Saved by wireless

Marconi's invention proved its potential when it helped avert a nautical tragedy 100 years ago, E&T reports.

The sinking of the RMS Republic off the coast of North America in January 1909 has been eclipsed in the history of maritime disasters by the collision of another palatial vessel of the White Star Line with an iceberg three years later.

However, the significance of the former incident to the emergence of wireless communications was evident on the night of 6 January this year, when radio amateurs around the world marked the centenary of the first occasion on which the 'CQD' distress call was sent by wireless at sea.

Guglielmo Marconi had only demonstrated that a wireless signal could travel three miles in May 1897, and 11 miles a week later. Yet by 1909 there were over 180 ships equipped with wireless, and he had increased the range to thousands of miles and set up a number of coastal wireless stations around the world.

Among them was the Republic, a Royal Mail Ship qualified to carry both British and US mail, which was one of the White Star Line's largest and most luxurious passenger liners. The voyage that was to be its last began on Friday 22 January 1909 when it departed New York, outbound to Mediterranean ports carrying 210 first class and 250 steerage passengers and a crew of 300.

Disaster struck at 0530 the next morning when, in dense fog, Republic was rammed amidships by a smaller liner, the Lloyd SS Florida. With grim irony, on board the Italian vessel were 830 survivors of the 28 December 1908 earthquake in Messina that had killed 100,000, travelling to safety in America.

Three of the Florida's crew who were asleep in her bows died in the immediate aftermath of the collision. On the Republic, two passengers perished (a third died later) and, with its engine room and electric generators flooded, the ship was left adrift in the Atlantic without power or light.

The heavily trafficked shipping lane where the Republic met its fate in 80m of water was one of the most treacherous parts of the North Atlantic.

Although the Marconi wireless room had been damaged, the operator, Jack Binns, managed to rewire part of it to use 24V emergency batteries. The resulting signal was weak, but Binns managed to send 'CQ' (attention all stations) and 'D' (distress) - the emergency alert that had been introduced by Marconi Marine in 1904. SOS had been proposed in 1906, but was not ratified in America until 1912.

Relaying Republic's cry for help

Binns's signal was received by Jack Irwin, the Marconi shore station operator at Siasconsett on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Irwin replied 'CQD' and awaited more information. Captain Sealby of the Republic instructed Binns to signal: "Republic rammed by unknown steamship, 26 miles southwest on Nantucket: Latitude 40.17 Longitude 70." Irwin added: "Badly in need of assistance." Siasconsett was able to relay this to a number of ships within 250 miles which responded that they were making steam towards the drifting Republic.

The Florida did not have a wireless transmitter or receiver and had moved away from the crash scene but later came back into view. It was decided that, as it was not as badly damaged as the Republic, all passengers and all but 40 crew would be transferred to the smaller ship using the available lifeboats. This took some hours and resulted in serious overloading.

In the meantime, the French liner La Lorraine had heard the CQD calls and was acting as another relay station when the weak signals from the Republic could not always be heard by other ships. Despite searching for more than 12 hours in the fog and travelling 200 miles, it never made contact with the Republic.

Fortunately, another White Star Liner, the RMS Baltic, was inbound for New York and equipped with wireless. The chief operator, Henry Tattersall, made contact with the Republic and received directions. After zig-zagging for 12 hours and hundreds of miles, travelling at low speeds to avoid another collision in the fog, it eventually found the Republic.

With water now appearing in the Florida's forward compartment, it was decided to transfer the 1,240 passengers and 300 crew on to the Baltic; the second transfer of the day for those who had been on board the Republic. By now the fog had lifted a little, the sea had produced an 2.5m swell and it was raining, yet the colossal exercise was completed with no loss of life.

While the Florida limped to New York, the Baltic continued to shadow the Republic and remained in wireless contact with the crew who had stayed on board. Tugs attached ropes to the stricken vessel and began towing it towards New York, but it was obvious that it was sinking. At 1700 on 24 January, Jack Binns stopped mid-sentence and signalled: "Current going, Wireless now closed." He and most of the crew then took to the boats.

Captain Sealby and Second Officer Williams remained behind and were swept into the sea, but they were rescued as the Republic sank, stern first, at 2000. The ship's cargo was mostly lost, including mail, baggage and at least one shipment of gold.

Wireless is big news

The practical demonstration of how the new technology of wireless could aid victims of disasters at sea captured the world's attention, and was one of the first 'breaking-news' events to be covered live by the mass media. The New York Times, well equipped with wireless, monitored the messages being sent between the many ships involved and was able to report accurately with each edition.

Henry Tattersall was at his post on the Baltic for 52 hours, during which time he and his assistant Balfour sent 800 paid messages and received 400, in addition to hundreds of emergency messages.

Jack Binns, who operated the Republic's wireless for 39 hours during the incident, had demonstrated the equipment to a number of US politicians on previous voyages between Boston and Cuba. Few had considered it as a life-saving device, but this opinion changed when they found themselves saved by Marconi's invention.

The Republic was the largest, most technologically advanced vessel to sink at that time; she was succeeded in that ignominious role only by the loss of another virtually 'unsinkable' White Star Liner, Titanic.

Jack Binns went on to serve on the White Star Adriatic for two years under Captain EJ Smith
(of Titanic fame). In 1912, he resigned from Marconi to become a journalist in New York, travelling from Liverpool on the Minnewaska as a passenger three days before the Titanic sailed on its maiden voyage.

On the outbreak of the First World War he moved to Canada, where he joined the Canadian Flying Corps as a wireless and aviation instructor. After the war he returned to journalism and was a founder member of the New York Newspaper Club and served as radio editor of the New York Tribune before leaving journalism in 1924 to form the Hazeltine Corporation. He died in December 1959 aged 75.

The centenary of the event in which he played such a significant part was marked on 6 January this year when radio enthusiasts used special event call signs issued by communications regulator Ofcom. Members of the Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society, who gathered in the town's Marconi Club on what proved to be one of the coldest nights of the year, represented the Marconi Company who made all the equipment involved with the rescue 100 years before.

The Lizard Marconi Station represented the Siasconsett coast station, and radio enthusiasts in Binns's home town of Scunthorpe were involved, using the call GB5CQD.

The story doesn't end there, though. Captain Martin Bayerle who runs the website and believes there may be gold worth up to $3bn waiting to be recovered, is hoping to mount an expedition to dive on the wreck later this year.

John H Bowen MIET is a chartered engineer and chairman of the Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society [new window].

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