RMS Titanic: 1912 – 2012
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Wireless communications and the Titanic disaster
This supplement is an abstract from the book, SOS – A Titanic Misconception, by David Barlow ©, which traces the history of emergency maritime wireless communications from the early days. To mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic a section of this book covering the disaster is being published in the March 2012 QSO and is repeated on the website. David’s book will be published later this year and members will be advised on the website and in QSO.
Please note any information published in this article is the copyright of David Barlow and The Radio Officers’ Association.
The Marconi Company fitted the Titanic with the most modern wireless equipment for the time while she was being built in Belfast. During the building of the ship it was known that wireless was to be fitted and initially she was issued with the call sign MUC (Marconi operated ships had a first letter M) this was altered later to MGY (a call sign formerly assigned to a US ship Yale. The Marconi Marine Company appointed J. (Jack). G. Phillips as Senior Wireless Operator and Harold Bride as his assistant. It is interesting to note that the Titanic’s Captain, E.J. Smith. requested that Jack Binns sail as Senior Wireless Operator but this was vetoed by the White Star board as a result of his involvement in the ss Republic incident (q.v.), they apparently thought he would bring the Titanic bad luck!
The wireless equipment on board the Titanic was the most powerful of any vessel in the merchant marine fleet, only equalled by that on board her siser ship the Olympic. The standard Marconi transmitter on board ships at that time was a ½ kW spark generator. That on the Titanic was a 5kW quenched or rotary spark generator. The difference in power output was amply demonstrated because when the disaster occurred the Titanic was initially able to contact ships at a greater distance; however, the increased power also effectively drowned out or jammed signals from being sent or received on board vessels in close proximity.
The power for the transmitter was obtained using the 110 volts DC from the ship’s lighting circuit applied to a generating plant, which was a 5 kilowatt motor generator yielding 300 volts at 60 cycles per second, which was then applied to a transformer yielding 20 kilovolts. Two backup power supplies were also available, an independent oil engine had been installed on the top deck and a battery of accumulators provided as an emergency supply.
The wireless equipment was housed on the boat deck close to the bridge. There were four parallel aerial wires extended between the masts separated by lightweight booms. The down leads were connected to the instruments in the wireless house
The Titanic’s sea trials were carried out as she sailed from Belfast en route to Southampton on 2nd April 1912. Jack Phillips and Harold Bride had helped to install the equipment and on sailing it was in perfect working order. However, that did not last as they soon discovered that when the quenched spark transmitter was subjected to a heavy workload the secondary of the transformer windings had a habit of shorting to the metal casing.
The workload on the transmitter was caused because it was in almost constant use. Captain Smith sent many sea trial reports to Bruce Ismay (Managing Director of the White Star Line). In addition the ship’s owners delighted in sending Marconigrams to their friends. This was added to the necessary testing of the equipment by keeping in contact with coast stations, which kept the two operators very busy.
The messages and tests would have been sent via coast stations at Malin Head (call sign GMH), Seaforth near Liverpool (GLV), the Lizard (GLD) and Niton ,on the Isle of Wight, (GNI). These stations gained the prefix “G” when they were taken over by the Post Office in 1909. It is said that the Titanic wireless equipment was so efficient that communication was established with Tenerife over 2,000 miles away.
Titanic arrived at Southampton late on 3rd April, sea trials only having taken some 36 hours. Both wireless operators went on leave. Jack Phillips returned on April 6th to check on the delivery of spare parts. Harold Bride arrived back shortly before midnight on April 9th. Jack Phillips and Harold Bride worked six hour shifts with Phillips working from 8 am to 2 pm and 8 pm to 2 am and Bride taking the alternate six hour shifts.
At noon on 10th April Titanic left Southampton for Cherbourg. In 1912 wireless was a novelty, especially to the first class passengers, they delighted in sending messages to their friends and relations. Both Phillips on the Titanic and the operator at the Isle of Wight would have been very busy sending and receiving messages. Bride would have taken over at 2pm and would have been on duty when Titanic berthed at Cherbourg at 7 pm. Two hours later Phillips would have been at the Morse key as Titanic set sail for Queenstown sending and receiving messages from the Isle of Wight and the Lizard stations. As she progressed, wireless messages were probably sent to Rosslare (GRL) and as she approached Queenstown to the wireless station at Crookhaven (GCK). She arrived at Queenstown at 12.30 pm on 11th April and left for New York an hour and a half later carrying 1316 passengers and 891 crew.
