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Surfin’: Radioing the Titanic


By Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU
Contributing Editor

This week, Surfin’ hops on the wayback machine and revisits the 100 year old radio communications surrounding the Titanic disaster.

In case you missed it, the RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City. The sinking of Titanic caused the deaths of 1514 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history. She carried 2224 people.

Sunday, April 15 is the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Titanic was equipped with two 1.5 kW spark gap wireless telegraphs located in the radio room on the Bridge Deck. One set was used for transmitting messages and the other -- located in a soundproofed booth -- for receiving them. The signals were transmitted through two parallel wires strung between the ship’s masts, 50 feet (15 meters) above the funnels to avoid the corrosive smoke. The system was one of the most powerful in the world, with a range of up to 1000 miles.

The radios were owned and operated by the Marconi Company... and was intended primarily for passengers rather than ship operations. The function of the two wireless operators -- both Marconi employees -- was to operate a 24-hour service, sending and receiving wireless telegrams for passengers. They did, however, also pass on professional ship messages, such as weather reports and ice warnings.

Those “professional ship messages” are the subject of a BBC Discovery program Titanic -- In Her Own Words that is now online on the BBC World Service website. According to the program notes, “the BBC’s Sean Coughlan narrates one of the most authentic versions of events in existence. Using voice synthesis to recreate the strange, twitter-like, mechanical brevity of the original Morse code, this program brings to life the tragedy through the ears of the wireless operators in the area that night.”

Also of interest is a BBC News Magazine article about Titanic’s radio operations titled Titanic: The Final Messages from a Stricken Ship.

The RMS Titanic Radio Page has more information about the disaster from the radio perspective including the text of the radio messages. And Allan Brett, VK2EBA, takes another look at the subject in his article titled “Wireless and the Titanic.”

Finally, IEEE Spectrum features a “Techwise Conversations” podcast that discusses how the Titanic launched a century of emergency response technologies.

Thank you, Gary Glatt, KC7WFE, for the heads-up about the BBC Discovery program.

Until next time, keep on surfin’!

Editor’s note: Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU, seeks the unusual in radio. To contact Stan, send e-mail or add comments to the WA1LOU blog.



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