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The Titanic Tragedy

Replica of the Titanic Marconi shack as exhibited at the American Radio Museum at Bellingham, WA., USA.

Sunk between CQD and SOS

On Monday, April 14, 1912, at 11:40 PM, in the middle of the night, "R.M.S. Titanic" hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic near Canada and sank at 4146' N, and 5014' West. Thanks to wireless, 745 passengers were saved but 1595 persons died in this tragedy among them some of the most prominent persons in the world.

Behind this disastrer, it has been argued that the number of survivors could have been doubled or even tripled, if there were stronger wireless regulations in effect.

Indeed, if we focus on the sole radiotransmission issue, at least three problems appeared and increased the slow response of rescuers.

First, the radio operators were only on duty during the "open hours", thus only at daytime. Any event could thus occured at night without warning.

Then, in 1905, the Morse code "SOS" (that does not mean Save Our Souls) was adopted by German ships for signifying distress while the British marine, working with Marconi operators, wanted to keep CQD (General Call Disaster that some translated by Come Quick Disaster) as a distress signal. It was first decided to use SOE, but the small "E" dot can easily be lost in QRM and one suggested to replace it with an S, as in repeating three time the small dot the operators had much more chance to arrest the attention of anyone hearing it, hence SOS, that  was adopted at the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention in 1906 as the official international standard for distress calls. But Marconi operators were slow to conform, and until 1907 Marconi companies continued to work with the "CQD", associating it if necessary to SOS.

The first time that the SOS signal was used in an emergency was on June 10, 1909 when the Cunard liner "SS Slavonia" wrecked off the Azores.


Beside CQD, SOS and other QRRR, another distress call is used since World War I, the famous "mayday" of aviators. The "Mayday" distress signal was devised by Frederick Stanley Mockford, born in 1897 in the East Sussex village of Selmeston. While he was senior radio officer at Croydon airport in 1923, he was asked to think up a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. As much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget (Paris) he proposed the word "Mayday" from the French "m'aidez" (to help me). It was this acknowledgement of a French word that also sounded like an English word that proved acceptable to both the French and English authorities.

At last, there was a commercial war between Marconi and his German competitor, Telefunken, that extended down to the individual radio operators. In these early days of telegraphy, where the Stock exchange was growing fast and gave the chance to small like major companies to increase their benefits, the smallest part of a market took at the competitor meant a probable increasing of shares price at short time. This is in this context of commercial war that no routine traffic, even in an emergency, would ever pass from a Marconi station to his competitor. This arrived at such a point that when a "Marconist" was on the air, the others would be shut out, and often, the rules was respected.

This story merits to be recalled because it emphasizes the problem of security aboard the ship, the lack of a standard wireless regulation, as well as the haughtiness and contempt of the White Star for their passengers.

Here is the all story that I voluntarily shorten to the essential messages. In all, some 28 ships were involved in communications with Titatic. The rescue last 8 hours between the first distress call and the last passenger rescued. Only "Carpathia" rescued all the passengers and processed to New York, a trip that last still two and a half more days.

The scandalous secret story revealed

The Marconi station onboard the "MGY" vessel, the radio callsign of "Titanic" had an emitting power of 5 kW and worked on the frequency of 500 kHz (600 meters) and could switched to 1 MHz (300 meters). It was linked to a wire antenna system made of 4 long cables hanged between two huge masts erected at the two ends of the vessel as we see below.

The antenna system erected on the Titanic.

The radio station was operated by two wireless operators, 25 year old John George Phillips - better known as "Jack" or "Sparks", and 22 year old Harold Bride as the Deputy or Assistant Radio Operator, two employees of the Marconi Telegraph Company. Jack Phillips could tap out 39 words per minute, ditto that for Harold Thomas Cottam ("Carpathia's" wireless operator), and Harold Bride's reached 26 words per minute.

On April 14, 1912, from 9:00 PM, while "Titanic" was approaching Canada, the operators received several warning by radio relating to ice packs and icebegs in their area. The messages were sent by boats further to the west. The first message was sent by "Caronia" that spotted icebergs and growlers. But as the warning was not prefixed by "MSG" meaning that the communique was intended to the capitain, and buzy by other tasks, the information was not immediately transmitted to the capitain Edward John Smith on the bridge, and "Titanic" continued its route as planned.

