As Dug Out of the Old Congressional Records

By Wm. A. Breniman, KOZC

  The world has recently been stirred to the depth by a maritime disaster which almost parallels that related below. It is possible that the Vestris tragedy will result in a more liberal use of radio in time of peril. Perhaps the officers may be held accountable to the government at such a time rather than to a nickel worshiping steamship company.

CQD CQD SOS SOS DE MGY TITANIC SINKING, PLEASE RUSH ALL POSSIBLE ASSISTANCE, RUSH, RUSH were the few terse, electrifying words clicked out by the wireless operators of the gigantic White Star liner Titanic on the night of April 14, 1912, The startled world was thus given its first inkling of the terrible disaster that befell the doomed liner, and wireless, or radio, was skyrocketed to the attention of the world as a utility and safeguard of the utmost importance.

  The Titanic was equipped with a 5 disk discharger, magnetic detector, valve receiver and emergency gear. It was the only vessel afloat that had one of the new disk discharger installations and it boasted a range of about 500 miles at daylight. At the key of the splendid liner were Jack Phillips, chief operator, and Harold S. Bride, 22, second operator. Both were in the employ of the British Marconi Company and were being paid a monthly salary of six and four pounds Sterling, respectively, (about $28.00 and $20.00 in American money), all for being entrusted with the safety of nearly 2500 souls in case of emergency.

  On the morning of that fateful Sunday, trouble had been experienced with the insulation on the main panel of the transmitter and Mr. Phillips has arisen considerably earlier than usual to help repair the trouble. This finished, he started his 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. watch, with Mr. Bride's promise to relieve him at midnight, as the form was not feeling very well. At 5 p.m. SS. Californian called the Titanic, MGY and the Baltic, MBC, with information regarding ice, stating that that ship had just passed three large bergs and a large number of growlers or smaller bergs. The Baltic acknowledged the call with the signal "RD," used at that time to QSL a message. The Titanic heard the report and copied it, but did not acknowledge immediately, as Mr. Phillips was working on his abstracts and had them all about him on his desk. After about twenty minutes, however, he gave the Californian the "RD" Signal, whereupon the latter sent "TIS," or the finishing signal used at that time. Mr. Phillips took the information regarding the position of the icebergs to the bridge at about 5:30 p. m., ship's time, and the officer on watch figured they would be in the vicinity of the bergs about 11 p.m. that evening.

  From 6 p. m. to 10 p. m. Phillips exchanged several regular messages with nearby ships and at 10 p. m. he listened in to press reports from the Cape Cod station, which called the Titanic at 11 p. m. with a large number of messages, which kept the two stations in communication up to the time of the collision. As closely as could be ascertained, this happened at 11:50 p. m., Sunday, New York time. There was just a slight grating and a little lurch of the vessel to port. The blow was so slight that it did not even serve to awaken passengers who had retired, although most of the ship's crew who were not on watch were awakened by the unusual lurch of the vessel and came on deck to investigate. No one thought, however, that anything serious had occurred.

  Mr. Bride had planned to go on watch at midnight so arose about 20 minutes before. The operators' sleeping quarters adjoined the operating room and before dressing, Bride stepped into this room, asked Phillips how he was making out and was told that there were still a number of messages for Cape Cod. Mr. Bride then dressed and put on the phones.

  It was at this instant that the boat struck, but with such a slight shock that Phillips continued his preparations for retiring. Not long after that the captain came into the operating room and told Bride that he had better get assistance. Phillips, hearing him, came out into the operating room and asked the captain if he wanted him to use the distress call. The captain said he did, so Phillips took over the key and sent the "CQD" signal about half a dozen times, signing "MGY," the call letters of the Titanic.

  The SS. Frankfurt, DFT, was the first vessel to answer the call. Phillips advised Bride that the Frankfurt had answered and asked him to take the information to the bridge. Captain Smith then asked for the Frankfurt's position. The Carpathia answered the call, giving her position, and said she was already coming to their assistance. Phillips then raised the Olympic, but while he was working him the captain came in and interrupted. Phillips advised the captain that the Frankfurt did not acknowledge his position, merely telling him he would see him in a few minutes.

  After a lapse of about 20 minutes, during which time the Titanic's operator was working the Carpathia and Olympic, the Frankfurt's operator called again and asked what the matter was. Whether it was under the stress of strain or from being jammed, Phillips told him: "You are a fool, keep out!" and gave him the "DDD" signal, which means "QRT" in our present list of abbreviations.

  The question has since been raised as to whether Phillips used good judgment in sending this, whereas, if he had sent his position and the Frankfurt had been close at hand, it might have been possible to have saved all the lives of those on the ship. Phillips evidently thought that the Frankfurt's operator had received his first position report and was annoyed when he called him the second time and found that he had not. With the knowledge that the Olympic and Carpathia were steaming toward them at forced draft, he perhaps felt that further talk with the Frankfurt would have been wasted effort, and it later turned out that he was right.

  Mr. Bride then took the phones and raised the Baltic, while Phillips went out on deck to look around and ascertain just how badly the ship had been damaged. Bride told Phillips, when the latter returned, that the Baltic's signals were so weak that he did not think it worth trying further, so Phillips again took the phones while Bride went into the stateroom and proceeded to get their money together. When he came back to the operating room he saw a fireman or coalpasser trying to relieve Phillips of his lifebelt. The two of them forced him out of the cabin just as the captain came in and told them to look out for themselves, as the vessel was pretty badly damaged and would only stay afloat a few minutes longer.

