The invention of the mechanical semaphore is attributed to the French Chappe brothers, Claude and Ignace who while at different schools devised a pole with mechanical arms to maintain contact. Following the French revolution, Claude the eldest of the two, lost his religious benefices and on 2nd November 1789 he was forced to return to his native Brulon. Here, along with his siblings he decided to set up shop to work on telegraphs.
The Chappe brothers spent the next few years experimenting on this new means of optical communication till the revolutionary wars broke out, when the newly gained ideals of republicanism in France were seriously threatened by foreign invasion. During this period the Chappe’s invention was adopted by the French army as an effective means of communication between the capital and the threatened frontiers. In a short span of time over seven hundred signal stations were established all over the French territory, involving thousands of men in their operation.
The immediate success of this system was soon noted by the British, who lost no time in adopting in 1792, a similar invention by Lord George Murray to link the Admiralty in London with the fleet in Portsmouth and Plymouth. The English system relied on visual contact to communicate. This consisted of a rectangular frame fitted with five revolving panels marked with coloured circular shapes, the unique combination of which formed different characters. Using this system the time taken by a message from London to reach Portsmouth was reduced to an incredible 15 minutes.
Semaphore stations were not considered essential by military authorities in Malta before 1844. Shortly before this date, an attempt was made to install such equipment on the numerous church steeples and domes around the island. The church authorities first concurred with this suggestion to reject it only later. To make up for it, the military authorities opted for the construction of three new semaphore stations at Ħal Għaxaq, Ħal Għargħur, and Nadur in Gozo. In addition, three more stations were established on the Governor’s Palace in Valletta, Selmun castle and Ta’ Ġurdan Light House in Gozo.
The new semaphore towers consisted of three rooms built on top of each other with a spiral staircase linking them together and reaching onto the roof.
The Mechanical Semaphore Pole
Each tower was provided with independent cooking and sanitary facilities for the use of its garrison. The signalling equipment stood high on the roof of the tower. This consisted of a wooden pole having three movable arms measuring 12 feet in length. Only two of these arms were used at a time to send a message. This was achieved by swinging the arms in a particular position to correspond with a letter of the alphabet or a number, as provided in the signalling code.
No such message would, however, be sent without the presence of another fixed arm positioned low onto the pole. This was necessary to show to other stations the front and back of the sending station. Without the existence of this indicating arm, no clear messages would be read as the semaphore was only capable of just nine movements, the combination of which had to cover the entire alphabet and numerals from null to nine.
The signalling arms were moved manually by an operator using cranked handles linked to sprocket wheels. A length of driving chain passed over the sprockets linking itself to a steel cable to turn individual pulleys fitted to the arms. Thus, for a signal to be sent the operator had to manually shift two of the provided handles, which in turn positioned the arms to correspond to a letter or number.
It is known that proficient signalmen would send messages using this system very quickly at the rate of 15 characters per minute. Long sentences or phrases were shortened in an approved manner to lighten the process.
Notwithstanding the high value of these stations for the military, it was still felt that they were absorbing too many men that would otherwise be used elsewhere. Hence, in 1851 the local Board of Ordnance suggested their place to be taken by pensioners of the Royal Malta Fencible regiment at a salary of 40 pounds per annum. Yet, nothing came out of this and these towers remained manned as they were before the Royal Engineers.
During the Crimean War of 1854-6, the first use of the electrical telegraph was made with success. A submarine cable was laid between Varna and Balaclava along with a land cable linking for the first time in history a Commander in the field with the War Office in London! This new invention used electrical currents sent at intervals using the Morse key in accordance with the alphabet devised by the American Samuel F.B. Morse. This new invention soon took over from the mechanical semphore.
In Malta, this change took longer to happen but when it did take place the semaphore stations were relegated to secondary use. They remained as such till 1883, when the last of these stations, that of Nadur in Gozo was finally closed down.
World War Two
During WWII, the Ħal Għargħur Signal Tower was occupied by elements of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers as a vantage point for observation. A meticulously pencil drawn map of Malta still survives from this period on one of the walls of the room on the second floor. This could very well have had to do with role of this building as an observation point.
The Ħal Għargħur Local Council together with Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna, has restored the former semaphore tower at Ħal Għargħur. Although the overall structure of the tower, was still relatively sound, it required some attention, especially at the ground level where the outer walls were badly affected through rising damp. Given the good quality of the old interior decoration at the first and second floors, every effort has been entertained to preserve them. The same applied to most of the timber apertures, some of which certainly date back to the time when the tower was in operation.
Apart from conserving another heritage building, it was intended through this project to restore back to the Maltese public a long lost feature of its rich national heritage. The Inauguration of the Semaphor Tower Restored took place on Sunday 12th July 2009 in the presence of the Hon. Minister George Pullicino, the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and councillors.