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0 Wireless to the Resue

  • History
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 21-01-2012
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I wonder how many of those who are preparing to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic realise that the only reason any lives were saved, and that we know anything about what happened to it, was the use then of what was regarded as a miraculous invention: wireless. The discovery of how electromagnetic waves could be used to send messages without any wires was truly astonishing in the early 1900s, and would still cause wonder today if we were not so familiar with the reality. After all, these waves are both invisible and inaudible and they can travel great distances and fly through solid walls.

When Guiglielmo Marconi was developing his primitive wireless system the world was already wired up with electric telegraph cables: by 1870 the Atlantic had been crossed and most of the British Empire was in touch by telegraph. How could wireless compete? It might be cheaper to run than the cable networks, certainly, but not until the technology was much more advanced. It had only one huge advantage over cable: with wireless it would be possible to keep in touch with ships at sea.

Most of Marconi's earliest experiments with wireless involved communication with ships of some kind or other. As early as 1897 he set up a station in a room in the Royal Needles Hotel on the Isle of Wight and put small stations on two of the coastal steamers to demonstrate how he could keep in touch with moving vessels at a distance. Journalists used his equipment to cover yachting regattas in Ireland and North America. In 1898 he rigged up a transmitter and receiver at Queen Victoria's country home at Osborne on the Isle of Wight and kept in touch with the Royal Yacht Britannia on which her son, Prince Edward ( always known as Bertie) was entertaining guests.

At this time, and for some years to come, wireless was restricted to sending messages in the dots and dashes of Morse Code. The transmission of speech was demonstrated as early as 1900 by the Canadian Reginald Fessenden who also made broadcasts in 1906, but all singing and talking radio did not arrive until the early 1920s. Between the pioneering experiments and the outbreak of World War l, wireless was limited almost entirely to telegraphy, that is, dots and dashes. However, young men, and sometimes young women, developed tremendous skill in the tapping out and interpreting Morse Code, the very best achieving astonishing speeds in terms of words per minute. When the Atlantic liners were first equipped with wireless the skills of the operators were employed chiefly in paid for messages sent from ship to shore. But it was soon discovered that they could save lives that would almost certainly have been lost if there had been no wireless on board.

One of the first, as well as the most dramatic, of rescue operations using wireless took place in January 1909 in the sea off the East Coast of North America in an area called the Nantucket shoals. A liner, the Republic with 460 passengers heading from New York to Europe for a tour of the Mediterranean was rammed in thick fog by a smaller ship, the Florida which was on its way to New York. The Florida ,was also carrying several hundred passengers, many of them refugees from an earthquake which had killed 72,000 in southern Italy and Sicily. The Republic, belonging to the White Star Line, owner of the Titanic, was holed and began to sink. While the captain organised an evacuation, rowing his passengers to the Florida in relays, the lone Marconi wireless operator on the Republic stayed on board. He was Jack Binns, a twenty four year old lad from Lincolnshire and he was to become the world's first wireless hero.

Binns could only send one message before the electric power on the liner failed. He rigged up batteries and kept sending messages. These were picked up by a shore station which relayed them to ships in the area. He finally made contact with another liner, the Baltic, which had a Marconi operator on board, J.H.Tattershall and guided it towards the stricken Republic. Binns stayed on duty for more than 30 hours: Tattershall sent a message when the rescue was accomplished that he had not slept for 52 hours. The Baltic was able to take on board all the passengers and most of the crew of the stricken ships. Attempts to save the Republic failed when it sank while being towed towards New York. On board were the captain and volunteer crew who had to swim for it, but survived.

Binns was feted in New York and back in his home town of Peterborough. He was offered promotion and was due to be assigned to the Titanic when the owner of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, intervened thinking Binns might bring bad luck and bad publicity. He left the Marconi company in 1912 and went to work as a journalist in New York, starting his new career two days before the Titanic sank. While working for the New York American he was called as an expert witness to the Senate inquiry in to the Titanic disaster. He became a businessman and died in New York in 1959 at the age of 74.

The wealthier passengers from the Republic had a commemorative token struck with the letters CQD above a depiction of the stricken ship. It was the distress call used by all Marconi operators before the adoption of the SOS. All messages began CQ–seek you–and the D stood for danger or distress. However desperate the situation these young men would sign of OM, which stood for Old Man. As the Titanic went down the senior of the two operators, Jack Phillips who died that night, tapped out to his colleague on the Carpathia: " Its a CQD OM".

Morse messages filled the shipping airwaves for many years after spoken radio became available. My Uncle Morris was a "sparks" in the Navy during the Second World War and still listened with a special short wave radio to messages being tapped out in the North Sea. I became interested in radio and built sets with bits and pieces from army surplus shops when I was a schoolboy. It was always a thrill when the valves glowed red and the first signals came in, the dots and dashes tapped out so fast I could not decode the messages unless, as happened on one occasion I heard dot,dot,dot, dash dash dash, dot,dot,dot: SOS.

 A badly researched stamp produced by the British Post Office to commemorate the role of wireless in the Titanic disaster.

Marconi seems to be on the phone! Not impossible: there were plenty of telephones in 1912 but they had to be connected by wires in those days. Marconi's forte was to send wireless messages.