Building a Murray Semaphore

The British expedition sailing to St Domingue in 1795 brought not only more than 18.000 men, but also twenty-four modular two storey timber block houses as well as the latest invention in communication technology: a semaphore.

This was almost certainly a Murray semaphore. Its inventor, Lord George Murray, had been inspired by news of the optical telegraph system pioneered by Claude Chappe and adopted by the French government in 1793. However, while Chappe’s system was based on moveable wooden arms, Murray’s worked differently. It was based on a shutter mechanism: A wooden frame contained six ‘windows’ with moveable shutters, which could be moved by means of ropes. The code was made up of different combinations between closed and opened shutters.

Lord Murray's semaphore system.
Lord Murray’s semaphore system.

Murray’s system was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1796 and several semaphore lines were built in England as well as overseas. For example, there are still towers to be found in India. Usually, the semaphore frame was erected on a building that was situated at the top of a small hill.

Each semaphore station had a compartment of four men: one on each window and two on the ropes that moved the shutters. Signals could be transmitted at an astonishingly high speed: A message from London to Portsmouth took no more than 15 minutes.

Working the semaphore.
Working the semaphore.

Wouldn’t such a semaphore make a great objective for all kinds of scenarios? No sooner had I read about it, I immediately set myself the task of building one.

As always, I built the main structure out of balsa wood. It’s easy to work with, reasonably cheap and very lightweight. To make it easier to store, I wanted the shutter frame to be removable, so I made a small socket on the inside of one wall.

The basic body of the semaphore.
The basic body of the semaphore.

The frame was built out of matchsticks. Small holes for the pieces of wire, which serve as axles for the shutters, were drilled with the model drill. The shutters themselves were made of pieces of balsa wood.

The next step was to cover the basic building with matchsticks. I really like to work with them and they give a nice rough wooden texture. For the windows I used tiny dice frames from Minibits. The roof planking was made of small strips of balsa wood. Before painting, the cabin and the frame were copiously covered with thinned down PVA glue. This not only helps the paint to stick but also makes the structure much more robust.

The building was then painted in a dark brownish grey (Stormvermin Fur for those using Citadel paints) and drybrushed with several layers of browns and greys. After varnishing, I rigged the shutter system with black polyester yarn.

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I’m really happy with the outcome and I’m looking forward to featuring it in a scenario. Maybe a British contingent has to accompany a repair party to a broken semaphore station. Could there be an ambush? Watch this space for more…

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4 thoughts on “Building a Murray Semaphore

  1. Mike Peterson May 22, 2015 / 3:03 pm

    Terrific piece of scratch building and very useful for Sharpe Practice or similar games. Well done.

    • cptshandy May 22, 2015 / 3:20 pm

      Thanks Mike, much appreciated!

    • cptshandy May 23, 2015 / 10:28 am

      Thanks Tony!

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