Martha Coston Trailblazer

Martha Coston

Born: December 12, 1826

Died: July 9, 1904

Spouse: Benjamin Franklin Coston, 4 children

Education: No record fo any higher education

Known for: Development of the Coston Flare, a device used to send signals at sea

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The Woman with a Flare

Martha Coston developed the signal flares that are still used by the US Navy today.

Martha Jane Coston was born in Baltimore, MD on December 12, 1826. When she was 15 or 16, she eloped with a promising young inventor named Benjamin Franklin Coston. They had four children over the next 5 years. Unfortunately, Benjamin Coston’s work had a disastrous effect on his health and he died from chemical exposure in 1848.

At the age of 21, Martha J. Coston found herself a nearly penniless widow with four children to support. She found notes for a pyrotechnic flare in her late husband's notebook and decided that she could design a signal flare that would work. Over several months, she worked diligently to make the idea a reality. In her memoirs she wrote:

It would consume too much space, and weary my readers, for me to go into all the particulars of my efforts to perfect my husbandʼs idea. The men I employed and dismissed, the experiments I made myself, the frauds that were practiced upon me, almost disheartened me; but … 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. I had finally succeeded in getting a pure white and a vivid red light.

The flares had to be simple enough to use in coded color combinations. They also had to be bright, durable, and long-lasting so that they were effective tools for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communications. She hit on the idea of using fireworks technology as the basis of her design. Using fireworks technology, she developed the original plan into an elaborate system of flares called Night Signals.

Coston Night Signal Flare Collection

She received her patent for her Pyrotechnic Night Signals on April 5, 1859. The U.S. Navy then paid her $20,000 for the patent rights to the flares. They also awarded Martha the contract to manufacture them. Martha’s flares served as the basis of a system of communication that helped save lives and win battles during the Civil War. Some historians have said that the signal flares helped the Union to win the war.

Coston continued to improve her invention and came up with a twist-ignition device that she patented in 1871. Her company sold flares to navies, shippers, maritime insurance companies, and yacht clubs around the world. The Coston Supply Company that she established remained in business into the late 1970s.

The system of bright, long-lasting signal flares revolutionized naval communication and continues to be in use and has saved thousands of lives.

Photo credits:
Photo taken from the New York Public Library Digital Collections (psnypl_grd_526)