The poignant news of the tragedy as it was first heard was relayed by Marconi wireless operators
“I was in the boat and the boat was upside down and I was under it. And I remember realizing … that whatever happened I must not breathe, for I was under water” (The New York Times, April 19 1912).
Just minutes after arriving in New York, this was how Harold Bride, junior wireless operator on RMS Titanic, recalled the moment he was washed from the deck of the sinking ship into the upturned lifeboat which was to save his life. Eventually managing to drag himself on top of the lifeboat, Bride and around 30 other men struggled to keep it afloat in the increasingly rough water until they were finally picked up by the RMS Carpathia at dawn. This was not the end of his ordeal. Despite having temporarily lost the use of both legs from exposure, Bride was carried to the Carpathia wireless room to assist its only operator, Harold Cottam. Together, they worked without rest, sending vital communications including lists of survivors and messages to friends and relatives of Titanic’s passengers, until the Carpathia docked in New York on the evening of April 18.
Bride, 22, was one of two operators assigned to the Titanic for its maiden voyage. His senior, Jack Phillips, 25, was on his way to bed at around midnight on April 14 when Captain Edward Smith entered the Marconi cabin and instructed the operators to call for assistance. For the next two hours, Phillips sent distress calls continuously to all ships within range of the powerful wireless transmitter, refusing to leave his post even when released by the Captain. Phillips and Bride were among the last to leave the stricken ship, rushing from the wireless room as water was already washing over the decks. Phillips also made it to the upturned lifeboat but perished before he could be rescued.
Almost 100 years on, the Titanic disaster continues to inspire interest and study, but the fascinating story of wireless communication has often been overlooked. Nearly all passenger ships were fitted with wireless technology in 1912 and trained operators sent and received hundreds of messages each day. The distress calls from the Titanic and messages from the survivors are deeply poignant, the more so as a result of their brevity. “Titanic struck berg wants assistance immediately ship sinking passengers in boats his position lat 41.46 long 50.14” (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Marconi 263, fol. 63). Chargeable by the word and needing to be sent rapidly by Morse code, their short and abbreviated style is surprisingly familiar to a modern audience, accustomed as we are to the staccato nature of Twitter.
The Marconi Archives were donated by the company to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library in 2004, along with a sizable collection of historic wireless equipment. Owing to the significant costs of cataloguing and conserving large archival collections, and the lack of funding available for this important work, fascinating discoveries are still being made in the collection and material relating to the Titanic forms a section of particular interest within the archives. Comprising material gathered by the Marconi Company to be submitted to a UK Inquiry into the disaster in 1912, it contains log books kept by wireless operators on ships and at shore stations as well as an extensive collection of individual messages sent to, from, and about the Titanic both before and after the sinking. To mark the centenary of the disaster the Bodleian Library and Bernard Quaritch Ltd have collaborated on a publication, Titanic Calling, which draws upon this compelling resource to tell the story of the Titanic as it was first heard.
The Marconi International Marine Communication Company provided its services to many shipping lines (including both White Star Line, owner of the Titanic, and Cunard, owner of the Carpathia), supplying equipment and Marconi-employed operators. Marconi protocols and signals, including the “CQD” distress signal, were well known by all wireless operators in 1912.
Every wireless station, both ship and shore stations, was identified by a three-letter callsign, used in all communications. Each Marconi station callsign began with the letter “M”; the Titanic’s callsign was MGY, the Carpathia’s MPA.
CQD NOT SOS
The standard Marconi distress signal, recognized by all ships, was “CQD,” from “CQ,” a call to all ships, and “D” for “distress.” “SOS” had been introduced in 1908 but was not widely used until after the Titanic disaster. The Titanic sent both signals repeatedly on the night of April 14, a final broken “CQ …” being picked up by the Virginian, one of several ships rushing toward the Titanic’s position, just a few minutes before it foundered.
Harold Bride, 1890-1956
Junior wireless operator
Harold Bride, from London, joined the Marconi Company in 1911 and was just 22 years old when sent to Belfast to join the Titanic as junior operator. He assisted his senior colleague Jack Phillips throughout the journey and remained with him in the wireless cabin on the night of the sinking until the power to the transmitter failed and both men fled the ship. He was washed overboard, clinging to an upturned lifeboat, the same boat on which Phillips died. Bride managed to climb on to the boat and was picked up by the Carpathia the following morning. On board the Carpathia he willingly assisted the ship’s exhausted operator, Harold Cottam, despite having temporarily lost the use of both legs from exposure. He continued to work for the Marconi Company until 1917.
Jack Phillips, 1887-1912
Senior wireless operator
Jack Phillips, from Farncombe, Surrey, was already an experienced operator, having worked on ships for five years, when he was appointed senior operator on the Titanic. He celebrated his 25th birthday aboard the ship on April 11. Following the collision with the iceberg, he stayed at his post, calling for assistance until just minutes before the ship sank, even after having been released from duty by the Captain. Although he managed to swim to an upturned lifeboat, he died from exposure.
SS Californian (callsign MWL) is believed to have been within sight of the Titanic on the night of the sinking but failed to recognize the signs of distress. Officers reported seeing flares sent up by a nearby ship but communication was attempted only with Morse lamps, which had a very limited range, rather than with wireless. The ship’s only wireless operator was not woken until several hours after the Titanic had sunk.
The Bodleian Library
Oxford’s libraries are among the most celebrated in the world for their collections of books and manuscripts. Among them is the Bodleian (or Bodley), established by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613), a Fellow of Merton College who had travelled extensively in Europe and who carried out diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I. He married a rich widow whose first husband had made his fortune trading in pilchards, and upon retirement from public life set up a library for the use of students, which opened in 1602. Its collections have attracted scholars from around the world, irrespective of whether they are members of the University of Oxford, a tradition which the Bodleian still maintains (undergraduates, on the other hand, were rarely admitted until quite recent times). Another tradition, still zealously guarded, is that no books are lent to readers; even King Charles I was refused permission in 1645. The Bodleian Libraries (almost 40 affiliated libraries serving the University) care for more than 11m printed items, and the Bodley itself is the second largest library in the UK, behind the British Library. www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Michael Hughes is Senior Archivist at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, where he has cataloged the Marconi Archives. He is the author of Titanic Calling, to be published in 2012. Katherine Bosworth works at Bernard Quaritch Ltd, specializing in archives. She co-edited Titanic Calling and contributed to this story.
Titanic Calling: Wireless Communications during the Great Disaster will be published in April 2012 by Bodleian Library Publishing in association with Bernard Quaritch Ltd. Images and text copyright The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, and reprinted with permission. The Marconi Archives are held in the Bodleian Library and some material can be viewed online at www.marconicalling.co.uk