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Patent model of William Barker's fog signal

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Patent model of William Barker's fog signal
Photo by Hugh Talman, Negative #: 2006-23061


This object appears in the following sections:

Marine Patent Models — Complete Catalog: 1876-1880

Marine Patent Models — Steering the Way

William Barker's fog signal
William Barker's fog signal

Fog signal
Catalog #: 1999.0086.04, Accession #: 1999.0086
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

This model represents William B. Barker's patented design for a machine to control fog horns. In the 1870s, the Hoboken, New Jersey, resident devised a signal system to allow vessels in fog to announce not only their presence to one another, but their headings as well. In Barker's system, a vessel's fog horn or steam whistle would sound a repeating pattern of three or four blasts. The pattern "long, short, short," for example, would reveal that the vessel was headed on a bearing between north and northeast. "Short, short, short, long" meant a heading between west and southwest.

To help mariners use his code with "mathematical precision," Barker developed this fog-signal device. The machine contains a dial, marked off with the points of the compass, on which the operator designates his ship's heading. A foot- or hand-operated pedal inside the box activates a bellows, releasing air to any attached fog horn or steam to any attached steam whistle. At each press of the pedal, a mechanism inside the machine graduates the supply of air or steam, sounding the combination of long and short blasts selected on the compass dial.

Physical Description

Barker's fog signal comprises a wooden box enclosing a leather bellows. The top of the box hinges open to reveal a compass dial and an arrow pointer. The front of the box hinges down to reveal the signaling bellows and the handle and cords to operate it. The box, when closed, is 12 inches high, 11 inches wide, and 10 inches deep.

Date Made:
New Jersey
Purchase from the Farmers' Museum

Collisions in fog led to the loss of many ships and many lives before the widespread adoption of shipboard radar in the 1950s. English sea captain Charles Kennedy commented in 1889, "Each time a collision occurs, the question immediately arises, Can nothing be done to avert these terrible disasters? This has caused many a thoughtful man to make it a subject for study." Kennedy saw William Barker's fog-signal code at an exhibit in Liverpool, England, in 1879. "Being then in command of the White Star steamer 'Germanic,' I was instructed by the company to inspect [Barker's code] and make my report accordingly. I did so thoroughly, and, being convinced of its utility, I strongly favored its adoption." Although Barker's code gained the approval of the British Admiralty and Board of Trade, it was not adopted by any nation as a life-saving measure. "Several codes have since been introduced by others," Kennedy continued, "but they were too complicated, and more liable to cause mishaps than to prevent them."

Barker the inventor may be the same William Barker of Hoboken who appears in the 1880 United States Census. A machinist, he was born in Massachusetts in 1841 to English parents; he and his wife Mary had two sons. Although Captain Kennedy refers to him in 1889 as "Captain Barker," the man's seafaring experience is unknown.


William B. Barker, Fog Signal, U.S. patent no. 216,820, June 24, 1879.

1880 United States Census, NARA film no. T9-0786, 223B.

Capt. C. W. Kennedy, et al., "Fog-Signals at Sea," North American Review, v. 148, no. 389 (April 1889).

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