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History Article - March 1999


 This unique poem on automatic semaphores by was provided by 
John S. Hobson, II and written by his father in 1919

"When Moses held up his hand Israel prevailed"

Exodus 17-11

While Moses watched the battle tide
On Sinai's desert ebb and flow
His hands were hanging by his side
Till Israel broke before the foe.
He raised his arm, fresh courage burned
Within his people's heart, then they
Re-formed their shattered ranks and turned
Defeat into success that day. 

A signal old as history
Man's outstretched arm for "Stop and Stand!"
He drops it when the way is free
Or beckons with uplifted hand.
So we, created by mankind
To bear a sign on land and main
Predestined by our maker's mind
Hold out an arm to halt the train.

Till danger passes, then we rear
Half up that arm a sign to tell
"For such a space the way is clear
Go cautiously and all is well".
But when for twice that space or more
No danger lurks upon the rail
We point it skyward beckoning for 
The plodding freight or speeding mail.

The sentry guards the slumbering camp,
The lighthouse guides ships on then deep,
Three colors pass before our lamp,
To guard and guide men as they sleep.
While they roll swiftly through the night
With purring rail beneath their bed
Our green and yellow guide their flight
We guard them with our flaming red,

A league apart or less we stand
Silent but sure our warnings show,
Tall sentinels by whose command
Is blocked and spaced the traffic's flow.
Sleepless and steadfast year by year 
Unbid we work through storm and shine
Near-human but without man's fear,
The Warders of the iron line.


This elegant poem was written by John S. Hobson in 1919 which he incorporated
into a Christmas Card with the additional text "May all the good wishes that
you receive at this glad season come true". 

Mr. Hobson was born at Kilkea, Ireland, on March 15, 1868, and was educated at
the Institute of Technology and City and Guilds of London. He entered railway
service in 1884 as an engineer apprentice with the Great Southern & Western
Railway, Ireland later coming to the United States. From 1889 to 1892 he served
as a locomotive machinist, draftsman, and signal inspector on the Chicago,
Burlington & Quincy, and in the later year went with the Union Switch & Signal
Company as an electrical construction foreman at Chicago. In 1896 Mr. Hobson
became assistant signal engineer of the Michigan Central, and, year later, went
with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe as signal engineer. In 1901 he returned to
the Union Switch & Signal Company as assistant engineer, later being advanced
successively to assistant general manager, general sales manager and general
manager. In 1916 Mr. Hobson was appointed western manager, with headquarters at
Chicago, a position which he held until his death. In 1919 Mr. Hobson also
became president and a director of Massey Concrete Products Company, serving in
that capacity until 1938, when he became chairman of the board, retiring from
the latter position in 1940. 

A side note of interest to signal enthusiasts: Mr. Hobson's good friend J.P.
Coleman designed U.S. & S. Co first electromechanical semaphore in 1897.
It's type designation was the style 'C' for Coleman.

History Article - November 1998

"The Passing of the Semaphore"

Railway Age (February 15, 1930) pp. 420-421

DURING 1923, there were four more color-light signals than semaphores installed in automatic block territory in the United States and Canada, this being the first time that the number of light signals had exceeded the number of semaphores. Year after year the number of light signals has gradually increased as compared with the total number of semaphores, until in 1929, when a total of 9,061 automatic signals were installed, 5883 were light signals and 2,178 were semaphores. The reduction in the number of roads now installing semaphores is even greater than is indicated by comparison of the numbers of the different types of signals installed. Of the semaphore signals installed during the last year, 2,065, or all but 113, were placed in service on five roads. As soon as these five roads complete their major main-line signal program, or decide to adopt light signals, it is evident that the number of semaphores installed annually will quickly drop to a few hundred, comprising short installations used to fill in between existing sections of semaphore signals.

The majority of the roads have evidently adopted the light signals on account of the improved indications rendered throughout a 24-hr. period, especially during foggy and stormy weather. In addition, the light signal has no mechanism, motor or moving parts to wear, thus eliminating numerous failures and train delays as well as reducing the expense for maintenance and repairs. The development of the a-c. floating and the a-c. primary systems of power supply has made practicable the use of light signals wherever alternating current is available, and at the same time assures reliable operation when there is a temporary a-c. power outage. Likewise, with the further development of light signals, it is practicable to use as low as five-watt lamps, which may be operated successfully from primary battery power supply in territory where no a-c. current is available.

