WIRELESS AND THE TITANIC

by ALLAN BRETT VK2EBA


Since the James Cameron blockbuster movie, the events of the fateful night that the TITANIC foundered have captured the public imagination and focused interest on that topic. Yes! I have been caught up in the fever also. What did happen on the night of 14/15 April 1912? 1 have looked at more documentaries, listened to more commentaries, and read more books on the subject than I was required to read to obtain my licence. It is a fascinating subject - the failure of the latest and greatest technological transport masterpiece of the then new century. In retrospect, one of the bitter historical lessons of over confidence. But what of the part played by wireless? (Note the use of the original name of the physical manifestation of the phenomenon on which our hobby is based).

The story of the distress calls from the TITANIC has been repeated in many amateur radio publications particularly the use of SOS being sent for the first time. What actually did happen? Was this story true? Did the operators on the TITANIC keep sending until the encroaching water flooded their radio room? Did they go down with the ship? The answer to these questions and many other examples of heroism and human failings which this disaster produced can be found in the records of the two official hearings, the United States Senate hearing, and the British Court of Inquiry.

As often happens in real-life situations, "truth is stranger than fiction". The most recent blockbuster movie is a must see and many parts are based on the recorded facts, however, many are not and are the result of 'artistic licence'. One of the closest representations still remains the 1958 black and white British production, 'A Night To Remember', based on Walter Lord's excellent book of the same name. Those CW buffs among our numbers will find that the Morse depicted in this film is actually readable. This film also spends much time on the most ironic event in the chapter of calamities which befell the stricken liner, that being the Marconi operator on the CALIFORNIAN shutting down his operations half an hour before Jack Phillips (the TITANIC's first operator) commenced sending distress signals.

titanrr.jpg
Although Titanic's wireless room was only featured briefly in the final cut of the blockbuster movie of the same name, no effort was spared to recreate the original in every detail as this Douglas Kirkland photo reveals. James Cameron's Titanic Marconi Room set was based on RMS Olympic, since that was all the information that was available when the movie was being made.

 
It was most probable that the CALIFORNIAN, which was the nearest vessel, could have responded long before the Carpathia, the eventual rescue vessel, but for this unkind twist of fate. You may have noticed that the TITANIC's wireless operator was referred to as a 'Marconi' operator. Yes our old friend Guglielmo really had the game sewn up relative to maritime communications in 1912. The operators all worked for him and he hired them out to the shipping companies. Wireless and the operators played a pivotal role in the TITANIC disaster. Operators were by today's standard overworked and underpaid. According to testimony, Jack Phillips aboard the TITANIC, forwarded an ice warning from the AMERICA to Cape Race regarding ice about 19 miles southward of the TITANIC's course. This message was never sent to the bridge probably due to the work load which he had to carry. At 9.05 pm about two and a half hours before the collision with the iceberg, the CALIFORNIAN sent 'We are stopped and surrounded by ice.' The reply from the TITANIC was 'Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race' Cyril Evans, the operator on the

CALIFORNIAN, stated to the British inquiry that he was not insulted by this rebuff as the larger or faster ships took preference in sending their traffic. Evans had a long day in any case, he had been on duty since 7 am that morning and therefore he retired to his bunk at 11.30 p.m. The operators on the TITANIC were required to work six hours on and six hours off. Even at the cost of 12s. 6d for ten words and 9d. for each additional word, the passengers lined up (at least the wealthy passengers) to send a message home via this newfangled service. The remuneration for operators, from the evidence given by Marconi, started at $4 to $10 to $12 US per week with board and lodging. It was no problem to fill these positions as the rate of pay was considerably more than their land based colleagues.

