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One of the most important inventions in the history of man has been the smoke signal. Used for thousands of years in nearly all cultures smoke signals have been used to warn of danger, entertain guests, and mark major changes in society. The question remains, however, who invented the smoke signal and what is its modern use?
Today the concept of the smoke signal has entered into popular myth. While many people are aware of its history and use many don’t know just how widespread this form of communication was. The first recorded instance of a smoke signal comes from the 8th century BC China but it is possible that the smoke signal existed for thousands of years prior.
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Without further ado, here is everything you will never need to know about the invention of the smoke signal.
First Recorded Use of a Smoke Signal
The first written instance of a smoke signal being used to send a message comes from an amusing story about responsibility in 8th century BC China.
During the 8th century BC in China, the ruling house over central China was the Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty became incredibly powerful and wealthy over 200 years of strategic marriages and wars. However, the last king of this dynasty would abuse signal fires and incite an overthrow of his rule.
Sometime between 779BC and 771 BC King You of Zhou fell in love with his concubine Bao Si. The rumor is that Bao Si was unable to smile at anything the King did so in a last-ditch effort he lit the signal beacons that warned of an impending attack. When the king’s warlords showed up they found no invading army but instead the concubine laughing at them.
This is what made Bao Si laugh and as such King You of Zhou continued to light the beacons until his warlords refused to show up. King You’s wife Queen Shen was embarrassed by this ordeal. The queen’s father was so infuriated by this that he organized an army and overthrew King You of Zhou. When King You lit the smoke signal beacons none of his warlords showed up because they thought that it was another one of Bao Si’s tricks.
However, this is the first recorded instance that we have of a smoke signal being used. Even though this is dated to the 8th century BC in China historians and archeologists have ‘reports’ of smoke signals dating back far longer.
Who Invented The Smoke Signal?
There are 2 possible contenders for the culture that used smoke signals first. Historians have tried to recreate the first invention of the smoke signal but unfortunately, we have very little primary source evidence to go off of.
The reason we have almost no primary source evidence is due to the nature of these cultures as well as the fact that smoke signals tend to destroy what little evidence would be left; due to the fire burning the ‘artifacts.’
Possible Inventor 1: Native American Tribes, 2,000 BC
The first culture that might have used smoke signals first would be the indigenous tribes of native America. We have reports of Native American tribes on the planes using smoke signals for hundreds if not thousands of years.
These smoke signals would be given from varying heights on hills. If the fire was on a downward slope then it indicated a signal. If the fire was on the top of the hill it indicated danger was approaching.
From South America to North America the tribes of indigenous people probably used smoke signals to communicate over vast distances starting around the year 2,000 BC. The estimate for this is based on research on the population growth of the Americas that happened during this time.
If this population growth led to an increased need to send communication signals over vast distances then we see the invention of the Smoke Signal in the Americas around the year 2,000 BC. While this date is impressive it is not the earliest theorized date.
Possible Inventor 2: Aboriginal Australians, 15,000 BC
Another example of smoke signals being used to communicate over large distances comes from Australia and the aboriginal tribes. Sometime between 60,000-40,000 years ago. Isolated in Australia the aboriginal tribes had to develop a method to communicate across the vast flat distances in Australia.
We know that aboriginal tribes communicated with smoke signals. Each tribe would develop its own method of relaying information. Slowly over time, these tribes would start to develop intricate social networks where each person would be able to send signals to other tribes.
We know of this from oral history reports given by aboriginal chiefs across Australia in the 1950s. For almost 60 years historians have discredited these reports due to the ease of fabricating an oral story. However, over the past 10 years, historians and scientists have started to revisit these oral histories as they might end up being true!
One example of this is from a volcano that erupted almost 34,000 years ago in Victoria, Australia. Aboriginal oral history has told of a volcano eruption in the area but it was not until 2020 that researchers found an ancient axe buried under the 34,000-year-old volcanic ash.
Oral history traditions also tell of smoke signals being used. It is difficult to date this but if these are true then that means the aboriginal Australians might have been using smoke signals to communicate almost 17,000 years ago!
Modern Smoke Signals?
Most of the signals sent today come from handheld devices, radios, and basic optic signals on ships. However, on occasion people will still use smoke signals to warn of invaders.
The latest example of a smoke signal being used to warn invaders into land comes from a 1957 report of an Australian explorer venturing far into the interior of Australia. In the 50s much of Australia was still unexplored by outside people. The explorer noticed several communicating smoke signals around Lake Mackay that appeared to warn of his approach.
The amazing thing was that the people who were sending up the smoke signals were aboriginal Australians. This means that these uncontacted tribes had been using smoke signals for thousands of years!
There you have it; the invention of the smoke signal. Unfortunately, historians do not have many primary sources to go off of here. Since smoke signals could have been used by just about any culture at any point it is hard to nail down who made it first.
However, it does appear that the first recorded use of a smoke signal comes from 8th-century China. Other cultures used oral history instead of writing down their history. If we factor those oral histories into the equation then the first use of a smoke signal might be either native American tribes or Aboriginal Australian tribes.
Here at The History Ace, I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing around the web.
Further, you can check out some of the other articles below.
Who invented the smoke signal? This ancient technology could share messages over thousands of miles and was used in many cultures.