The Radio Legacy of the R.M.S. Titanic


Dwight A. Johnson, KI5WI

At the time of her launch, the Titanic represented the epitome of technological achievement. She was, without doubt, one of man's noblest and most splendid creations, and the largest moving object mankind had ever created. Built at a time when ocean liners were regarded as the most supreme of man's creations, the Titanic represented the "state of the art" in terms of engineering and aesthetic achievement. She was the pride of an era, a time of great expectations and wonderful technological mastery, as well as a time of immigration to the New World in hopes of a better life. It was also a time of opulence, and class distinctions between the rich and the poor were very real and very distinct.

The sinking of the Titanic, on the fifth day of her maiden voyage, on April 14, 1912, has been compared to the Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986. In many ways, the two events have striking similarities.

The electrical generators and radio equipment on board the Titanic were the best available at the time. The wireless equipment was built by the Marconi Company, the dominant provider of radio equipment and radio operators at the time. Powered by a 5 kilowatt motor generator, and backed up by an emergency generator and batteries, the ship's radio had a guaranteed range of 250 miles under any weather conditions, and could usually maintain communications over 400 miles. The antenna system for this radio equipment can be prominently seen in most of the clear photographs of the ship. It consisted of four wires strung between two masts, the forward one located about ¼ of the way back from the bow of the ship, and the other being near the stern. The height of the antenna was 205 feet above water level. The antenna was fed by four individual wire feed lines, which appear to emerge from the radio room in front of the first of the four large stacks, or "funnels" of the ship. The feed points appear to be located approximately 1/3 back from the leading end of the antenna.

The senior wireless operator was John "Jack" Phillips, age 25, and the junior operator was 21 year old Harold Bride. The radio transmitter was of the "spark" type, and the radio operator used a telegraph key to transmit a "Continental" version of code, which is slightly different from the American "Morse" code. The ship's radio actually required two separate rooms, one for the receiver, and one for the transmitter, to keep the loud buzzing of the transmitter from interfering with the receiver.

On the night of April 14, 1912, the two radio operators were busy trying to catch up on a back-log of traffic, which had built up from the night before because of some problem with the ship's radio equipment. Phillips had fixed the problem by 5:00 A.M., but there was apparently a lot of passenger traffic to be sent by the time he did. One of the first messages he was to receive was from another ship, warning of ice. A similar warning was received from the Greek steamer Athina, warning of "burgs and field ice, 41 degrees, 51 minutes North, 49 degrees, 52 minutes West." Several other similar reports were copied, and delivered to the Captain of the Titanic. At 9:30 PM, Phillips received another ice warning, this one from the ship Masaba, to which Phillips replied, "thanks," and resumed sending passenger traffic. The Masaba message warned of a huge field of ice, miles wide, but the Titanic continued to steam ahead at near her maximum speed of 20-23 knots.

At 10:55 PM, the freighter Californian sent another ice warning to the Titanic, stating, "We are stopped and surrounded by ice," to which Phillips replied, "Shut up!" "We are busy working Cape Race." (Cape Race Wireless, in Newfoundland) The Californian's operator obliged, and shut down his radio for the night. Acting on the four wireless messages that he was made aware of, Captain Edward J. Smith of the Titanic did order a change in course, taking the Titanic several miles to the South of the usual path.

At 11:40 PM, on Sunday, April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg, and sustained a series of bumps and scrapes, which resulted in a string of holes in its hull, the total size of which amounted to about 12 square feet. Titanic could have floated with two of her sixteen watertight compartments flooded, but as a result of this "string" of damage to her hull, the first five compartments were flooded. The wall between the watertight compartments only reached as high as E deck, and as the bow sank, the water flooded over the tops of these walls, flooding each next compartment in succession.

The ship's crew realized that the Titanic would soon sink. They also knew another fact that was not known by many of the passengers: that there were life boats for only about ½ of those on board.

At 12:15 AM, the Titanic's wireless operators were instructed to begin sending "CQD MGY." (Calling all stations, danger; MGY was the call sign of the Titanic) At first, Phillips and Bride joked about being the first to use the "new call for disaster," SOS. Later, Phillips did switch over to sending SOS, and continued doing so until his equipment began to fail. As he did this, Bride began to gather up some items he thought that the two would need for their own escape. In the process, he caught a man in the act of stealing one of their life jackets from the radio shack. The two wireless operators jumped him, knocked him out, and left him for dead as they fled from the radio room.

