By Katherine Bygrave Howe
We remember the Titanic for its epic technological hubris. But the ship's sinking also marks the moment when a more modest technology, the wireless radio, began to transform the shipping industry.
As an example of the Progressive-era faith in technology, the Titanic is hard to equal. In addition to its sumptuous interior, the ship was able to churn across the ocean at a staggering 22.5 knots. It was also outfitted with the most sophisticated wireless-telegraph technology available, with a range of nearly 1,000 miles.
While the speed was central to the ship’s operation, the wireless radio was considered a novelty.
The ship's telegraph was operated by the Marconi Company, and its purpose was primarily for passengers to send and receive personal messages. Although the wireless could, and did, receive signals from other ships, such as weather reports and ice warnings, that purpose was entirely secondary.
In fact, there wasn't even a direct line of communication between the wireless operating rooms and the bridge. After the Titanic collided with an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, Captain Edward Smith had to physically walk down to the wireless room and ask the operators to send an emergency signal.
Harold Bride, a wireless operator on the ship, had joined Marconi less than a year earlier. But according to contemporary accounts he was pivotal to the rescue, since he knew both the continental and the American versions of Morse code, as well as the new emergency signal -- SOS.
When 705 survivors of the disaster were taken aboard the Carpathia, the transatlantic steamship that came to the Titanic's rescue, wireless transformed from a plaything into a necessity. Bride, once aboard the Carpathia, “never was out of the wireless room,” helping to transmit personal messages and lists of survivors back to shore. He recounted that he “saw nothing of Mrs. Astor or any of them. I just worked the wireless.”
After the tragedy, radios became a standard part of shipping -- to the point that within a decade the radio signal was the true identity of a vessel, not its flag. By 1932, even small coastal tugs were legally declared to be “unseaworthy” without a radio.
Radio, of course, wasn't limited to the seas, but that was where its business began. Popular radio, as we experience it today, really stems from marine and especially transoceanic radio, as General J.G. Harbord, president of Radio Corporation of America, wrote in 1929. Habord remarked that what we think of today as the purpose of radio -- music and talk -- was actually the “surprise.”
Accidents even before the Titanic -- such as the 1909 collision between the Florida and the Republic -- could have been prevented with radio, but it was the Titanic disaster that drove home how the new technology needed to be part of the modern maritime fleet. Another steamship, the Californian, had gotten stuck in the ice field only 10 miles from the Titanic -- just within sight -- but failed to lend assistance because its wireless wasn’t monitored overnight.
Even the slightest ability to communicate (Harbord bragged about transmission speeds of up to 200 words per minute!) could avert the largest disasters. And in some sense the coming of radio foretold an international language of shipping expressed in dots and dashes that ended the use of older sailor pidgins around the world.
World War I began to ravage European waters only a few years later, effectively ending the great ocean-going commerce of the 19th century. Progressive-era confidence in technology didn't diminish, however. Three years later, the Lusitania, another lavishly appointed steamship, sailed for Britain from the U.S. despite a public warning from the German embassy in Washington. The Lusitania was thought to be able to outrun German torpedoes.
But beyond that, the modern historian can't shake the sense that the Lusitania, like the Titanic before it, was considered too grand, too marvelous, too modern to be vulnerable to something so old-fashioned as horror and death.
On May 7, 1915, a single torpedo from a German U-boat sank the ship, killing 1,198 passengers. The shock of the Lusitania's weakness, coming so soon on the heels of the Titanic's sinking, helped to propel the U.S. from neutrality to engagement in the war that had convulsed Europe.
But unlike the Titanic, the Lusitania’s captain could control the radio himself.
(Katherine Bygrave Howe is a visiting lecturer in American studies at Cornell University and the author of "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" and "The House of Velvet and Glass," out now from Hyperion/Voice. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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To contact the writer of this post: Katherine Bygrave Howe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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