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Radio's Role in the Titanic Disaster

Heroes on the Wireless Radio


Jack George Phillips, Titanic Telegrapher

Jack George Phillips, Titanic Telegrapher

Public Domain
With the re-release of James Cameron's Titanic, in 3D, fans of his epic movie are clamoring for more background on one of the world's most fascinating disasters. The 1997 movie is a historical fiction account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

But, there are some other not-so-known people who played pivotal roles in the real life drama which played out in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912 - the people operating wireless radios sending Morse Code.

The Radio Room

The RMS Titanic was equipped with two 1.5 kilowatt spark-gap wireless telegraphs. These were located in the radio room which sat on the Bridge deck. Morse code, a system of combined "dots" and "dashes" to represent the letters of the alphabet, was transmitted from the telegraph through wires strung between the masts of the ship. Telegraphy seems archaic to us now but at the time, it was state-of-the-art long-distance communication.

A spark-gap transmitter generated radio frequency electromagnetic waves and was used during the first 30 years of radio. They were especially good for telegraphy because after a Morse Code key was released, the transmitter stopped generating a "carrier" which allowed the sender to "listen through" for a reply.

The radio "call sign" of the RMS Titanic was "MGY." A call sign (also sometimes known as a call name, call letters, or call signal) is unique to its assigned transmitting station.

When the operator struck the telegraph key to send his message, the signal reached out about 1,000 miles (although some suggest the equipment was limited to 400 miles in daylight but capable of possibly 2,000 miles at night). At the time, the radio telegraph on the Titanic was one of the most powerful telegraph systems in the world. The radio telegraph was operated by the Marconi Company, more for the convenience of passengers than for the needs of the ship employees.

A Tale of Two Wireless Operators

John George "Jack" Phillips and Harold Sydney Bride were the Titanic's radio operators. Phillips was 25 and Bride was 22. After the Titanic hit the iceberg that would doom it, Phillips went about sending wireless messages to nearby ships asking for help in rescue missions. Unfortunately, Jack Phillips died when the Titanic sunk. Phillips had just celebrated his 25th birthday the day after the Titanic set sail.

Harold Bride's major role that ill-fated night was to shuttle messages back to Captain Edward Smith from the radio room in effort to keep him abreast of what ships might be coming to help Titanic. Harold Bride did not perish that evening after the ship collapsed under its own weight and sunk.

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