On leaving Queenstown, Phillips and Bride would have maintained contact with Crookhaven for as long as possible, perhaps within a 200 mile range by day and 350 miles at night and perhaps the Titanic maintained contact for the next 24 hours. Thereafter contact would be made with other ships, many of them sending good wishes to the Captain on Titanic’s maiden voyage.
Each night at 1am GMT the high power station at Poldhu, Cornwall would send “Ocean News” the daily news bulletin for ships and this would have been received on the Titanic on the 11th, 12th and 13th April, however on 14th April she did not, or could not, receive the signal. “Ocean News” was received by the ss Minnehaha whose wireless operator then passed it on to the Titanic. On 14th April 1912 the last news of home would have been read on board the Titanic sent by wireless and relayed by a ship that had been involved in an SOS two years earlier.
In his evidence to the Titanic accident enquiries Harold Bride reported two significant facts. The first was that a problem existed with the spark transmitter during the sea trials, and the second was that in the first two days of the voyage that they sent over 220 messages to the various shore stations. These factors led to reduced power output from the transmitter and so repairs were required.
On 13th April and early morning of 14th April Phillips and Bride set about repairing the quenched spark transmitter because the secondary of the spark transmitter was again shorting to the metal casing. They had less traffic to send and they used the time to do the required running repairs.
Note: Harold Bride was clearly not experienced in the wireless terminology of the time as he referred to the “secretary” of the spark transmitter in his evidence to the enquiries, no doubt he was referring to the “secondary” windings.
On 14th April the Wireless Room on board the Titanic received no fewer than seven ice warnings. One of the most interesting ice warnings received on board the Titanic by Captain Smith read as follows:-
From Commander ss Baltic
To Captain Smith rms Titanic
Have had moderate variable winds and clear fine weather since leaving. Greek steamer Athenia reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today in Lat. 41o 51’ N., Long 49o 52’ W. Last night we spoke German oil tank steamer Deustchland Stettin to Philadelphia not under control, short on coal. Lat 40o 42’ N Long 55o 11’ W. wishes to be reported New York and other steamers. Wish you and Titanic all success. – Commander.
At the time this message was received the position of the Titanic was about 42o 35’ N 45o 50 W.
The Titanic transmitter once again showed signs of shorting between the secondary winding and metal casing and repairs were again attempted during the afternoon of 14th April. It is known that the ship carried a back up transmitter and it is thought that this was a simple ½ kilowatt spark generator as was commonly supplied on merchant ships at that time. The range of this transmitter was considerably less than the 5 kilowatt quenched spark transmitter which had been fitted and which was causing problems. It is not known which transmitter was being used later that night.
During the day or so when contact was made with shore stations, the numbers of messages the passengers had mounted dramatically. Jack Phillips came on watch at 8pm on 14th April and must have been delighted to be able to make contact with the shore station at Cape Race and start sending the pile of messages he had in front of him.
He received the ice warning from the ss Mesaba at 9.40 pm. The two forward lookouts, Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, went to their posts at 10pm on the 14th and “shared a few words about the ice problem”. This nformation probably came from the Wireless Room via the bridge. At 11.40 pm Fleet reported an iceberg dead ahead to the bridge. The bridge replied, “Thank you” but nothing else was said or heard.
At 11pm the wireless operator of the nearby Californian called him to warn of ice in the vicinity. The signals from the Californian unfortunately jammed the contact between the Titanic and Cape Race. Jack Phillips wanted to send his traffic and the jamming made it impossible; he replied to the Californian telling him to “keep out”; this was not a rude message but was one used to stop one station interfering with another while it was already sending traffic to a coast station. (On this occasion it was probably the most unfortunate thing that Jack Phillips could have sent because he missed the ice warning that Cyril Evans was going to send).