Some 58 miles from the Titanic, Harold Cottam, the radio operator of a much smaller ship, the Carpathia, had heard the Titanic's distress calls at about 12:25 AM. In a heroic effort, the crew of the Carpathia sped through the icy waters to the site of the Titanic's sinking, arriving there in about 4 hours. The Captain and crew of the Carpathia were awarded several medals for their heroic efforts by the surviving passengers of the Titanic, as well as by the U.S. Congress, and others. In the following years, the Carpathia continued passenger service between Liverpool and New York. She was torpedoed by the German submarine U-55, and sank on July 15, 1918. Five of her engineering crew were killed; her 215 passengers and crew survived. Interestingly, few people are aware of the ultimate fate of the Carpathia.

In the aftermath of the Titanic tragedy, there was a flood of coverage by the press, and a series of investigations by the British and the U.S. governments. This resulted in the passage of the Federal Radio Act of 1912, which marked the first involvement in the regulation of radio by the United States government. Among other things, the act provided for the licensure of radio operators, the requirement for a separate frequency for distress calls, absolute priority for distress calls, for 24 hour radio service for ships at sea. The need for an adequate number of lifeboats, for lifeboat drills, for escape route diagrams, and for a host of other things we now take for granted, with regards to safety, are all part of the legacy of the Titanic.

Of the 1320 passengers, and the crew of 908 (total 2228), only 705 "living souls" were saved. Death by hypothermia, due to the freezing temperature of the North Atlantic waters at the time, and by drowning, was the modality of death for the majority of those who perished that night. Phillips died in a lifeboat after being pulled from the water. Junior radio operator Harold Bride was one of the survivors. Except for extensive testimony before the U. S. Senate, and before the British Bureau of Trade, it is said that he rarely ever spoke of the disaster. It is a tribute to the two of them, at the ages of 21 and 25, that they remained at their posts of duty, transmitting distress calls, even as their equipment began to fail. The last message sent was "We are sinking fast, passengers being put into boats."

To any disaster planner or emergency coordinator, the sinking of the Titanic presents many opportunities for continued thought and further study. For example, it is rather obvious that there was rather adequate radio communication, what was lacking was proper procedures, including monitoring of the frequency, recognition of the priority of emergency traffic, etc. The list goes on and on, from the lack of an adequate number of lifeboats, to the lack of planning exit routes, no lifeboat drills, etc. Much of our present-day emergency planning and management techniques, as well as our ship and aircraft safety procedures owe their development to the Titanic's sinking and its aftermath. It is unfortunate that mankind requires a "wake up call," in the form of a disaster ever so often, to demonstrate the need for such planning and practice.

Near the end, as it became more obvious that the demise of their ship was eminent, there were many instances of heroic as well as cowardly behavior by all those involved. There was also a lot of confusion and poorly thought out behavior. For example, many of the lifeboats, designed to carry 65 passengers, were launched with only 30-35 passengers. At first, many of the passengers simply refused to believe the Titanic was in real danger of sinking, and they were reluctant to board the lifeboats. It seems strange now that there was such a disparity in the treatment of third class passengers, and such preferential treatment of some of those in first class.

In 1985, after considerable search efforts, the wreckage of the Titanic were dramatically discovered, more than 2 and a half miles deep in the Atlantic. With the filming of dramatic footage of the remains of the Titanic, and with the even more dramatic recovery and restoration of many artifacts from her, public interest has again been aroused. This past summer, an exhibition of these artifacts was placed on display in Memphis. Just recently (December, 1997), Hollywood released another film about the Titanic, with a production cost of approximately $200,000,000. Considerable effort has been made to insure the historical accuracy of this movie, and to make the set appear to be an accurate representation of the original Titanic herself. The radio operators get a "bit part" in this movie, however, although we do get a glimpse of the radio room, and a shot of a hand sending code on a straight key. I felt that the radio legacy of the Titanic was underplayed in this movie, but such is often the lot of us "radio types."

In the aftermath of this great disaster, the logical role for radio communications and disaster planning was greatly expanded. Much of our present day life boat drills, emergency priority traffic, 24 hour radio communications for ships and aircraft, radio protocol, and emergency planning in general…all these, and more, had their humble beginnings on the night this great ship went down into the icy waters of the North Atlantic that fateful night in April, 1912.


What you have just read represents my first efforts to assemble as much information as I can about the Titanic's radio equipment and its operators, not only to show the important role radio played in this historic event, but also to show how this event profoundly influenced the future development of radio, emergency communications, and what is now "routine" communications between ships at sea and aircraft in flight. For now, I will post this document "as is," in the hope that others with similar interests will assist in its development by providing their feed-back of information, correction of any errors, and/or the provision of additional detail. I will continue to revise and edit the page as long as there is continued feedback and interest. The quality and accuracy of this page will ultimately be in direct proportion to the willingness of its readers to participate in its development and refinement.

Dwight A. Johnson, KI5WI

March 28, 1998

Last Revision December 28, 1998

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