[Coston Flares]

~ BY ~


This is a very ingenious and effective semaphore, which commends itself from its simplicity. Three lights of different colors, white, red, and green, are so flashed or burned in combinations representing the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, and also two letters A and P —in all twelve combinations. The light is produced by the combustion of a peculiar pyrotechnic composition for each of the desired colors. A handle or holder is all that is necessary, ordinarily, to hold the selected color:

A flash of white indicates the numeral       1
A flash of white followed by red2
A flash of white followed by green3
A flash of red4
A flash of red followed by white5
A flash of red followed by green6
A flash of green7
A flash of green followed by white8
A flash of green followed by red9
A flash of white, red, and green0
A flash of white, red, and whiteP
A flash of red, white;, and redA

P . 2 . 9 . 3 . A

When a communication is to be made, the white, red, and white are, quickly and successively flashed, indicating the letter P, (prepare, [or preparatory]) and, when answered by red, white, and red, indicating the letter A [assent]; the correspondence commences by flashing the respective colors of the numbers desired to be sent. Experience has demonstrated the usefulness of the "Coston Fire Signals," and they have passed the practical test with success."

~ S.F.B. Morse

Martha J. Coston (1829-1904)

Martha Coston was born in Baltimore, in 1826. She was widowed at age twenty one and was left with four children to take care of. Even though her husband had died, she was determined to work and earn money. In 1859, she came up with an idea of a signal flare, based upon on her deceased husband's notebook. Since the plans of her husband's didn't work, she was determined to find a successful way to make the signal flare to work. Signal flares were very hard to make, they had to be both durable and simple. They also needed to last long enough to be viewed from ship to ship or ship to land communications. The flare also had to be simple enough to use and in colored combinations. Martha soon discovered that she could use pyrotechnics to make her flare. The green, red, and white flares worked so well that the navy bought them from her for $20,000.


Composition Fires are pyrotechnic compositions which burn with great intensity of light and color. The colors, red, white, and green, are found to be best suited for signalling. A very convenient arrangement is as follows:

These signals prepared in the form of cartridges, are burned from a holder. The signals while burning will show the colors and correspond with the numbers above indicated. P or White~Red~White, is the challenge or preparatory signal; if answered by the A or Red~White~Red, it shows that the preparatory signal was seen. If it is then desired to send the message indicated by 2-9-3, the cartridges are discharged corresponding with those numbers (as illistrated in the code example above). A signalist should be careful not to look at the brilliant flame of the signal burning near him, as thereby the eye is not fitted to discern accurately the colors of distant lights.

signal Pistol

The signal cartridges are made to be fired by the explosion of the percussion cap upon the signal-pistol. The colors of the cartridges are indicated by the colors painted on the outside of the cases or shells.
signal Pistols

If the signalist be provided with only three kinds of lights, as red, white, and green, he can indicate nine different messages by burning one or two cartridges. By burning three or less than three at one time, tewnty-seven messages can be sent; by burning four or less, eighty-one messages. If four lights are furnished, as a red, a white, a green and a red-white, the same number of cartridges will furnish sixteen, sixty-four, and two hundred and fifty-six messages, respectively. If five are used the number is increased to one thousand and twenty-four!

(Let the colors used be Red, White, Green, indicating the numbers 1,2,3 respectively)
1Are you ready23Fire over our heads
21I am ready31Cease Firing
3Repeat32Shell to our right
11Enemy to our front33Shell to our left
12Enemy to our left111Shells fire over enemy
13Enemy to our right112Shells fire to short
21Send troops to our left113Gunboats cover our retreat
22Send troops to our rightetc.etc., etc.

Coston Box Label Coston Box Costons
Coston Flare Pistol Coston Flare Pistol Coston Flare Box
Coston Flare Pistol Coston Flare Pistol Coston Flare Box
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G.A. Lilliendahl:

In the 1860's, G.A. Lilliendahl was the owner of a fireworks manufacturing company in New York City that held production rights to make the small signaling flares called "Coston's Composition Night Signals", a.k.a. the Coston's Telegraphic Night Signal System.

Despite their popularity in Europe and other parts of the world, fireworks did not become became popular in the United States until the mid 19thcentury. In the 1860's, G.A. Lilliendahl was the owner of a fireworks manufacturing company in New York City. Lilliendahl was considered the first skilled pyrotechnic in the United States. He also held the production rights to make the first small signaling flares to be used by the U.S. Government, called “Coston's Composition Night Signals.” Lilliendahl was also a co-inventor and manufacturer of rocket harpoons used to hunt and kill whales.