Regimental Division,
Office Chief of Signal

United States Army Signal Center, Fort Gordon, GA
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Signal Corps History

Albert James Myer, an Army doctor, first conceived the idea of a separate, trained professional military signal service. He proposed that the Army use his visual communications system called "wigwag" while serving as a medical officer in Texas in 1856. When the Army adopted his system June 21, 1860, the Signal Corps was born with Myer as the first and only Signal officer.

MAJ Myer first used his visual signaling system on active service in New Mexico during the 1860-1861 Navajo expedition. Using flags for daytime signaling and a torch at night, wigwag was tested in Civil War combat in June 1861 to direct the fire of a harbor battery at Fort Calhoun (Fort Wool) against the Confederate positions opposite Fort Monroe. Until March 3, 1863, when Congress authorized a regular Signal Corps for the duration of the war, Myer was forced to rely on detailed personnel. Some 2,900 officers and enlisted men served, albeit not at any one time, in the Civil War Signal Corps.

Myer's Civil War innovations included an unsuccessful balloon experiment at First Bull Run and, in response to McClellan's desire for a Signal Corps field telegraph train, an electric telegraph in the form of the Beardslee magnetoelectric telegraph machine. Even in the Civil War the wigwag system, dependent upon line-of-sight, was waning in the face of the electric telegraph.

The electric telegraph, in addition to visual signaling, became a Signal Corps responsibility in 1867. Within 12 years, the Corps had constructed, and was maintaining and operating some 4,000 miles of telegraph lines along the country's western frontier.

In 1870, the Signal Corps established a congressionally mandated national weather service. With the assistance of LT Adolphus Greely, Chief Signal Officer BG Myer, by the time of his death in 1880, commanded a weather service of international acclaim. The weather bureau became part of the Department of Agriculture in 1891, while the Corps retained responsibility for military meteorology.

The Signal Corps' role in the Spanish American War of 1898 and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection was on a grander scale than it had been in the Civil War. In addition to visual signaling, including heliograph, the Corps supplied telephone and telegraph wire lines and cable communications, fostered the use of telephones in combat, employed combat photography, and renewed the use of balloons. Shortly after the war, the Signal Corps constructed the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), introducing the first wireless telegraph in the Western Hemisphere.

On Aug. 1, 1907, an Aeronautical Division was established within the office of the Chief Signal Officer. In 1908, the Wright brothers made test flights of the Army's first airplane built to Signal Corps' specifications. Army aviation remained within the Signal Corps until 1918, when it became the Army Air Service.

The Signal Corps lost no time in meeting the challenges of World War I. Chief Signal Officer MG George Squier worked closely with private industry to perfect radio tubes while creating a major signal laboratory at Camp Alfred Vail (Fort Monmouth). Early radiotelephones developed by the Signal Corps were introduced into the European theater in 1918. While the new American voice radios were superior to the radiotelegraph sets, telephone and telegraph remained the major technology of World War I.

A pioneer in radar, COL William Blair, director of the Signal Corps laboratories at Fort Monmouth, patented the first Army radar demonstrated in May 1937. Even before the United States entered World War II, mass production of two radar sets, the SCR-268 and the SCR-270, had begun. Along with the Signal Corps' tactical FM radio, also developed in the 1930s, radar was the most important communications development of World War II.

The Signal Corps' Project Diana, in 1946, successfully bounced radar signals off the moon, paving the way for space communications. On Dec. 18, 1958, with Air Force assistance, the Signal Corps launched its first communications satellite, Project SCORE, demonstrating the feasibility of worldwide communications in delayed and real-time mode by means of relatively simple active satellite relays. Meanwhile the Korean conflict cut short an all-too-brief peace.

Korea's terrain and road nets, along with the distance and speed with which communications were forced to travel, limited the use of wire. The Signal Corps' VHF radio became the "backbone" of tactical communications throughout the conflict.

The Vietnam War's requirement for high-quality telephone and message circuits led to the Signal Corps' deployment of tropospheric-scatter radio links that could provide many circuits between locations more than 200 miles apart. Other developments included the SYNCOM satellite communications service and a commercial fixed-station system known as the Integrated Wideband Communications System, the Southeast Asia link in the Defense Communications System.

Today communications systems and facilities are still evolving as the Signal Corps continues the commitment to its regimental insignia's motto, "Watchful for the Country." A major program in 1988 was the initial production and deployment phase of the mobile-subscriber equipment system. MSE, along with other innovations, in LTG Bruce Harris' words "exemplify the dynamics of ... [the Signal Corps'] ever-increasing mission and responsibilities in supporting our Army. The professional challenge that these initiatives represent in not new to our Signal Corps. Our history is dominated by rapid change. ..." As in the past, the Signal Corps (Regiment) "will continue to ... [meet] these challenges with distinction."

Excerpted from "The Signal Corps and the U.S. Army Regimental System" by Dr. Kathy Rae Coker, command historian, Signal Center and Fort Gordon, November 1989.

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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