The Titanic Launched a Century of Emergency Response Technologies

Emergency communications arose after the great ship went down

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Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. For all that time, it’s been thought of as one of the landmark disaster events of history, although ever since James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 movie, we’ve thought about it as a love story as well.

But it’s also one of the great technology stories of the ages. Before the Titanic, communications was at the periphery of our response to disasters; within a few years, communications technologies would be at the very center of it. And with every change, there was a corresponding rethinking of how the new technology could improve disaster response.

My guest today is Alexander Magoun. He’s an expert on the history of technology—in fact, he’s the Outreach Historian at the IEEE History Center, which is located on the campus of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J.

He’s the author of two books: One is Television: The Life Story of a Technology, and the other is about the David Sarnoff Research Center, which is particularly interesting for us because of an odd connection between its namesake and the story of the Titanic.

Alex, welcome to the podcast.

Alex Magoun: Thank you very much, Steve.

Steven Cherry: Alex, let’s start at the beginning. We take it for granted that ships at sea can radio for help when they’re in trouble, but 100 years ago, when the Titanic sunk, that really wasn’t the case. Now, it did set out with a radio set and a radio operator.

Alex Magoun: Yes, it had two operators. Actually, it was one of four ships on the North Atlantic trade with a pair, which meant that it could virtually have staffing of its radio station 24/7.

Steven Cherry: And it set out with just about as good a radio set as existed.

Alex Magoun: It was the standard state of the art. It was a Marconi product, and it could transmit about 500 miles during the day and up to 2000 at night, depending on atmospheric conditions, and it was an improvement over even what its sister ship, the Olympic, had had installed, I think the year before. But it was a 5-kilowatt transmitter—a spark transmitter—which means basically it did dots and dashes. This is not a spoken-word radio.

Steven Cherry: Now, it was nearly midnight when the ship struck an iceberg, and it would turn out that the number of survivors would depend on getting other ships into the area quickly. But I guess that wasn’t immediately obvious to the captain and the crew. What happened?

Alex Magoun: Well, the Titanic had received several messages, or its wireless station had received several messages, from the late afternoon of April 14, from other ships warning of ice in the area to which the Titanic was steaming. And while the radio operators did not apparently deliver all of them to Captain Smith, they did deliver at least one, if not two. And for reasons that are still unclear, he did not decide to slow down significantly, and it’s one of the sort of black marks on his reputation, unfortunately.

Steven Cherry: There’s been some thinking that the ship was trying to set a record for the transatlantic crossing…

Alex Magoun: Well, that does not appear to be true. It was steaming at about 22 or 21 knots, or nautical miles per hour, which would be about 24 or 25 miles an hour, but it didn’t have any intention of breaking a record.

Steven Cherry: Now, once it hit the iceberg, I gather it took about 35 minutes before the captain asked the radio operators to contact other ships.

Alex Magoun: That’s right. There were two operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, who did feel something, as other people did. But in many parts of the ship, it was a relatively gentle collision, and I think it took the captain and whoever was reporting to him some time to realize the seriousness of the gash in the side. And so it hit the iceberg about 11:40 p.m. on April 14, and by 12:15 on April 15, Captain Smith sent down the word to start transmitting the, what at that time was called “CQD”—“help us”—“MQY,” which was the Titanic’s call letters.  

Steven Cherry: Now, the Carpathia was the first ship to arrive on the scene, but it was not the physically closest ship.

Alex Magoun: No, there was another one called the Californian. The irony, there’s a twin irony: One is that the Carpathia’s radio operator was still on duty. He was about to cut off after a very long day of transmitting passengers’ messages and repairing his set, and the Californian, where the operator had signed off perhaps 15 minutes, 10 minutes before the Titanic began sending its messages. So you had sort of a 50-50 chance of getting one of the two ships, and unfortunately for those who did not survive, it was the more distant ship.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I gather many people might have been saved if the closer ship had had its radio still active.

Alex Magoun: Right. And then there was a German ship that was also involved, that the Titanic operator Phillips seems to have misunderstood or was very short-tempered with. It’s not clear whether that would have been able to get to the site any faster than Carpathia

Steven Cherry: Now, I gather that the radios were not really on board with disaster response in mind. I mean, you mentioned that these operators really spent the majority of their day transmitting messages from passengers to other ships, but I guess also to the land.

Alex Magoun: Right. It goes back very soon, or shortly after, Guglielmo Marconi and Alexander Popov in Russia began demonstrating wireless telegraphy in the mid- to late 1890s that both of them in the 1897–1898 time frame began to show how you could do shore-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications. And from that time, in 1899, some ships began to use their wireless too to send distress calls, so that by 1903, a number of the major shipping powers convened in Berlin for the first International Radio Telegraphic Conference, and that was when an Italian commander, Quintino Bonomo del Casale, suggested that ships in distress should send a standard signal. But again, that didn’t happen that often, and so a lot of the use of these telegraph stations, these wireless stations, was for passengers and then more occasionally for business purposes or the captain’s needs. 

Steven Cherry: I guess we should explain that radio signals in those days were just sort of blasted out at full power, and there weren’t that many of them being transmitted at any given time, so there was very little interference. And I guess signals from the rescue ships easily reached land, and in the days after the sinking, there was quite an exchange of signals between those ships and operators back on land.

