History of the US Army Signal Corps

In the history of American warfare, a well-managed communication system has always been an important tool to victory. The ability to effectively convey vital information from the command center to the frontlines helps soldiers to strike enemies with certainty and win wars. Tactical communications can direct major deployment of troops during combat, execute battle plans more efficiently, send reinforcements faster, and perform successful retrieval operations. With communication, every move is coordinated to ensure conquest in the battlefield as military forces are constantly updated with intelligence and instructions how to attack.

Along with this communication structure are various electronic devices that transmit countless messages from commanders to combatants. As war progresses through the centuries, its nature becomes more complex and the demand for advanced communication system began to multiply. The early period of communications in war found its way to the United States Army Signal Corps whose creation has led to the rapid development of communication equipment from simple hand signals to telegraph to satellite technologies. This unique division of the Army has participated in many American wars providing the voice of command.

Its role and strength expanded globally during World War II as the division assisted the construction of the Army’s communication system stations outside the U. S. The Corps significantly contributed in securing and navigating the movements of fighter planes, soldiers, supplies, and machineries to combat zones. Today, the Signal Corps continues its mission of supporting the U. S. Armed Forces with sophisticated network of communications that integrates all operations giving the army dominance of information management during conflicts. Under the motto “Watchful for the Country”, the Corps’ foundation has been tested by wars.

Despite problems in the organization, its effectiveness remains undisputed and is ready to face the challenges of the future. The Early Years The story of the Signal Corps began with Major 1Albert James Myer, an assistant surgeon in the U. S. army, whose fascination with sign language led him to invent a technique and device of signal communications. He then conceived the idea of creating a separate division in the army that would specialize in signal service. After careful examination of his system, Congress approved in 1859 the production of such equipment for field signals.

The army adopted Myer’s system and in June 21, 1860, the U. S. Army Signal Corps was born with Maj. Myer as the first Chief Signal Officer. Together with his men, Myer went on expeditions in New Mexico to practice, test, and further develop the signaling system. The visual signaling or “WigWag” used flags by day and torches or lantern by night. These were waved from side using a code that translated letters into numbers, which then corresponded to movements of the flags. There were two different translation codes: a four element code and two element code (Standen, 1996, ¶25). The codes were then deciphered by the officers.

Signal stations were often located at the top of hills or mountains so that the messages could be easily read by the receiving stations. The initial stage of the Corps’ organizational structure was irregular with no definite number of personnel and officers. However, its functions and size grew. Its popularity and demand prompted military leaders to establish instruction camps to train signalers for the Civil War that was taking place that time. Myer was relieved of his army duties in May 1861 and was tasked to set up the Signal Camp of Instruction at Red Hill in Georgetown, D.

C. Both the Union and Confederate armies had their own sets of signal corps and applied different styles of signaling. By the end of the war, there were 300 officers and 2,500 men serving in the Signal Corps. In 1863, Congress formally recognized the Corps and their valuable contribution during wartime. The activities of the Corps were innovation in military practice. In the past, maintaining efficient signal communication during war had eluded many commanders until Myer’s formation of the Signal Corps was realized.

The waving flag and torch of Myer were the first contribution to the solution of the problem which were efficient without cumbersome machinery, and while so simple as to be easily extemporized from any chance materials were yet capable of performing every service which they could be called upon to render (Glassford, 2002, ¶1). During the war, the two Signal Corps of both sides developed a cipher system that could decode each other’s messages. Myer was able to invent a cipher wheel for the Union army that could encode and decode signals quickly.

Later he exploited the potentials of electric telegraph for use in the army employing the Beardslee magneto-electric type of telegraph machine. This piece of equipment was then considered a major breakthrough in military communications. For 12 years beginning in 1867, the Corps built and operated an estimated 4,000 miles of telegraph lines along the western border of the country. In 1870, Congress gave the Signal Corps added responsibility of performing weather service to the country. However, in 1891 that service was turned over to the Department of Agriculture.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 followed by the Philippine Revolution, the Corps undertook massive operations bigger than the Civil War using visual signaling and heliograph (mirrors). In addition, the division installed telegraph wire lines and cable connections using telephones in battle to foster effective means of communications. They also utilized photography. By the time the war ended, the Signal Corps has launched the first wireless telegraph with the construction of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS).

