Radio and the Titanic

By Bill Kovarik

PROBLEMS WITH RADIO played a major role in the Titanic disaster of April 14, 1912, when the British passenger liner sank after hitting an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic.

These problems delayed and complicated the rescue, contributing to the deaths of 1,514 passengers and crew, and very nearly sealing the fates of those who managed to survive.

Although its owners boasted that the Titanic was the most modern ship of its day,  the Marconi radio system that had been installed in the weeks before the disaster was already obsolete.  It was not, as some have claimed, the best radio technology available.

Instead, the system devised by Guglielmo Marconi in 1897, and still in use in 1912, had long since been superseded by other radio pioneers — Fessenden and DeForest in the US,  and others in Europe. Still, Marconi  used his patents, research and monopoly power to hold back competition from other systems. And in the end, even Marconi himself admitted he was wrong to do so.

The radio disaster of April 12, 1912

The Titanic was on its first voyage from Britain to the United States, and had just crossed the point where messages from ships at sea could be exchanged from the easternmost North American wireless station at Cape Race, Newfoundland.

After sending personal messages from the Titanic, the operators were taking down personal messages, along with  news and stock reports for the passengers to read the next morning.

About fifteen minutes before the Titanic hit the iceberg,  Cyril F. Evans, a wireless operator on the Californian, which was about 20 miles away, attempted to contact the Titanic to tell them they were surrounded by dangerous icebergs.

“The captain said … Better advise (the Titanic) we are surrounded by ice and stopped,” Evans testified in a U.S. Senate inquiry.  “So I went to my cabin, and at 9:05 p.m. New York time I called him up.  I said, ‘Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice.’ He turned around and said ‘shut up, shut up, I am busy; I am working Cape Race’ (Newfoundland) and at that I jammed him.[1]”  (This scene was dramatized in James Cameron’s Titanic).

(Here is a link to a good re-creation of the last spark radio transmissions from the Titanic)

When questioned, Evans explained. “By jamming we mean when somebody is sending a message to somebody else and you start to send at the same time, you jam him.  He does not get his message.  I was stronger than Cape Race. Therefore my signals came in with a bang, and he could read me  and he could not read Cape Race.”

“At 11:35 I put the (ear) phones down and took off my clothes and turned in.” He was awakened by the Californian’s captain at 3:40 am when the crew observed distress rockets coming from the Titanic’s position.  By that time, it was too late to help.

Additional problems came out during the inquiries.  On the day after the disaster, afternoon newspapers carried the encouraging news that all passengers had been rescued. This report, when discovered to be false, infuriated investigators.   Actual confirmation of the disaster from White Star chairman Bruce Ismay, who survived the disaster and was aboard the Carpathia, took three days to reach the White Star offices. In addition, Marconi operators were also offered money for their stories, and were advised not to say anything to the press. So for three or four days, an atmosphere of bedlam and confusion surrounded the disaster until the survivors arrived in New York harbor.

Commissions of inquiry

Two major inquiries were conducted in weeks after the disaster, one by a US Senate Committee and the other by  the British Board of Trade.  Both focused on safety issues, the impact of the iceberg, the lack of lifeboats and other issues surrounding the physical disaster.

Yet the possibility that the disaster might have been prevented had radio been used correctly intrigued both commissions, and radio operators from the Titanic and other ships such as the Californian testified extensively at the hearings.  The fact that Evans had been told to get off the air, and had done so, seemed to compound the tragedy.

The incredulous British  Solicitor General asked Evans:  “Do I understand rightly then that a Marconi operator . . . can only clearly hear one thing at a time?”   Evans one word answer was: “Yes.”[2]

Evans was  also asked by a US Senator: Can you take more than one message at a time?  The answer: “No.”

The fact that a new and complex communications system had performed so poorly did raise some questions, but not as many as it might have.  The US Senate inquiry expressed disappointment.  “Had the wireless operator of the Californian remained a few minutes longer at his post . . . that ship might have had the proud distinction of rescuing the lives of the passengers and crew of the Titanic.”[5]

The British inquiry more or less absolved Marconi.  The British Postmaster General said at one point:   “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi, whose wonderful invention is proving not only of infinite social and commercial value, but the highest humanitarian value as well.”[3]

Yet it was still perfectly clear in the following weeks, especially in the US, that something had gone wrong with the radio itself.   The New York Times said May 2: “Sixteen hundred lives were lost that might have been saved if the wireless communication had been what it should have been.”[4]

Although the official cause of the disaster was the negligence of the Titanic’s captain in ignoring iceberg reports, the delayed rescue effort due to radio problems was also a crucial issue, the inquiries found.

Radio Act of 1912 is passed  

U.S. regulation of radio telegraphy had already been contentious in the years before the disaster for two major reasons.  In the first place, anti-trust law had not been applied to telecommunications in the same way that it had been to commodities. American Telephone and Telegraph Co.  had successfully lobbied the government and the public to be considered as a regulated “natural” monopoly, and was in the process of working out an agreement with the Justice Department that would be called the Kingsbury Commitment.[6]   Similarly, the Associated Press and Western Union monopolies had been frequently called into question but very little had been done.  On the other hand, commodities, especially petroleum, were seen as a major object of anti-trust law, and the year before the Titanic disaster, the US Supreme Court confirmed a Justice Department order breaking up the Standard Oil Trust into 34 separate companies.

