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SOS—THE EARLY DAYS OF WIRELESS AT SEA

 

by Louis C. Kleber

 

Drawing of RMS Titanic’s captain and

radio operator, titled “The S.O.S

The year was 1854, and the steamer City of Glasgow disappeared into the North Atlantic with nearly 500 people on board. Whatever the drama and terror of her final moments, one of the worst must have been the inability to call for help. She was alone with her fate. The only hope for aid was line-of-sight signaling such as flags or rockets, little comfort when ships of that time, and even now, might sail for days without sighting another vessel. Wireless changed all that—it gave hope to those facing disaster at sea. An inkling of what was to come appeared in the July, 1892 issue of “The New England Magazine,” a statement by the noted inventor and electricity pioneer Elihu Thompson: “ . . . electricians are not without some hope that signaling or telegraphing for moderate distances without wires, and even through dense fog, may be an accomplished fact soon.” Italy’s brilliant Guglielmo Marconi was working on it. Just two years earlier, when he was only 16 years old, he had transmitted wireless signals from one tin plate to another. From that beginning, he soon extended the distance with true sending and receiving apparatus, and on December 12, 1901, a message was sent transatlantic. It was just a simple “S” in Morse code—three dots—but it brought in the miracle of wireless communication.

 

By 1904, many ships in the Atlantic trade were equipped with wireless sets. Both on land and sea, “CQ” was used as a “seeking all stations” call. If the message was for urgent help, “D” was added to signal distress. Thus “CQD” was born, and Marconi’s own wireless company approved it. But though it was popular with the British, other countries favored their own distress signal; the United States opted for “NC” while Germany favoredSOE.” Clearly, some common signal was badly needed. At the 1906 International Radio Telegraphic Conference in Berlin, all the conference members, with the exception of the United States, adopted SOS. The choice had no connection with popular myth, like short for “Save Our Ship.” It was simply clear and easy to remember with its three dots, three dashes and three dots. Still, CQD remained in frequent use. It wasn’t long before the new device proved its worth.

 

Although there had been some earlier uses of wireless in rescue at sea, nothing loomed as large as the January 1909 collision off Nantucket in a dense fog of the White Star’s Republic and the Italian ship, Florida. Over 1,500 passengers and crew were on board the two ships. Fortunately, the Republic was equipped with wireless. Her Marconi operator (as they were then called), Jack Binns, was thrown from his bunk by the impact. The Republic staggered as the Florida plowed into her port side, smashing the boilers and steam lines, leaving the ship without power in the darkness of 4 a.m. Three people were killed outright on each ship. The Republic began to sink, very slowly. Though barely seaworthy, the Florida was in better shape and began to take on passengers from the Republic’s boats while fog still swirled around them and distress rockets broke the darkness. In the midst of this eerie scene, Binns made his way to a locker, holding batteries to operate his wireless set. “CQD . . . CQD . . . Republic rammed ....” His message was picked up by the Marconi station on Nantucket Island, which then broadcast the position of the stricken vessels and the need for immediate assistance. Hours went by. Binns remained at his station, still sending on weakened batteries until the wireless room was awash. Finally, the Baltic arrived. Rescue! Binns was hailed as a hero and received a ticker tape parade in lower Manhattan. Another hero was the wireless, a true technological marvel of the twentieth century.

 

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was the first criminal to be caught through wireless. In 1909, he murdered his second wife in England and then fled with his young mistress, Ethel le Neve. The lovers sailed for Canada on the White Star liner Montrose. Crippen was aware that he was a prime suspect and shaved off his mustache, while le Neve traveled as his “son,” in boy’s clothes, including a cap to hide her hair. Unfortunately for them, Captain Henry Kendall noticed that the boy’s hips swayed more like those of a girl, the hair was softer and the trousers didn’t fit properly. He immediately became suspicious, having read accounts of the murder in a local paper with photos of the couple. He sent a wireless message to White Star’s office in Liverpool: “Have strong suspicion that Crippen London Cellar Murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off, growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Voice manner and build undoubtedly a girl. Both traveling as Mr. and Master Robinson. Kendall.” Scotland Yard was immediately notified, and they dispatched detectives on a faster ship. When Crippen and le Neve arrived in Quebec, detectives were waiting. Crippen was returned to England for trial, found guilty and hanged. Le Neve was acquitted.

 

The story of the Titanic is so well known that only a few, key wireless aspects are covered here. The two Marconi operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, were hard-pressed that fateful night of Sunday, April 14, 1912. New York was not that far away and they had just come into range of the wireless at Cape Race, Newfoundland—so many messages to send to relatives, business contacts and the like. Only hours before, Phillips and Bride had succeeded in repairing the set. We can only speculate what would have happened had they been unsuccessful; the great ship could have gone down and no one would have known. The Marconi instrument was the standard 1.5 kW marine wireless. It had a normal nautical range of 250 miles, but at night it was possible to make contact as far away as 2,000 miles. The Titanic had been repeatedly warned of ice, and just over two hours before she struck the iceberg, the steamer Mesaba, had advised her position and cautioned all ships, “Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs . . . .” Phillips had already passed a number of ice warnings to the bridge, and this seemed to be just one more. He merely acknowledged receipt with a “Thanks.” But this one was different; it had warned of ice directly in Titanic’s path. Later on, another wireless message came in with incredible strength. It was from the nearby Leyland liner Californian, advising she was surrounded by ice and had stopped. Phillips curtly told her operator, “Shut up! Shut Up! I am busy. I am working Cape Race.” Not long after, the California’s operator turned in. It was another fateful card in the draw that led to the world’s greatest maritime disaster. The Carpathia rescued those in boats, but the freezing waters of the North Atlantic claimed the rest, over 1,500 passengers and crew.

 

At 11:40 p.m. the Titanic struck the iceberg. The senior operator, Jack Phillips, perished, but Harold Bride survived and related the chilling events of those two hours and few minutes that followed the collision. After an inspection had revealed the ship’s wounds were mortal, Captain E.J. Smith stepped into the radio room and ordered a wireless call for help. They were sinking . . . fast. Phillips began to send “CQD” and Bride recalled that “. . . we joked as he did so. All of us made light of the disaster.” Phillips sent the distress call for several minutes when Captain Smith returned and asked what call they were sending. Phillips replied “CQD.” Bride related that even in that dire situation, humor entered the scene as Bride quipped, “Send S.O.S. It’s the new call and it may be your last chance to send it.” They all laughed, even the Captain. After that, it was ever-growing despair as the ship continued to sink by the head and finally went down. Wireless could have saved them all, but good judgment and responsible action were missing.

 

Common-sense regulations often come about only after a disaster. After the Titanic sank, all ships were required to maintain 24-hour wireless watch, along with other reforms, such as enough boats for all and the establishment of a North Atlantic Ice Patrol. Today, the electronic communication of the early 1900s seems incredibly primitive, but it was a start—for the first time ships at sea could summon help from hundreds of miles away.

 

Note: In one of the strangest and most prophetic books ever written, author Morgan Robertson wrote a novel in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic disaster in April, 1912.  He writes of a magnificent new ocean liner, the wonder of the age, sailing on her maiden voyage from England to New York. The similarities to the Titanic are quite incredible. On board are the rich and the famous. The great vessel strikes an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sinks with enormous loss of life. The name of the ship in the novel . . . the Titan.

 

First published in the  quarterly journal of the

Steamship Historical Society of America (SSHSA), 'Steamboat Bill' (Winter, 2006)

 

Louis 'Chuck' Kleber can be contacted at wilderness4441@hotmail.com

 

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