Just Missed the Titanic - Part III

We’ve been taking a break this summer from the stories of those who were on board the Titanic to see who literally missed the boat.

At the age of 20, Guglielmo Marconi became intrigued with the discovery of “invisible waves” from electromagnetic interactions. The son of a wealthy Italian landowner, Marconi began building his own equipment and was soon transmitting signals miles away. In 1896, he and his mother traveled to London where he found others willing to invest in his work. Before long, he applied for his first patents and set up a wireless station on the Isle of Wight. By 1899, signals from Marconi’s station had crossed the English Channel.



Guglielmo Marconi

He wanted to improve his wireless system in order to broadcast across the Atlantic. Experts argued that radio waves would only travel in straight lines and the curvature of the earth would not allow transmitting at so great a distance. But Marconi persevered. He set up a wireless station in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with the hope of receiving a signal sent from England. When that failed, he tried a shorter distance—Cornwall to Newfoundland. In 1901, after several attempts, a faint signal was picked up—3 dots, the letter “s” in Morse Code.

In 1909, Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with physicist Karl Braun, the inventor of the cathode-ray tube. In his acceptance speech, Marconi claimed he was “more a tinkerer than a scientist” and wasn’t sure how his invention worked.

Marconi continued to make improvements to his wireless radio system. Shipping companies soon recognized its usefulness for communication and navigation. “Marconi Men,” trained in the operation of the equipment, became a vital part of every large ocean-going vessel. On Titanic, Harold Bride and Jack Phillips, with previous experience at Marconi stations and on ships, prepared for her maiden voyage.



Replica of Titanic's Marconi Room

White Star Line officials invited Marconi to sail on Titanic to New York. He declined, and took the Lusitania three days before Titanic left Southampton. Years later, his daughter claimed he’d had paperwork to do and preferred the stenographer aboard that ship.

During the sinking of the Titanic, Bride and Phillips worked valiantly to send emergency messages to ships in the area. Several responded, but it was the RMS Carpathia who eventually arrived at the scene and saved over 700 lives. Without the Marconi system in place, many more lives, if not all, would certainly have been lost. Although there were reports of Carpathia wireless operators being instructed to withhold information from the press until the ship arrived in New York, Marconi was soon hailed as one of the heroes of the disaster because of his invention.

Marconi message sent from Olympic

Marconi message sent from Olympic

Marconi message sent from RMS Olympic to Titanic

In April 1915, Marconi was aboard the Lusitania once again. A month later, she was sunk by a German U-boat. He continued to make improvements to his inventions, and died in 1937 in Rome. Radio stations in America, England, and Italy observed several minutes of silence in his honor.

Photo credits: History.com, Library of Congress, Titanicpigeonforge.com

When the World Heard the News

On this day in 1912, those aboard the Titanic had only one more night to sleep on the ship, one more morning to greet the day from their cabins. That day, no one could know what was to come as the beautiful ship sped across the Atlantic. Yet, April 14 would be the last full day on Earth for almost 1500 men, women, and children onboard.On Sunday, April 14, at 11:40 pm, as most of the passengers had retired for the night, the ship struck an iceberg. By 2:20 am on April 15th, the RMS Titanic went to her grave, taking 1500 souls with her. During those 2 ½ hours, the ship's wireless operators sent repeated messages to any nearby ships asking for help. They used the letters CQD, indicating an emergency, then the new code, SOS. Their calls were picked up by other ships, some too far away to reach Titanic in time. The new Marconi wireless system passed on the signals to receiving stations as far away as New York, but some of the messages were garbled with other ships' messages using the same system. It was like a party line, loaded with codes of dots and dashes rather than voices.


A replica of Titanic's wireless room

In New York, the messages were received in the Associated Press newsroom, where editors and reporters immediately scrambled to obtain more information about what happened to the Titanic. Soon, the New York Times received this wire dispatch:

''CAPE RACE, Newfoundland, Sunday Night, April 14 (AP)  At 10:25 o'clock tonight the White Star Line steamship Titanic called 'CQD' to the Marconi station here, and reported having struck an iceberg. The steamer said that immediate assistance was required.''

Although the fate of the ship and its passengers and crew wouldn’t be confirmed for many hours, the Times and other papers hurried to print early editions. With the lack of all the facts and the varied messages coming in over the wireless receiving stations, many newspaper headlines played it safe, while others guessed at what may have occurred.






Not until the Carpathia rescued the survivors and began transmitting their names via the ship’s wireless did anyone know for certain who had survived. Yet it would still be several days before the fate of every passenger and crew member was known on both sides of the Atlantic.

I hope you'll join me in two weeks when we’ll revisit the day the Carpathia arrived in New York.

Photo credits: Americanheadlines.com, Titanicpigeonforge.com, Titanicuniverse.com, Todayinhistory.com