Political and military leaders never anticipated the demand for the Corps but as war emerged the importance of its mission was felt strongly through the corridors of power. As America faced new battles, the Signal Corps was ever ready to support the U. S. army. A new section in 1907 was added to the office of the Chief Signal Officer, which was the Aeronautical Division. The Signal Corps designed the first Army’s airplanes where in 1908 the Wright Brothers made the test flight. The division remained with the Corps until 1918 when it became the Army Air Service.

As World War I began, the Corps constructed a signal laboratory in Forth Monmouth where they invented and improved more radio communications. Telephones and telegraphs were still the major technology during the war. This time the Corps was headed by Chief Signal Officer George Owen Squier. Furthermore, the Signal Corps were able to make the first Army radar sets in 1937, the SCR-268 and SCR-270. The new inventions were widely used during World War II as defense against incoming aerial bombardment.

By 1941, the Corps created the SCR-510 or the FM backpack radio that provided troops at the combat zone with reliable communications at the same time assisted allied forces in Europe with multi-channel FM radio relay sets. By December 1942, the Corps’ laboratory in Fort Monmouth had 14,518 military and civilian employees. The division accumulated strength and rendered its service across the globe during the war. Increasingly as 1942 progressed, Signal Corps men were moving out all over the world to assist the global expansion of the Army Air Forces…

Toward both missions, air ferrying and air combat, the Signal Corps contributed heavily (Thompson, 1957, p. 277). From 1941 to 1946, 21,033 Signal Corps 2nd Lieutenants completed their training at the Signal Corps Officer Candidate School in Fort Monmouth. The Corps continued to do research on electronic communications for Army use during peace time until the Cold War ignited between the U. S. and the former Soviet Union. In the Korean War, the Corps faced serious challenges of developing new strategies to locate and destroy mortar sites.

However, the division managed to develop the Mortar-Radar Locator but very limited on the use of wires due to Korea’s rugged terrains and difficult road networks. As a result, the Corps made the VHF radio that became the strength of tactical communications throughout the war. To operate the new equipment, the Signal Corps established training units such as the 9614th and 9615th to instruct troops on the use of firing systems of Anti-Aircraft Artillery and Guided Missile. The Signal Corps launched in 1958 Project SCORE, its first communication satellite that made possible global communications in both real-time and delayed mode.

The Corps further invented more communication systems during the Vietnam War when the demand for high-quality telephone and circuitry was high to suit the country’s geographic structures. This led to the development of a tropospheric-scatter radio links that could span over 200 miles apart supplying troops with uninterrupted communications. What’s more, the Corps also invented the SYNCOM satellite communications service and the Integrated Wideband Communication System, and the Southeast Asia Link in the Defense Communication System.

For the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Signal Corps were able to train 3,447 officers from 1950 to 1968. The division was rocked by scandals of subversive activities when former employees were arrested for passing secret information to the Soviet Union. Government and military officials believed that there was a spy ring inside the Signal Corps and conducted an extensive investigation. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who worked in the laboratory, were apprehended in 1950 while two other scientists, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant defected to the Soviets.

Despite the ups and downs of the Signal Corps, it remained true to its mission since the time the division was created. Members of the Corps consistently provided the combined armed forces of the United States from the Army to the Navy to the Air force to the Marines with effective and dependable communication systems and equipment that enabled victory in times of wars. Because of their dedication, the U. S. army now enjoys superiority in war communications.


Standen, Iain Lt. Col. (1996). Flag, Lanterns, Rockets and Wires: Signalling in the American Civil War.Signal Corps Association (1860-1865). Retrieved July 23, 2007, from http://scard. buffnet. net/pages/signal/signalpages/standen. html Glassford, W. A. Lt. (2002). The Signal Corps. The Army of the United States Historical Sketches of Staff and Line with Portraits of Generals-in-Chief. Retrieved July 23, 2007, from http://www. army. mil/cmh-pg/books/R&H/R&H-SC. htm Thompson, G. R. (1957). The Signal Corps: The Test (December 1941 to July 1943). Office of the Chief of Military History. Washington, DC.