Secondly, there had been very little in the way of radio regulation, and what there was had been extremely weak.  Federal regulation of radio began with the Wireless Ship Act of June 24, 1910, which forbade any steamer carrying or licensed to carry fifty or more persons to leave any American port unless equipped with efficient apparatus for radio communication, in charge of a skilled operator.[7]  But the 1910 act did not regulate frequency allocation or require radio licensing, which was an extremely unpopular idea among radio amateurs.  Nor did it require round the clock radio monitoring, which would have prevented the Californian from steaming off  that night of April 12, 1912, instead of stopping to help.  Nor did it interfere with the Marconi monopoly on radio equipment. All of these issues would be on the table in the wake of the Titanic disaster.

Six bills were presented to the House Merchant Marine and Senate Commerce committee to give the Sec of Commerce “control over wireless operation.”[8] Various features of the bills would come together in the Radio Act of 1912, passed exactly four months later, on Aug.  13, 1912.  The law provided for the setting of radio frequencies, for penalties against interference with emergency communications, for an international distress signal (SOS), and for interoperability of radio stations “without distinction of the radio systems adopted by each station, respectively.”[9] In other words, Marconi operators could no longer be instructed to ignore those using other kinds of radio sets.

Key technological issues

The Titanic disaster illustrates issues about broadcasting and the limitations of monopolies early in the cycles of technological adaptation.  In effect, the Titanic used wireless technology that was rapidly becoming obsolete.  Yet American Marconi and its British parent company were notorious for a technological conservatism, especially with respect to using a rapidly obsolescing approach to radio communications – the spark transmitter.  It had been apparent since at least 1906 that continuous wave, high frequency transmissions were possible and far more efficient.

It’s well known that Marconi himself was not a scientist.  When he found an effective system based on previous scientific work and his own trial-and-error results, he used the patent system to freeze the technology into place and buttress his commercial monopoly. While research on better systems was taking place in smaller companies, such as Reginald Fessenden’s National Electric Signaling Company, none of these had the commercial power of the Marconi company.  Fessenden was noted for developing a continuous wave technology that allowed a broadcast of voice and music on Christmas eve, 1906, long before the Titanic disaster. (Re-creation available as a downloadable M4a  at this link.)

Technically, the problem with the Titanic’s radio telegraph system was that Marconi’s “spark” system soaked up virtually all of the frequency bandwidth and created interference for all other ships within signaling distance. As many engineers were realizing at the time, it was far better to use continuous wave radio transmitters (where signals were carried inside the wave) instead of the Marconi intermittent spark transmissions (where wide-spectrum interruptions in the wave were the signal).

As Fessenden found, continuous wave radio signal could be “tuned” to allow a variety of frequencies. And it could use shorter wavelength radio transmissions, which carried over long distances by bouncing off the electrically charged outer layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere—the region where auroras form. This more modern approach uses the ionosphere as a resource, rather than as an obstacle to be overcome, as was the case with Marconi’s out-of-date, high-powered low frequency approach.

Marconi had very little competition, but if it were not for other circumstances, Fessenden probably would have been able to expand his research through AT&T, the telephone and telegraph monopoly.  However, because of a major reorganization inside the company, AT&T had put new technology investments on hold.

With large profits from international radio sales, Marconi could have investigated a variety of technical paths to improve radio. Instead, the company focused on a narrow technical path—low frequency, spark transmission, high power transmitters— that was initially successful but not flexible enough in the long run. In effect, said historian Hugh Aitken, the personal stubbornness that made Marconi a commercial success prevented him from envisioning a wider variety of engineering solutions to obvious problems.

The regulatory system which allowed monopolies in communications equipment also contributed to the failure.  Had Marconi been forced to compete with Fessenden and other radio inventors who were also active at the time, a much better system might have been in place at the time of the Titanic disaster.

“Now I have realized my mistake,” Marconi told an audience of radio engineers fifteen years later, in a 1927 speech in New York city. “Everyone followed me in building stations hundreds of times more powerful than would nave been necessary had short waves been used.”[10]

In a bitterly poignant moment after the speech, Marconi laid a wreath at a small Battery Park memorial for Jack Phillips, the wireless operator who had gone down with the Titanic, still sending out distress calls to the last.[11]


[1] U.S. Senate, “Titanic Disaster: Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce,” US GPO 1912.  p.  735.

[2] British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, Day 8, line 9000.

[3] Maria Cristina Marconi, Elettra Marconi, Marconi My Beloved,  Dante University of America Press, 1999).  P. 356.

[4] “New wireless rules America’s demand,”  The New York Times, May 2, 1912, p. 1.

[5] “Titanic verdict is negligence,” The New York Times, May 29, 1912,  p. 1.

[6] Griese, Noel L. “AT&T: 1908 Origins of the Nation’s Oldest Continuous Institutional Advertising Campaign,” Journal of Advertising, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), 18–23.  Also see: Milestones in AT&T History, on the web: http://www.corp.att.com/history/milestones.html

[7] National Broadcasting Co. v. United States. ( 319 U.S. 190, 1943).

[8] “To Call Bruce Ismay in Congress Inquiry,” New York Times, April 18 1912, p. 3.   Also Hugh Richard Slotten,  Radio and Television Regulation: Broadcast Technology in the United States 1920–1960. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000

[9] An Act To Regulate Radio Communication, approved August 13, 1912.  Full Text at: http://earlyradiohistory.us/1912act.htm   Also see: White, Thomas A. United States Early Radio History, accessed in 2010 on the web at:  http://earlyradiohistory.us

[10] Aitken, Hugh. Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio. Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 272.

[11] The New York Times, October 18, 1927.

Also see:

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