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An on-line article by Bob Trapani, Jr. presents so-called wig-wag flags, in fact forerunners of more elaborate systems:
"Prior to the era of radio transmissions (...) surfmen utilized signal flags by day and lights or flares at night. (...) Should a surfman discover a ship sailing precariously too close to shore, he would then wave a red flag by day designed to convey the instructions "haul away." (...)
The ever-observant patrolman utilized a white flag on shore by day (...) to communicate the message "slack away" to a ship's captain. If two surfmen were spotted ashore simultaneously waving a red and white flag by day (...), a vessel understood the message to be, "do not attempt to land in your own boats; it is impossible."
In his book entitled That Others Might Live, author Dennis Noble discusses wig-wag flags, noting, "On Wednesdays the surfmen practiced either wig-wag or flag hoists. Wig-wag usually required a team of four: one surfman with a three-foot square red flag on a pole, another with a white flag of the same dimensions, a surfman with a telescope to read the sending station, and a fourth member to record the message. Wig-wag was used much like Morse code; the red flag representing a dash and the white flag a dot."
In 1889 the International Marine Conference recommended that a system of universal distress signals be adopted. Thus the United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) created a General Service Code…"
See also the photo made by the author, using (I suppose) replicas of above red and white flags - the article does not mention it, but they seem to be tapered.
Another quote from this site "Storm Heroes" identifies "Bob Trapani, Jr. (...) as the executive director for the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), a national lighthouse preservation organization headquartered in Wells, Maine."
The following page presents a more general view - "The Early History of Data Networks" by G.J. Holzmann and B. Pehrson as transcribed by R. Kai (Wig-Wag at end of page): labit501.upct.es/ips/libros/TEHODN/ch-2-1.2.html
Quote: "In 1856 an American army doctor named Albert James Myer (1827-1880) [presented, jm] a system he called wig-wag signaling. He proposed a method of signaling with either flags or torches, which allowed for two basic motions, that is, a wave of the flag or torch to the left or to the right. Myer's code also defined the acknowledgement of messages, using special codes for signaling "not understood," or "understood."
The wig-wag method was adopted by the American Army in January 1860. Myer even obtained a U.S. patent, No. 252, for his system titled An improved system of signaling. (...) Even though the simpler Morse code already existed, it did not replace Myer's code until 1886, some twenty-five years later.
Flag signaling was standardized in 1857 with the publication of a first international code."
Yet another source is this page, about centre: www.royal-signals.org.uk/flagwaving.php showing a portrait of the good doctor and a table presenting the "three basic WigWag Moves".
Meyer's system is further described and many examples given, but now clearly focused on land (military) communication. (No doubt the entire page will yield many interesting snippets of signalling information other than maritime wig-wagging!)
Jan Mertens, 12 March 2007