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Titanic's legacy to communications

How advanced wireless technology saved hundreds of lives on Titanic, and informs communications to this day.

The centenary of Titanic's sinking makes for uncomfortable reflection, and it is difficult to consider the disaster in any context other than the tragedy of the 1,517 crew and passengers who perished. Notwithstanding any misgivings about this year's calendar of commemorative theme cruises and period partying (see page 31), it should be remembered also that some important positive developments around communications technology since 1912 stem from the circumstances of the 'unsinkable' liner's fate.

Indeed, it can even be argued that advances in wireless networking as recently as the last decade have enabled us to recognise just how far-reaching Titanic's legacy in this field has been.

Titanic's loss was the subject of regulatory reviews covering a range of maritime practices, most notably the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (1914). One item of this wide- ranging legislation mandated that wireless reception on ships should be operated 24'hours a day for continuous monitoring of distress calls: this was the first time that the key importance that wireless could have in saving lives was recognised in laws that crossed international boundaries.

After 1912 the wireless development also underwent what would now be termed a 'step change' in how communications technology was perceived and managed; its effects are arguably still felt in the way communications systems are managed a century later.

Published this month, 'Titanic Calling' is a book that examines the wireless communications used during the disaster, drawing for the first time on the Marconi Archives Titanic collection held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University to retell the story of the tragedy from a wireless communications perspective.

According to the book's co-editor and Bodleian archivist Michael Hughes: "The Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea codified the requirements for the provision of wireless and operators on certain ships. The sinking brought home to all concerned the potential conflict between the commercial and operational uses of wireless, and the need to provide properly for emergency systems was recognised."

The existing evidence certainly supports the notion that lessons learned from the role wireless played in both reducing loss of life, and, arguably, in tacitly reinforcing contemporary views of Titanic's invincibility, were an important influence on the development of regulated and robust communications systems across the decades since 1912. The anniversary of the Titanic disaster also prompts new historical considerations of how technological advance is conditioned by regulatory governance.

Wireless Telegraphy

The sequences of messages exchanged between the Titanic's wireless operators and those on the several ships located within reception areas that fateful night have been much documented. Wireless telegraphy, still only a few years in deployment, was a paradigmatic breakthrough, the 'disruptive technology' of its day. Yet even at the time Marconi equipment was being installed on Titanic and its sister ship Olympic, some key principles of the core science were still not fully understood by electrical engineers. While wireless has been designated by posterity as the tool that helped save over 700 lives, it can also be regarded as symbolic of a certain zeal with which Edwardian innovation rushed to market.

The potential of wireless emerged concurrently with rapid advances on several other technologies that, cumulatively, instilled a sense of omnipotence and over-confidence. Although Titanic had, of course, been designed and constructed following considerable research and development, the ability to model the kinds of extreme conditions it would encounter in the North Atlantic were limited. It would be interesting to know if modern computer modelling could have detected the hull vulnerabilities exposed by abrasion with the iceberg.

The crew and passengers were drilled in how to deal with emergencies; but how well prepared were the wireless communicators for reacting to them? The shock of the Titanic disaster demonstrated in one bitter lesson that wireless telegraphy was, in fact, a component part of a host vessel's safety-critical infrastructure. Its importance in this context might seem short-sighted by 21st century standards, where such technology is not only tested but performance-evaluated before being implemented; but Titanic's wireless telegraphy was not sold to White Star Line primarily as a potential life-saver, nor even primarily for use by the ship itself.

Although used by commanders for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore intelligence (they were allowed a fixed number of 'free texts'), including ice flow and weather updates, the primary reason for the presence of radio was to generate revenue for the Marconi Company through the sending and receipt of paid-for passenger messages - branded MarconiGrams.

Conventional wired telegraphy networks, based on Morse code and established from the 1850s to the 1890s, were recounted in Tom Standage's 1998 study as 'The Victorian Internet'. The advent of wireless telegraphy around the turn of the century bears some basic comparison with the rise of the wireless datacommunications now.

The shift from human-to-human operations of the fixed telegraph stations, to the concept of send/receive stations on moving objects such as ocean-going ships, bears crude parallel with the migration to mobile Internet and even, not to over-stretch the analogy, contemporary notions of machine-to-machine communications. But wireless telegraphy, either stationary or mobile, was un-automated and still required human intervention.

Message blizzard

Pioneering commercial wireless telegraphers using apparatus not fully attuned to the intricacies of how wavelengths worked soon found that they were able to do something new in electronic communications: 'hack' into each other's message streams by transmitting over and across each other's signals. Commercial operators employed by rival wireless telegraph service providers were known to be averse to each other in message exchanges, and there is some evidence of this discord in the message blizzard that ensued between operators in range on land and afloat once the first request for assistance came from MGY - Titanic's call sign - at around 12:15am (ship's time).

"Marconi initially instructed his operators not to retransmit 'third-hand' messages from ships not equipped with Marconi equipment - later this was eased 'except in distress', which unfortunately was taken by Marconi operators [to mean] 'it is sinking'," says John Bowen, chairman of the Chelmsford Amateur Radio Society, "hence the bad feeling created with the SS Birma, which spent 30 hours trying to assist Titanic, but was fobbed off.

"The Birma logs were accurate, but were ignored at both the American and English Titanic enquiries - indeed, until 1985 when the real position of Titanic was found and this proved the Ship's Reference to its position in the Atlantic was given incorrectly by Titanic."

The necessity to establish 'protocols' so that contesting wireless telegraph messages could be conveyed accurately and fairly was highlighted by post-disaster enquiries. Subsequent analysis of the message transcripts revealed the importance of an adherence to an agreed etiquette by all operators if messages were to be relayed and understood correctly in a crisis.

Although Marconi and his engineers had shown that telegraph messages could be sent wirelessly across the Atlantic some years previously, passenger liners of Titanic's class would be operating in the world's most expansive oceans. If their transmitters and receivers (separate units at the time) were to function effectively, they would themselves need to be very powerful; and Titanic's was reportedly the most powerful wireless equipment of any vessel in the mercantile marine. The apparatus had to be robust and have redundancy built into it.

Transmissions were made through dual parallel wires connected between Titanic's masts, raised some 15m above the'funnels. The Marconi Company's systems'for White Star claimed a guaranteed working range of 250 miles "under any atmospheric conditions", but, it was asserted, effective communications could be'kept up to some 400'miles, while after nightfall a transmission range of up to 2,000'miles was claimed.

Once the decision was made to summon assistance from other vessels, Titanic's operators used both the CQD ('distress - calling all ships') and SOS ('distress') radio codes in their attempts to ensure that the seriousness of the situation was broadcast. Their colleagues receiving these messages on vessels such as Mount Temple, Frankfurt and Virginian, must have been fazed by what they were hearing.

CQD was a code proprietary to Marconi operations which had become something of a de facto standard. The SOS code was a newer attempt at a more 'open' standard, popularly assumed as an acronym - 'save our souls', or 'save our ship' - particularly as a result of misunderstandings that arose following the Titanic loss, and also because the word 'souls' became synonymous with 'lives' in the popular media vernacular of the period. In fact, the letters were selected because they were easy to recall in stressful situations.

Although it seems to be unlikely that the operators communicating with each other during Titanic's last hours would have been confused by the dual code standard, in Titanic's aftermath international legislators must have been aware of the potential for confusion as more vessels joined the airborne babel, introducing less-experienced operators.

The annotated call transcripts reproduced in 'Titanic Calling' serve as a reminder that the concept of abbreviating and attenuating text messages long predated the advent of TXTing in the late 1990s. As its co-editors point out: "The directness and brevity of the messages, the style of which will be surprisingly familiar to the Twitter generation, gives the narrative impact and immediacy, bringing home the full force of the tragedy." *

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