Albert James Myer was born in Newburgh, New York on September 20, 1827. He graduated from Hobart College in 1847, and from the University of Buffalo in 1851 with a degree in Medicine and a specialty in aiding the deaf. For his thesis he developed a new sign language for the hearing impaired.
While assigned as an assistant surgeon in the Regular Army of the United States during the period 1854-1860, Dr. Myer devised a military visual signaling system (wig-wag signaling) that was adopted by the Army in 1860. This visual signaling system was based, in part, on his sign language system for the deaf. A Signal Department was created, and Dr. Myer was appointed Signal Officer with the rank of Major. Under the leadership of Myer, the Signal Corps was organized.
On March 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation which established the Signal Corps as a separate military branch, and Major Myer was appointed Chief Signal Officer with the rank of Colonel. The Signal Corps contributed greatly to the success of the Union Armies. During the Civil War, the Myer system of signaling was used by the U.S. Navy, the Union Army, and the Confederate Army.
Myer’s signaling system should not be confused with semaphore signaling. The wig-wag system used a single flag, waved back and forth in a binary code conceptually similar to Morse code; semaphores used two flags and each character to be transmitted had a unique pattern for holding the flags. Unfortunately for Myer’s legacy, the official branch insignia of the U.S. Army Signal Corps depicts crossed semaphore flags.
The Signal Corps of the United States Army was the first to be established by a national army in modern times. After the Civil War, Myer led the Signal Corps for two and a half decades. He created within the Signal Corps the country’s first national weather service and ultimately received a commission as a Brigadier General in June 1880. He died as Chief Signal Officer that year.