The Technology That Allowed the Titanic Survivors to Survive

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Titanic's wireless distress calls, illustrated in a news item of April 17, 1912. The Day Books of Chicago, via Papershake

More than 1,500 people died in the sinking of the Titanic, but more than 700 survived. Those who did owed their escape to the newest communications technology of the time: wireless telegraphy. 

It's hard to overstate the advance that wireless represented to ships and, especially, to their occupants. Before wireless came along, ship-to-ship communications relied on the primitive technologies of the human shout and the explosive flare and the semaphore flag. Human eyes and human ears were required to detect the presence of nearby ships, and human eyes and human ears are notoriously limited in their abilities. Which meant that individual vessels were, for the length of their time at sea, effectively isolated from the rest of the world. For the rest of the world, the only way to know whether a vessel had met distress during its journey was its failure to return to shore. 

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It was Guglielmo Marconi -- he, later, of radio fame -- who ultimately devised the system that could successfully facilitate communication between moving ships, via coded electromagnetic radio waves passed between dedicated transmitters and receivers. By the time of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, the British Navy was experimenting with Marconi's system -- the first use of operational wireless telegraphy in the field. The technology was quickly put to use on commercial ships. Though the range of shipboard wireless devices was limited to 500 miles -- a tiny span in a stretching sea -- the machines allowed nearby ships to talk to each other. Suddenly, finally, they were no longer alone.

When Titanic struck an iceberg in the early morning of April 15, 1912 (this despite many wirelessly transmitted warnings of icebergs from fellow ships), it happened to be within contact range of twelve other vessels. The short transmissions sent among those ships' wireless operators, staccato bursts of information and emotion, tell the story of Titanic's fate that night: the confusion, the chaos, the panic, the fear. The abbreviated transcript below, courtesy of the Great Yarmouth Radio Club, serves as a reminder not only of the many lives that were lost in the tragedy that would unfold, but also of the many that were spared. As Britain's postmaster general would later declare, "Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi ... and his marvelous invention."

12.15 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Titanic to Any Ship:
"CQD Titanic 41.44 N 50.24 W"
(CQD was the contemporary distress signal, though soon, the new distress signal would be put to use for the very first time).

12.17 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Titanic to Any Ship:
"CQD CQD SOS Titanic Position 41.44 N 50.24 W. Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We struck an iceberg. Sinking".
(SOS was the first use of the new distress signal. So far, two ships had responded to the Titanic's distress call. They included the 'Frankfurt', nearly 170 miles away, and the 'Olympic', nearly 500 miles away.)

12.20 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Carpathia:
"Come at once. We have struck a berg. It's a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W"

12.21 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Carpathia to R.M.S. Titanic:
"I say old man, do you know there is a batch of messages coming through for you from MCC (MCC indicated Cape Cod) ?"

12.22 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Carpathia:
"CQD CQD"

12.25 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Carpathia to R.M.S. Titanic:
"Shall I tell my captain? Do you require assistance?"

12.26 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Carpathia:
"Yes, come quick!"

12.32 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Carpathia to R.M.S. Titanic:
"Putting about and heading for you".

12.40 a.m.
15 April 1912
R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Carpathia:
"SOS Titanic sinking by the head. We are about all down. Sinking. . ."

From 12.40 a.m. until the final message was sent from the Titanic sometime between 2.15 a.m. and 2.25 a.m. the Titanic, the 'Carpathia' and other ships kept a steady stream of messages, updating their progress and Titanic's condition. The Titanic continued to send out general CQD and SOS messages, in the chance that there might be a closer ship.

12.45 a.m.
15 April 1912
Titanic calls 'Olympic', (sister ship - 500 miles away en route to England) "SOS" (first use of SOS by Titanic - Bride jokingly suggests to Phillips that it may be his last chance to use the new distress call).

12.50 a.m.
15 April 1912
Titanic calls CQD and says, "I require immediate assistance. Position 41.46 N. 50.14 W." Received by 'Celtic'.

12.53 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Caronia' to MBC ('Baltic'), "MGY (Titanic) CQD in 41.46 N. 40.14 W. Wants immediate assistance".

1.00 a.m.
15 April 1912
MGY (Titanic) gives distress signal. DDC ('Cincinatti') replies. MGY's (Titanic) position 41.46 N. 50.14 W. Assistance from DDC ('Cincinatti') not necessary as MKC ('Olympic') shortly afterwards answers distress call.

1.00 a.m.
15 April 1912
Titanic replies to 'Olympic' and gives her position as 41.46 N. 50.14 W., and says, "We have struck an iceberg".

