Born in Baltimore, Maryland during 1829, Martha Jane Scott grew up in Philadelphia with her widowed mother and siblings. Around the age of 16, she married Benjamin Franklin Coston. The young inventor had recently developed a working prototype of a submarine that could be “navigated eight hours under water.”
Shortly after the couple married, Benjamin was appointed by George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy, to Master in the Naval Service. He was placed in charge of the Naval Laboratory in the Washington Navy Yard and became instrumental in the development of a cannon percussion primer and Hale’s Rocket. Benjamin resigned in August 1847, due to a dispute which arose regarding compensation he was entitled to for the Navy’s use of his cannon percussion primer.
The family now moved to Boston where Benjamin became president of the Boston Gas Company. Here, he was able to perfect and manufacture the Sylvic Gas Light. Unfortunately, Benjamin’s exposure to the constant inhalation of chemical gases while at the Washington Navy Yard had already begun to seriously affect his health. In the process of developing the gas light, this situation worsened. Though his accomplishments at Boston Gas were hailed a major success in the lighting industry for both home and commercial use, the toxic effects cost him his life. Benjamin F. Coston died on November 24, 1848, leaving behind a widow with four small children.
Martha was now 21 years old and these personal tragedies would continue for two more years. During that time, she lost her infant son; then her mother died, and another son shortly thereafter. The combination of tragedies left Martha in deplorable straights; emotionally, physically, and financially. Due to what she referred to as her own ignorance and a relative who “misplaced” her money, Martha was now penniless; however, she refused to beg.
One gloomy November night, the Hand of Providence arrived and shone Its own light in the life of the young widow. Though Martha was considered an educated woman in her day, the education she had would soon be severely challenged by what was to become her life’s work in the very near future - the business of invention.
Rifling through Benjamin’s research papers, Martha discovered the plans for a pyrotechnic (signal) flare in his notebook. The numerous packets had been carefully sealed and labeled. Martha remembered Benjamin working on this invention while he was still at the Washington Navy Yard and the fact he gave a test set of the signals to a particular naval officer.
Martha’s efforts to contact this officer proved difficult and having the flares returned was problematic. She eventually succeeded when the officer returned the damaged box containing the signals; albeit with no instructions as to the how the signals were to be manufactured. Thankfully, Martha was a resourceful individual and after reviewing Benjamin’s notes, she decided she could – and would – design a working signal flare.
She immediately faced two challenges: 1) the flares had to be simple enough to use in coded color combinations and 2) they had to be bright, durable, and long-lasting so that they were effective tools for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communications.
When calculated in both professional and personal levels, Martha now embarked upon the most challenging “testing” period of her life. Using the social and US Navy connections from her marriage, Martha began her pursuit of the one hope on which she placed her future. Approaching Isaac Toucey, then Secretary of the Navy, with the subject of testing her signals, she was relieved to learn Toucey readily consented to the trial. In addition, he offered her the option to choose where the testing would take place. Martha requested the signals be tested by the Home Squadron. This placed the testing in the hands of Commodore (later Admiral) Hiram Paulding.
Following the testing, Paulding sent Martha a letter stating, “the signals proved utterly good for nothing.” Not wishing to be “the one who put her lights out,” Paulding went on to say he believed the signals to be a very good idea and encouraged Martha to continue in her efforts to perfect the invention.
Thankfully, Martha still had a friend in Secretary Toucey, who remained loyal to her efforts. To aide in her perfection of the invention, Toucey made available to Martha the use of the Washington Navy Yard and its talent. Unfortunately, her extremely limited level of knowledge with respect to chemistry and the workings of pyrotechnics created dismal results during the next test which occurred six months later.
As if to add insult to injury, hints began to surface with respect to lingering political animosity against Benjamin regarding the use of the percussion primer by the U.S. Navy. The derogatory remarks came from Yard Director John A. Dahlgren (later famous for his ordnance developments) and his staff; some of which had been associated with the percussion primer incident. Thankfully, Secretary Toucey and other Navy personnel remained steadfast in believing “the invention, if properly carried out, would be of incalculable service to the government.”
The testing period lasted approximately 10 years, during which Martha worked to perfect the “recipe” for a flare which would burn red, white and blue. Because she did not possess knowledge of chemistry, scientific experimentation methodology, or an understanding of business, Martha had to rely on those with such knowledge, all of whom were men. Due to the fact she was a woman seeking to compete in a male-dominated field, Martha felt she was ignored rather than being taken seriously, and sometimes deceived. However, relying on the support she did have, Martha persevered in her efforts.
The day finally arrived when she experienced a breakthrough as she watched the celebration in New York when the first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858. Beholding the spectacular fireworks display, Martha soon began to correspond with a number of individuals proficient in the use of pyrotechnics. She sought to learn how to create a strong blue color to use in conjunction with the red and white she had already developed.
Martha used a man’s name on her correspondence because she feared if the people she contacted knew she was a woman, they would ignore her questions. One response came from a man who told her he had made a blue color some years previous. She then urged him to duplicate the blue and stated she would also be interested in a strong green if this was not possible. Ten days later, a package arrived containing a strong green color. Unfortunately, her desire for the patriotic red, white, and blue was not obtainable in the same clarity and brilliance by using the green. Not willing to have her spirits dampened, Martha immediately entered negotiations to work with this New York pyrotechnist.
All inventors, male or female, must maintain a high level of both strength and motivation as they work to bring their invention to market. Martha was definitely interested in the money she could earn from her efforts; in deed, it was literally a matter of survival for both herself and her children. At the same time, however, she was also motivated by a spirit of national patriotism. She characterized herself as a humanitarian and exemplary patriot during the years just preceding the Civil War. In her autobiography, A Signal Success, Martha prefaced the story by using atypical Victorian voice and stirring emotion in an effort to share her “intense and heartfelt desire to accomplish something for the good of humanity.”
After investing numerous years to create her device, Martha centered her focus on the idea of incorporating fireworks technology at the root of her design. From there, the plan for Night Signal Flares was born. On April 5, 1859, she presented to the world her ultimate accomplishment when she became the recipient of Patent No. 23,536 for a pyrotechnic night signal and code system. The U.S. Navy paid her $20,000 ($511,254.20 - 2013) for the patent rights to the flares, in addition to awarding Martha a contract to manufacture them. The flares she created became the basis of a communication system used by the Navy during the Civil War, aiding the Union troops in their efforts to win battles and save lives. Some historians credit Martha’s flares for helping the North to win the war.
Following the Civil War, Martha continued to work on improving her flares. In the process of doing so, she created a twist-ignition device, for which she received a patent in 1871. The United States Life Saving Service, forerunner of the United States Coast Guard, began using this flare and continued to do so well into the 20th century. It also became a mainstay for the U.S. Weather Bureau and various military institutions in Europe and South America; along with commercial merchant vessels and private yachting clubs.
The company Martha began, Coston Marine Supply Company, remained in business on into the late 1970s. Numbered among her customers were maritime insurance companies, shippers, navies, and yacht clubs around the world. The system of bright, long-lasting signal flares revolutionized naval communication and continues to be in use. Although the story of Martha Coston has been obscured in the history books, the mark she left on maritime history is indeed significant, and continues to resonate more than 150 years later.
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“It would consume too much space, and weary my readers, for me to go into all the particulars of my efforts to perfect my husband’s idea. The men I employed and dismissed, the experiments I made myself, the frauds that were practiced upon me, almost disheartened me; but despair I would not, and eagerly I treasured up each little step that was made in the right direction, the hints of naval officers, and the opinions of the different boards that gave the signals a trial.”