It is only by 10:15 AM that captain Smith got the first telegraph warning of icebergs. A second warning was received at 2:00 PM.

Then, in a few hours the air temperature dropped of 10 degrees, reaching 0.5C by 5:30 PM.

At 7:30 PM, Harold Bride picked up a new warning transmitted by "SS Californian" that spotted three large icebergs at 42N and 49W. Immediately Bride took the telegram to the bridge but the captain Smith had already left for dine with passengers. The telegram was passed to another officer. It is only by 8:55 PM that captain Smith did a check with the bridge but apparently without commentaries about icebergs before retiring to his cabin.

At 9:40 PM, Phillips received a fifth and last warning from "SS Mesaba" that spotted a "great number" of large icebergs and ice pack 24.1 km (just 15 miles) ahead of "Titanic" (42N 49W and moving to 4125' N.). But once again, as the message was not prefixed with "MSG", Phillips didn't process it immediately and failed to pass the communique to the capitain.

At 11:00 PM, the "Californian" sent a message stating that she has stopped sailing for the evening due to the ice. B harrassed by the passenger telegrams, Phillips simply replies to say "Shut up! I am busy. I am working Cape Race". Meanwhile, the iceberg was approaching dangerously from "Titanic".

At 11:30 PM, the iceberg laid 6.4 km (just 4 miles) or 10 minutes ahead. But the lack of moonlight didn't allow the crew to see it.

Contrary to what we often read, it is not the Titanic radio room but the one of the Olympic, her sister vessel. Doc Nova Scotia Online.

At 11:39 PM, the iceberg was 1000 yards or 914 m ahead of "Titanic". 30 seconds later, Frederick Fleet saw the dark mass of the iceberg profiling ahead the ship. But due to its high speed (21.5 knots or 39 km/h) and huge mass(47137 tons with freight and passagers), Titanic took time to perform a manoeuvre, and at so close distance in a few minutes it has few chance to avoid the collision.

At 11:40 PM, the belt rang on the bridge of "Titanic". The officer William Murdoch was on watch and saw the iceberg. He asked that the engines be put into reverse, steering the ship away but it was too late, and "Titanic" hit the iceberg of the side.

By 11.45 PM, the operators were passing a routine traffic when the captain Smith came in informing Phillips and Bride that the ship had hit an iceberg, and to prepare a distress call.

On April 15, 1912 at 12:15 AM the captain returned at the radio room and told the operators to send the message. Phillips sent in his spark gap transmitter : "CQD Titanic 41.46 N 50.24 W" when Bride interrupted him : "Send S.O.S. !  It's the new call and it may be your last chance to send it". But faithful to Marconi's rules, Phillips continue sending CQD.

At the same time, ship "La Provence" received the distress message requiring assistance. Ship "Mount temple", MLQ,  heard also the CQD and requested "Titanic" to give again her position. Drown in the noise of the stream, Philips and Bride checked the ship position. "Cape Race", MCE, heard "Titanic" sending back her new coordinates : "41.44 N 50.24 W". Then ship "Ypiranga" heard "Titanic" calling CQD during about 10 minutes without establish any contact.

The situation worsening, at 12:25 AM Phillips sent to any ship in their vicinity a new message. The Cunar Liner "Carpathia", MPA, hears a CQD saying : "Come at once. We have struck a berg. It's a CQD OM. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W". Unfortunately "Carpathia" was at 10 hours from "Titanic". Immediately "Cape Race" called "Titanic" but received no reply.

"Titanic" sent a new call : "MGY CQD, Here correct position 41.46 N. 50.14 W. Require immediate assistance. We have collision with iceberg. Sinking. Can hear nothing for noise of stream". Titanic called so during about 15 to 20 minutes to "Ypiranga". 

Here is a reconstitution of one of these messages sent by Bride in CW at 21 WPM partly covered by noise and fading. For what I have understood it's sending "...MGY CQD SOS SOS CQD CQD DE MGY WE ARE SINKING FAST PASSENGERS KEIN...". Here is another message in the clear that I created as could have sent Phillips at 40 WPM calling "CQD CQD SOS DE MGY MGY REQUIR IMEDIAT ASISTANC POSITION 41.46 N 50.14 W".

