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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Martha Coston

Posted July 31, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

At 21, Martha Coston found herself widowed with four young children. After her husband Benjamin Coston died, she found his plans for a pyrotechnic (signal) flare in his notebook and decided that she could design a signal flare that would work based on the preliminary plans.

She faced two big challenges before she could come up with a design. First, the flares had to be simple enough to use in coded color combinations. They also had to be bright, durable, and long-lasting. Both factors were crucial so they could be effective tools for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communications.

Her husband’s designs were a good starting point, but she had a lot of work to do before they were completed. For nearly ten years, Coston drove herself to develop a system of flare signaling based on Benjamin’s early work. With a limited knowledge of chemistry and pyrotechnics, she relied on the advice of hired chemists and fireworks experts – with mixed results. A breakthrough came in 1858, while Coston was witnessing the fireworks display in New York City celebrating the completion of the transatlantic telegraph cable; she realized that her system needed a bright blue flare, along with the red and white she had already developed. She established the Coston Manufacturing Company to manufacture the signal flares and entered into a business relationship with a pyrotechnics developer to provide the necessary blue color.

On April 5, 1859, she was granted U.S. Patent number 23,536 for a pyrotechnic night signal and code system (the patent was granted to her as administratrix for her husband, who is named as inventor). Using different combinations of colors, the flares enabled ships to signal to one another and to the shore. After extended testing – which demonstrated the effectiveness of the system –, the U.S. Navy ordered an initial set of 300 flares and later placed an order for $6000 worth of flares.

From there, Coston obtained patents for the flares in several other parts of Europe.

She remained in Europe until 1861, when she returned to the U.S. on the outbreak of the Civil War. She petitioned Congress to purchase the patent so that the flares could be used in the approaching conflict. After some delay, Congress passed an act on August 5, 1861, authorizing the U.S. Navy to purchase the patent for $20,000 (less than the $40,000 she had originally demanded).

Coston flares were used extensively by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War; they proved particularly effective in the discovery and capture of Confederate blockade runners during the Union blockade of southern ports. Coston flares also played an important role in coordinating naval operations during the battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina on January 13–15, 1865.

In 1871, Coston obtained a patent in her own name – Patent No. 115,935, Improvement in Pyrotechnic Night Signals. In addition to working on improvements to the signaling system, she continued to press claims for additional compensation from the U.S. government. Due to wartime inflation, the Coston Manufacturing Company supplied flares to the U.S. Navy at less than cost; Coston estimated that the government owed her $120,000 in compensation. Although she pressed her claims for over ten years, she was offered only $15,000 additional reimbursement.

Coston’s desires to be taken seriously and have her invention succeed were only part of her struggles. Almost immediately following her husband’s death, she and her sons moved back to Philadelphia to live with her mother; soon thereafter, her youngest son became ill and passed away. It was not long after this that her mother's health began to deteriorate and, despite Martha's great care, she too passed on. She was left without much money, but her motivation got her by.

Eventually, every station of the United States Life-Saving Service was equipped with Coston flares which were used to signal ships, warn of dangerous coastal conditions, and summon rescuers to a wreck scene. Many accounts of wrecks and rescues describe the use of the Coston flare, which was instrumental in saving thousands of lives. Martha died in 1904; her company, later called the Coston Signal Company and the Coston Supply Company, remained in business until at least 1985.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Coston

https://www.engineergirl.org/Engineers/HistoricalEngineers/Mary_Coston.aspx

http://www.americancivilwarstory.com/martha-coston.html

http://www.inventricity.com/martha-coston-inventor

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Re: Woman of the Week – Martha Coston

07/31/2017 6:23 PM
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