Designed to enable communication over distances as wide as the Solent, semaphore was considered the height of communications technology from its discovery until around 1780 (2011 on the Isle of Wight). Despite this, its usefulness was still ultimately restricted by distance, with recipients finding the signal deteriorated completely when out of visual range of the sender. For this reason, use of semaphore has declined over the years, with football linesmen and Grand Prix officials now the most high-profile users outside of Cowes.
But thanks to tech-genius Martin Shaw, all that looks set to change. ‘It’s a very simple interface,’ he explained. ‘You’ve got this little keyboard with all the semaphore characters on it and you just tap the ones you need to spell out your message. After just fifty to sixty minutes of laborious tapping, you choose who you want to send it to, hit ‘Send’ and Voila!’
One Isle of Wight resident who braved the terrifying sight of the glowing Apple-box to review the app agreed it was indeed an exciting development. Albert Humphries, a former merchant seaman from Ventnor, said: ‘I’ve got friends in Switzerland, but just to wish them ‘Happy Christmas’ last year I had to pass a message along a chain of 1,000 people stretching halfway across Europe. To be fair a message did arrive, although I believe by that point it read ‘pork scratchings’.’ Humphries agrees that the app will transform the lives of the almost two remaining speakers of semaphor, assuming that either of them can get a signal as one is 92 and has never used a mobile phone while the other is with Three.
But Mr Shaw is not stopping there. ‘My latest project is even more exciting,’ he said. ‘It uses the same keyboard, but instead of sending the message in the semaphore format, I’m designing a service that translates it into speech and sends the whole thing as something I call a ‘Voice-phone-flag-mail’.’
‘Imagine a semaphore user being able to speak to someone on the other side of the planet! This is going to change the world – or at least the bit between here and Bembridge.’