Titanic Radio, Compliments of Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company
the last week, we have been inundated with stories on the 100-year anniversary of the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic.
Even after a century of research and exploration, no definitive cause has been determined relating to how the
ship's crew managed to hit a gigantic iceberg on a star-lit, glass-smooth sea. The prevailing theory seems to be
that an optical illusion due to an atmospheric inversion caused the crew to misjudge the position of the iceberg.
An article in the March 2012
Smithsonian magazine lays out the scenario, complete with diagrams. The same edition has a story
Missed the Boat," discussing some of the famous people who were originally scheduled to make the voyage, but
decided not to before it departed. Amongst the notables was none other than 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics honoree
Guglielmo Marconi. Instead, he left for America on the Lusitania three days earlier. Interestingly, he also made
the Atlantic passage on the Lusitania three years later on the trip immediately before a German U-Boat sunk it.
Talk about a charmed life!
played a critical role in the Titanic drama without actually being aboard, since his company, Marconi Wireless
Telegraph Company, Ltd, owned the radio equipment aboard the Titanic and also employed the two radio operators.
The April 2012 edition of the ARRL's QST magazine
has a couple articles that focus on the operators of both the Titanic and the Carpathia (the rescuing ship). The
Titanic's radio was a state-of-the-art 5.0 kW set with an advanced synchronous, rotary spark discharger. Separate
rooms were needed for the transmitter and the receiver because noise from the transmitter was so great that it
would otherwise severely interfere with the receiver. Most ocean-crossing ships of the era had no radio
communications at all, and those that did were typically transmitting at only 1.5 kW - not enough to span the
entire ocean. According to research done by author Commander Richard Paton, USCGR (Ret), the radio was out of
service for more than seven hours just a short while before disaster struck. Marconi's two operators, John "Jack"
Phillips and Harold Bride, who both maintained and operated the equipment, worked tirelessly to get back on the
air because the company lost money when messages were not being sent and received. The Titanic's call sign was MGY
(the M stood for Marconi).
The only known photograph of Titanic's radio room.
Typical Marconi marine 5-kW wireless transmitting set, of the type installed on the Titanic.
The novelty of wireless communication assured the Marconi Wireless Telegraph
Company a steady flow of revenue as passengers, many very wealthy, were anxious to have the privilege of
communication with friends and relatives while in the middle of the ocean. Fees were collected ahead of messaging.
Once the radio was operational again, both men worked tirelessly to catch up with the backlog of messages to and
from the Marconi station at Cape Race, Newfoundland. Ship-to-ship messaging was also common as weather conditions
and navigation hazards - like icebergs - were relayed between vessels as a courtesy. The same type courtesy exists
today between ships and airplanes.
A message was received from the SS Mesoba roughly two hours before the
strike warning of a large ice field in Titanic's path. Under normal conditions, radio operators would dispatch
ship-to-ship messages to and from the bridge for the ships' officers' benefit as they became available, but due to
the intense workload, never reached the bridge. Operator Phillips is said to have admitted to placing the message
under a paperweight for later delivery, but never got around to it. Following the jarring impact with the iceberg,
once it was clear that the Titanic was in dire straits, operator Phillips keyed the message, "Come quick - we have
struck an iceberg - its CQD SOS old man - position 41.46 N 50.14 W - MGY." Phillips died that fateful night a
while after telling the story to Second Officer Charles Lightoller while they both clung to the same overturned
lifeboat. Harold Bride survived.
I hate to be the one to throw cold water on (bad choice of cliché?) the
generally agreed-upon conference of hero status on Titanic's two radio operators, but might it be that if it were
not for the profit motive of sending and receiving as many messages as possible for paying passengers that the
iceberg warning message would have been delivered to the captain and heeded in time to save the ship? I'm a big
believer in Capitalism myself, but life-and-death safety issues always take precedence over making another buck in
my book. Just a thought...
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