Friday, October 28, 2005

Titanic wireless

We all have read about David Sarnoff alone, manning the shortwave to get announcements from the coastguard on survivors of the Titanic sinking. Nobody ever seems to tell us about the radio crew actually on board the Titanic. Who sent the message?
The two men, who ran the Wireless room onboard the Titanic were Jack Phillipis (age 25) and Harold Birde (age 21.) These two men were very brave and stayed at their post while the ship capsized. They sent distress messages until the water was coming up the Deck. At the end the boiler was flooded and power died. Only then when they lost the ability to transmitdid they cease. Only one of them survived; Jack Phillipis drowned that night.

CQD was the customary distress signal until the more contemporary SOS was popularized after the Titanic sinking. CQD was an adaptation of the general call for attention: CQ with an added D for Danger. CQ derives from "pay attention" in what was then the official international postal language: French! The full broadcasted distress signal was CQD DE MGY CQD DE MGY CQD DE MGY followed by the position of the ship. The “DE” in this signal also derives from French Post meanong “from.”

So, CQD MGY were the letters of distress flashed from Titanic late on the night of April 14, 1912. But they were not sent in that order, nor were they broadcast with ease. In fact their calls for help were barely heard by many. But why? The Titanic's "wireless" equipment was the most powerful in use at the time. The main transmitter was a rotary spark design, powered by a 5 kW motor.

The equipment operated into a 4 wire antenna suspended between the ship's 2 masts, some 250 feet above the sea. They even had a battery powered emergency transmitter. The main transmitter was housed in a special room, was specially insulated to reduce interference to the main receiver. The equipment virtually guaranteed working range of 250 miles, and up to 2000 miles at night!

The Problem was this: There was a viscious rivalry between firms providing steamship wireless equipment. Ships with different wireless sets from different companies did not communicate with one another under normal circumstances. Operators cursed each other, and even jammed transmissions. Because of this Jack Phillps opted not to struggle through language barriers with a foreign ships which might be rigged with competing equipment! In addition to that, he had been given informed that the ship was NOT ACTUALLY SINKING. His messages were focused on getting passengers transferred to other ships so that Titanic could be temporarily fixed and towed to safety.