Biography of Albert J. Myer

U.S. Army Signal Corps Founder: Albert James Myer (1828-1880)

Albert J. Myer was born on September 20, 1828 in Newburgh, New York to the parents of Henry Beekman Myer and Eleanor Myer. Growing up Albert had great interest in the arts and sciences but he also had a strong interest in the military culture. Albert finished preparatory school and attended Geneva College in Geneva, New York, which was later renamed Hobart College. His collegiate achievements at Geneva College consisted of him receiving his Bachelors of Arts degree in 1847 at the age of 19 and four years later his Masters of Arts degree. While pursing his M.A. at Geneva College he was also taking course work at Buffalo Medical College and he received his MD the same year in 1851 at 24 years old. As a student he was know to take grasp of an idea and follow it to its lengths. His graduating thesis that was titled “ A New Sign Language for Deaf Mutes,” was the start of what became know as the motion telegraphy that help pioneer his founding signal communications system in the Signal Corps.

After graduation Albert went to Florida where he was in private practice for three years but in his free time he began to focus his attention on the signal system used by the military and navy. He felt that their current means of communicating through lights and various symbols was difficult and complex and he sought out to come up with a better system. In 1854 he received his commission in the U.S. Army as an assistant surgeon. Although he was heavily involved in his medical profession Myer continued to pursue his ideas of developing an efficient signal system. In 1857 he finally devised a system of signals which became the basis of code used during the Civil War. This system was called the “wig-wag signaling system” which is also known as the “ four element code,” because it used one to four flag motions. Albert patented his inventions and presented it to the authorities and parties that he felt would embrace his hard work however many were not concerned. Later that year August 24, 1857 Albert married Catherine Walden.

In 1858, one year after Myer submitted his idea, he was notified that a board was appointed to examine his signal system, how it could be used in the field and how it could be introduced to the U.S. Army. The board approved Albert’s signal system in 1859. Albert became the first Army signal officer and was promoted to major in 1860. Myers system received its first use in the Navajo expedition (1860-1861). In June of 1861 he was sent orders from Washington, DC to form and command a signal corp. Albert performed both operational and administrative responsibilities during the first two years of the Civil War. Although he was engaged in the war he was vying to have the Signal Corps be established as a permanent Army entity. May 27, 1862 Albert Myer was promoted to lieutenant colonel for his service in the Army. On March 3, 1863 the Signal Corp became a permanent entity in the U.S. Army and Myer became a full bird colonel for his involvement in establishing the Signal Corp.

Albert Myer was the chief signal officer for General George B. McClellan in the battles from Bull Run to Antietam. While in charge of the signal office he introduced the study of military signals at the U.S. Military academy and was a member of the central board of examination for the U.S. signal corps. Although Myer had originally introduced a better way to conduct aerial signals he had also come up with a better telegraphy system. Albert introduced an electrical telegraphy system to be used for field communications. This system was called the Beardslee telegraph. It consisted of a train of wagons which supported the devices capabilities to dial instead of key tapping Morse code. He developed this new telegraphy because it required less training for operators. Although this new telegraphy system was effective on the battlefield a telegraphy system and organization already existed, the U.S. Military Telegraph Service. The U.S. Military Telegraph Service was not military at all. It was a civilian led service and Albert felt that as the chief signal officer of the U.S. Army he should have complete control of all electromagnetic telegraphy with in the Signal Corps. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton did not like Myers attempt to control all telegraphy in the signal corps. It is believed that Secretary Stanton had a vested interest in the civilian-run U.S. Military Telegraph Service. On November of 1863 Albert Myer was removed as chief signal officer and was re-assigned to the Military Division of the West Mississippi were he served for the remainder of the war.

While serving with the Division of the West Mississippi he wrote the “Manual of Signals for the United States Army and Navy.” Under General Edward R. S. Canby he was appointed chief signal officer for the military division of the West Mississippi. The Secretary of War, Stanton, again relieved him stating that his appointment had not been confirmed. After the war Col. Albert was re-appointed chief signal officer on July 28, 1866. Albert Myer was the chief signal officer from August 21, 1867 until he died in 1880. Albert Myer received commission as a brigadier general on June 16, 1880, two months before his death. Gen Myer was not only known for his contributions in the signal corps but also for his involvement with the weather service. Among many honors on of them was the renaming of Fort Whipple, Virginia, as it was renamed in 1881, Fort Myer, Virginia.