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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 N267, April 6, 2014

Titanic Anniversary: Wireless to the Rescue--Shipping Disasters Before the Titanic

It was at 2:20 am on Monday April 15, 1912 that the mighty ship "Titanic" sank into the cold waters of the North Atlantic, 375 miles south of Newfoundland. On Tuesday next week, many people throughout the world will be honoring the 102nd anniversary of this tragic event that sent more than 1,500 people to their doom, a death toll that still stands as one of the worst ever in the history of maritime disasters.

This week here in Wavescan, we look at the long list of seagoing disasters in which wireless was used from the beginning up to the Titanic event itself, covering a period of nearly 14 years, from 1899 to 1912.

The first occasion when the new wireless was in use to bring aid in a shipping disaster occurred during the month of January in the year 1899. During those nearly 14 years, stretching from 1899 to 1912, there were 153 major shipping disasters around the world resulting in 14,000 deaths, according to the thick book by Jay Robert Nash, "Darkest Hours". However, during that same time period we have discovered more than 30 shipping accidents and distress events that were reported to the authorities by wireless.

During the year 1899, that is, the first year in which distress signals were sent by wireless, there were three shipping emergencies. In early January, a gale damaged the "East Goodwin" Lightship at anchor in the English Channel, and this information was wirelessed to the South Foreland Lighthouse near Dover in county Kent. This would be the world's first wireless call from a ship in distress. Help was dispatched from the shore.

The second occasion when wireless was called to bring aid in a maritime mishap was on March 11, when the German cargo vessel "Elbe" ran ashore on the Goodwin Sands in the shallow English Channel at 2:00 in the morning. This ship was laden with heavy slate from Nantes, close to the Atlantic coast of France, and heading home to Hamburg in Germany. Some 8 hours after the "Elbe" was grounded, the tug "Shamrock" aided in pulling the stranded vessel back into open waters.

On April 28, the steamer "R. F. Matthew" rammed the same "East Goodwin" Lightship during a dense fog and as a result of the Morsed message to the South Foreland Lighthouse, lifeboats were sent out from Ramsgate. At the time, the coal-laden "R. F. Matthew" was outward bound from London. This would be the third occasion in history of a wireless message from a distressed ship.

At the end of April in the following year, 1900, the Russian navy vessel "General-Admiral Apraksin" was carrying personnel for the installation of a wireless station on the island of Hogland, but it became stranded in the frozen waters of the Gulf of Bothnia. A rescue ship was summoned by wireless, the icebreaker "Yermak", which came and freed the ice bound "Apraksin".

Over in European waters at the very beginning of the next year, on New Year's Day 1901 to be exact, the "Medora" got waterlogged on Ratel Bank in the English Channel. The "Princesse Clementine" happened to be passing nearby and a message was Morsed back to La Panne in Belgium for assistance. Strangely, the "Princesse Celementine" itself inadvertently ran ashore at Mariakerke in coastal Belgium 18 days later and this message was Morsed to Ostend, also in Belgium.

The first distress signal from an American ship was Morsed from the SS "Kroonland" out in the Atlantic 130 miles west of Fastnet Rock, the most southerly point in Ireland, on December 9, 1903. During a moderate gale, the steam tiller and steering gear were damaged and the ship was towed back to Queenstown in Ireland for repairs.

Up until this time, there was no generally accepted distress call in Morse Code, and the usual procedure was to simply call for help; sometimes just a HELP call.

In the maritime scene, the "Lightship Nantucket No. 58" which sprang a leak at South Shoals, Massachusetts, sent the HELP distress signal in Morse Code and this is sometimes listed as the 1st wireless distress signal from an American ship. The "Nantucket Lightship" sank on December 10, 1905, but the distress signal from another American ship, the "Kroonland" was exactly two years and one day earlier.

However, the distress signal from the "Nantucket Lightship" was indeed the 1st from an American ship in American waters. The navy vessel "Azalea" rushed to the rescue of the lightship, taking off all personnel before it sank.

The acceptance of a standard distress signal in Morse Code extended over a period of several years. The delegates attending the 1st Wireless Conference in Berlin in 1903 discussed the matter though no firm resolution resulted. The Marconi Company in England issued a directive requiring all of its wireless operators to signal CQD as a distress signal, effective February 1, 1904.

At the 2nd Wireless Conference in Berlin in 1906, the now familiar SOS was approved, replacing the usage of CQD. However, the general implementation of the new SOS extended over a period of years, and it was not until six years later, that the United States formally adopted the usage of the new SOS distress signal for its wireless stations.

It is stated that the first known usage of the CQD distress signal from an American ship took place on February 2, 1908 when the ship "Santa Rosa" was in distress off the coast of California. A newspaper reporter on board the "Cymric" observed the event and he sent his news item to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

The most notable shipping disaster in association with the usage of the CQD distress signal took place on January 24, 1909 when the Italian liner "Florida" struck the White Star liner "Republic" out in the Atlantic off the American east coast near the Nantucket Lightship. Jack Binns was the wireless operator at station MKC aboard the stricken "Republic" and over the course of time he transmitted some 200 messages in Morse Code.

Two other ships came to the scene of this maritime accident, another White Star liner the "Baltic and a Revenue Cutter, the "Gresham". A total of 1500 people were successfully transferred (with the loss of only six people in the collision itself); the "Baltic" sank at sea; and the "Florida" limped into port at New York.

During this same era, several maritime mishaps occurred also in the North American Great Lakes and many personnel were rescued when relief ships arrived as a result of wireless distress calls.

On December 10, 1910, the ship "North Western" was bound from Seattle to Valdez in Alaska, along the western coast of North America, when it struck a rock. Due to a wireless distress call, all passengers and crew were rescued and taken back to Seattle.

A few days later, seven of the rescued passengers from the "North Western" boarded another ship, the "Olympia", in a second attempt to travel to Valdez. This ship struck a reef near Bligh Island and a wireless distress call brought another ship and all 177 were rescued, including the seven men who underwent these two shipping disasters within a few days.

It is reported that the first double usage of the distress signals, both CQD & SOS, was sent by the American ship "Arapoe" in August 1909 when it lost its propeller near Diamond Shoals off the American Atlantic Coast. However, the most notable usage of the double calls CQD & SOS was three years later in the tragic story of the "Titanic". That's our story next week.

Tribute to Dr. Robert Bowman, FEBC

News has just been received that the founder of FEBC, the Far East Broadcasting Company, has passed to his rest. Dr. Robert Bowman died just before midnight on Tuesday, March 11 following a brief illness at the age of 98.

Robert H. Bowman was born in California on March 16, 1915, the youngest of five children, and he gained his higher education at Vanguard University in Pasadena. At the age of 22, he married Eleanor, and together they had two children.

In his earlier years, he was interested in cars, and winning the Indianapolis 500 was one of his highest ideals. However, his life soon took a very different turn and during the era prior to World War 2, he joined a men's quartet singing with the radio program, Haven of Rest.

Thus was born in him a desire to use radio for the promulgation of the gospel, and immediately after the end of World War 2, he partnered with his friend John Broger with the intent of introducing gospel radio programming in the Far East.

Their initial project was the broadcast of programming over radio station XLAW in Nanjing, China, though due to the many difficulties they encountered in China, they transferred their interest to the Philippine Islands. In 1945, they incorporated their organization, as the Far East Broadcasting Company; and their very first radio station was inaugurated in 1948, the mediumwave unit, KZAS with 1 kW on 680 kHz. This station is still on the air to this day, though it now radiates 50 kW on 702 kHz under the adjusted callsign DZAS.

On the shortwave scene, their first transmitter was a 10 kW unit that was inaugurated during the following year (1949) under the callsign DZH6. Over the intervening years, FEBC grew into a mighty network of AM, FM and shortwave transmitters, both within the Philippines and beyond. In 1960, they procured the famous General Electric shortwave station KGEI located near San Francisco in California.

Dr. Robert Bowman has left behind a mighty legacy of local radio broadcasting stations in Asia and beyond that serve their audiences in their local languages, together with their shortwave facilities that are also speaking in many different languages. Dr. Bowman is mourned by Eleanor, his wife of 76 years, their two sons, six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.