Did the business strife between telegraph operators cost the life of thousands?
More than 1500 people lost their lives in history’s most dreadful ship-wreck. Titanic- the word itself has become a synonym for tragedy. In 1912 the ship hit an iceberg and sank into the Atlantic Ocean on its way from Southampton to New York.
It was blessed and cursed with the latest in communication technology—the wireless telegraph. In the last hours after Titanic hit an iceberg, radio messages sent from the storied sinking ship summoned a rescue vessel that saved hundreds of people – but also sowed confusion with competing distress calls and signal interference.
Telegraph company race
The telegraph system introduced by Marconi in the 1800s used long radio wavelengths that didn’t travel very far and were susceptible to interference. Around the same time, other radio inventors were developing more efficient ways to broadcast voices and transmit continuous wireless broadcasts on shorter wavelengths. Meanwhile Marconi had a proprietary hold on his invention that could commercialize it. Titanic was one customer of his technology.
Despite the limitations of the Marconi telegraph—and the fact that it wasn’t intended to be used as an emergency device—Titanic was outfitted with a radio room and a Marconi-leased telegraph machine. Two young Marconi-employed operators, chief telegraphist Jack Phillips and his assistant Harold Bride, sent Morse code “Marconigrams”.
The technicians had to handle a large queue of messages on the day of wreck. A passenger in Titanic wanted to notify all about an upcoming poker game in Los Angeles. In such a condition Philip could not pass on iceberg warning messages from ‘S S Californian’, a vessel that was rather nearby. He responded to this message: “I am busy”, crew from SS California remembered. When Titanic hit the iceberg and water started rushing into the lower decks, Philips began sending the Marconi distressed signal “CQD”. This was no any standardized distress signal but sailors used CQD in common (CQD came coining the word ‘Seek-you-in Distress’).
But by 1912 when Titanic sailed, there was another, competing distress signal on the scene: “SOS.” There is a common misnomer that the distress call is short for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls,” but the letters didn’t stand for anything. The signal consisted of three dots, three dashes, and another three dots—simple to tap out in Morse code during an emergency and easy to understand, even in poor conditions. United Kingdom and some other countries had chosen SOS as the official distress code even four years before. But Marconi telegraph system were not ready to take this up as official. Titanic’s first calls for help used CQD—and Bride was relaxed enough to joke that perhaps Phillips should try SOS as well. “It’s the new call,” he said, “and it may be your last chance to send it.” But the ship’s plight was no laughing matter. When one of the first ships to receive Titanic’s distress call, SS Frankfurt, responded late to Titanic’s CQD call, Marconi assistant Bride was tense enough to call the Frankurt’s operator a “fool.”
Meanwhile, the closest ship, Californian, didn’t receive Titanic’s distress calls at all. Its wireless operator had switched off his receiver and gone to bed after Phillips told him to shut up. While SS Frankfurt’s telegraph service was operated by Telefunken, a German company, and Marconi was in professional rivalry with Telefunken, Frankfurt’s operators sloppily relayed or downplayed the intermittent CQD and SOS from Titanic. After his congressional testimony, Marconi, the Nobel winner whose device was involved in the fateful disaster, laid a wreath at a memorial for Titanic telegraph operator Jack Philips.