Signal Corps (United States Army) - Early History

Early History

For more details on this topic, see Signal Corps in the American Civil War.

Albert James Myer, an Army doctor, was the first to conceive of the idea of a separate, trained professional military signal service. He proposed that the Army use his visual communications system called "wig-wag", or "aerial telegraphy", while serving as a medical officer in Texas in 1856. When the Army adopted his system on 21 June 1860, the Signal Corps was born with Myer as the first and only Signal Officer.

Major Myer first used his visual signaling system on active service in New Mexico during the 1860–1861 Navajo expedition. Using flags for daytime signaling and a torch at night, wigwag was tested in Civil War combat in June 1861 to direct the fire of a harbor battery at Fort Wool against the Confederate positions opposite Fort Monroe. Until 3 March 1863, when Congress authorized a regular Signal Corps for the duration of the war, Myer was forced to rely on detailed personnel. Some 2,900 officers and enlisted men served, although not at any single time, in the Civil War Signal Corps.

Myer's Civil War innovations included an unsuccessful balloon experiment at First Bull Run and, in response to McClellan's desire for a Signal Corps field telegraph train, an electric telegraph in the form of the Beardslee magnetoelectric telegraph machine. Even in the Civil War the wig-wag system, dependent upon line-of-sight, was waning in the face of the electric telegraph.

Initially, Myer used his office downtown Washington DC to house the Signal Corps School. When it was found to need additional space he sought out other locations, first Fort Greble which had been one of fort of the Defenses of Washington during the Civil War. It too was inadequate. He then chose Fort Whipple, on Arlington Heights overlooking the National Capital. The size and location were outstanding. The school remained there for over twenty years and ultimately became Fort Myer, named after General Albert J. Myer, the first chief signal officer.

The electric telegraph, in addition to visual signaling, became a Signal Corps responsibility in 1867. Within 12 years, the Corps had constructed, and was maintaining and operating, some 4,000 miles of telegraph lines along the country's western frontier.

In 1870, the Signal Corps established a congressionally mandated national weather service. With the assistance of Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, Chief Signal Officer Brigadier General Albert James Myer, by the time of his death in 1880, commanded a weather service of international acclaim. The weather bureau became part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1891, while the Corps retained responsibility for military meteorology.

The Signal Corps' role in the Spanish American War of 1898 and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection was on a grander scale than it had been in the Civil War. In addition to visual signaling, including heliograph, the Corps supplied telephone and telegraph wire lines and cable communications, fostered the use of telephones in combat, employed combat photography, and renewed the use of balloons. Shortly after the war, the Signal Corps constructed the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) also known as the Alaska Communications System (ACS), introducing the first wireless telegraph in the Western Hemisphere.

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