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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, April 15, 2012

The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic: The Wireless Story

It was exactly 100 years ago last Wednesday, April 14, that the passenger liner "Titanic" struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic, and less than three hours later she sank to her doom in the deep ocean waters. This tragic event is listed in the annals of history as the worst single loss of life in any civilian maritime disaster, with more than 1500 people perishing on this catastrophic occasion.

The "Titanic" was laid down on March 31, 1909 at the shipyards of Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Ireland, as the world's largest passenger ship. She was 882-1/2 feet long, just a few inches longer than her sister ship, the "Britannic," and she was 92-1/2 feet wide, with a displacement weight of more than 46,000 tons. This mighty ship was launched without the traditional christening ceremony two years later, on May 11, 1911.

A little less than another year later, the brand new, shiny bright "Titanic" was ready to make her maiden voyage across the Atlantic, from England to the United States. Labeled as absolutely unsinkable, the "Titanic" sailed triumphantly out of the major British port of Southampton on the first stage of her initial journey, with stops at Cherbourg in France 90 minutes later, and Queenstown in Ireland the next day.

You know the story, you have heard it before. Three days later, the mighty "Titanic" hit a super large iceberg; that was at 11:40 pm, and 2-3/4 hours later, she was at the bottom of the Atlantic, broken into two separate pieces at a depth of more than two miles down.

Just before her original shakedown cruise, the "Titanic" was loaded with a complete set of the latest versions of wireless and radio equipment. There were two spark wireless communication transmitters and two receivers.

The main transmitter was rated at 5 kW output into a 4 wire T type center fed antenna that was suspended between two masts at a level of 250 feet above the sea. The natural resonant wavelength of the antenna was 162.5 metres or 325 metres, though the tuning circuits gave a radiant frequency of 300 kHz or 500 kHz, in what we would call today the standard longwave band. Electrical power for this main transmitter was taken from the ship's electrical circuits.

The signal from the main transmitter was guaranteed for 250 miles, though during the shakedown cruise, it was discovered that the signal could be heard at 400 miles during the day, and 2,000 miles at night.

There was also an emergency transmitter with power taken from a set of batteries. There was one regular detector crystal wireless receiver, and also one of the very latest valve/tube type radio receivers.

Due to the boomingly noisy signal from a hefty spark transmitter, this equipment was installed into a heavily padded room next to the operating room. This transmitter room was named, rather appropriately in the understated terminology of the era, as the "Silent Room."

The original callsign allocated to the "Titanic" in January 1912, was MUC, though shortly afterwards, this was changed to the now more familiar MGY. In those days, the initial letter M identified the ship's wireless operators as representing the Marconi company in England, though these days the letter M identifies a radio station belonging to Great Britain.

During the initial leg of the voyage across the Atlantic, the two wireless operators, John Phillips and Harold Bride, worked consistently to process incoming and outgoing signals in the Continental version of Morse Code. This wireless traffic was made up of normal routine messages for the navigation of the world's proudest passenger liner across a wide oceanic expanse, as well as expensive though generally unnecessary messages from wealthy passengers to relatives, friends and business associates. Among the incoming messages were at least a couple from other ships warning of icebergs in the main shipping lanes.

At 11:40 pm local time on Sunday April 14, 1912, the "Titanic" hit the supersized, irregularly shaped iceberg that rendered her doom. Some passengers described the sound as like the continuous tearing of a sheet of calico, though the entire impact caused no more than a slight shudder as the vessel reacted to the collision.

However, the damage to the underwater section of the hull was so great that tons of water instantaneously surged into the stricken vessel. An immediate inspection of the damage in the lower decks revealed very quickly that the unsinkable "Titanic" was indeed sinking.

The elderly and highly experienced Captain Edward J. Smith gave orders to the two wireless operators to send out a distress signal indicating that the ship was doomed. At 12:15 am on Monday morning, Phillips tapped out the message, "CQD de MGY" six times, giving also the geographic coordinates for the "Titanic" at the time. He continued with the additional information that the "Titanic" was indeed sinking, and he asked for the assistance of any ships that were nearby.

Spark Gap Morse Code

Meanwhile Bride manned the receiver and he heard the first response from the first ship that replied, the German vessel "Frankfurt" with the callsign DFT; and quite quickly, many other ships also responded. However, the nearest was the "Carpathia" MPA, 58 miles away, and it would take some four hours to arrive at the scene, a duration that would be too late to save a large number of the passengers and crew from the "Titanic."

The two wireless operators continued at their task of alerting Atlantic shipping and also the shore stations in Newfoundland (Cape Race MCE) and the United States (Cape Cod MCC) of the progressively disastrous fate of the "Titanic." They also updated the exact geographic location of the ailing "Titanic."

