Colomb, Philip Howard (DNB01)

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COLOMB, PHILIP HOWARD (1831–1899), vice-admiral, third son of General George Colomb and of Mary, daughter of Sir Abraham Bradley King, bart., twice lord mayor of Dublin, was born on 29 May 1831. He entered the navy in February 1846 on board the Tartarus on the Irish station; and from November 1846 to March 1849 was in the steam frigate Sidon in the Mediterranean. He was then appointed to the Reynard on the China station, and was still in her when she was wrecked on the Plata shoal in 1851. He remained on the station as a supernumerary in various ships, till in September he was appointed to the Serpent, in which, from November till May 1852, he was engaged in the Burmese war and was present at the capture of Rangoon. He passed his examination in seamanship in May 1852, and continued in the Serpent as acting mate and acting lieutenant till she was paid off in January 1854. In March he joined the Phoenix for a voyage to Smith Sound under the command of Captain (afterwards Admiral) Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield [q. v. Suppl.] On his return to England in October he was appointed to the Ajax guardship, and on 3 Feb. 1855 was promoted to be lieutenant of the Hastings, going up the Baltic under the command of (Sir) James Crawford Caffin [q. v.] In May 1856 he was appointed to the Excellent for the gunnery course, and, having passed out in November 1857, was in December appointed flag-lieutenant to Rear-admiral Sir Thomas Sabine Pasley [q. v.], then admiral superintendent at Devonport, and later on to Pasley's successor, (Sir) Thomas Matthew Charles Symonds [q. v.]

These appointments, commonplace as they usually were, proved the turning point of Colomb's career. They brought him into a more direct relation with the current system of signals, and the subject grew on him. In 1858 he was ordered by the admiralty to examine and report on a system of day signals which they had bought. On his showing that it was unsuitable for the sea service, he was asked to turn his attention to night signals, which were still made in the primitive manner devised in the seventeenth century. Colomb had already studied this problem, but without success; he now resumed his experiments, and after many months' work devised a system still in use in the navy, and rightly known as 'Colomb's Flashing Signals.' It was, in fact, an application of the telegraphic system known as Morse's, in which the movements of the needle were replaced by long and short flashes from a lamp by night, or blasts from the fog horn or steam whistle in fog. The novelty of this has been disputed, and it seems not impossible that the method had been more or less vaguely suggested before; but no evidence of any previous practical adaptation of it has ever been produced. At the time it was certainly regarded as absolutely new; and it was only after much opposition and many unfavourable reports that Colomb was at last attached to the Edgar, the flagship of the channel squadron, in which the admiral, (Sir) Sidney Colpoys Dacres [q. v.], was instructed to report on an exhaustive series of experiments. Colomb joined the ship on 16 July and was allowed a quarter of an hour to instruct a few signalmen. The same night Dacres, by an impromptu and unexpected question put by the signal apparatus, which was at once understood and answered, convinced himself of the value of the invention, and partially adopted it from that day. Before the end of the year Dacres and all the captains of the Channel fleet sent in reports calling for the immediate adoption of the system. The apparatus was therefore supplied to every ship of the Channel fleet and to many in the Mediterranean, and was fully adopted in the navy on 12 Feb. 1867. It is this system that is still in use, though in the course of years some changes in detail have been made. On 12 Dec. 1863 Colomb was promoted to the rank of commander, but continued attached nominally to the Edgar or the Victory, for the perfecting of his system of signalling. In 1867 he was for some time lent to the royal engineers, to improve the system of military signalling, and in July 1868 commissioned the Dryad for the East India station. Of his experiences in that command he wrote an interesting account under the title of 'Slave Catching in the Indian Ocean' (1873, 8vo). On 4 April 1870 he was advanced to post rank, and for the greater part of the next four years was employed at the admiralty preparing the 'Manual of Fleet Evolutions,' officially issued in 1874. For the next three years, 1874–7, he commanded the Audacious on the China station, as flag captain to Vice-admiral (Sir) Alfred Phillipps Ryder [q. v.]; in 1880 he commanded the Thunderer in the Mediterranean, and from 1881 to 1884 was captain of the steam-reserve at Portsmouth, from which in September 1884 he was appointed to the Duke of Wellington as flag captain to Sir Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby [q. v. Suppl.] This was his last active service. On 20 May 1886 he was retired for age, being still nearly a year from the top of the captains' list. He became a rear-admiral on 6 April 1887, and vice-admiral on 1 Aug. 1892. He settled down at Botley in Hampshire, and there he died suddenly, of an affection of the heart, on 13 Oct. 1899. He married in 1857 Ellen Bourne, daughter of Captain Hook, who survives him, and left issue, besides two daughters, six sons, of whom five are in the public service. A good lithograph portrait has been published since his death.

Always a man of strong literary instincts, in his retirement he devoted himself more and more to the study of history as a key to the many problems of naval policy and strategy which are continually arising. The science of naval evolutions he had, theoretically, a complete mastery of, though hard fate prevented him from combining practice with his theory, and thus his views did not always, among naval men, meet with that ready acceptance which many believed they were entitled to. An untiring correspondent of the 'Times,' he had an opinion to express on every naval subject of the day; at the meetings at the Royal United Service Institution he was a regular attendant and a frequent speaker as well as the contributor of several important papers, some of which were published in a small volume under the title of 'Essays on Naval Defence' (1893, cr. 8vo). He was also the author of 'Naval Warfare: its ruling principle and practice historically treated' (1891, roy. 8vo), a work whose very great merit is somewhat obscured by what many would think its needless length; and a 'Memoir of Sir Astley Cooper Key' (1898, 8vo), which, as a professional biography, is among the very best. For the last two or three years he had been working at a memoir of Arthur Herbert, earl of Torrington [q. v.], whose character and whose conduct of the battle of Beachy Head he considered to have been grossly misrepresented by our most popular historians. He was also the author of numerous pamphlets on naval matters.

[O'Byrne's Nav. Biogr. Dict. 2nd edit.; Times, 16 Oct. 1899; United Service Mag. November and December 1899, N.S. xx. 214, 305; Colomb and Bolton's The System of flashing Signals adopted in her Majesty's Army and Navy; Encyclopædia Brit. 9th edit. s.n. 'Signals;' Navy Lists; personal knowledge; private information.]

J. K. L.