Assistant radio operator Harold Bride at the "Marconi Wireless" radio station aboard the Titanic.

Meanwhile, at 12:30 AM "Mount Temple" heard "Titanic" still calling CQD. His Capitain "reversed ship". She was about 90 km (50 miles) off "Titanic". After a lot of misunderstanding between ships, at 12:32 AM the reply of "Carpathia" was examplar and it answered to "Titanic": "Putting about and heading for you".

At 12:45 "Olympic", MKC, the sister ship of "Titanic" located 800 km (500 miles) away en route to England heard "Titanic" sending "CQD CQD SOS Titanic. Position 41.44 N 50.24 W.". But it seems that "Olympic" didn't answer or didn't hear her call. According the transcript this is the first time that "SOS" was sent, so half an hour after the accident and the request of Bride !

Note that Harold Bride testified in both the American and British investigations (see below) and in his original accounts of the sinking, that Phillips sent the CQD and SOS calls at 15 word-per-minute so that everyone would be sure to understand the message as there was language problems with some of the other ships.

There was now more than 1 hour that "Titanic" hit the iceberg and was slowly sinking. Phillips continued so to send CQD, his position, explaining again that "Titantic" hit an iceberg, etc. This dramatic comedy last another half hour.

At 1:15 AM "Baltic", MBC, asked "Caronia", MSF, to : "Please tell Titanic we are making toward her".

At 1:20 AM "Virginian", MGN, heard "Cape Race" informing "Titanic" : "that we are going to his assistance. Our position 170 miles N. of Titanic." 5 minutes later "Caronia" told to "Titanic" : "Baltic coming to your assistance."

As soon as the wireless operator informed his captain, the "Carpathia" and " Cape Race", chimed in their acknowledgement of the disaster call. But these ships were still hundreds of kilometers away and the "Titanic" continued to send desperatly his "CQD" and "SOS" messages.

At 1:25 AM at the requests of "Olympic" : "Are you steering southerly to meet use", "Titanic" replied : "We are putting the women off in the boats." Phillips repeated this message two minutes later.

At 1:30, "Titanic" sent again : "We are putting passengers off in small boats."

At 1:35 AM "Olympic" asked "Titanic" what weather she had. "Titanic" replied : "Clear and calm.". Then the German Liner "Frankfurt", DFT, asked "Titanic" : "Are there any boats around you already ?" Titanic didn't reply. The reason was simple, even if according to our modern rules that looks incredible : the "Frankfurt" operator worked for Telefunken, the main competitor of Marconi company!

Replica of the straight key used on the Titanic. It is for sale to Alpha Delta.

At 1:40 AM "Cape Race" said to "Virginia" : "Please tell your Captain this: The Olympic is making all speed for Titanic, but his [Olympic] position is 40.32 N. 61.18 W. You are much nearer to Titanic. The Titanic is already putting women off in the boats, and he says the weather there is calm and clear. The Olympic is the only ship we have heard say, "Going to the assistance of the Titanic. The others must be a long way from the Titanic.""

At 1:45 AM "Carpathia" heard one of the last message sent by "Titanic" : "Come as quickly as possible old man: our engine-room is filling up to the boilers".

At 1:48 AM "Asian", MKL, heard "Titanic" calling "SOS". She answered but received no reply. The "Frankfurt" operator came back also to get more information and asked to "Titanic" : "What is the matter with u ?". "Caronia" heard "Frankfurt" working the "Titanic" but it was still 275 km (172 miles) away.

At 1:50 AM on the "Titanic" Phillips tapped back to "Frankfurt" : "You are a fool, stdbi stdbi stdbi and keep out". Unfortunately the commercial war edicted always its own rules ! At this moment the "Frankfurt" was still at 277 km (172 miles) from 'Titanic". It needed hours to reach her.

Phillips continued to transmit information for about half an hour to other ships, but mainly to the "Carpathia", and "Olympic". The "Carpathia" operator took the time to transmit the list of survivors to the "Olympic", then he closed his radio station, keeping a radio silence and refusing even to answer to Navy cruisers sent to the scene by President Taft.

