weeks passed
weeks to go


Right click and save each item.

Week 19: Signs and Symbols

[ View the related 'Weekly Post': Week 19: Signs and Symbols ]








Portland Bill Lighthouse

This week a number of the journal entries make reference to sending and receiving written communication in the form of letters. In week 3 we learnt about the postal system in England in 1836, but what were some of the other forms of communication used during this time? How were signs and symbols used to communicate, both on shore and at sea during the 19th century, and are they still used today?

Inquiry Questions:

  • On the 30th June, the Cygnet diary entry states that 'the custom house flag was set on the fore mast.' What do you think was meant by this and why would such a flag have been raised?
  • Examine a boating vessel used today and locate the different signs and symbols used or displayed. How do these compare to those in 1836?
  • How are signs and symbols used to communicate messages at sea?
  • How has technology changed the use of signs and symbols at sea? Explore both written and non written forms of communication.

Research Topics:

  • Last week on the John Pirie, reference was made to hoisting the colours. What does this mean?
  • Did the ‘colours’ differ on each ship?
  • A figurehead is an ornamental head, butt or figure mounted on the bow of sailing ships. These were very common in the nineteenth century and were originally believed to ensure a safe voyage. Research the history behind the figureheads and their vessels located at the South Australian Maritime Museum.

Historical Skills:

Chronology, terms and concepts:

  • What is cryptanalysis? When would it have been used?
  • Reseach the evolution of communication in the 19th Century. How has it changed? What were the significant changes that occured? How have these changes impacted on the daily lives of individuals and the world? How do you think we will communicate with others in the future?

Historical questions and research:

  • Did you know that by the end of the 19th century, much of the world was wired for communication? What do you think this means? How were telegraph cables installed to enable communication between continents?
  • Select a ship and map the voyage from departure up until this week. Is this vessel likely to have passed a lighthouses on their route? Select a lighthouse either from England or Australia, and research the history of it. 

Analysis and use of sources:

  • What are some of the ways hearing and visually impaired people give and receive communication? Invite a guest to talk to your class about sign language or Braille. Can you use these forms of communication effectively?

Perspectives and interpretations:

  •  Are there any forms of communication that are similar, that could be misread at sea?
  • Design your own figurehead for a sailing ship. What significant features would be included to make it unique for your ship?

Explanation and communication:

  • Learn about the different forms of communication at sea. What are the pros and cons of using each method?
  • Develop a list of the different ways you communicate with your friends. Include communication forms such as social networks. Survey your class to find out which is the most common form of communication. Develop a class graph to show the different forms. Remember to include all the required features on your graph, including a title, axis and labels.
  • Develop your own form of communication, including a description of how to decipher the message. Ask your friend to work out the message you are tying to convey.
  • SOS is an acronym used by vessels in distress. What are some other acronyms commonly used today?


Activity Suggestions:

  1. Symbols are created to covey a message and have meaning. We see symbols everywhere in our lives, and when we see particular signs or symbols, without any thought relate these to a place, object or person. Look through a magazine to locate signs or symbols that do not contain words. Show these to others in your class and conduct a survey to find out which symbols are the most recognizable. Do you think your research would differ with different genders and age groups? Give reasons for your answers.
  2. Morse code was invented in 1837 by an American named Samuel Morse. It is a coded signal for help that is used still today by ships, planes and people in trouble. Learn the codes used to transmit each letter of the alphabet. What does the acronym SOS stand for? Did you know that it is the easiest code to send and recognise. Which other words are easy to transmit with Morse code? Develop a coded message and ask a partner to tap it out to you.
  3. Find out about the ways you can signal for help from a boat. Are these signals the same internationally?
  4. Semaphore is a form of communication used at sea to convey a message from a distance. It involves using flags that are red and yellow to signal between ships at sea, and are blue and white for signalling to and from land. Learn more about the flags at sea and make your own Semaphore flags. Can you use these to relay a message to a friend?
  5. Codes have been used for many years in shipping, both as an open form of communication and to relay secret messages. Develop your own code with instructions on how to deciper a message. Ask a friend to use the instructions to decipher your message.
  6. Look at the Surf Lifesaving Australia website, or invite a surf lifesaver to talk about the signals used to communicate on our beaches. Use a Venn Diagram to compare the forms of communication used by vessels at sea to those that are used on the beach today.
  7. Use images to create a collage that conveys a message. Include as many forms of communication as you can in your collage. Write an accompanying text to support your work.
  8. Did you know that children, between the ages of 12 and 16 can apply for a restricted boat licence in South Australia? To gain your licence you need to pass a test, which includes questions about signs, signals and communication at sea. Have a look at The South Australian Recreational Boating Safety Book to prepare for the test.
  9. Lighthouses send an important message to ships and vessels. Did you know that the Egyptians are thought to have invented the first lighthouse? What is the purpose of a lighthouse and why are they located in specific places. Use a map of South Australia and map the locations of  lighthouses along the coast line.

What if?

A ship experienced trouble at sea and there was no way to communicate a distress signal with others? What practices were in place to best ensure the safety of passengers in times of distress?

What do you think?

Which do you think is the biggest form of danger at sea, fog, fire or a storm? Give reasons for your answer.

Stay Tuned:

Next week we learn about superstitions at sea and the reasons behind these. A number of unfortunate events happen in the coming weeks, including the delayed departure of the Cygnet from Rio, more illness and death. How did people’s beliefs affect their interpretations of these events?

Share this page:

Comments or Questions:

No comments yet.