Between 11.00 pm and 11.40 pm Phillips was in contact with Cape Race sending the large pile of messages that had built up while the ship was out of range of shore stations. The distance, noise and interference on the frequency made the sending and receiving of the messages difficult; constant repetitions were needed to ensure that the messages were received in full and correctly.
Phillips was at his Morse key at 11.40 pm when the Titanic hit the iceberg and he felt the slight shudder as the ship was scarred by the iceberg. The ship also probably heeled over as it ran along the iceberg and there may have been an unusual grating noise; however, he carried on working.
Harold Bride said at the enquiries he did not hear the noise of the iceberg; it does seem to be a coincidence that within ten minutes he was awake and, in his pyjamas, he entered the Wireless Room. Jack Phillips said to him that he thought there was a problem and they “may have to go back to Belfast”. It seems possible that Bride did detect the noise of the iceberg in his subconscious.
NB From this point onwards, relating the tragic events of the night as far as wireless communications are concerned is very difficult. In 1912 ships used time related to their longitude. The times recorded by ships receiving the Titanic distress calls vary widely. Sometimes were reported as New York time, some ships time and some in Greenwich Mean Time (UTC today). As an example it is reported that the Titanic sent its first CQD/SOS at 12,15am but the Birma marked it as being received at 11.56pm.)
At 12.05 am Captain Smith gave orders to uncover the lifeboats and muster the crew and passengers. One of the four lifeboats on the promenade deck was directly opposite the door to the wireless room. Phillips and Bride would have immediately realised that something serious was amiss.
Shortly afterwards, Captain Smith entered the Wireless Room and told the Wireless Operators that the ship had hit an iceberg but not to send anything until he returned. He came back five minutes later with the ship’s position and told them to send the distress call. The initial signals were received by a number of ships including the ss Birma and rms Baltic, both ships were clear that Phillips sent both CQD and SOS. (It is clear that Captain Smith told Phillips to send the distress call but it is unlikely that he would have told him to send SOS either at this time or subsequently. Bride having recently left the Marconi School at Seaforth may have told him that SOS was now the international distress signal.)
The steamer ss Birma received one of Phillips’ early messages and please note that it is timed as being received at 11.56 pm, a 20 minute difference from Titanic, which was probably one days steaming time. The message is reproduced here:-
The message was also received by the Carpathia and was marked as being received at 11.20 pm. Regardless of the time differences, it is patently clear that Jack Phillips was sending both CQD and SOS from the very start of his distress signals. The cable ship Mount Temple also received the call and said they would come and help.
Looking at the schematic of the Titanic bridge deck it can be seen that either side of the wireless room were boiler uptake casings. One of the pipes in one of the casings burst and was belching out steam close to the Wireless Room. For much of the next two hours the operators had to listen on their headphones for incoming signals as the burst pipe was making such a noise that reception of signals was very difficult. The operators also had to contend with reduced power and so conserved as much energy as possible by sending only succinct short messages once the first CQD/SOS had been acknowledged.
The operator on the Carpathia, Harold Cottam, and Jack Phillips were old friends having been at the Marconi Seaforth School and many of the messages were between the two of them.
During the last 15 minutes a female passenger sat on the floor of the wireless room sobbing quietly. As the two wireless operators were trying to send their last messages a grimy faced stoker burst into the room and tried to remove Jack Phillips’ lifejacket. Not an easy job with his headphones still on his head. Harold Bride pulled him off his colleague, Phillips removed his headphones and landed his fist on the intruder sending him backwards out of the room and then returned to his operating position.
At about 1.45 am Captain Smith reappeared at the Wireless Room and told the two wireless operators that the ship was sinking and that they should take to the boats. Jack Phillips simply replaced his headphones on his ears and recommenced work, Harold Bride stood by him watching what was being sent and stood ready to take received messages to the wheelhouse.
The last clear message sent by Jack Phillips was to Harold Cottam on the Carpathia, it was more a personal message than an official one. It read “come as quickly as possible, old man, the engine-room is filling up to the boilers”.