  They went on deck together and approached a collapsible boat, which several members of the crew were trying to launch on the port side. Mr. Phillips left them, starting aft again, as he wanted to say that the engine room was being flooded, the dynamos were going out, and have a last word with the Carpathia. That was the last time Phillips was seen. The collapsible boat capsized as soon as it hit the water, pinning Bride and several others under it in the icy waters, where they were held for about 40 minutes before another boat finally rescued them.

  Mention might be made of the fact that only four ships carried two operators at that time, the Titanic, Olympic, Mauritania and Lusitania; all the others carrying one operator each, and requiring only that watch necessary for him to handle the traffic of his vessel. It was by the merest luck that Operator Cottam of the SS. Carpathia, the vessel that picked up the survivors, heard the Titanic's call for assistance.

  At 10 p.m. Cottam was receiving press from Cape Cod. The latter station finished with press at 11 p. m. and started with the Titanic on a long string of messages. He then took the press items that he had just copied to the bridge and spent some time there. Returning to his operating room he decided to get confirmation on a message he had sent to the coast via the SS. Parisian earlier in the day, providing that operator was on watch. He called several times and received no reply, so took off his coat and started to retire. Three minutes later and he should have missed the Titanic's call and many more lives would have been lost.

  When Cottam received the CQD call of the Titanic he rushed it to the bridge, returning with the Carpathia's position. Captain Rostron, of the Carpathia, figured that they were 58 miles from the Titanic, and at a speed of 191/2 knots per hour under forced draft, would cover the distance by 4 a. m. Monday morning. During the last few minutes the Titanic's radio was in operation some nearby steam pipes burst, causing so much interference that it was almost impossible for the operators to work the other ships. This made it necessary for the Carpathia to do considerable relay work.

  The Carpathia arrived at the scene of the disaster at 4 a.m. and took the first boatload of survivors aboard at 4:10, twenty boatloads, in all, being picked up, totaling about 720 lives. The Carpathia stood by during the balance of the 15th, cruising around the location in which the Titanic went down, but aside from a small amount of wreckage, nothing further was found. About 20 bergs, averaging from 150 to 200 feet in height, were sighted near the Titanicís last position, and extreme care had to be taken by the Carpathia in order to avoid them. The temperature at the time the Titanic struck was 31 degrees above zero, so it is little wonder that there was such an appalling loss from exposure. According to the final figures set by the officials of the White Star Line, 1503 people perished; many of them being of world renown. Although no positive proof has ever been submitted, it is believed that Phillips died from exposure aboard the collapsible boat. Bride was saved, but suffered severely from exposure and a sprained foot.

  Cottam, operator of the Carpathia, remained on duty continuously from Sunday night to Tuesday night, until he was finally so completely worn out that he was unable to keep awake. Company messages were handled first, being followed by regular passenger traffic. Very little time was found for reports to the press, as the operators were kept busy with inquiry messages from ashore and reassurance messages from the passengers; so the world did not receive much information of the complete details of the disaster until the Carpathia tied up in New York the following Thursday.

  The U.S.S. Salem and the U.S.S. Chester were dispatched to the scene of the disaster by the Navy. Severe complaints and criticism were levied against the operators of the Carpathia, as the operators of the Naval boats claimed that the Carpathia discriminated and would not work them. It was shown later, however, that the third-class passenger list was sent to the operator on the U.S.S. Chester, but it was a long, drawn out process, as the operators on the Naval vessels used the Morse code and the Carpathia operators used the Continental code. This seems to be reason enough for the slight on Cottam's part.

  The sinking of the Titanic is of special interest to the radio world because it was the primary cause of the standardization of radio procedure and other measures for safety at sea. From these measures might be mentioned the following:

1. Adoption of the Continental Morse code as a standard for all ship operators.

2. Adoption of the conventional "Q" signals.

3. Establishment of the Ice Patrol service in the North Atlantic.

4. The requirement for a continuous watch on all passenger vessels.
5. The requirement for auxiliary means of communication and a definite range for the main set.
6. The law regarding intercommunication regardless of the system employed. (It was a well known fact than in the early days a great deal of animosity existed between operators of competitive, companies.)
7. The standardization of SOS as the international distress signal.

  Many other results could be traced to this terrible disaster. Never in the history of mankind has there been one single event that has caused so thorough a revamping of. laws governing safety at sea. Undoubtedly thousands of lives have since been safeguarded through this legislation.

One more item of interest that might be Mentioned in closing is that at the time of the Titanic disaster there were only four radio equipped American ships, each carrying one operator at a salary of $45.00 per month. These were the SS. St. Paul, SS. St. Louis, SS. Philadelphia and SS. New York.


  Bill Breniman is well known for being the president of the Society of Wireless Pioneers (SOWP) for many years and a tireless historian.  In preparing the above article, he spent four months searching both English and American government records.
  Besides writing for Radio magazine, Bill also published a column The Rock Crusher in 'CQ' in the early 1930s.  This was not the 'CQ' magazine of today, but a journal for commercial radio operators and technicians.  After serving as a wireless operator, Breniman worked for the Civil Aeronautics Administrations (predecessor of the FAA) in communications.  

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