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Fire & Freezing - smoke signals

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Molly Cule
331260.  Tue May 06, 2008 5:33 am Reply with quote

Smoke Signals

Native Americans

Smoke signals were used by Native American Indians to send messages. There was no standardized code for these signals. When used to send secret messages the signs were devised privately to suit a particular end by the transmitting person and the receiver. Since anyone could see the signals, unless there was a secret significance the information would be conveyed to friend and enemy alike.

However, despite this, there were a few more or less recognized smoke signals including the following; one puff meant ATTENTION, two puffs meant ALL'S WELL, three puffs of smoke, or three fires in a row, signified DANGER, TROUBLE OR A CALL FOR HELP.

Amongst the Apache, the sighting of one puff quickly losing its geometric shape indicated that a strange party had been spotted approaching. If those " puffs" were frequent and rapidly repeated, it transmitted the message that "the stranger approaching" was in fact many in number and armed.

To send messages over long distances tribes would make a chain of fire to send the message across the land.

There was a method to smoke signaling. First sending stations were built on top of hills, so that the signals could be seen from a long distance away. Fires were built in what are now called ‘fire bowls’; saucer shaped holes about 5 feet across lined with stones to stop the fire from escaping. Poles were laid over the ‘bowls’ with skins attached. These skins were used to fashion the smoke from the fire into signals. Smoke could be made to curl in spirals, ascend in puffs, circles, and even parallel lines. Some signals resembled the letter V or Y and some were zigzag.

Some of these " fire bowls" have been mapped and studied, in particular those that lay in close proximity to the " Warrior Path" that ran between encampments of Shawnee near the Scioto River and Ohio River near Richmondale. This ridge and " path" of location ranges from elevations of 600-900 feet.

It is possible that Magellan saw smoke signals as he was approaching Tierra del Fuego (Land of Smoke), although he may well have seen the smoke or lights of natural phenomena. The local Yámana tribe (now extinct) used fire to send messages by smoke signals, for instance if a whale drifted ashore. The large amount of meat required notification of many people, so that it would not decay.

Indian sign language

Native American Indians of the Plains communicated through sign language. It was a way to communicate between tribal groups irrespective of differences in their spoken languages. Little Raven, once head chief of the Southern Arapahoes said ‘The summer after President Lincoln was illed we had a grand gathering of all tribes to the east and south of us. Twenty five different tribes met near old Fort Abercrombie on the Wichita River. The Caddos had a different sign for horse, and also for moving, but the rest were made the same by all the tribes’. This language was probably the first American language and the may be the only American universal language.


Smoke signals used to be sent from the towers of the Great Wall of China by soldiers stations there. They used a mixture of wolf dung, saltpeter and sulfur to create dense smoke that's easily seen from a distance. By passing the message from tower to tower, they were able to relay a communiqué as far as 300 miles in only a few hours.

Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts of America are taught to use three puffs of smoke as a signal of distress. They can also use three gun-shots or three whistles.
The number three, whether in shots, fires, whistles or smokes, is the distress signal of all woodsmen plainsmen, and outdoor people in general.

Papal Conclave

Smoke signals are used during the process of choosing a new Pope to tell the crowds gathered in St Peter’s square whether or not a decision has been made. 15-20 days after the death of the incumbent the Cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel under the Last Judgement. They are not allowed to leave until a Pope is chosen. There are a series of ballots, and after each one they burn the ballot papers. The Cardinals add chemicals (since 1958) or traditionally would add a bit of damp straw to the paper to make the smoke black if they haven't got a winner, or leave it white if they have so that crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square can know whether of not a new Pope has been chosen. Since 2005, a bell is to be rung after a successful election in case the colour of the smoke is ambiguous.
This process can go on for a long time: in 1271 they went on voting for 33 months, until the populace called in builders to wall them up and remove the roof (ostensibly to make it easier for the Holy Spirit to get in). After that they introduced a system whereby the Cardinals were locked in and put on rations that dwindled gradually to bread and water. It worked: the next Pope was chosen in a day. For the duration of the Conclave each cardinal is assigned a 'cell', some of which have showers (these are obviously quite sought after).
When John Paul I was elected in 1978, the chimney leaked black smoke into the chamber causing a lot of coughing amongst the cardinals.
The conclave is the oldest ongoing method for choosing the leader of an institution.

Australian Aborigines

Australian Aborigines would send up smoke to notify others of their presence, particularly when entering lands which were not their own. However, these were not complex signals; smoke simply told others where you were located.

The Noon Gun, South Africa

The Noon Gun has been used to keep time in Cape Town, South Africa since 1806. The gun is situated on Signal Hill, close to the centre of the city. Traditionally the gun would be fired so that ships at sea and in port could check their chronometers were accurate; they would look for smoke from the gun rather than the sound because light travels much faster than sound. Nowadays the gun is fired remotely at noon, from the master clock in the South African Astronomical Observatory.

The Greeks

According to Polybius, the Greeks lit torches to send signals. They had a code which involved splitting the letters of the alphabet into 5 groups of 5 letters and signalling using the held of ten torch bearers. The way they did it went a little like this;
You construct a diagram something like this:
Since the Greek alphabet only has 24 letters, the issue of what to do about Z didn't arise. Then, you note that E is in Row 1, Column 5, so to send an E one displayed one torch and then five torches.
To write the word Alan you would signal – 1 torch, 1 torch, 3-2, 1,1, 3,4.

716356.  Sat Jun 05, 2010 4:04 pm Reply with quote

Very QI indeed. I never gave smoke-signals much thought, you just read about them in the Karl May/Fenimore Cooper books. Not a bad thing to know; if you're stuck in the middle of nowhere/wilderness and don't have reception for your mobile, just a bit of kindling wood and moss.... but perhaps that's too simple?

And the following on protracted pope-elections made me giggle. I can think of quite a few occasions where that should be used.

This process can go on for a long time: in 1271 they went on voting for 33 months, until the populace called in builders to wall them up and remove the roof (ostensibly to make it easier for the Holy Spirit to get in). After that they introduced a system whereby the Cardinals were locked in and put on rations that dwindled gradually to bread and water. It worked: the next Pope was chosen in a day.


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