Another point of interest was the age of the operators involved in the saga. Jack Phillips was 24 years old, Harold Bride, the TITANIC's second operator was 22 years, Cyril Evans of the CALIFORNIAN had only six month's experience at the age of 20 years, while Harold Cottam of the Carpathia was 21 years old. At 11:40 pm Sunday April 14, the lookout on the TITANIC rang the bell three times and activated the ships telegraph. 'What do you see?' came the request The answer was, 'Iceberg right ahead!' The events which unfolded then did not have any immediate effect on the two operators. Jack Phillips was flat out getting through the traffic which had accumulated. Harold Bride was in his bunk but was turning out early to relieve Phillips, who as we have seen had a heavy shift Harold Bride had just taken over and Jack Phillips was preparing to turn in when Captain E. J. Smith appeared and said, 'You had better get assistance'. Jack Phillips came back into the room and took over and commenced the distress messages at about 12.05 am Monday 15 April 1912. Phillips and Bride then stayed at their posts even after they were relieved by the Captain.

According to Bride, the TITANIC's wireless was functioning until ten minutes before the ship's final death throes at about 2.20 am Monday April 15. As we have seen, Jack Phillips as the principal operator, came back on duty and commenced sending CQD followed by MGY [1]. CQD was the Marconi conventional distress signal and MGY was the TITANIC's call sign. While SOS was also used, there was much discussion at the American Senate Inquiry as to whether CQD actually stood for an abbreviation and if it was in accordance with the international convention. Marconi himself replied that it was not in accord with international convention but that it was a conventional company signal. He went on to say that the international distress signal decided at the Berlin Convention was SOS. The first reply to the CQD call was from a German ship, the FRANKFURT, which although some 200 miles distant had a very strong signal. The operator on this vessel evidently became confused and did not recognize the gravity of the situation as twenty minutes after being sent the TITANIC's position in latitude and longitude, he sent 'What is the matter?' This proved too much for Phillips who snapped back with a message to the effect that the FRANKFURT's operator was a fool and to keep out This may have been injudicious as was pointed out in the American Senate inquiry, but as it turned out the FRANKFURT was much too far distant. In the meantime, another more promising reply had been received from Harold Cottam on the Carpathia. Cottam received the TITANIC's call merely by chance.

Like Evans, the CALIFORNIAN's operator, he had been on duty since 7 am and was due to turn in for the night but he still had his headphones on awaiting a reply from another vessel when he overheard Cape Cod trying to contact the TITANIC with a bunch of messages. (Remember this was 1912 and the range of transmission was restricted and much of the traffic relied on third party transmission). Imagine Cottam's surprise when he called the TITANIC with, 'I say OM do you know there is a batch of messages coming through for you from MCC?' (Cape Cod's call sign), and received, 'Come at once it's CQD, OM. Position 41'46N, 50'14W'. Cottam replied, 'Shall I tell my Captain ? Do you require assistance?' The cryptic reply was, 'Yes come quick.' Despite Cottam racing to the bridge with the CQD message and the consequent awakening of Captain Rostron, the master of the Carpathia and his heroic efforts to push his ship beyond its capabilities, it was about 4 hours before they arrived at the scene, too late to save the 1,527 who perished, but in time to rescue those who had survived the night in lifeboats.

Phillips and Bride remained at their posts after being released from their duties by Captain Smith until they could no longer transmit due to the failure of the generators. They had been in touch with other ships and stations including the TITANIC's sister ship, the Olympic. When they came onto the deck, all the lifeboats had long been launched and some of the officers were attempting to get off the last collapsible boat which was attached to the roof of the officers' quarters. The attempt was only partially successful, the boat being washed off as the TITANIC broke apart and sank.

The lifeboat ended up inverted with Bride being trapped under it in an air pocket. He was eventually able to extract himself after a considerable time and make his way onto the top of the overturned boat. Phillips also managed to make his way to the same boat but died of exposure during the night Bride survived with frostbitten feet and injured ankles and was picked up by the Carpathia. Bride's participation in the actual events was not to end there as he was carried to the wireless room of the Carpathia towards the end of the survivors trip to New York to relieve a totally exhausted Cottam who had been on duty since receiving the 'come at once' message from the TITANIC. Bride received $1000 and Cottam $750 for the sale of their stories to the press of the day. These payments caused some controversy at the time as it appeared that the Marconi Organization had told them to maintain their silence until they reached New York thus depriving a news hungry public news of the tragedy.

As a result of the part played by wireless in the events surrounding the loss of the TITANIC, 24 hour radio watch was introduced. The strange set of coincidences which resulted in one radio operator shutting down at a critical time and another contacting the stricken liner by pure chance would not be permitted to happen again. On the debit side, the TITANIC operators actions in ignoring and not passing on several ice warnings contributed to numerous oversights which when taken as individual events, could not be regarded as serious, but when combined reached overwhelming proportions. For the operators, it was clearly a case of overload of often frivolous messages from the wealthy passengers. On the credit side, both operators stayed on even after they were released from duty by the Captain, only ceasing transmission when their spark failed due to the failing generators. The sending of the first SOS distress call was made at 12.45 am on 15 April 1912.

The Captain had called at the wireless room to ascertain the progress of the attempts to summon assistance and enquired as to which distress call was being sent CQD was the reply. Bride recalled that SOS had recently been agreed as the international distress signal and suggested that Phillips might send that as well, 'it might be the last chance you have to send it', he added prophetically. There was little emphasis given to this historic event in the evidence presented to the US Senate inquiry at which Bride and Marconi appeared. CQD was the Marconi company distress signal.

Phillips and Bride were both Marconi men, and so were almost all of the participants in the passing of messages that night with the exception of the operator on the FRANKFURT (the operator who was called a fool by the frustrated Phillips). Did the operator on the FRANKFURT recognize the CQD message? 'Certainly' replied Marconi. Although the wireless equipment on the FRANKFURT had been supplied by a German company and SOS had recently been adopted by the Berlin Convention, it was a Marconi company of which Marconi was a director and as such used the Marconi conventional signals and in any case, CQD was more widely recognized than SOS. (This is an example of the almost total control which Marconi exercised over the 1912 maritime communication scene with the Marconi distress signal being rated above the international signal). As stated in the opening to this discussion, the story of the TITANIC is one of human failing, sacrifice and endeavour, and the night when WIRELESS CAME OF AGE.

FOLLOW ON TO THE STORY....

The Discovery Channel produced a documentary, titled "Last Mysteries of the Titanic." and in doing so, it captured some ROV footage from inside the Marconi Room. It was examined in both 2001 and 2005. Here is the analysis report from the technical advisor (Parks):

"The Marconi Room itself, along with the adjacent operators' sleeping quarters, was completely destroyed during the sinking.  There is nothing but an open area left.  The room's original boundaries can be determined by the pattern of paint remaining in the overhead and dangling electrical wires which once led to light switches and a heater control switch mounted on the walls.  An electrical distribution panel for the ship's lighting system that was once embedded in the forward wall of the Marconi cabin now hangs down by its wires, with a couple of fuses showing evidence of having blown.

The skylight over the operator's desk is gone, leaving an open hole in the overhead.  The only piece of equipment that could be found in the room was the accumulator charging switchboard, which lies face down on top of the sediment that covers the deck, still connected by wires. Everything else in the room was evidently carried away by the water, presumably aft into the large open space that housed the Grand Staircase.

The adjacent Silence Cabin, though, survived the sinking, thanks to the extra thickness of its walls to accommodate sound-proofing.  The transmitting apparatus survived largely intact and is now completely accessible, thanks to the organisms that have eaten away the walls of the room.  When the room was last seen in 2005, the AC/DC switchboard and field regulators remained mounted on a fragment of wall.  The glass on the AMPERES and VOLTS dials were still intact on three of the four gauges, the lettering still visible.  The knife switch on the AC side of the board is still closed, but the knife switch on the DC side is open, indicating that operator Phillips deliberately shut down the station before departing.  The regulators show the last settings of resistance used to sharpen the spark as ship's power became increasingly unstable.

The switchboards hang on the wall above the motor-generator set.  The top of the teak box housing the rotary spark generator is locked in the open position, indicating  that operator Bride must have been listening to the spark as he adjusted the regulators.  The condensers and transformer sit unaffected by the tragedy.  The jigger was mounted on the wall above the condensers and with the wall behind it eaten away, is held upright only by the copper bands connected to it.  The wood of the jigger box has been largely eaten away and it will soon fall to pieces.  The brass earth arrester for the aerial and tuning lamp, once mounted on the wall next to the jigger, are still held upright by connecting wires. The HF spiral inductance coil has also fallen from the wall to lay atop the bank of condensers.  The two choking coil boxes lie atop the transformer, having also fallen from the wall.  The bank of emergency accumulators sit next to the transformer

There is a pile of debris that accumulated aft and to port (outboard) of the Marconi rooms in the remains of a passenger stateroom.  It is possible that some of the Marconi radio items were captured in this debris pile, instead of being pushed aft into the Grand Staircase void".

Spud Roscoe VE1BC and Parks, add some other background information to Titanic radio story:

1. CQD and SOS were both authorized distress signals at the time of the Titanic's maiden voyage.

The 1906 International Radiotelegraph Convention in Berlin established the 600-metre (long wave) and 300-metre (short wave) as the two wave lengths authorized for general public service. The normal wave for shipboard use was established at that time as the 300-metre wave.  Call-ups were made on the normal wave, then the conversation could then be moved to another wave, provided that was it was under 600 metres or over 1600 metres. The 1912 International Radiotelegraph Convention in London reaffirmed these two waves and designated the 600- metre wave as the normal wave length for ships to use.  Distress calls were to be made on the normal wave (600 metres, or 500 kHz).  The 1906 Convention was the first to establish common frequencies.

2. The M prefix was applied to all Marconi call signs on January 1st, 1908, however the "M" prefix was usually not transmitted between Marconi stations as a shorthand between familiar operators.  If broadcasting in the blind, or talking with another ship that was not Marconi equipped (like a German Telefunken boat), then the entire call sign was used.
This is before 1912. After the 1912 Convention, the call letters were more standardized and the first letter denoted country, rather than company (although, with Marconi based in England, Great Britain was assigned "M" as one of its first call letters).

3. The four letter signal flags assigned each ship and the radio call sign did not become one and the same until January 1st, 1934.

4. The British did not use "de" as the separation signal. They used the letter V and at least the Navy used it until after World War II.

5. As a rule, all ships were to use the coast station nearest their position.. But Regulation XXXV, paragraph 2, of the Convention Service Regulations allows for more distant coast stations to be used under certain circumstances.  In that instance, a wave length of 1800 metres was to be used.

6.  By 1912, though, most ships and coastal stations were working the 600-metre wave...in the July 1911 issue of the Marconigraph, the installation aboard Olympic (Titanic's sister ship) was "arranged to tune in transmissions to waves of 300 and 600 metres...". Harold Bride also described both 600- and 300-metre waves in his testimony. According to the Marconi maintenance manual for the 5-kW apparatus, the adjustment of the closed oscillating circuit for the production of the long (600-metre) wave was to place the banks of the main condenser in parallel; for the short (300-metre) wave, in series.  Inside the Titanic wreck, it was observed  that the Swiss commutator was in the parallel position, which means that Titanic was using the 600-metre wave when she sank.

7. Cyril F. Evans, the wireless operator in CALIFORNIAN with call sign MWL, did not transmit an ice message to TITANIC. Cyril Evans simply transmitted CQ V WL and then stated they were stopped in ice for the night in the position Captain Lord had given him. This message was for all ships in the area and not just the TITANIC. Jack Philips in TITANIC received this so loud he simply chastised Evans for interrupting him while trying to transmit a multitude of messages from his passengers to the Cape Race station with wireless call sign CE.

Cyril Evans did not properly prefix his message by adding the code "MSG" in the preamble.  According to Evans, he used an informal call up, "SOM" (Say, old man), then his message.  Harold Bride later related in court that Jack Phillips responded to Evans's informal interruption with a curt "D-D-D", the silent signal at the time.  If Evans had used the "MSG" prefix, then Phillips would have paused with Cape Race and taken the message for acknowledgement.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Titanic's visual call sign was HVMP. This information is taken from the "General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen", 1912.
 

titanic_sheet_403838107_canada_post.jpg
In rememberance of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Canada Post issued this stamp set in eraly 2012. (Image courtest Canada Post) 


Contributors and Credits:

1) Allan Brett VK2EBA
2) Parks <sparks401(at)earthlink.net>
3) Spud Roscoe <spudroscoe(at)eastlink.ca>

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Mar 28/12