Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Titanic and the Wireless

© Photowitch |
What if you found yourself on the Titanic today?

The ship sinking…seawater coming up higher and higher on each deck. What would you do?

Grab your cell phone. Call or text for help.

If wasn’t that simple back in 1912.

The wireless was the only means of long distance communication between Titanic and other ships (the Morse lamp was used for ships within visual range as well as rockets) as well as land.

Much has been written about the Marconi wireless and how novel it was to the passengers on the ship.

Who can forget the scene in the film when operator Jack Phillips “yells” back to the operator on the nearby Californian, “Shut up, shut up! I’m working Cape Race.” (Cape Race was the first wireless station in Newfoundland and the only land station to receive the Titanic’s distress signal.)

Frustrated, the operator shuts down his wireless and goes to bed. No further communication with him was possible that night.

He didn’t hear the “CQD” or the “SOS” after the Titanic hit the iceberg.

The Californian didn’t know until it was late the ship was sinking.

According to newspaper reports at that time, CQD was the British landline operators’ signal (“CQ” for “all stations”) with the addition of “D” by the Marconi company for added emphasis (danger).

“SOS” was adapted because of its distinctive Morse Code pattern of three dots…three dashes…three dots.

According to an in-depth article by Frances Williams at Suite 101: “Only five months before the disaster, New York had received the first wireless transmission from Italy and for many years Marconi had been working to improve the range of his transmissions.”

The Titanic had a first rate wireless room and could receive signals as far as 400 miles during the day and seemingly unlimited range at night.

Which meant they weren’t the only ones sending messages back and forth (the Titanic had sent 250 messages during the voyage).

According to the NY Herald, April 18, 1912, something had to be done to regulate the wireless lest more disasters at sea take place because their distress signal wasn’t heard. “Wireless meddlers” crowded the airwaves with messages and a Senate bill was drawn up to set up to regulate operators with a license.

No post about Titanic and the wireless would be complete without mentioning the two Marconi operators and their dedication to duty.

J.G. Phillips, 25 years old, was the chief operator and had served on the Mauretania and the Lusitania. He had been with the company for seven years and did not survive.

Harold Sydney Bride, 22 years old, had only been with the company twelve months and did survive. (He was on the same overturned lifeboat along with the hero in my romance novel, “Titanic Rhapsody,” Captain Lord Jack Blackthorn.)

It was Phillips who sent the famous wireless message to Harold Thomas Cottam, the sole wireless operator on the Carpathia:

“It’s CQD, old man. Distress call.”

Mr. Cottam was off duty and had not gone to bed when he heard the distress call. He insisted on waking up Captain Rostron. Because of his actions, 705 people survived that cold, bitter night.

Why was Mr. Cottam listening to the wireless if he was off duty?

He was hoping to catch the Saturday night football scores broadcast from Cape Race.

His alertness was a touchdown.


Brenda Williamson said...

Interesting post. I never thought much about the wireless.

Casey Crow said...

Cool history lesson! I never knew this.

Jina Bacarr said...

Brenda, without those two brave wireless operators, no one would have survived. The Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m.--the closest ship, the Calfornian, thought she had left the area when they didn't see her anymore.

Jina Bacarr said...

Thanks, Casey! The Wanamaker Dept Store Marconi station in NY allegedly heard the distress call as well and also faint messages from Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, regarding her position as relayed by the Carpathia.

Wynter Daniels said...

A touchdown indeed! Good post.

Jina Bacarr said...

Thanks, Wynter. Amazing, isn't it, how fate and football played such a part in the Titanic story.

Naima Simone said...

How interesting! I never knew about the wireless or the two operators. Cool history lesson, Jina!

Jina Bacarr said...

Thanks, Naima! Interesting thing about Operator Bride--he became a traveling salesman and moved to Scotland and never spoke about his Titanic experience.

Dalton Diaz said...

I never knew any of this, either! Fascinating.

Jina Bacarr said...

Thanks, Dalton!

Sending messages by wireless aboard the Titanic was akin to texting today.

The messages were often travelogues of who they met abroad ("We ran into Lady Rosalind and her handsome Prussian prince at the Vatican...he never smiles, but oh what a lovely bank account.")

Or businessmen communicating with their clients (e.g., a perfume salesman was aboard--he could have sent a message like this: "Paris invigorating. Have perfect name for new fragrance: Mamselle L'Amour."

Since many messages were never sent on that fateful night, we'll never know, shall we?

Michelle Polaris said...

I love this level of detail. So many factors affected that night. You bring history alive. It's a special talent you have.

Jina Bacarr said...

Thank you, Michelle! Yes, history is my beat...I enjoy dropping my characters into a historical moment in time and saying "what if..."

Thank you for your support, and to all the NA Chicks!

Callie Croix said...

I can't wait for all the documentaries that will be coming out in short order! I remember reading all about the wireless operators in A Night To Remember.

Jina Bacarr said...

Callie, I didn't see your comment until tonight--it's amazing how many shows are airing starting the end of March.

I've been trying to post the announcements as I see them on Twitter. For updates: follow me

A Night to Remember is still the absolute best film about the Titanic. It will be aired on TCM on April 14th at 7pm Pacific 10 pm Eastern

(PS--I have a question--can we still subscribe to a post when new comments are added? I don't see the button.)