The power feeding the spark transmitter was fading fast and signals from the Titanic were blurred and unreadable. At 02.17 Jack Phillips commenced sending his last call. All that was received of it was CQ… and then silence.
The dynamos were under water and power was gone. There was no more that the brave wireless operators could do, the ship was sinking fast, they left the Wireless Room, the bows of the Titanic were thrust into the Atlantic Ocean and the boat deck was awash. The two climbed on top of the accommodation of the Officer’s quarters from where Harold Bride was swept into the sea.
Harold Bride eventually clambered into a collapsible boat and was saved and taken on board the Carpathia. Jack Phillips was last seen standing on the deck-house…
The Titanic was gone but wireless still had its role to play. Harold Cottam and Harold Bride were kept busy on board the Carpathia. On board the Mount Temple Wireless Operator Durrant had received the original CQD/SOS but the ship was hampered getting to the assistance of the Titanic by an iceberg, perhaps the same one that had caused the Titanic to sink. She arrived at the site two hours after the Titanic sank. She assisted in picking up bodies and Durrant sent details of those that could be identified by wireless to Cape Race.
Bruce Ismay chartered four vessels to assist in the gruesome task of retrieving bodies from the sea. These included the cable ships cs Mackay Bennett and Mania as well as the Mount Temple. In addition the White Star ships Olympic, Celtic and Baltic were summoned to the scene.
On board the Carpathia
Wireless Operator Harold Cottam
On the night of 11/12th April 1912 the wireless operator on board the Carpathia worked until 3am on the 12th; the following night he was up until 2.30am in the morning and so on the 14th he had planned to get an early night. However, he stayed up to receive the news bulletin which was sent by the Marconi station at Cape Cod at 10:30 New York time; he had an special interest in the news of the coal strike that was taking place in England.
Before the news bulletin Cape Cod had traffic for the Titanic and, as Harold Cottam thought, incorrectly, that he was the nearest ship to the Titanic, he took the traffic with the intention of passing it on to the Titanic in the morning. He knew how busy the operators on the Titanic were and felt it was his duty to help them.
When he finished taking the messages from Cape Cod, he made up his daily list of communications and reported them to the Officer of the watch. He then returned to his wireless cabin to verify a “time rush” he had exchanged with the ss Parisian earlier that day. A “time rush” was a slang term used by wireless operators for the exchange of ship’s time to see if their clocks agreed, an essential for not only the wireless operator but also the navigation of the ship in ascertaining its true position when taking sights.
Harold Cottam realised that he had not told the Titanic that he had messages that he would relay to them, so before going to his cabin for what he thought was going to be a well-earned rest he put his headphones on and called the Titanic to advise them of the Cape Cod messages – he received the unexpected reply “Come at once we have struck a berg this is a CQD our position is 41.46N 50.14W”. He then asked if he should “inform the Captain and ask him to turn back” to which the answer was “Yes Yes”.
Cottam ran to the bridge and informed First Officer Dean and then he roused Captain Rostron who gave instructions to reverse course immediately.
Back in the wireless cabin Cottam put on his headphones and heard the Titanic working the Frankfurt. However on board the Titanic an expansion joint had burst and the hissing steam drowned out the Frankfurt’s weak signals. Cottam acted as a relay for communications between the two vessels. He then heard the Olympic trying to contact the Titanic with a service message, it was clear that the Titanic could not hear the Olympic. Cottam’s equipment was only the low power spark transmitter and so he was unable to relay messages to the Olympic. Several messages were passed between Cottam and the Titanic. While the main operator on the Titanic was Jack Phillips, Harold Bride took over for brief intervals and as Cottam and Bride knew each other some personal chat took place.
While in touch with the Titanic Cottam could hear the Baltic exchanging messages with Cape Race. Later the Titanic had communications with the Baltic.
The Carpathia had a normal speed of 12 to 14 knots however, Harold Cottam was told by one of the engineers that she made 17 or 18 knots in order to hasten their arrival at the Titanic. A double watch was put on in the engine room and the men were turned out on deck, rockets were prepared and everything was done to get to the stricken ship that was possible.
