Martha Jane <I>Hunt</I> Coston

Martha Jane Hunt Coston

Baltimore, Baltimore City, Maryland, USA
Death 9 Jul 1904 (aged 77)
Washington, District of Columbia, District Of Columbia, USA
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Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA
Plot Section D, Lot 62
Memorial ID 42249277 · View Source
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Inventor. Born Martha Jane Hunt, when she was a young child her father died, and her mother moved the family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania because of its reputation for good schools. At age 14 she met a scientist/inventor named Benjamin Franklin Coston, whom she soon married. The newlyweds moved to Washington, D.C., where Benjamin had been appointed Master in the United States Naval Service to oversee the Navy's laboratory located in the nation's capital. He was working on numerous projects, one of which led to the successful development of a novel cannon percussion primer. However, a disagreement arose between the Navy and Benjamin as to the compensation he should receive for the Navy's adoption of this new type of primer, so in August 1847 he resigned from the Navy and moved Martha and their growing family to Boston, Massachusetts. Although still in his twenties, Benjamin became president of the Boston Gas Company, and he soon demonstrated his merit by refining the process for the manufacture of sylvic gaslights. However, this work with toxic chemicals exacerbated the health problems he had already incurred from working with similar substances in experiments conducted at the Navy laboratory. His condition proved fatal: Benjamin Franklin Coston died in November 1848. Not yet 22 years old, the now widowed Martha was left with four young children to support, so she moved back to the Philadelphia area to be close to her family. Within two years after losing her husband, her loss was compounded by the deaths of her mother and two of her children. Moreover, she found herself nearly destitute due to the duplicity of a relative who "misplaced" her money. Driven not only by financial necessity, but also the desire to further her late husband's work, the she began searching through his papers, where she discovered some preliminary notes for a new invention - signal flares that could be used by ships at sea. Martha spent a number of years searching for the pyrotechnical means and expertise by which this idea could be developed to a marketable, effective product with an accompanying signaling system. With the help of pyrotechnicians whom she recruited from New York City, she finally was ready to file for patent in 1859. However, given the gender prejudices of the time, the patent was filed under the name of her husband, although he had been deceased for more than a decade. Martha then proceeded to market her product assertively. Later that year, when negotiations with the United States government were unsuccessful, she went to Europe to sell the patent for her signal flares to Great Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands. She remained abroad until the outbreak of the Civil War. It was not until August 5, 1861, after the First Battle of Bull Run, when it became evident that the Civil War would be a prolonged conflict, that the United States Congress finally authorized the purchase of the Martha's patent by the Navy. Even then, because she was a female, she was awarded only half the asking price. Furthermore, throughout the war the Coston Company provided the flares to the Navy at cost, which increasingly meant producing at a loss because of the impact of wartime inflation upon the cost of materials. Despite this, the supply of flares to the Navy never faltered. The Coston flares were so bright that they could be seen at night from a distance of 15 to 20 miles away at sea, and the system used but three colors (red, white, and green) in various patterns for its communication codes. The Coston flares were used successfully for ship-to-shore or ship-to-ship communications by Union ships and were a major factor in helping to enforce the blockade of Southern shipping. They were are especially credited as a decisive factor promoting Union victory in the two-day naval battle at Fort Fisher, North Carolina, in January, 1865. After the War she continued to work on improving the Coston flares, and in 1871, she obtained a patent under her own name (Patent No. 115,935, Improvement in Pyrotechnic Night Signals). She also filed to receive additional compensation from the government: she estimated that her company was owed $120,000 for the millions of flares supplied during the War. After a decade of wrangling, she was finally awarded only $15,000 in additional reimbursement. Meanwhile, the demand for Coston signals remained high, as it was used widely by the United States Life Saving Service (precursor to the United States Coast Guard), by private boating clubs and commercial shipping lines, as well as by foreign navies. Coston-type flares and the signaling system Martha developed are still used today around the world by meteorologists, navies, and private ship owners to signal distress at sea or to communicate at night.

Bio by: Kerry Bryan

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Russ Dodge
  • Added: 22 Sep 2009
  • Find A Grave Memorial 42249277
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Martha Jane Hunt Coston (12 Dec 1826–9 Jul 1904), Find A Grave Memorial no. 42249277, citing Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .