Small Archive Regarding the Marine Telegraph Systems of Elford and Parker, 1834-1835.
Three 1-page letters, 8 x 10 inches, on folded sheet with with conjugate address and docketing; broadside on folio sheet, 8 3/4 x 16 inches, headed "Circular." With address and docketing on conjugate leaf.
As long as ships have sailed, communication from vessel to vessel has been a problem. Signaling with flags afforded an obvious solution, and over the centuries many private signaling systems were developed by merchants and naval forces. Novelist and naval veteran Frederick Marryat invented the most widely used system, which was in place in England from 1817 to the 1860s. In America, James Elford developed a system that he claimed was simpler and more generally applicable than private codes then in use in our country. In 1823 he issued the first edition of “Marine Telegraph, or Universal Signal Book.” Elford died in the 1830s and his Boston Agent, John R. Parker, took over. Parker retained Elford’s system but in order to attract British users, he incorporated the “Holyhead Numerals” – a system of identifying British vessels. In 1839 the British replaced the Holyhead system with Marryat’s signaling system, and Parker accordingly added the Marryat system to his own. The problem, caused by the worlds burgeoning mercantile fleet, continued to be assigning unique identification numbers to each vessel, but Parker and his agents worked hard to keep their listings up to date. In an article in Army and Navy Chronicle for 1840, Parker published a table showing that, in Boston alone, the number of registered vessels went from 799 in 1824 to 3332 in 1840. In an essay in “American Neptune,” M.V. Brewington writes, “After the 1841 edition was published, Parker’s business was acquired by Messrs. Hudson & Smith, who in 1845 issued “The Signal Book for Boston Harbor.” Apparently, Hudson & Smith were not as attentive in keeping up with listings of new vessels. Also, a different numbering system than the Elford/Parker/Hudson version had been adapted by the New England whaling industry, further adding to the confusion. In 1854 Henry J. Rogers of Baltimore came up with a new signaling system that addressed the difficulty of displaying signal flags when there was no breeze to spread them out. Brewington says, “Rogers succeeded in selling his plan to the United States Navy and for many years his flags were standard equipment on all its vessels… Rogers got each custom district to furnish him with a complete list of vessels registered therein and to each craft over twenty tons he assigned a signal. (See item #15 in this list.) This lot consists of 3 letters and a broadside that trace this evolution of American maritime signaling. The first letter, dated 12th February 1834, is written to Parker in Boston by one of his agents in New London, reporting telegraphic information on the US Revenue Cutter “Oliver Wolcott,” which was to be added to the next edition of his signaling book. The second letter, also to Parker, dated 11 September, 1834, is from Parkers son Henry, concerning his delivery of signaling flags to ships in New York. He closes, I will write a line to my mother upon the other half of this sheet… The third letter to Parker, September 8, 1835, is from John Dudley, one of Parkers agents in Baltimore. He writes his boss about the many listings that need to be added, the numbering of some Baltimore vessels, and the slow sale of his flags which could be explained by his comments on the Baltimore Bank Riot of August 1835, in which thousands of citizens lost millions of dollars: Our city after passing through the Ordeal of Mobocracy has now settled quietly down, but it has left a stain behind that only time can erase. The broadside is headed Circular. To the Merchants Exchange Committee, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Commercial and Mercantile Interests of the City of New-York. In the text, Robert Hudson, proprietor of the Merchants News Room, announces that he is now the local agent for the Marine Telegraph System (presumably Parkers, since the broadside is addressed in manuscript to John R. Parker, Telegraphist, Boston) and that he has signal flags available for purchase. Hudson talks about the widespread acceptance of the signaling system, and urges the merchants to participate fully by registering their vessels. The broadside is signed in type, Robert E. Hudson, and dated April 28th, 1835. Ultimately, as stated above, Hudson took over Parkers business, but that event was probably forestalled by the Great New York Fire of 1835, which took place that December and destroyed the Merchants News Room and hundreds of other buildings in the area. All three letters and the broadside are in very good condition. The Circular is rare, with Worldcat showing no holdings.