Bright "Sparks".

The "Wireless Telegraphists" and Their Work.

In 1912 radio at sea was only just past the novelty stage. This was in spite of the fact that the first distress call made by radio dated from 1899, when the Goodwin Sands lightship summoned help after being run down. Of 23,217 registered powered ships, about 1,000 (400 of them British) were fitted with radio and these were mostly ships on the busy North Atlantic. Californian's radio was fitted as late as January, 1912. Still commonly called wireless telegraph, the apparatus was made mainly by Marconi, Telefunken and De Forest. All used spark transmitters, which were very wasteful of power.

 A Bill to make radio compulsory on British ships was introduced in 1910, but was voted down by supporters of the shipping companies. The matter dragged on for years and it was 1933 before radio was required on all passenger ships and those freighters of more than 1,600 GRT.

 Titanic's Marconi set used 5Kw, of which about 500 watts actually reached the aerial. It operated on wavelengths from 100 to 2,500 metres, requiring very long aerials, such as can be seen strung between Titanic's masts. The normal wavelength was 600 metres. The range varied a lot. By day Titanic's radio had a guaranteed 250 mile range, but at night much larger ranges were reached. During trials in British waters, Titanic communicated with Port Said, over 3,000 miles away. For this reason, much work was done at night. Californian's lone operator used to have a siesta during the afternoon in order to be ready for another session of work lasting till around 11-00 p.m. This was at a time when it was illegal for railway telegraph operators in the USA to work for more than eight hours at a time. (The result of laws passed by Congress with the encouragement of railway owner, Senator Smith). On ships with two operators, it was usual for the pair to share the work by private arrangements.

 For the most detailed technical description of Titanic's radio available on the Internet, visit Parks Stephenson's site. Among other things, Parks explains what Titanic's radio really sounded like. This will come as a surprise to many.

 On Marconi ships the time of each message was recorded in GMT, when east of 40°W and in New York time when to the west. The radio operators were responsible for maintaining clocks showing these times.

 The operators signed Ship's Articles and were therefore formally part of the ship's crew and under the Captain's command. On some ships, the operators received a nominal wage of as little as one shilling per month from the ship's owner. Their real pay came from the radio company that provided them. According to Harold Bride, Titanic's operators were better off. He received £2-2-6 per month from White Star and £4 per month from Marconi. Phillips's exact wage appears to be unknown. He signed on for £4-5-0 per month from White Star and probably received about £6 per month from Marconi. Marconi's top wage was £8 per month. (For comparison, an Able Seaman got £5). A well-known picture of John Phillips of Titanic shows that his cap bears a Marconi emblem, not a White Star badge.
[ image: John Phillips.]
Senior Wireless Telegraphist, John Phillips, wearing his Marconi cap.
The operators were generally young men. John Phillips and Harold Bride of Titanic were aged 25 and 22 respectively. Many of them were interested in radio for its own sake, rather like some computer enthusiasts today. They communicated in an idiom known only to themselves, using numerous abbreviations. They commonly addressed each other as "OM", meaning Old Man. Terms which may seem rude to us, like Phillip's famous "Shut Up!" were part of their normal language. Sir James Bisset remembered, "GTHOMQRT", meaning,"Go to hell, old man. Shut up, I'm busy".

 Training lasted six months at Marconi's school and included learning to repair the set at sea, a skill which Phillips and Bride were to need. There was some division of loyalty between their radio company and their ship and this sometimes extended to refusing to communicate with ships using rival equipment. (They could tell from the ship's call sign whose equipment was being used. Titanic, for instance, had the call sign MGY, the M signifying a Marconi Ship. This scheme was dropped soon after the Titanic disaster). Many were quite inexperienced (Cyril Evans of Californian had been at sea for only six months) and radio discipline was often low by modern standards, as we shall see. If they had a hero, it was "Jack" Binns of Republic, who in 1909 had called for help when his ship sank. Binns saved hundreds of lives, but he also made a good thing out of it, for he sold his story to the press and later made a good living speaking and writing about radio and ships. He appeared as an expert witness at the US Senate enquiry.

