The Advertiser (Adelaide) Monday 3 May, 1909. SIGNALS AT SEA
AN AUSTRALIAN'S INVENTION.
TALKING THROUGH THE
Mr. Leslie R. Sundercombe, the secondofficer of the Adelaide Steamship Com-pany's steamer Grantala, has made a namefor himself all round the Australian coastas an expert in night signalling, and he isthe inventor of a signal lamp which is usedon 43 ships in the inter-State or oceantrade, in addition to a number of light-houses. Mr. Sundercombe, who is an Aus-tralian native, has been at sea for about11 years, and has been very successful inhis profession. He served his apprentice-ship with the James Nourse line, in thetrade from Calcutta to the West Indieswith coolie emigrants. Thence the vesselswent on to Liverpool, and back by way ofDemerara to Calcutta. Afterwards he wassecond mate on the sailing ship JessieOsborne, which did the all-round foreignround to Sydney. Owing to the chief officergetting a command, he was sent to Mel-bourne to pass as first mate, and sailed inthat capacity in the same ship to Nantes(France). As he had not put in timeenough to study for his certificate asmaster, he went into the Atlantic trade,sailing across that ocean between Americanand French ports. Subsequently he wentup the Mediterranean, and was in theBlack Sea at the time of the mutiny on aRussian battleship, when her sailors ranoff with her. He was in Batoum at thetime of the revolution there, when Britishresidents were warned not to have anycommunication with the inhabitants. Going to London, Mr. Sundercombe sat for hismaster's certificate, and having littleleisure attended a navigation college, andalso secured his extra master's certificate.
He obtained an appointment as chief officerof a vessel running from New York toChina and Japan, but owing to an attackof swamp fever he lost his ship while lyingin hospital at Manila. On becoming convalescent he accepted a position as purseron a steamer and came to Newcastle,whence he went to his home in WesternAustralia to recuperate. He became thirdofficer-of the Grantala two years ago, andwas promoted to his present position 12months later. A knowledge of signalling is a necessary equipment for a ship's officernowadays, and expertness is becoming moreand more important to those who desireemployment both on inter-State, and ocean-going steamers. Mr. Sundercombe hasmade a close study of the matter, and hascombined knowledge of the conditionswhich prevail at sea with his intimate ac-quaintance with the process of signallingin connection with the perfecting of hislamp. One of its chief advantages, indeed,is that it can be used in the blackest nightwithout in any way interfering with theefficiency of the lookout from the vessel, avery important consideration.
During the last passage of the Grantalato Adelaide Mr. Sundercombe gave the sub-joined information to a representative of"The Advertiser" with regard to his re-cently patented invention for the transmis-sion of flashlight Morse code messages. Mr.Sundercombe's patent eclipse signal appara-tus makes it possible for ships to communi-cate with each other or with shore signalstations over very long distances.
"I was for a considerable time previousto settling down to the Australian coasttrade two years ago in this ship," said Mr.Sundercombe, "engaged in the trade be-tween New York, China, and Japan, wherethe opportunity to signal both to hisMajesty's warships and to vessels of themercantile marine frequently occur. As Iconsidered it my duty to be able to under-stand the messages, I applied myself to thestudy, and soon became proficient in thesystem. I also formed the idea to try toimprove the style of apparatus then in use.I considered it most essential to make thisclass of lamp show a much brighter light. All seamen know that a ship's lights areusually seen from a distance of a few milesas a mere bunch of lights. A signal lightbeing no more powerful than the rest ofthe ship's ordinary navigation and decklights, would to an observer far off blinkaway quite undecipherably. In my eclipselamp I have converted an ordinarypowered light, by a system of magnificationand reflection, into by far the brightestof a vessel's lights. My 'Eclipse' apparatusas installed on the Grantala has been dis-tinctly read with the naked eye for dis-tances up to 17 miles. A message sent withthe same apparatus by the officer on watchof the steamer Riverina to the Rottnestsignal station (Western Australia) over adistance of eight miles was also read by thelookout man at Arthur's Head station, 12miles beyond. In this case the light wasread over a 20-mile range. But what I con-sider of the greatest importance with re-gard to the arrangement of my apparatusis that the lights, notwithstanding its bril-liancy, does not in any way interfere withthe safe navigation of the ship by blindingor dazzling the eyesight of the officer andlookout man on watch during signallingoperations. A seaman is taught from hisboyhood to 'douse' or 'blind' any and alllights forward of the navigation bridge thatare in any way likely to prove detrimentalto the maintenance of a strict lookout. Itis unfortunate to notice that the signallight most universally used on board alarge number of modern steamers is indirect opposition to this requirement.Thoselamps consist of a more naked light, whoserays are allowed to flash all round thehorizon indiscriminately. They are mountedon a staff on the navigation bridge withina few feet of the officer responsible for thesafety of the ship. It is recognised by themanagement of the" Adelaide SteamshipCompany, who, like the Union SteamshipCompany, and other large Australian steam-ship lines which cater with regard to detailfor the preservation of their property, thatthis is a very undesirable class of lamp tohave on their ships. I am gratified to knowthat the lamp has proved itself safe in thisdirection.