From an operating viewpoint, some roads are continuing to install semaphores on single-track lines, particularly on account of the fact that semaphores can be used by track forces and others on motor cars to warn of approaching trains. However, where light signals with back lights are used and controlled on approach circuits, considerable protection for motor car operators is available and it can readily be supplemented by indicators placed at certain points near curves, tunnels or other points of special hazard. The objection to the use of light signals on some roads is that trains will be delayed in case the lamp in a proceed or caution unit should burn out. Certain roads have overcome this objection by using a cut-over relay, which provides that when a lamp burns out, the lamp in a more restrictive indication is cut in, while on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas and auxiliary lamp unit is illuminated to give a yellow when the lamp in the regular green or yellow unit is burned out. Thus light signals and the method of power supply have gradually been developed to meet the requirements. Therefore, it is logical to expect that the number of semaphore signals put into use on new installations will gradually be reduced from now on.

History Article - May 1998

"Death by Semaphore"

This is a U.S. Supreme Court decision focusing on the responsibility of railroads in the safe placement of semaphore signals.

U.S. Supreme Court
ATLANTIC COAST LINE R. CO. v. POWE, 283 U.S. 401 (1931)
283 U.S. 401
No. 600.

Argued May 1, 1931.
Decided May 18, 1931.

[283 U.S. 401, 402] Messrs. Thomas W. Davis, of Wilmington, N. C., and Arthur R. Young, of Charleston, S. C., for petitioner.

Mr. John P. Grace, of Charleston, S. C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (45 USCA 51-59) for causing the death of Marshall, the respondent's deceased. It has been before the Court after an earlier trial, Atlantic Coast Line R. R. Co. v. Tyner, 278 U.S. 565, 49 S. Ct. 35, and now is brought here again to review a judgment of the Supreme Court of South Carolina affirming a judgment for the plaintiff. 159 S. C. -, 159 S. E. 473. The petitioner contends that it was entitled to have a verdict directed in its favor on the grounds that there was no evidence that it was negligent and that Marshall must be taken to have assumed the risk of the supposed cause of his death.

It may be assumed that Marshall, a switchman was killed while on the outside of a moving car by being brought into contact with a semaphore near the railroad track. The only ground for charging the Company with negligence that we regard as material is the suggestion that the semaphore was too near the track. The general principles laid down with regard to mail cranes in Southern Pacific Company v. Berkshire, 254 U.S. 415, 41 S. Ct. 162, and Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. Co. v. Leitch, 276 U.S. 429, 48 S. Ct. 336, apply equally to semaphores. It is impracticable always to set such structures so far away as to leave no danger to one leaning out, and in dealing with a well known incident of the employment, adopted in the interest of the public and of the employees, it is unreasonable to throw the risks of it upon those who were compelled to adopt it. [283 U.S. 401, 403] The semaphore in this instance was four feet and ten inches at its base from the outer edge of the track and probably a little more at four feet above the top of the rail. An order of the South Carolina Railroad Commission, made, as it states, in consideration of the safety or the public and employees of the road and of the necessity for employees to give and receive signals, provides that no structure be allowed nearer than four feet from the outer edge of the main or side track, measurement being made four feet above the top of the rail. It will be seen that the Railroad Company in this case more than complied with the order.

It is true that four feet was a minimum distance, but it satisfied the requirement of the Commission, and it would be going far to say that the Railroad Company was not warranted in supposing that it had done its duty, so far as the Commission was concerned, when it put the semaphore four feet and ten inches away. Marshall from his previous experience probably knew of the semaphore as he was required to do by the rules of the road. It was shown that some other semaphores were farther from the track, but the circumstances do not appear, and there is nothing to show that in this case the petitioner could have made the position safer than it was, except by changing the place of the track. As remarked in Southern Pacific Co. v. Berkshire, 254 U.S. 415, 417, 41 S. Ct. 162, the question is not whether a reasonable insurance against such misfortunes should be thrown upon the travelling public through the railroads, but whether the railroad is liable under the statute according to the principles of the common law regarding tort. No negligence is proved against the petitioner. It is urged that a certiorari was denied (269 U.S. 578, 46 S. Ct. 104) in Central of Georgia Ry. Co. v. Davis (C. C. A.) 7 F.(2d) 269, which seemed to qualify the doctrine of the Berkshire Case. But 'The denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the [283 U.S. 401, 404] case, as the bar has been told many times.' United States v. Carver, 260 U.S. 482, 490, 43 S. Ct. 181.

Judgment reversed.

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