At 2:00 AM "Virginian" still heard "Titanic" calling but this time her emitting power began greatly to reduce. 

At 2:10 "Virginian" still heard two weak "v" surrounding with sparks. Once think that Phillips tried adjusting his transmitter to compensate for the dying power supply from the engine room.

Now, "Titanic" began to take on water in her first five compartments located to the front of the ship. "Titanic" was well equipped with isolation walls but the compartments were opened on the upper side, 3 m only above the sea level, permitting the water to progress freely from one compartment to the next, flooding the hermetic compartments in a few hours. If the first five compartments were invaded by water, due to the weight of water supported by the front, "Titanic" would sink.

So, forseeing the worst, orders were given to the crew to uncover the lifeboats and to get the passengers and crew ready on deck. But there were only 16 lifeboats available where 51 would have been necessary to transport all 2,340 passengers on board... Thus, in a first time it was decided to give the priority to leave the ship to all passengers of the first class, and specially to women and kids...

Harold Sidney Bride (left), assistant radio operator and John George Phillips (right), first radio operator. Phillips had to die of hypothermia.

By 2:15 AM or so, Phillips sent another message : "SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic". "Virginian" heard it but was unable to read it correctly. 

At 2:17 AM, Phillips was intended to send a last "CQD DE MGY" that was partly hear by the "Virginian", when him and Bride were urged to leave their post by Captain Smith. After the loss of all power in "Titanic"'s radio room, "Virginian" noticed that "Titanic"'s signal ended very abruptly.

Bride and Phillips left the wireless room and made their way to the Boat-Deck, and began trying to help the other men in the releasing of collapsible Lifeboat B. While neither of them immediately made it onto a lifeboat, both were rescued from the sea. Bride's feet were so severely frozen he could no more walk. Phillips died of hypothermia on or near Collapsible lifeboat B. His body was never recovered.

Pretty soon, the "Titanic" lights flickered, and then totally went off, leaving everyone on the ship, and in the lifeboats, with total darkness. As the stern rose, it stood almost to a 90 degree angle. People on the ship grabbed for anything to hang on to. A weak spot developed between the third and fourth smoke stack, which caused the stern of the ship to break off but the stern rested in the water in the normal position. After about a minute, the stern was over taken by water, and slipped into the sea, bringing with it for the eternity most of replies and its mysteries. Then the silent was total.

Gallery to see : Titanic 2003

To read : The prophetic novel of Morgan Robertson

"Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan", 1898

CQD CQD SOS Titanic Position 41.44N 50.24W... SINKING FAST...

At left, RMS Titanic en route to the USA, and at right sinking. Documents from "Titanic" (J.Cameron, 1997). Below left, a simulation of the wreck lying down by 3810 m deep and two images of the shipwreck taken on July 5, 1985 by Robert Ballard by 3780 m (12600 ft) deep. The expedition to RMS Titanic included scientists from WHOI and IFREMER. Today the Titanic wreck is located 523 km off Newfoundland. Documents R.Ballard/Jason.

In less than two hours 1595 passengers died of hypothermia or drowned, and the so-called unsinkable "Titanic" sank by 3810 m (12600 ft) deep at 724 km (450 miles) south-east of Halifax. 745 survivors huddled in half filled lifeboats waiting to be rescued.

Once arrived on site, at 4:10 AM "Carpathia" picked up the first survivors and immediately sent a wireless message to other ships. At 8:10 AM the last lifeboat was rescued by the Carpathia.

At 8:55 AM "Carpathia" replies to "Baltic" : "Am proceeding to Halifax or New York full speed. You had better proceed to Liverpool. Have about 800 passengers on board."

At 9:00 AM "Carpathia" sent a last message from the accident area to "Virginian" : "We are leaving here with all on board about 800 passengers. Please return to your Northern course."

However other wireless messages appeared alleged transmitted from "Carpathia", like this one that stated : "All passengers of Liner 'Titanic' safely transferred to this ship and 'S.S.Parisian'. Sea calm. 'Titanic' being towed by Allen Liner 'Virginian' to port"... except that these messages were not coming from the "Carpathia" as these fantoms ships had wireless capabilities up to a maximum range of 240 km (150 miles).

