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Dead medium: the Aldis Lamp; Colomb naval code
From: (Bill Burns)
Source(s): The Daily Telegraph, London, July 13/97 article by Andrew Gilligan.

(((Bill Burns remarks: This edited *Daily Telegraph* article appeared on the Keyclicks (Telegraph Instrument Collectors) List. Another medium bites the waves!)))

(((bruces remarks: It seems unlikely that use of the Aldis lamp has died out in all navies, especially those not so high-tech as the British fleet. But the abandonment of the Aldis lamp in the navy of its origin must be accounted a heavy, life-imperilling blow for this medium. It would be very interesting to trace the course of the Aldis lamp's decline around the world. Perhaps some military communications expert can enlighten us on this subject.)))

"After 130 years, the Royal Navy is turning out the lights on visual Morse code. Masthead signalling lanterns == used by warships to communicate with each other through some of the most famous naval battles in history == have been declared redundant by Admiralty chiefs in an era of secure communications. Recruits will no longer be trained to operate the Morse buttons by which messages could be flashed to other ships, and the lights themselves will be gradually decommissioned.

The idea of flashing dots and dashes from a lantern was first put in to practice by Captain, later Vice Admiral, Philip Colomb in 1867. His original code, which the Navy used for seven years, was not identical with Morse, but Morse was eventually adopted with the addition of several special signals. Flashing lights were the second generation of signalling in the Royal Navy, after the flag signals most famously used to spread Nelson's rallying-cry before the Battle of Trafalgar.

Ships will still retain Aldis lamps either side of the bridge, however, but signalling with these is complicated, involving transmitting signals in relays. Paul Elmer, of Naval Support Command, said: 'Morse is just not used operationally any more. We have got much better, cleverer and more sexy stuff.'

"The move, announced in a Defence Council Instruction, recognises that the lights have not been widely used at sea 'for some considerable time.' But a combination of inertia and respect for tradition means that nearly all large Naval ships are still equipped with them. Mr Elmer said: 'Their heyday was the two world wars when they were used a lot for close convoy work. They were quite small and you could flash to other ships in the group without the enemy seeing.'

"The lamps, which were omni-directional, were used to give commands to every ship in the group at once. The lamps' advantage == and one of the reasons why they have survived so long == was that, unlike radio communications, they could not be intercepted by enemy vessels. 'They were at their best during radio silence. You had to be quite close to see them,' said Mr Elmer.

"Now, however, the Navy has several secure communications systems that can send vast quantities of information between ships without risk of interception == and at infinitely higher speed than a man flicking a light on and off in dots and dashes. New-generation warships are increasingly equipped with computers that continuously share information with others nearby, and with shore bases, along invisible data highways."

Bill Burns (
Long Island NY USA