Smoke Signals: A History & How-To Guide

An in depth guide covering the history of smoke signals and how to send them. Smoke Signals: A History & How-To Guide thegearhunt.com

Smoke signals are one of the oldest forms of communication when it comes to communicating over long distances. This is a sort of visual communication that is used to gather people together in a common area, to signal danger, or to transmit news.

A Few Short Instances of When They Were Used

China

Back in ancient China, the soldiers who were stationed on the Great Wall used smoke signals to alert the other soldiers of attacking enemies. By doing this, they could send the news as far as 470 miles away in a matter of hours.

However, the smoke signals were abused, and this led to the fall of a dynasty back in the 8th century BCE. See, the king at the time, You of Zhou, would use the signals to fool his warlords with bogus warning beacons. He did this to amuse his concubine, Bao Si, who was known for her beauty. Then, an actual rebellion occurred, but nobody came to his aid. It was a classic case of the boy who cried wolf.

Greece

Polybius was a Greek historian. He devised a complex system for alphabetical smoke signals back in 150 BCE. This essentially converted the alphabetic characters of Greece into characters that were numeric. This allowed for messages to be signaled easily simply by holding sets of lit torches in pairs. The idea, which is known by the name “Polybius Square”, is also to be found in the basis of steganography and cryptography. It is a cryptographic concept that has been used as recently as WWI with the Germans and the Japanese Hiragana.

Native Americans

The indigenous people of North America also used smoke signals to communicate. Each one of the tribes had their own system for signaling and meanings. The signaler would start a fire on a high point of the land, using damp grass. This would cause quite a bit of smoke. As the grass dried, it would be taken out of the fire and replaced by another bundle of damp grass. According to legend, the location of this smoke in relation to where on the incline it was conveyed meaning. For example, if it was from only ½ way up a hill, it might signify that everything was ok. However, if it came from the top of the hill, it might mean that there was danger in the area.

Smoke signals actually do still get used today. Take Vatican City for example. When the Pope dies and a new one has to be elected, the College of Cardinals utilizes smoke signals to tell whether or not a new Pope has been elected. This is during something called the Papal Conclave. The voting cardinals conduct an incredibly secret ballot that continues until one person gets a vote of 2/3 +1. Those ballots are burned following each vote. If there is black smoke, that means there is still no Pope. White smoke means that they have elected the next Pope.

Native Americans

The journals of Lewis and Clark cited quite a few occasions of them using the Native American way of setting the very plains on fire in order to let local tribes know that they were there and wanted to meet with them.

Yamana

 The Yamanas, found in South America, used fire to assist them with sending messages using smoke. For example, say a dead whale beached on the shore near them. They would use smoke signals to notify tribes around them of the whale so that they could all work together to harvest the meat before it decayed. They also used smoke signals for other occasions. It is said that Magellan saw these fires and that they were the inspiration for him naming the place Tierra del Fuego. However, he may also have seen lights from natural phenomena.

Australian Aborigines

Aborigines in the Western Desert of Australia used to send smoke signals in order to let other tribes know that they were there, specifically when they were getting ready to enter lands that did not belong to them. “Putting a smoke up” conveyed the messages and would also lead to nearby groups or individuals replying with signals of their own.

Aviation

Even today, smoke signals are used to communicate. Just think about skywriting. What do you think that is?

As Communication

Native Americans are by far not the only group of people to use smoke signals as a form of communication. As you just read, Chinese people used to use them. Also, the Boy Scouts of America use them. Using smoke signals as a way to communicate means that puffs of smoke are created by using a blanket and a fire. If you ever need to use smoke signals, you will need to be in an area that will be visible by whomever you are trying to contact. Also, they are typically transmitted from the top of a mountain or hill.

The actual meaning of smoke signals isn’t typically as clear as with other types of communication. There isn’t a general code. There is no standard meaning for the type of the puffs of smoke, or for the different numbers and shapes of those puffs. The reason for this is one that is simple. It is because often, the enemies could also see the smoke signals. This is the reason that the code was always predetermined by the receiver and the sender.

Although there isn’t a clear code to deciphering smoke signals, a couple of the messages are common. If you send a single puff of smoke, that is typically used to get attention. 2 puffs of smoke might mean that you are ok. 3 puffs of smoke are used to signal that there is a problem.

The Boy Scouts also use three smoke puffs when they use smoke signals. This is to signal that something is wrong. This is something that they are very serious about. In actuality, they also use three separate fires, three whistles, and/or three gunshots to signal that a boy scout needs help. It is always best that you only ever use this signal if you are in dire straits.