Alex Magoun: Well, they were sent on particular wavelengths, but because of the nature of the spark transmission, there were a lot of resonant frequencies that also got transmitted. And in fact, if two ships were sending on the same wavelength, one operator, if he really disliked the operator on the other ship and had a more powerful set, could overwhelm his communications and blanket. So that was one of the problems, was that there was no regulation of who was using what wavelength, or as it later became known as, a “frequency.” This was an issue that the U.S. Navy was concerned with, and it certainly became an issue with the Titanic as to who should be on the air getting information and which amateur should be shutting down their sets and getting out of the way. 

Steven Cherry: I mentioned at the top an odd connection between David Sarnoff and the Titanic. Now, he was just 21 at this time. He wasn’t the titan of radio and television he would become. What role did he play?

Alex Magoun: He was a station manager at what you might call a “demonstration station” at the Wanamaker department store in New York City. The Marconi Company had set this up, and it was used to, I guess, show off—it’s not clear exactly why. But there was a lot of interest and curiosity about this wireless technology between 1906, 1907, and this time, and then moving forward. So they could show off how instead of using the telephone, they could signal the Philadelphia Wanamaker’s store with inventory requests or orders or something like that. So Sarnoff would not have been on duty around midnight on Sunday, April 14. He came in Monday morning, and at some time during the Monday, discovered that there was this disaster at sea and a lot of traffic by both amateurs and various ships as to what had happened. So he ended up joining in, along with several other New York harbor stations, trying to get messages from Carpathia to find out first, what happened to Titanic? And then second, how many survivors are there? And apparently he was the first person to confirm at least in New York City that Titanic actually had sunk. There was some confusion as to whether it was being towed into Halifax, Nova Scotia, when actually, coincidentally, another ship was being towed into Halifax. 

Steven Cherry: Sarnoff kind of built this into a bit of a minor legend for himself, didn’t he? 

Alex Magoun: He did. In the 1920s, he gave an interview to The Saturday Evening Post, which was one of the top mass-media outlets at the time—magazine—and explained that he was the first to hear this message, that President Taft had cleared the airways of other operators so that Sarnoff could get more information, and it was one of these cases where Sarnoff took his role and exaggerated it. Which is not to discount him entirely. There are memos and copies of telegraphed messages sent and received by him between April 16 and April 18.

Steven Cherry: Now, the Titanic sinking was kind of a wake-up call for ships, and, as you say, the U.S. Navy. We’ve already kind of alluded to how chaotic radio communication was at the time. Operators could blast out on top of other operators’ signals. The operators on these ships could just sort of turn off the set when they were exhausted at night, and most ships only had one operator and not two in the first place, and I guess even that CQD distress call was not even a settled-on standard. It wasn’t the only thing used.

Alex Magoun: Right. Germany actually initiated the use of SOS as a simpler code—three dots, three dashes, three dots—as its Notzeichen, or distress signal. The Marconi Company had used the CQD, which was sort of a homophone, a same sounding as “secu,” short French for “sécurité,” used in cable telegraph messages for important messages. So you had the difference between the English or Anglo French use of CQD and the German use of SOS. The U.S. Navy had been proposing to use NC, “in distress, need immediate assistance.” And so [at] the 1906 second Radiotelegraph Conference in Berlin, they agreed to use SOS, but the United States had not signed onto that. But on the Titanic, Harold Bride suggested to Phillips, who was doing most of the telegraphy, “Why don’t you try using SOS? It may be the last chance you’ll get to.” And so they began to intersperse SOS with CQD to anyone who was listening.

Steven Cherry: And so after the Titanic, a lot of these things changed. 

Alex Magoun: Right. There had been, you might call, a political momentum building in the United States to get on board with the international treaty. It’s a problem the United States habitually has, but in 1910, President Taft had signed an act requiring ships visiting U.S. ports to install wireless equipment but hadn’t gone any further than that. The summer of 1912, there was the third Radiotelegraph Convention, which formally adopted SOS as the distress signal, mandated continuous professional staffing of oceangoing ships’ radio stations, and the U.S. Congress that same summer amended their 1910 law to require continuous staffing with at least two operators, which President Taft signed into effect in August. 

Steven Cherry: And I guess the changes kept coming. After World War II, the UN finally adopted a single frequency for distress communications. In 1974, there were some additional rules that were set down, but obviously they don’t prevent disasters all by themselves, right? We’ve had plenty of ships, including very recently one, that went down anyway.

Alex Magoun: That’s right, the Costa Concordia. One of the many lapses by the captain of that cruise ship off the Italian coast was not to use any of the extremely sophisticated and extremely simple communications systems to alert the Italian coastal authorities to his ship’s problems. 

Steven Cherry: Yeah, so let’s just review what the sophisticated systems that still didn’t save the Concordia. Its satellite? How does that work?

Alex Magoun: It’s basically, they have two megahertz and gigahertz frequencies that go up to a satellite and then are relayed, as I understand it, to the closest shore station or appointed national station, which then coordinates rescue operations with available shipping nearby.

Steven Cherry: Well, so it really is a sort of at-sea satellite-based 911 system.

Alex Magoun: Right. Sort of a GPS, I expect that was part of the original GPS.

Steven Cherry: Well, Alexander, it’s quite a story, and we’re lucky to have historians to set it right for us. Thanks for doing that, and thanks for joining us today.

Alex Magoun: Happy to help. Thanks for having me on.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 5 April 2012.
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