During the first flight of the Titanic, 1,500 people died, but if not for the wireless technology on board the liner, another 700 passengers would have died.
Immortalized in over a dozen films, the sinking of the Titanic is probably one of the most famous maritime tragedies of the modern era. On April 10, 1912, the British liner sailed to New York from Southampton, but five days after colliding with an iceberg, her tragic end came.
The ship left British soil with 2,224 passengers and crew, of whom only 700 survived in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. More than 1,500 people died in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Tragic as the shipwreck was, the disaster could have been much worse if not for the new technology used on board – wireless telegraphy. The use of wireless communications on the Titanic was both a success story and a cautionary tale.
Advances in science and technology allow us to take communication for granted in the 21st century. However, the contemporaries of the Titanic were just beginning to get acquainted with the idea of instant communication in the middle of the ocean.
The first commercial wireless telegraph company was started by an Irish-Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi in 1897, just 15 years before the ship’s maiden voyage.
Since fixed telegraphy was much cheaper than wireless at the time, lighthouses and ships were among the early buyers of Marconi’s device. The Titanic, a luxury liner, was equipped with the most modern wireless telegraph, which was operated directly by employees of the Marconi company.
The device could transmit messages up to 300 miles during the day and up to 1000 miles at night due to the refraction of long-wave radiation in the ionosphere. Most importantly, the range of Marconi’s device allowed the ship’s passengers to transmit personal messages to shore, a flurry of chatter that would later prove deadly.
At about 11:40 p.m., the Titanic’s crew spotted an iceberg ahead of them. Since evasive maneuvers were unsuccessful, the ship collided with the resulting obstacle a few minutes later. Ice water relentlessly flooded the ship, and it soon became clear that the liner would not survive.
Decades before, such a collision would have meant almost certain death for everyone on board. However, the Titanic had a wireless telegraph with which, in the dark of the night, it was possible to contact people at a long distance. However, the nearest ship, the Californian, was only 10 miles away, and could well come to the rescue while the Titanic itself was still afloat. However, this did not happen.
In 1912, there were no frequencies reserved for emergencies. Passengers and crew used the same radio waves to communicate, clogging the communication channels with random chatter.
Tired of the noise that the powerful electronics of the Titanic created, some ships simply turned off their transmitters. Others, such as the Californian, were ordered to remain offline so as not to interfere with the liner’s private messages being sent ashore.
The ship, only 10 miles away, did not hear the Titanic’s distress call, not because it could not, but because it was ordered not to.
Long Term Consequences
The Titanic’s distress signal—the good old CQD, not the then new SOS—reached the operator aboard the Carpathia, 90 miles away. The arrival of the Carpathia saved the lives of over 700 lifeboats on the freezing water.
CQD is one of the first distress signals adopted for radio use.
When the Carpathia arrived, the sinking liner was already far away. Finding scattered people in the ocean would be almost impossible without knowing the exact location of the crash.
Although the wireless telegraph helped save hundreds of people, it could have saved thousands. The tragedy of the Titanic was the impetus for rapid improvements in safety in radio engineering just a few months after the ship sank. The basic security concepts are still used today.
The US and UK passed new regulations requiring every first class ship to have a permanent 24/7 radio watch. The law also required operators to use the same wavelength to transmit signals and maintain radio silence at regular intervals to listen for distress calls.
A separate 600-meter wavelength has been set aside for ship use only, prohibiting commercial and amateur station interference. Specific technical measures have been taken to reduce interference from transmitters that use electrical sparks to generate short bursts of radio waves.