Did you know that signal flags have been used since 1857? Signal flags are used to signal between ships and from ship to shore. Signal flags have been used to keep ships and people safe throughout history.
In 1857, the British Board of Trade created the International Code of Signals. The flags had 17,000 different meanings, and they used 18 different flags. Then in 1932 the code was revised to include seven different languages (Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, French, German, and English). Next, in 1969, the code was again revised to include Russian and Greek. Up until this time, signal flags had an alphabet letter attached to each flag. With this latest revision an additional meaning was given to each flag.
Besides having an alphabet letter assigned to each flag, each flag also has a special meaning. For example, a ship flying the "O" flag means "man overboard." Flying the "I" and "T" flags together means that a ship is on fire. If a ship flies the "D" flag, it means they are having trouble steering.
Today the International Code of Signals has forty different flags. There is a flag for each letter of the alphabet. There are also pennant flags that stand for the numbers 0-9. There are 26 square flags for each letter of the alphabet, ten pennant flags for each numeral, one answering pennant, and substituter and repeater flags.
The flags only use the following colors red, blue, yellow, black, and white. The reason these colors are used is because they can be easily seen at sea.
In order to help ship captains read signal flags from other countries, each captain has a code book. The code book has the International Code of Signals in all nine languages. If sailors want to send a message, they fly hoists of one to five flags that have code meanings or that spell out words. Mariners place the flags on strings and hang them from bow-to-stern.
Even though all U.S. ships use the International Code of Signals, the US Navy also has their own signaling system. This probably sounds odd since most communication today is done through radio waves. But when the ships need to maintain radio silence, the signal flags are used.
"International Code Flags or Signaling Flags." Nautical Know How, Inc. 7 March, 2005. <http://www.boatsafe.com/nauticalknowhow/flags.htm>.
"Signal Flags." Reeds Nautical Almanac. 7 March 2005. <http://www.reedsalmanac.com/signal_flags_d.html>.
Smith, Whitney. "Flag." World
Book Online Reference Center. 2005. World Book, Inc. 7 Mar. 2005.
use all photographs on this page from <http://www.flagsfantastic.com.au>: