A Titanic Lesson
On the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912 she had some of the latest and most powerful communication technology, the wireless telegraph.
This new technology not only provided critical communication between the ships, it also offered the passengers a new amenity.
Imagine being on a cruise today with only one cellphone for all the passengers to send or receive a text message. Not only would you have to wait your turn but the message would have to be typed out with only one key.
To top that off, there is only one connection to use for both passenger messages and critical ship to ship communication. The wireless room had two operators who would each take shifts. The senior officer, Jack Phillip’s was known as “Sparks” because he was so fast at sending messages. In the 4 ½ days until it struck the iceberg the Titanic’s radio operators had sent and received 250 passenger telegrams. On the night of the disaster, Jack Phillips, the senior officer, was feverishly trying to catch up on passenger communications when a message came in from the S.S. Mesaba warning of icebergs spotted at specific coordinates.
S.S. Mesaba to R.M.S. Titanic and All Eastbound Ships:“Ice report:
In latitude 42 N to 41.25 N, longitude 49 W to 50.3 W. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number of large icebergs, also field ice. Weather good, clear”. 9.35 p.m.
R.M.S. Titanic to S.S. Mesaba:
Minutes later the Mesaba responded with “Stand by”, indicating that they were waiting confirmation that the message made it to the bridge. They didn’t get a reply from Jack, instead he continued to send passenger messages.
S.S. Mesaba to R.M.S. Titanic:
About an hour and a half later the R.M.S California’s radio operator chimed in…
11.00 p.m. (approx)
R.M.S. Californian to R.M.S. Titanic:
“Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice”.
Phillip’s was perturbed at this interruption while trying to catch up on sending and receiving passenger messages through Newfoundland and fired back with the following message…
11.10 p.m. (approx)
R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Californian:
“Keep out! Shut up, shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race.”
The California was the nearest ship capable of helping the Titanic once it began to sink but was not able to be reached because the wireless operators had turned their equipment off for the night.
Titanic’s Second Officer, Charles Lightroller, had been on duty that night and wrote the following in his autobiography…
“The one vital report that came through but which never reached the bridge, was received at 9:40 p.m. from the Mesaba…
Phillips, the wireless operator on watch who received the message was not to know the extreme urgency of the warning or hat we were at the time actually entering the area given by the Mesaba, and are literally packed with icebergs, field ice and growlers. He was very busy working wireless messages to and from Cape Race…
Later, when standing with others on the upturned boat, Phillips explained when I said that I did not recollect any Mesaba report: ‘I just put the message under a paper weight at my elbow, just until I squared up what I was doing before sending it to the Bridge.’ That delay proved fatal and was the main contributory cause to the loss of that magnificent ship and hundreds of lives…”
It is a sober illustration of the potential distractions that come along with the benefits of technology.