 Many ships' captains were slow to make good use of the new technology. Most of the radio work consisted of sending messages for the passengers, generally those in First Class, as the service was costly. The first ten words cost twelve shillings and sixpence, with ninepence for each additional word. (About $3-12 and 19 cents). Some messages were no doubt useful for those who were running a business while at sea, but many were of the "Having a good time, wish you were here" variety. For instance, at 6-45 p.m. on April 14th, Cape Race received from John Phillips the marvellously banal, "Hardly wait get back. Cable made me awfully happy. Love Mutzie."

On Titanic everything pointed to priority being given to the passengers' messages. Passengers wishing to send a message went to the ship's Enquiry Office, where a purser's clerk took the message and assessed the fee. He then sent the message via a pneumatic tube to the radio room. Any replies came back by the same route. The radio operators had the boring task of balancing each day's work against the clerk's calculated fees. On the afternoon of April 14th, Harold Bride gave this task priority over receiving messages and ignored an incoming ice warning from Californian. (He received it later, when Californian sent the same message to Antillian).
[ image: A contemporary radio room.]
A contemporary radio room, said to be Titanic's but more probably Olympic's. Note the heavy switches, the two clocks and the pneumatic tubes on the right.
There was no direct communication with the bridge, which was about forty feet away. Messages for the captain were delivered by hand when an operator had time. After the disaster this was rectified by fitting Olympic and Britannic with a speaking tube to the bridge. Urgent warnings for the Captain were supposed to be prefixed with the letters MSG, for Masters' Service Gram, but this was not always done. Phillips' famous dismissal of Californian's final ice warning was largely due to the fact that it was not prefixed with MSG. He was used to receiving unofficial chatter from other ships and on the face of it, this was just more gossip from an operator with time on his hands. Other ice warnings from Amerika and Mesaba were properly received. Amerika's warning was dutifully relayed to the USN Hydrographic Office as requested. Neither message appears to have been taken to the Titanic's bridge as they were not marked MSG.

How well the operators understood the navigational details contained in messages is debatable. There is no evidence that Phillips and Bride regarded the ice warnings received by Titanic as exceptionally important and they appear to have lacked initiative when dealing with them. There was no excuse for this sort of thing. On Carpathia, Captain Rostron and his operator, Harold Cottam, worked well together and all navigational warnings promptly reached the bridge, where they were much valued by the progressive captain.

The Fatal Night.

On the night of the disaster, Phillips was hard at work sending passengers' messages, hampered at one point by Californian's intrusion. During this time he relayed to Cape Race the ice warning from Amerika. According to Bride, this work had been delayed by the wireless being out of order for some seven hours. This claim is hard to reconcile with the radio logs of other ships. The radio had in fact been unserviceable for about five hours during the night of April 13/14th. The passengers' messages had been accumulated during April 14th and saved for transmission during the night, when conditions favoured long distance communication. Phillips completed his work shortly after the collision and was then joined by Bride, who was aware that he needed a spell, although he was supposed to work until 2-00 a.m. By 12-15 a.m. Phillips had been ordered to send the distress signal. In order to ensure that his signal could be easily read, he sent at only 15 words per minute, which was about half his usual speed. Walter Gray, a wireless operator at Cape Race, Newfoundland, remembered his signals (501Kb wav.) for the rest of his life. He began with the long-established call of CQD and later used the newer SOS at Bride's suggestion. SOS had been introduced in 1906, but operators were slow to change.

 It is sometimes said that Titanic was the first ship to send an SOS, but this is not so. That dubious distinction probably belongs to the American steamer Arapahoe, which, in August 1909, was disabled by a broken propeller shaft off Cape Hatteras. According to some sources, another candidate is the Cunard liner Slavonia, which struck a reef in the Azores on June 10th, 1909. She had better luck than Titanic and all her company were rescued by Hamburg-Amerika's Batavia and Norddeutscher Lloyd's Prinzess Irene.

 Quite a bit of nonsense has been written about the meaning of these signals. In fact, none of the letters stood for anything. The CQD signal was part of a code originally devised by the Marconi company, but all operators knew its meaning. CQ signified that all stations should listen for an important message and the D was merely one of a number of letters which might follow it. The fact that D is the first letter of Danger or Distress was mere coincidence. This international signal meant the same to say, a German, whose word for danger was Gefahr. The SOS signal was introduced to make it easier to understand and doesn't stand for Save Our Ship or anything else. CQD in Morse is — · — ·, — —· —, — · · and SOS is   · · ·, — — —, · · ·  which is obviously easier to send and to recognize. The basic idea of using a few letters to say a great deal was an extension of the old practice of using groups of code flags for the same purpose.