Cottam received the last message from the Titanic “Come quick. Our engine room is flooded up to the boilers. We are sinking fast”. Cottam replied that the Carpathia’s boats were ready and for the Titanic to get theirs ready also and that they were doing all possible to get to them. There was no reply. Cottam stated it was 11:55 New York time. Cottam kept calling hoping to hear a spark from the Titanic emergency transmitter – there was none and Harold Cottam knew that the Titanic “had gone down”.
For an hour Cottam remained at his post sending “ If you are still there we are firing our rockets”. It then became clear to him that there was no hope. The lifeboats started to arrive and he went out on deck to see the first survivors come aboard; he then returned to his wireless room. By 8.30am 712 survivors had been taken on board. Cottam had had no sleep, was very tired and was bombarded by messages asking what had happened. He desperately needed sleep and his reply to the Olympic was “I cannot do everything at once! Patience please”. He then said that 20 lifeboats had discharged their passengers and no other survivors could be found.
When the Baltic asked if it could relay messages to New York they received the answer “I have not eaten since 5.30pm yesterday”. The Carpathia carried only a standard ½ kilowatt transmitter and the Olympic became their relay station and Wireless Operator E.J.Moore sent messages to Cape Race on behalf of the Carpathia. Cottam started sending the names of the survivors to the Olympic, he did warn Moore that his sending might be poor as he was “half asleep”.
Come evening, Captain Rostron was worried about his wireless operator and said that Cottam was “acting queer”. He sent two officers below and Harold Bride agreed to assist. He was carried to the wireless room and the two shared the workload until 3 days later when they reached New York.
Rostrom gave them total control over what was sent and gave the instruction that they should transmit disaster messages only – names of survivors and their personal messages; this instruction was carried out to the letter.
As Bride had lost all his clothes and belongings, Harold Cottam shared his with him. He also stayed by his bedside while he was in a New York hospital. The two travelled together to give evidence to the Washington Titanic enquiry.
Wireless on board the Californian
Wireless Operator – Cyril Evans
Although she had a passenger certificate, the 6000 ton Californian carried no passengers. On that voyage she proceeded very slowly during the afternoon of 14th April through the ice. At 6.30pm she sighted icebergs. Captain Sidney Lord instructed Wireless Operator Cyril Evans to send a warning to other ships. The signal was sent and received on other ships and copied by Harold Bride on board the Titanic. At 10.30pm she stopped her engines because the ice seemed to extend in front of her to the West.
At 11.00pm on the bridge of the Californian an approaching vessel was seen on the starboard quarter. They could only see the bows and as a result the ship appeared to be of similar size to them. In no way did they think that the approaching ship was the Titanic. It was at about this time that Evans was in contact with the Titanic, he knew she was close by the strength of her signals. However it must be remembered that the Titanic was fitted with the latest wireless equipment and her signals would have been stronger than other ships fitted with lower power transmitters.
Evans wished to give the operator on the Titanic an ice warning. However he called and was rapidly answered by Jack Phillips who, in no uncertain terms, told Evans to “keep out” and not interrupt his contact sending passenger messages to Cape Race coast station. “All right have it your own way” replied Evans – he realised that his duty was finished for the day. With the Titanic signals being so loud there was no reason for him to stay on watch as he was unable to send and receive signals. He retired to his bunk and went to sleep. Had Jack Phillips taken the message Evans wished to send, then the Titanic would have been warned of the approaching danger.
While Evans slept, Third Officer Groves took over on bridge watch. He noticed the approaching vessel and estimated that she was ten or eleven miles away. He thought she was a passenger vessel but the angle at which she was approaching foreshortened her length and made her look comparatively small. He reported his sighting to his Captain who instructed him to signal her with the Morse lamp. There was no reply. This may have been a product of the position of the two vessels and the distance between them.
At 11.40pm the strange vessel appeared to stop and Groves surmised that the reason was because of the icebergs; he was totally unaware of the plight of the stricken ship. The Captain had been told by Evans that the Titanic was close by, but in his view the ship in sight was not a passenger ship.
