Flag semaphore is the telegraphy system conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands. Information is encoded by the position of the flags; it is read when the flag is in a fixed position. Semaphores were adopted and widely used (with hand-held flags replacing the mechanical arms of shutter semaphores) in the maritime world in the 19th century. It is still used during underway replenishment at sea and is acceptable for emergency communication in daylight or, using lighted wands instead of flags, at night.
The current flag semaphore system uses two short poles with square flags, which a signalman holds in different positions to signal letters of the alphabet and numbers. The signalman holds one pole in each hand, and extends each arm in one of eight possible directions. Except for in the rest position, the flags do not overlap. The flags are colored differently based on whether the signals are sent by sea or by land. At sea, the flags are colored red and yellow (the Oscar flag), while on land, they are white and blue (the Papa flag). Flags are not required; their purpose is to make the characters more obvious.
Semaphore flags are also sometimes used as means of communication in the mountains where oral or electronic communication is difficult to perform. Although they do not carry flags, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers have used hand semaphore in this manner.
Some surf-side rescue companies, such as the Ocean City Maryland Beach Patrol, use semaphore flags to communicate between lifeguards
The letters of the flag semaphore are also a common artistic motif. One enduring example is the peace symbol, adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958 from the original logo created by a commercial artist named Gerald Holtom from Twickenham, London. Holtom designed the logo for use on a protest march on the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, near Newbury, England. On 4 April 1958, the march left Trafalgar Square for rural Berkshire, carrying Ban the Bomb placards made by Holtom’s children making it the first use of the symbol. Originally, it was purple and white and signified a combination of the semaphoric letters N and D, standing for “nuclear disarmament,” circumscribed by a circle. Famously, the album cover for The Beatles 1965 album Help! was to have portrayed the four band members spelling “HELP” in semaphore with their arms, though the result was deemed aesthetically unpleasing, and the band’s arms were instead positioned in a meaningless but aesthetically pleasing arrangement for the final version of the album art.