 Phillips' message was picked up quickly by many ships. Like him, their operators had been making use of the superior transmission conditions at night. First to answer was the German ship Frankfurt, then 172 miles away. Her operator was to prove a nuisance during the night and into the next day. He kept calling Phillips, asking for irrelevant information, until he was told to shut up. In the morning he was to drive Californian's operator, Cyril Evans, crazy, with a torrent of German and English, all of no use.

 More efficient were the operators on Mount Temple, Birma and Carpathia, which were all much closer. It was pure luck that Harold Cottam of Carpathia was at work. He had sent a message to Parisian and was waiting for a reply. Normally he would have closed down by midnight. All three men quickly informed their captains and the three ships hurried to the rescue. The land station at Cape Race heard it also and the news soon spread to New York. By morning the young radio enthusiast, David Sarnoff, later President of RCA and founder of NBC, was listening to the ships involved. For many hours he tried to obtain details of the disaster and the names of those saved. His publicity machine later claimed that he heard the original distress call but he is known to have been off duty at the time. This is typical of the misrepresentations which plague Titanic researchers to this day.

Only the closest ship of all missed out. On Californian, about ten to fifteen miles away, Cyril Evans, understandably weary from a sixteen hour day, turned in at 11-35 p.m.. His Third Officer, Charles Groves, who was learning Morse, dropped in on Evans to get the latest news, but found him half asleep. Groves briefly toyed with the set, but did not know how to operate its magnetic detector and heard nothing. This was at about 12-20 a.m., just after Titanic's first distress call went out.

 As is well known, Phillips continued to call for help until less than five minutes before Titanic sank. He was among those lost, so our only record of his calls is from Harold Bride and from the radio logs of the ships he contacted. 

By the Dawn's Early Light.

In the morning the radio operators continued to play a part. Cyril Evans was woken a little before 5-30 a.m. (ship's time) and was asked to find out about a ship which had been firing rockets during the night. From Mount Temple and Frankfurt he soon learned that Titanic had gone down. The (incorrect) SOS position was given to Captain Stanley Lord and at 6-00 a.m.Californian set off on a slow wild goose chase through the ice, which ended when Carpathia was sighted picking up the survivors at the real wreck site.

 The radio was to provide telling evidence of how close Californian had been to the wreck site. Another ship which heard Evans' request for information was Virginian. At 5-45 a.m. her Captain, G.J.Gambell, had his operator call Californian and advise him of the disaster. He then contacted other ships before calling Californian again at 6-10 a.m., asking to be advised of conditions at the wreck scene when Californian reached it. Californian "immediately" advised that Carpathia was in sight and could be seen picking up survivors from boats. Allowing "immediately" to include time for Evans to get instructions from Captain Lord and transmit the reply, this means that before 6-30 a.m. Californian was already within about seven miles of the wreck site, though now separated from it by the ice, which she had needlessly passed through from east to west. It is seen that Californian had been stopped rather more than ten miles from the wreck during the night. Between the sinking and Californian getting underway, she drifted about three miles closer on the current. Her early sighting of Carpathia is thus accounted for.

 Refreshed by his sleep, Cyril Evans now made up for lost airtime. He called all and sundry with endless chatter about the disaster. He did not know that his babble was being heard by Marconi Inspector, Gilbert Balfour, who was on board Baltic. When he managed to get a word in, Balfour reprimanded Evans for misuse of his wireless and eventually managed to get him to keep quiet. It was during this time that Evans and the other Marconi operators distinguished themselves by refusing to communicate with the Russian ship Birma, which was offering assistance with stores. Birma had English radio operators but was equipped by De Forest.

Cashing In.

Cyril Evans liked to babble on, but he did have a code of behaviour. Asked by Senator Smith at the US Senate enquiry whether he had sold his story, he replied that he did not think it right to make money from such a thing. The same did not apply to others.