"When sending our messages we employthe Morse telegraph code, consisting oflong and short flashes of light, and in theconstruction of my lamp I have found itnecessary to employ a pair of lateral move-ment crescent-shape aluminium shutters.These are, in my opinion, the only efficientmeans of making the short flashes instan-taneously and 0f the same penetratingpower as the longer exposed long flash.Light depending on the make and break ofan electrical current, without shutters, failsto do this. Wear and tear of working partshas been with me an item of consideration,and by a balancing movement in conjunc-tion with gravitv this has been eliminatedto a great degree. There is no iron usedin the lamp's construction and mountingto cause any deflection of the compass.The whole contrivance is made of brass,and is of neat appearance and in keepingwith other navigational apparatus to be seenon the navigational bridge of modern upto-date steamers. I have fitted nearly allthe ships of the Adelaide Steamship Com-pany, both passenger and cargo, and alsoships of the Huddart Parker, HowardSmith, and the Union Company of New Zea-land fleets, as well as a number of overseasteamers. Several lighthouses on the Aus-tralian coast are likewise supplied, while Ihave booked orders from several local ship-ping companies."
Conversations were held with many pass-ing steamers during the voyage to Adelaideand the Orient steamer Ophir, whichwas met in the darkness just as she wasentering Port Phillip Heads, gave by meansof the signal lamp a long story of the roughweather she had experienced between Fre-mantle and that point.
This is a very illuminating article by a signal lamp expert of the time. It illustrates the limitations of signal lamps used on commercial steamers, circa 1909. A signal light being no more powerful than the rest of the ship's ordinary navigation and deck lights, would to an observer far off blink away quite undecipherably. When Mr. Culvenwell claimed to receive the last three letters 'TAH' from a steamer travelling in the opposite direction, some 5 miles out in poor weather conditions, it is absolutely no surprise to me, given this expert opinion, that the balance of the Morse Code letters naming the vessel were 'undecipherable'. It further suggests that the three letters 'TAH' should be the focus of scrutiny and based on the same argument, were erroneous. Just a small adjustment of the Morse Code dot dash and units interpretation could equally have produced the last three letters 'YRE' - and there is naturally a plethora of variations.
It would have been unusual for two steamers travelling in opposite directions 5 miles apart, in challenging weather conditions, to engage in polite signal exchanges i.e. respective vessel names - UNLESS, there was a problem on one of the steamers. The crew of the Guelph did not report that the steamer in question was flying signals of distress. The author also made the very important point that exchanging signals at night could blind the eyesight of the officer or lookout man. There seems no reasonable point to a signal exchange under these circumstances, unless it was absolutely necessary.
Mr. James Northcott Culverwell, who was, on the 27th July, 1909, in command of that ship, made an affidavit setting out that at 9.51 p.m. on that date, when abeam of Hood Point (latitude 33º 21' S., longitude 27º 54' E.) on a course N. 52º E. true, his chief officer reported sighting a steamer distant about 5 miles outside the "Guelph," and making out the last three letters of her name as T A H.
A comment made on the following site further puts the tricky operation of exchanging signals into perspective:
It was often the case, depending who was transmitting on the lamp, to miss letters or groups of letters, depending how far apart ships were and if there were rain squalls or the like in between the ships. Sometimes I struggled to read replies after squinting through the Morse Lamp sight and putting it aside as the light affected my vision for a few seconds. It was always best for one person to send and one to read. i.e. two of you. Lastly, a significant element of bias was introduced into the interpretation of the last three letters 'TAH'. The crew of the Guelph were expecting to pass the illustrious Waratah en-route to Durban!!