The Radio Legacy of the R.M.S. Titanic

The senior wireless operator was John “Jack” Phillips, age 25, and the junior operator was 21 year old Harold Bride. The radio transmitter was of the “spark” type, and the radio operator used a telegraph key to transmit a “Continental” version of code, which is slightly different from the American “Morse” code. The ship’s radio actually required two separate rooms, one for the receiver, and one for the transmitter, to keep the loud buzzing of the transmitter from interfering with the receiver. —Dwight A. JohnsonThe Radio Legacy of the R.M.S. Titanic (Avisa)

“Shut up! We are busy….” Phillips telegraphed, after yet another warning about ice in the vicinity.

The Titanic struck an iceberg less than an hour later.

Phillips had been up at 5:30am the previous day, fixing a problem with the radio equipment. During the outage, a pile of outbound messages from passengers had built up… he and an assistant were apparently still catching up on the backlog by the following night. Once the enormity of the accident was clear, Philips stayed at his post, sending distress signals until the last possible minute.

The official inquiry found that the chain of unlikely events that led to the loss of so many lives was not the fault of any one person.

Among the many factors contributing to the loss of life:

  • reducing the number of lifeboats in order to gain more deck space
  • releasing some nearly-empty lifeboats early
  • the desire to make the ship’s maiden voyage a race against time
  • the captain’s decision to steer away from the iceberg, permitting it to scrape all along the vessel’s flank, rather than just ram it head-on
  • the height of the watertight compartment walls

In the past few years, I have seen Titanic museum displays hosted by pro-salvage and anti-salvage groups. The Titanic wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard, who advocates leaving the wreck as it is. But a company called RMS Titanic Inc was awarded salvage wrights; they have pulled up artifacts such as china and fixtures, and they sell chunks of Titanic coal. (See National Geographic‘s “Retrieval of Titanic artifacts stirs controversy.”