 As Carpathia steamed for New York with the survivors, there is good evidence that her operator, Harold Cottam, and Harold Bride quietly decided to keep a good deal of the news to themselves. Cottam by this time was exhausted and Bride, in spite of being in poor condition himself, was doing some of the work. Captain Rostron had ordered them not to waste time sending news to the press, but to concentrate on sending a list of survivors and other messages from himself, the survivors and J.Bruce Ismay. They seem to have gone beyond this. Records show that a message from Ismay, approved for transmission on April 15th, was received at Cape Sable on April 17th. Captain Rostron was later greatly embarrassed when he found that a request from President William Taft concerning Archibald Butt had gone unanswered. He managed to soothe the President with a diplomatic letter of apology. Cottam later claimed that it was not Marconi policy to relay important messages via other ships, which was the only way he could reach the mainland. Inspector Balfour denied this. The US Senate enquiry was to censure Cottam for his conduct.

 To confuse matters further, it appears that as Carpathia steamed towards New York, false radio reports were put out by unknown persons, perhaps amateur operators. Other false reports may have resulted from operators misreading the messages then circulating about Asian, which was towing the tanker Deutschland into Halifax. As a result, Titanic was repeatedly reported safe, hours after she had sunk.

 Up to April 18th it is possible that the operators had no firm plan to make money from their experiences but on that day a scheme was exposed. The USS Florida picked up four messages to Carpathia. The first read, "SOM (Say Old Man) Marconi company taking good care of you. Keep your mouth shut and hold your story. It is fixed for you so you will get big money. Now please do your best to clear." The second said, "Arranged for your exclusive story for dollars in four figures Mr Marconi agreeing. Say nothing until you see me. Where are you now?" The others told Cottam where to meet Marconi in New York.

Marconi had arranged for Carr Van Anda, Managing Editor of The New York Times, to pay Cottam and Bride handsomely for their stories. Marconi claimed he had only authorised them, as his employees, to receive the money, not to hold up the news. Carr Van Anda said that he only asked them to keep their stories exclusively for him after Carpathia reached New York waters. For a time, his paper turned against Senator Smith, who was not impressed by his chequebook journalism. Bride and Cottam admitted to receiving $1,000 and $750 respectively. Marconi also did rather well out of the disaster. Immediately after the sinking, Marconi stock rose from 55 to 225 and three days later he was able to merge with Western Union Telegraph Company, creating the sort of large company which Senator Smith loved to humble. His questioning of Marconi and his employees, Mr Bottomley and Mr Sammis, was fairly hostile, but in the end Marconi was too famous and popular for him to press him too hard. Marconi placated Senator Smith by promising that the episode would not be repeated.

 In London, Marconi was treated with more deference. After all, Attorney General, Sir Rufus Isaacs, had just made a nice profit by selling some of his rapidly appreciating Marconi shares.

Death of a Salesman.

The exact fate of John Phillips is uncertain. Bride told Senator Smith that he had been on the overturned Collapsible B and Second Officer Lightoller supported this. Neither gave a convincing account to the US Senate enquiry. Lightoller said, "The Marconi junior operator told me that the senior was on this boat and died." Bride told Senator Smith, "I heard afterwards that the senior operator was on board." Both were thus giving hearsay evidence. Bride told Senator Smith that Phillips died on the way to Carpathia and was buried at sea that afternoon. In a letter to Marconi's Traffic Manager, William Cross, Bride repeats this story, but only as hearsay, yet in his account in The New York Times he says he stepped around Phillips' body in the process of boarding Carpathia. By then the body had supposedly been transferred to lifeboat number 12.

 The bodies buried at sea from Carpathia were carefully identified by Captain Rostron and the surviving Titanic officers from their personal effects. Phillips was not among them. Writing over twenty years later, Lightoller claimed to have witnessed the death of Phillips and gave vivid details. This does not square with his evidence to Senator Smith or with evidence from Colonel Gracie.

 To me, it seems very likely that the first part of Bride's The New York Times story is nearer the truth. In this, he said that he last saw Phillips alive very shortly before the ship sank. Phillips was running aft, away from collapsible B. His account after that is hearsay or invention, as is Lightoller's. It is likely that Phillips was among those who died in the sea without reaching a boat.

 Harold Bride remained a radio operator on land and at sea. In 1918 he married Lucy Downie. In 1922 they moved to Prestwick, Scotland, where he became a salesman. Cynics would say not for the first time. After over 40 years of obscurity, he died near Glasgow in 1956. His accounts of his part in the Titanic story are regarded as unreliable by some, including the author, and they were never subjected to critical examination during the rest of his life.