As I may have mentioned before, I’m happily bopping around in the long eighteenth century*. In the process I’m stumbling across all kinds of stuff that makes my brain fizz with ideas. Some of it I’m hoarding. But some of it is just too good not to share
Today’s case in point: Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham (1762-1820), military man, scientist, and adventurer.
Popham began his naval career in 1778, when he was only sixteen. He served in the American Revolution and surveyed the southwest coast of Africa. Unemployed and on half-pay in the brief period of peace between the American and French Revolutions, he took leave from the navy, bought a ship, and sailed to India, where he performed survey work for the British East India Company. Eventually, the EIC became suspicious about his trading activities. Popham’s ship was seized and he was accused of violating the East India Company’s trade monopoly, with hints that he might have been smuggling.
Once out of the Asian trade, Popham was reinstated in the navy. He rose quickly through the ranks during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, in the course of which he organized two important troop evacuations, drew up plans for the “sea fencibles” *** and for destroying the sea locks at Ostend, was named a knight of Malta by Tsar Paul of Russia, and experimented with Robert Fulton’s “submarine bombs”. Obviously, as one contemporary named him, “a damned cunning fellow.”
Interesting as all that is, it doesn’t make him markedly different from the other creative young officers who abounded in the British military during the Napoleonic Wars. **** A single achievement sets Popham apart from the pack: the creation of a code using signal flags that became the standard for British ships. Originally published in 1801 as Telegraphic Signals or Marine Vocabulary*****, Popham’s system adapted traditional signal flags to a numeric code that allowed more detailed communication between ships. Its initial form provided roughly 1000 words; later improvements doubled that. Popham’s code wasn’t officially adopted by the British admiralty until 1812, but it was widely used by 1803. Admiral Horatio Nelson was an early adopter of the system, which he used to send his famous message of encouragement prior to the Battle of Trafalgar.
Quite frankly, it had never occurred to me that someone invented the code using naval signal flags. If I thought about them at all, I assumed that the system developed organically. Shows how much I know.
*Roughly 1688 to 1815, or 1832 depending on which historian you talk to. Sometimes centuries are an awkward time division when you’re talking about historical events instead of the calendar. Of course, once you start playing with the concept of a “natural” historical division, you introduce new opportunities for disagreement. For instance, almost everyone agrees that the long nineteenth century ended in 1914 with the beginning of WWI, but different historians place the starting date anywhere between 1750 (an approximate date for the Industrial Revolution**) and 1789 (the French Revolution). The short twentieth century is a snap by comparison, 1914 to 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. But I digress. As usual. (See what I mean about the fizzing brain?)
** Talk about opportunities for historians to disagree!
*** A naval militia designed to protect the coast from invasion, and obviously the subject of another blog post
****Raising the question of how they turned into the dangerously stodgy officers who ran the Crimean War forty years later.
*****I don’t know about you, but I assumed the word telegraph came into being in the mid-nineteenth system with Samuel Morse’s electronic system. Wrong.