 cm.

Acknowledgements: Reproduced courtesy of Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania. Artwork by George Baden-Powell.

Educational value
This drawing probably depicts the semaphore relay station known as Signal Hill on the Tasman Peninsula, a key part of an early communication system that operated in Tasmania from 1811 until about 1880. Signal Hill was about 10 km from the Port Arthur convict settlement and about 50 km south-east of Hobart.
The Signal Hill station was the first in a 'line of sight' chain of semaphore relay stations linking Port Arthur to Hobart. If the weather was clear, authorities in Hobart could be alerted to the escape of a prisoner, for example, within about 20 min. Operators of each of the stations used telescopes to read the signals given at the previous link in the chain and then passed the message on to the next station.
The ropes and pulleys were used to move the wooden 'arms' shown in the drawing into various positions, either pointing upwards or downwards at 45 degrees, or horizontal, to send coded messages. The different combinations of positions represented specific letters, numbers or phrases. The phrase book for the Tasmanian system listed about 3,000 phrases.
The semaphore system was invented in France by Claude Chappe (1763-1805). In 1794 the news quickly spread throughout Europe that he had successfully used his 'optical telegraph' to send a message over a long distance in a relatively short time. Even as Chappe moved to refine his system, other European inventors took on the idea and developed their own adaptations. Various forms of semaphore signalling were soon in widespread use.
Electric telegraphs, which did not need to be seen, gradually replaced semaphore systems from the early 1850s. However, as indicated by this drawing, Signal Hill was still in use as a semaphore station in 1872. It was abandoned a few years later when an electric telegraph was installed between Hobart and Port Arthur.
This drawing is by George Smyth Baden-Powell (1847-98), who served as an officer in the British colonial foreign service in Australia. It is one of a number of illustrations in a book by Baden-Powell published in 1872 called 'New homes for the old country: a personal experience of the political and domestic life, the industries, and the natural history of Australia and New Zealand'.
Port Arthur operated as a convict settlement from 1830 until 1877. In its early years it was used by British colonial authorities to house prisoners regarded as hardened offenders. Conditions were extremely harsh, and punishments severe. Its central prison block was designed to enforce total and permanent isolation of prisoners and was regarded as a model in its time.
Remnants of the former signal station, such as low stone walls and bricks from the buildings, can still be seen at the site. Their presence and that of well-preserved buildings at the Port Arthur settlement are examples of the rich history of the area, which has made it one of the main tourist attractions in Tasmania today.
Topics
Telegraphy
Rights
© Curriculum Corporation, 2007, except where indicated under Acknowledgements