Mothers of Invention: Martha Coston

Inventor and businesswoman Martha Coston knew how to draw attention to herself… By using a Coston flare. This essential tool for signaling at sea can be credited to the hard work of one incredibly dedicated mother.

Martha Coston did not let being a young, widowed, single mother in the mid-nineteenth century stop her from being a successful inventor and businesswoman, providing for her family, and making a name for herself.

Drawing inspiration from her late husband’s designs, Martha created the Coston flare, a maritime signaling device that has been an incredibly useful life-saving tool for nearly two centuries.

Sparking an Idea

Born on December 12, 1826 in Baltimore, Maryland, Martha grew up with no formal education. She later moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she met promising naval inventor Benjamin Franklin Coston, who she married and shared four children with. Due to his work experimenting with chemicals, Benjamin passed away when Martha was just 21 years old, leaving her a penniless single mother.

After several years of struggling to get by, Martha came across a design amongst her husband’s belongings that would spark many more years of inventing and success. Within one of the notebooks, she found rough sketches and notes about a potential signaling system that could be used by the U.S. Navy.

Fanning the Flames

While Benjamin’s ideas themselves were strong, Martha knew that they would need a lot of work before they could be turned into a usable product. The goal was to create a durable, long-lasting pyrotechnic flare and effective signaling system that could be used for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communication.

Though her project took an immense amount of time and effort, Martha remained diligent over the years, saying: “The men I employed and dismissed, the experiments I made myself, the frauds that were practiced upon me, almost disheartened me; but … I treasured up each little step that was made in the right direction, the hints of naval officers, and the opinions of the different boards that gave the signals a trial.

A Signal of Success

After a decade of experimentation, Martha finally received a patent (#23,536) for her “Pyrotechnic Night Signals” in 1859 and started the Coston Manufacturing Company. Using firework technology and a team of chemists, she was able to create bright red, white, and green flares that could be seen over long distances. The rights to the invention were quickly purchased by the U.S. Navy, and she was awarded a contract for her company to manufacture them.

The flares and communication system soon proved to be a valuable tool, helping the Union to win battles and save lives during the Civil War. As the years went on, Martha continued to improve upon her invention, developing a twist-ignition version patented in 1871. The flares were sold to navies around the world, commercial merchant vessels, and private yachting clubs, and have saved a countless number of lives.

To hear more stories about professional women whose perseverance has made them inspirational figures in their fields, check out our podcast, The Art of Engineering.

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