At times, smoke signals have been known to be quite useful. Native Americans and other groups have been able to use them to communicate warnings and other messages from long distances. Yes, technology might have replaced the need for them, but in certain situations, there is still a place for them.

In Movies

Back in the golden age of Hollywood and spaghetti westerns, filmmakers have been known to show Native Americans as a people who were masters when it came to communicating through the use of smoke signals. They used them to send complex messages in a code that was unknown – sort of like an alphabet that shifted in shape and could be seen in the sky. This might have been interesting in movies, but the reality of how they were used really isn’t that complex. They were simply a system of sending messages regarding basic things over distances that could be quite large.

One of the drawbacks to communicating in this fashion that we have already touched on is that they could also be seen by enemies. Because of this, there was not any sort of set code for every transmission. Instead, each tribe of Native Americans had worked out their own code. This way, the meaning of any given message was predetermined by the tribe and only known to the sending and receiving tribe. A tribe might send messages that there was an enemy close by or that sickness had come to the camp. They might also use the puffs of smoke to announce that a battle had been won or lost, or even to call for reinforcements. If they needed to send the signals for distances that were even greater, they would set up chains of fires so that they could relay the message they were trying to send to the next fire and the next, etc.

How the Chinese Did It

Aside from the Native Americans using this for communication, Chinese soldiers did it as well. They did it a bit differently from the Native Americans though. Where the Native Americans used bundles of damp grass for the thick smoke, the Chinese created a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter, and wolf dung in order to create the dense smoke that could be seen easily from a distance. By passing messages from tower to tower on the Great Wall, they had the ability to relay their messages quickly over great distances.

Things like emergency beacons and two-way radios and even cell phones have meant that smoke signals are a thing of the past. However, the Boy Scouts of America still teach their members how to do it. Theirs is quite simple. Three puffs mean that they are in the wilderness and in trouble. The reason they still teach it is in their motto – “Be Prepared”. The thing is, you never really know when something might happen to you and you will be stranded and lost in the woods. That isn’t something that anyone ever plans on. Knowing how to send signals of danger and always being prepared for anything is just good sense for any outdoor enthusiast.

How to Do It

The first thing that is necessary when you want to send smoke signals is a fire. You will need to build this fire on an open area that is as high as you can get. The goal is for the signal to be seen for as many miles away as possible, so a clearing at or near the top of a hill or mountain is a great spot. Once you have built up a good fire, add things like green branches and sticks or even grass to the fire. This will sort of smother your flames while also creating white smoke that is quite dense.

When you are ready to send up your smoke signals, get a blanket and dampen it so that it won’t catch on fire, and then throw it over the fire. Once the trail of smoke has ended, pull off the blanket so that there will be a puff of white smoke, and then put the blanket over the fire once again. This will send a message with one puff. The message it will convey will be between your recipient and yourself. Repeat this action for 2 and 3 puff messages.

This might sound as if it is an incredibly basic form of communicating. However, you need to keep in mind that it is what those puffs of smoke mean that is the important thing. The messages sent by the tribes of Native Americans might have been simple, but they were vastly important. Here is a quick look at what some of the ones sent by the Apache tribe meant.

  • A single puff of smoke was generally a signal to get someone’s attention. It meant that there was something unusual happening, but also that there wasn’t a cause for alarm and there wasn’t any sort of imminent danger. Most of the time it was a signal that meant to watch for more signals.
  • A signal with two puffs of smoke meant that a camp had been safely established and that all was well. It was indicative that they would remain where they were located until further notice. When the camp was one that was permanent, continual two puff messages meant that they were letting neighboring bands be aware that a permanent camp was safe and near. This was a critical message because tribes of Native Americans tended to move camp seasonally according to safety and the availability of resources.
  • Any signal that consisted of three puffs of smoke was a signal for alarm, just as it is today. Native Americans warned each other regarding enemies that were approaching and sometimes the beginning of battles were signaled. Single columns of continuous smoke meant that there was great danger and help was needed immediately.

Smoke signals might seem to be a thing of the past, and they are to an extent. However, if one is all you have to rely on when you are in danger you will be glad to know how to make them.

Sources

  1. YouTube, How to Make a Smoke Signal
  2. Trails, How to Make Smoke Signals
  3. Mental Floss, How to Send Smoke Signals
  4. Hub Pages, Survival Skills: How to Make Smoke Signals
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