At 12.45am Third Officer Groves was relieved by Second Officer Stone. He reported the existence of the unknown steamer. While, unlike his Captain, he still thought it was a passenger vessel, he did not think it was the Titanic. On his way to his cabin he passed the cabin of Wireless Operator Evans. He put his head round the door and asked the half-awake Evans, “What ships have you got” the reply was “only the Titanic”. Unfortunately he still did not think that the steamer off to starboard was indeed the Titanic. Indeed had he aroused Evans and Evans had wound up his magnetic detector receiver (which worked by clockwork), then he would have received the SOS/CQD being sent by Jack Phillips.
On the bridge of the Californian during the middle watch, Second Officer Stone and apprentice Gibson watched the strange ship. They saw the rockets being sent aloft. Stone knew that there were distress signals; however these did not coincide with his idea of the sort of colours he would expect. He reported them to his Captain who also surmised that they were “Company signals”. Nevertheless, he instructed Stone to attempt to make contact by Morse lamp. This, again, proved unsuccessful.
At 1.40am the last of three rockets was seen. Second Officer Stone reported to the subsequent enquiries in New York and London that he thought the lights on the distant steamer were “queer” and “unnatural”. At 2.00 am a further eight rockets were seen; Stone again sent apprentice Gibson to the Captain who came to the bridge and asked if the rockets were red or green. Stone and Gibson said that they were white. On the bridge Gibson observed the port red light to be “rising up”, he told the enquiries that he thought there was “something funny” about it. However, the bridge party came to the conclusion that the vessel was steaming away from them.
The Captain again attempted to contact the steamer they thought was retreating from them using the Morse lamp, again there was no reply. At 2.20am the lights disappeared. Little did they know that they had witnessed the last throes of the Titanic.
The Captain and crew of the Californian were exonerated of any blame at the enquiries. It is only a pity that, wireless being so new, and such a novelty, that no-one thought of calling “Sparks”, the Wireless Operator, instead of using the Morse lamp.
Wireless and the safety of life at sea
News of the Titanic disaster shocked the world. The fact that over 700 people were saved because of wireless telegraphy made people realise that wireless was not just for the sending and receiving of personal messages; it was and would continue to be an essential contribution to the safety of life at sea.
Arrangements had already been made for the third Wireless Telegraphy Convention to take place in London at the end of 1912. This conference established internationally agreed regulations which were expanded by subsequent conventions. These included:
-the reinforcement of SOS as the distress signal
-The 500kc/s frequency was made a compulsory fitting for all ships carrying wireless
-the establishment of formal working hours
-the formalization of the certification of Wireless Operators
-the creation of Silence Periods when all ships were required to cease operating and listen for distress signals on 500kc/s
-the requirement that at least one lifeboat should carry emergency wireless equipment
-the requirement that all ships should have an emergency transmitter and receiver powered by batteries
Many of the early changes made by the London Convention had an almost immediate effect when, on 2nd October 1913 a passenger/cargo ship the ss Volturno caught fire in mid-Atlantic. Second Wireless Operator C.J. Pennington sent SOS and this was immediately acknowledged by the ss Seydlitz. The Chief Wireless Operator, Walter Seddon, was aroused by the explosions on board the Volturno, arrived at the wireless cabin and received another reply from the Cunarder Carmania. In all, nine ships came to the aid of the Volturno and, although there was loss of life, 500 passengers and crew were saved.
It is impossible to count the numbers of lives subsequently saved by the installation of wireless or, as it later became known, radio on board ships. The number must run into tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.
The evolution of distress calls and the subsequent use of SOS by Wireless Operators and Radio Officers over the following decades is summed up in the words of Bennett Copplestone in his 1927 book “Tales of SOS and TTT”:-
“ The Wireless Operator, a plain man equipped to do one thing extremely well, bears himself in extreme emergency with cool courage. He stands by his job, though at any moment the ship may sink under his feet. From the very nature of his job he is almost the last man to leave a sinking vessel – allowing precedence in devotion to the captain alone, – and he continues to send distress calls and to direct rescuing vessels until some officer’s hand seizes the slack of his trousers and pitches him into a boat. Sometimes, and not infrequently, he goes down with his ship.”
© David Barlow.