En route to New York, during the travel not less than 170 passengers sent to their family and relatives stond on land a cable to reassure them on their good health. Here are some of these poignant telegrams :

15 Apr., prefix S, words 13, charges 8/8d; sent to MKC by H.C. 4 p.m.
Nick, Olimpic (sic) Mollie, Elizabeth, Natalie, Caroline safe on Carpathia. George not heard from.

17 Apr., prefix X, words 21, charges 32/0; sent to MEA, instructions: via MSD. (Details in H.C's hand)
Chicago Tribune Chicago Illinois. Carpathia pickd up seven hundred Titanic mostly women. Over Two thousand lost. Iceberg continuous mass twenty five mile. Chicagoans this ship well. Dr. F. h. Blackmarr.

17 Apr., prefix x, words 5/11 Cable, charges 28/1; sent to MEA by H.C. 12.39 p.m., instructions: via MSD.
Chevre 33 Chateau Asnieres Paris. Sauves par Carpathia allons NewYork. Paul.

17 Apr., prefix x, words 10, charges 18/9; sent to MEA by H.C. 1.8 p.m., instructions: via MSD. 

Message is on a Commercial Telegraph form for use by ships in New York Harbor, folded and gummed to a Marconi form :
V.A.Harder 117 Eight Ave. Brooklyn. Titanic sank. George & I Safe on Carpathia lost everything. Dorothy

Of course, viewed from the outside, an accident always attract curious and profiteers on all sides, and all the more if it is serious and involves hundreds of people... Here are three examples of those cables transmitted to the "Carpathia" during the travel to New York by three major newpapers. No place for emotion :

New York Office to Carpathia, undated, prefix S, words 14, recd from M?? (altered and illegible) by G.B. 4.50 p.m., rec. Form no. 2/2; marked in red ink '6/2' :
Operator ('M', deleted) Carpathia. Please tell stead and futrelle titanic passengers to send wireless story quick to american NewYork American.

New York Office to Carpathia, undated, prefix S, words 12, recd from MSD by H.C. 5.20 p.m., receiving form no. 3/3; marked in red ink 5/- :
Major Birkhead Carpathia. Please wireless good story on your observations Titanic many facts as possible Herald

Franconia to Carpathia, 17 Apr., prefix S, words 60, recd from MEA 6.30 a.m. (no operator's initials, but message appears to be in H.C.'s hand), Carp. rec. form no. 2/3 , marked in red ink '20/-'. Message overruns onto second Marconi form, fixed to 1st :

E N Kimball Jr Carpathia. Boston globe anxious get full narrative disaster can you write it for delivery to globe representative on dock Newyork will pay liberally rush answer to winfield thompson globe man on steamer Franconia his expense he also desires wireless story of your experiences for immediate transmittal boston every moment precious intensc interest at home. Winfield Thompson

Franconia to Carpathia, 17 Apr., prefix S, words 37, recd from MEA by H.C. (altered from HB) 6.35 a.m. (altered from 6.25), Carp. rec form no. 3/4 (altered from 3/3); marked in red ink '12/4' :
Operator Carpathia. Can you get survivor write boston globe full narrative disaster and also wireless report to franconia if ('promi', deleted) so get most promising man preferably frank D Millett or Maj Butt all charges paid here. Winfield Thompson

The haughtiness and contempt of White Star for the passengers

The English White Star Line, owners of "Titanic", continue to claim that everyone was safe and the ship had not sunk. However the log recorded by the "Olympic" didn't confirm their claims.

This controversy should have be ignored if a 21-year old operator named David Sarnoff hadn't detected the weak signals of the "Olympic" from the USA, and broke the silent.

Remind that David Sarnoff became in 1919 the head of Radio Corporation of America, RCA, then established NBC in 1926. We will will see him again in 1946 about the first televisions, and again in 1964 about Internet. Indeed, Sarnoff forecasted the use of the microcomputers, databases, highspeed communication lines, networks and the concept of "global village".

Faced with the truth, and hounded by thousands of reporters and outraged relatives of passengers, the White Star Liner officials had finally to break down the secret and revealed the horrible facts.