At this stage, Bride made the suggestion to Phillips that he should also send the new distress signal, SOS, in addition to the Marconi distress signal, CQD. It might be his only opportunity to send SOS, he stated, somewhat humorously. Bride was correct with his statement; Phillips died in the frigid Atlantic waters along with so many others, an hour or two later.

The SOS call from the "Titanic" was one of the very earliest usages of this distress signal, but not the first. It is known that the "Slavonia" issued an SOS distress call three years earlier, on June 10, 1909.

As we know today, the only ship to arrive in time to pick up living survivors was the "Carpathia" which arrived nearly two hours after the "Titanic" was gone. The "Carpathia" rescued the shivering occupants from 20 life boats, more than 700 people, and then the heavily laden ship turned around and went back to New York with its living cargo, far in excess of its planned passenger load.

Several other ships also combed the disaster zone, including the "Californian," which turned around and returned to the area; the cable ship "MacKay-Bennett" from Canada; and two American navy vessels sent out by President Taft, the "Salem" and the "Chester."

Over in England at the time of the original distress signals from the "Titanic," amateur wireless operator Arthur Moore in Gelligroes Mill heard the "CQD de MGY" and subsequent messages. He reported the sinking of the "Titanic" to the local police, but they scoffed at his information.

That all happened exactly 100 years ago, last week.

The Titanic Tragedy: The Flow of Wireless Communication from the Other Ships

We continue in our story of wireless and radio in association with the rapid and tragic sinking of the invincible "Titanic," and this time we look at the flow of wireless messages from other shipping in the area at the time.

According to the historians, a total of 28 ships made some form of communication with the "Titanic" during the two hour period in which the tragedy played out. All the ships were in the mid-Atlantic, and traveling either west or east, but generally south of the "Titanic" iceberg zone.

The German cargo vessel "Frankfurt" DFT was the first ship to respond to the CQD distress call from the "Titanic" but it was too far away and thus unable to render service. The closest ship, it is thought, was the "Californian" MWL, which had stopped over night in the ice floe in order to avoid a disastrous impact.

However, the Marconi operator at the wireless equipment MWL was not on duty at the time of the distress call from the "Titanic," and his ship was unaware of the tragic event happening so near to them, until daylight next morning. To their credit, it is stated that they returned to the disaster zone, but it was too late to be of any real value.

Other ships that responded quite quickly were the Russian cargo steamer, "Birma" with callsign SBA; the Canadian Pacific cargo vessel "Mount Temple" MLQ; the White Star line sister ship "Olympic" MKC; and another White Star line vessel, the "Baltic" MBC.

Titanic: To the Sea

Much of the Morse Code traffic buzzing across the Atlantic at this stage focused upon the events associated with the "Titanic." The first distress signal from the "Titanic,""CQD de MGY," went out at 0015 hours local time. This signal drew attention to the disastrous "Titanic" situation, and many other ships responded with offers of assistance and with enquiries as to what was happening.

It should be remembered that all ships at the time were communicating in Morse Code, most in the newer Continental version, though there were still some using the original Morse-Vail version. In addition, the coverage area of the ship longwave transmitters was not always that great, and it was the custom for one shipboard wireless operator to relay messages on behalf of other ships as needed, and sometimes on behalf of shore based stations.

Spark Gap Morse Code

However, it was the "Carpathia" with callsign MPA that played the heroic role of rescuer in the "Titanic" tragedy. At the time of the original CQD distress signal from the "Titanic," the Cunard liner "Carpathia" was the closest ship, some 60 miles distant from the scene of the tragedy. Under quick orders from Captain Arthur Rostron, she made rapid headway to the "Titanic." arriving a while before daylight, some two hours after the "Titanic" had slipped into the murky depths of the freezingly cold Atlantic.

The "Carpathia" reported by Morse Code that she had picked up 20 boatloads of survivors, including some who were still in the water. It was just 8 hours from the 1st CQD from the "Titanic" until the last survivor was picked up out of the water. These rescued crewmen and passengers were given every available amenity on the rescue ship, including food and drink, clothing, and somewhere to sleep, though few empty cabins were available.

Among the rescued personnel from the "Titanic" was wireless operator Harold Bride, and though suffering from water exposure and injury, he assisted the regular wireless operator aboard the "Carpathia," Harold Cottam, with the transmission and reception of multitudinous wireless messages, communicating with other ships, and with the shore stations in North America. Much of the traffic in Morse Code at this stage was the listing of survivors from the "Titanic" for the benefit of family and relatives, though the major newspapers were pressing for details of the tragic events.

And as we mentioned earlier in this program, all of these things happened exactly 100 years ago, last week.