French engineer Claude Chappe was the first person to create an 'optical telegraph' or semaphore system in 1792. The system involved a tower with two arms on a mast connected by a cross-arm. Each arm had seven positions and the cross arm had four; this meant that the system had a 196-combination code to be used in communication. Over 550 stations were set up covering France and enabling military and national communication to travel further, faster. The system was adopted by other countries, including Britain, Sweden and Spain. After much success, the semaphore system was implemented by almost every European state.
By the time the technology entered colonial Australia, the average speed of transmission was about two words per minute. However, the system was limited by bad weather and could not be used at night, despite attempts to do so by putting lamps on the arms.
Tamar Valley Semaphore System
Early European roads in north-east Tasmania were in poor condition and transport was mainly by ship along the Tamar River. To increase the speed of communication, a signal system was required to travel between Low Head at the mouth of the Tamar River to the Port Office in Launceston.
The Tamar Valley signal system was first introduced in 1825. Stations were established at Low Head, George Town, Mt George, Mount Direction, Windmill Hill and the Port Office. These 6 stations covered a total distance of 60 kilometres. Originally, a system of flags was used, rather than the traditional semaphore system mentioned above.
In the 1830s semaphore signals were added to the flag system and in 1835 the system became two-way. The original quarters at the Mount Direction station had been built of timber; by the late 1830s they were rundown. The Royal Engineers Office in Launceston prepared plans for a more substantial stone and brick dwelling. It was built on the site in 1839 by a convict artisan from Launceston. The dwelling was six-roomed and built from locally quarried dolerite rock. Sandstone blocks were brought in from Launceston for use in the windows and doorways, and convict-made bricks were used in the chimneys.
Life at the station
Varying numbers of people have lived at the station over time. In the early years, such as 1842, there were four free people and six convicts living in the main residence. There was also a wooden hut on site in which one free person and two convicts lived.
By 1843 the dynamics had changed as more buildings had been erected. There was now an extra bark hut and a bush hut at the station. There was a total of nineteen free settlers on site and just five convicts.
By 1848 things had changed again. By this time, the stone-built residence housed a free signalman and his family – this included his wife and six children. There was also one convict on site to provide labour. In wooden dwellings on site there were another 13 free settlers and five convicts.
In the late 1850s the semaphore system was abandoned in favour of electric telegrams. From that time on the site was deserted until it was taken over by pastoral lessees. The first was Thomas Bacon who first obtained a de-pasturing licence in 1855 (to allow grazing of stock) and then a pastoral lease from 1867. He died around 1870 and the new leaseholders were George and Charles Coward. Some remains at the station come from this pastoral period, such as the cast iron gates.