The Titanic’s Role in Radio Reform

How the sinking of the Titanic sparked a century of radio improvements

When the RMS Titanic scraped an iceberg on the night of 14 April 1912, its wireless operators began sending distress calls on one of the world’s most advanced radios: a 5-kilowatt rotary spark transmitter that on a clear night could send signals from the middle of the Atlantic to New York City or London. The equipment was owned by Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co. and operated by two of its employees, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride.

What Phillips and Bride lacked, however, were international protocols for wireless communications at sea. Shipboard operators were still an unregulated novelty, and they reported to their companies, not to the ship captain. They sent business and personal messages alike using assorted spark transmitters over various wavelengths. The vast majority of ships had only one radio operator, who was obligated to serve only a 10-hour shift each day. Efforts to regulate wireless at sea drew challenges from governments and corporations—most notably Marconi’s own company.

But after a series of maritime accidents in the early 20th century, the need to standardize procedures and systems for wireless maritime distress became increasingly apparent. The Titanic’s sinking accelerated a process that to this day continues to improve communications technology at sea. -Alexander B. Magoun

This article originally appeared in print as “PLEASE RUSH ALL POSSIBLE ASSISTANCE.” (PDF)

Sources:

Neal McEwen, “ ‘SOS,’ ‘CQD,’ and the History of Maritime Distress Calls,” The Telegraph Office Magazine, Vol. II, Issue 1.

N1EA: SOS from ms Prinsendam.

S.S. Robison, Manual of Wireless Telegraphy for the Use of Naval Electricians (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906), p. 112–13.

Josh Eppinger, “The Prinsendam Fire: History’s Greatest Sea Rescue,” Popular Mechanics, April 1981.

Thomas H. White, ed., “Early Government Regulation (1903–1946),” in United States Early Radio History.

Preliminary Conference at Berlin on Wireless Telegraphy [PDF] (August, 1903), translation of the Procès-Verbaux and Protocole Final by George R. Neilson.

Text of the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (London, 1914). [PDF]

International Telecommunication Convention (Madrid, 1932) [PDF].

International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (London, 1929) [PDF].

International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (London, 1948) [PDF].

International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (London, 2004).

“Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS),” Federal Communications Commission.

Larisa I. Zolotinkina, “Contribution of Russian Scientist A.S. Popov to the Development of Wireless Communications,” Histelcon-08 (History of Telecommunications Conference, 2008), p. 115–18.

Anna P. Konstantinova and Larisa I. Zolotinkina, “Alexander Popov—A Great Contributor to the Development of Wireless Communication” [PDF]

A correction to this article was made on 25 April 2012.

About the Author

Alexander B. Magoun is an outreach historian at the IEEE History Center in New Brunswick, N.J. Formerly head of the David Sarnoff Library, he believes that Sarnoff would have gone on to greater things even if he hadn’t relayed messages during the disaster. Magoun’s own maritime distress experience, he says, “extends no farther than a becalmed Dyer Dhow off Tuck’s Point in Manchester, Mass.”