1.02 a.m.
15 April 1912
Titanic calls 'Asian' and said, "Want immediate assistance". 'Asian' answered at once and received Titanic's position as 41.46 N. 50.14 W., which was immediately taken to the bridge. Captain Smith instructs operator to have Titanic's position repeated.

1.02 a.m.

15 April 1912

'Virginian' calls Titanic but gets no response. Cape Race tells 'Virginian' to report to his Captain that the Titanic has struck iceberg and requires immediate assistance.

1.10 a.m
15 April 1912
Titanic to MKC ('Olympic'), "We are in collision with berg. Sinking Head down. 41.46 N. 50.14 W. Come soon as possible".

1.10 a.m.
15 April 1912
Titanic to MKC ('Olympic'), Captain says, "Get your boats ready. What is your position?"

1.15 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Baltic' to 'Caronia', "Please tell Titanic we are making towards her".

1.20 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Virginian' hears MCE (Cape Race) inform MGY (Titanic) "That we are going to her assistance. Our position 170 miles N. of Titanic".

1.25 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Caronia' tells Titanic, "Baltic coming to your assistance".

1.27 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Olympic' sends position to Titanic, "1.24 a.m. G.M.T. 40.52 N. 61.18 W", and asks "Are you steering southerly to meet us?" Titanic replies, "We are putting the women off in the boats".

1.30 a.m.
15 April 1912
Titanic tells 'Olympic', "We are putting passengers off in small boats." "Women and children in boats, can not last much longer".

1.35 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Olympic' asks Titanic what weather she had. Titanic replies, "Clear and calm".

1.35 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Baltic' hears Titanic say, "Engine room getting flooded." (Captain Smith had just visited the Titanic's radio room and advised this to Phillips and Bride).

1.35 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Mount Temple' hears DFT ('Frankfurt') ask, "Are there any boats around you already?" No reply.

1.37 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Baltic' tells Titanic, "We are rushing to you".

1.40 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Olympic' to Titanic, "Am lighting up all possible boilers as fast as (we) can".

1.40 a.m.
15 April 1912
Cape Race says to 'Virginia', "Please tell your Captain this: "The 'Olympic' is making all speed for Titanic, but her ('Olympic's') 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 she 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".

1.45 a.m.
15 April 1912
Last signals heard from Titanic by 'Carpathia', "Come as quickly as possible old man: our engine-room is filling up to the boilers".

1.45 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Mount Temple' hears 'Frankfurt' calling Titanic. No reply.

1.47 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Caronia' hears Titanic though signals unreadable still.

1.48 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Asian' heard Titanic call SOS. 'Asian' answers Titanic but receives no answer. DFT ('Frankfurt') calls Titanic and says, "What is the matter with u ?"

1.50 a.m.
15 April 1912
Titanic says to 'Frankfurt', "You are a fool, stdbi - stdbi - stdbi and keep out". 'Caronia' hears 'Frankfurt' working to Titanic. 'Frankfurt' according to position 172 miles from MGY (Titanic) at time first SOS sent out.

1.55 a.m.
15 April 1912
Cape Race says to 'Virginian', "We have not heard Titanic for about half an hour. Her power may be gone".

2.00 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Virginia' hears Titanic calling very faintly, her power being greatly reduced.

2.10 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Virginian' hears 2 V's signalled faintly in spark similar to Titanic's (Phillips adjusting his transmitter to compensate for the dying power supply from the engine room).

2.17 a.m.
15 April 1912
Virginian hears Titanic, call "CQ" (call to all ships) , but unable to read him. Titanic's signals end very abruptly as power suddenly switched off. (Phillips had actually intended to send "CQD DE MGY", however at this point there is a loss of all power to the radio room - water can be heard flooding the wheelhouse - Phillips says to Bride "Come on, let's clear out". Bride climbs to the roof of the officer's quarters and assist with launching collapsible Lifeboat B - Phillips disappears aft).

Sometime between 2.15 a.m. and 2.25 a.m.
15 April 1912
The final wireless message sent from the Titanic:
R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Carpathia:
"SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic."

...

8.45 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Olympic' sent MSG (message) to Owners, New York via Sable Island saying, "Have not communicated with Titanic since midnight".

8.55 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Carpathia' replies to 'Baltic', "Am proceeding to Halifax or New York full speed. You had better proceed to Liverpool. Have about 700 passengers on board".

9.00 a.m.
15 April 1912
'Carpathia' to 'Virginian', "We are leaving here with all on board about 700 passengers. Please return to your Northern course".

The 'Carpathia' is now heading for New York where she will arrive at 9.00 p.m. on the evening of April 18th with aboard the 705 survivors.

H/t Brian Resnick

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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