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Wireless savior: how novel tech saved the passengers of the Titanic

While 1,500 lives were lost during the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, 700 more passengers would have died if not for wireless technology on-board.

Immortalized in over a dozen cinema flicks, the sinking of the Titanic is likely one of the best-known sea tragedies of the modern era. On April 10, 1912, the British liner set sail to New York from Southampton, only to meet its tragic end five days later, after a collision with an iceberg.

The ship left British soil carrying 2,224 passengers and crew, only 700 of whom will live to tell the tale. Over 1,500 died in the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic.

Tragic as the sinking was, the disaster could have been a lot worse if not for a novel technology onboard – the wireless telegraph. The use of wireless on the Titanic became both: a story of success and a cautionary tale.

The RMS Titanic. Image by Shutterstock.

Humongous range

Advances in science and engineering allow us to take connectivity for granted in the 21st century. However, the Titanic's contemporaries were only getting acquainted with the idea of instant communication in the middle of the ocean.

The first commercial wireless telegraph company was opened by Irish-Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi in 1897, only 15 years before the ship's maiden voyage.

Since it was cheaper to use a landline for telegraph than wireless at the time, lighthouses and vessels were among the first buyers of Marconi's device. The Titanic, a luxury liner, was equipped with a state-of-the-art wireless telegraph, operated directly by the staffers of the Macroni's company.

The device could transmit messages as far as 300 miles during the day, and as far as 1,000 miles at night due to the refraction of long-wave radiation in the ionosphere. Most importantly, the range of Macroni's device allowed the ship's passengers to relay personal messages back to shore, a barrage of chatter that later proved deadly.

Replica of the Titanic's 'Macroni's room.' Image by Wikimedia Commons.

Clogged channels

At around 11:40 PM, the Titanic's crew spotted an iceberg ahead. With evasive maneuvers unsuccessful, the ship collided with the obstacle several minutes later. With icy water relentlessly pouring in, soon it became clear the ship would not survive.

A few decades prior, such a collision would have meant almost certain death to everyone on board. Titanic, however, had the wireless telegraph with it, with a far reach in the dark of the night.

However, the closest ship, the SS Californian, was only 10 miles away, perfectly capable of coming to the rescue while the Titanic was still afloat. That, however, did not happen.

There were no frequencies reserved for emergencies in 1912. Passengers and crew alike used the same radio waves for communication, clogging comm's channels with casual chit-chat.

Tired of the noise the Titanic's powerful electronics created, some ships turned off their transmitters for the night. Others, like the Californian, were told to stay offline to not interfere with the Titanic's private messages sent ashore.

A vessel only 10 miles away did not hear the Titanic's distress call not because it couldn't, but because it was told to.

Long-term effects

The Titanic's distress signal, the old-school CQD, not then-still-new SOS, reached an operator aboard RMS Carpathia, 90 miles away. The arrival of Carpathia saved the lives of over 700 people floating in lifeboats on the freezing water.

When the Carpathia arrived, the Titanic was long gone. Finding scattered people in the ocean would have been almost impossible without knowing the exact location of the accident.

While the wireless telegraph helped save hundreds, it could have saved thousands. The tragedy of the Titanic spurred swift security upgrades in radio technology only months after the ship sank. The core safety concepts are used to this day.

The US and Britain passed new regulations requiring every first-class ship to have a permanent 24-hour radio watch. The law also told operators to use the same wavelength to transmit signals and maintain radio silence at regular intervals to listen for distress calls.

A separate 600-meter wavelength was taken for use by ships only, forbidding interference from commercial and amateur radio stations. Specific technical measures were implemented to lower interference from spark transmitters, which use electric sparks to generate brief pulses of radio waves.

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