At left and center, the headlines of two US newspapers on 15 and 16 April 1912. Documents Library of Congres. At right, senator William Alden Smith.

Eventually, by 9 PM on April 18, 1912, "Carpathia" arrived at the Port of New York with the few survivors. In the next days, senator William Alden Smith, Republican of Michigan, urged the Senate to act quickly to authorize an inquiry into the Titanic sinking after he learned that president Taft intended to take no action.

As Chairman of the committee investigating the shipwreck, senator Smith summoned all involved people, including Marconi to appear. The hearings revealed no information about the origin of the false messages concerning the saving of the ship and passengers.

However, it appeared strange that the "Californian" ship located 16 km (10 miles) away didn't answer the call and didn't see the seven rockets sent by the Titanic. Worse, there was no full time wireless operator on duty on this ship.

Senator Smith sarcastically noted also that, in the interim, at the Stock exchange the Marconi Company jumped from $55 to $225 per share... At last it turned out that Marconi had an agreement with the New York Times for an exclusive story.

Senator Smith knew what he claimed. Here are for example two messages exchanged between Marconi and the Carpathia's Captain :

Message : New York to Carpathia via Siasconset, Apr 18, prefix SDH, words 'DH', sent to MPA by J.C. 3.15 a.m. This is Siasconset sending form.
Opr Carpathia.

Wire news despatches immediately to 'MSC' or to navy boats if this impossible ask Capt give reason why no news allowed to be transmitted. 

Guglielmo Marconi.

And below, the Captain's answer noted in message book, above and below gummed down Marconi. The message from Seagate to Carpathia was sent as a note to the operator of the latter, who kept no record of it.

The note is marked (diagonally in pencil across bottom right hand corner of form 'Dupe' -Station's sending form, rubber-stamped 'SEA GATE' at top, in purple ink.


Message : New York Office to Carpathia, via Sea Gate Station, Apr 18 1912, prefix 'note', words 20, sent to MPA by D.S. 8.15 p.m., service instructions: 'Foned (?) 'HO'. 

Marconi Officers - Carpathia & Titanic S.S. Carpa. 

Arranged for your exclusive story for dollars in four figures Mr Marconi agreeing Stop Say nothing until you see me.


When Marconi got on the stand, senator Smith insisted on these facts with vehemence. Obsessed in his belief that the unregulated wireless spectrum was partly to blame in the "Titanic" disaster, he painted Marconi as a man willing to subordinate the public good to his personal interests, mainly to get a complete wireless equipment andspectrum monopoly.

Senator Smith used the "Titanic" hearings to condemn the laisser-faire status of the wireless, and appeal for the international regulation of radio. His action will lead to the Radio Act of 1912.

Some years later, Bruce Ismay, the Managing Director of the White Star line had to endure severe public criticism for surviving the disaster and sinking.

By a strange fate, the two managers involved in this disaster died the same year. Bruce Ismay had to retire from public life and died in 1937. Guglielmo Marconi was not harassed but he died also in 1937, on July 20 in Bezzi-Scali, near Roma, Italy. He was 62 years old.

After the disaster, Harold Bride continued to serve as a Marconi operator. During the First World War, he served on the steamer Mona's Isle as a telegraphist. He broke off an engagement when he met a young school teacher named Lucy Downie. They married and had 3 children.

Harold was so distressed by the loss of his good friend, Jack Phillips, and couldn't cope any longer with the notority that went along with his having been the sole surviving wireless operator from the disaster. To escape the attention, he moved his family to Scotland and became a traveling salesman. He and Harold Cottam, the wireless operator from the Carpathia, whom he had met previously and was good friends with, stayed in touch for many years. He lived out the rest of his days in relative obscurity and died in April of 1956.

For more information

Titanic Facts

The Titanic Historical Society, Inc.

Ocean Planet about Titanic (NASA)

Titanic gallery (expedition 2003)

Transcript of the RMS Titanic messages

White Star Line RMS Titanic, G3YRC

Robert Ballard/Jason Foundation Education (Diving on Titanic wreck)

The prophetic novel of Morgan Robertson: "Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan (1898)"

La station radio du Titanic.

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