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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"I'm busy working Cape Race"

Updated: May 15, 2022

Photograph of the wireless room of the RMS TItanic before departure

Senator SMITH. Now, once more I would like to have you tell the exact language of that message.

Mr. BRIDE. It stated the Californian had passed three large icebergs, and gave their latitude and longitude.

Senator SMITH. That they had passed three large icebergs?

Mr. BRIDE. Yes, sir.

Senator SMITH. And gave their latitude and longitude?

Mr. BRIDE. Yes; that she had passed very close to them.

Senator SMITH. Do you recollect what the latitude and longitude were?

Mr. BRIDE. No, sir; indeed I do not.

Senator SMITH. Did you make a record of this communication?

Mr. BRIDE. No, sir, I made it on a slip of paper and handed it to the bridge.

From Harold Bride's testimony in front of the US Congressional hearing, 1912

In May 2020, a judge in Virginia granted RMS Titanic Inc, who owns the salvage rights to the Titanic wreck site, permission to attempt a retrieval of the Marconi wireless telegraph equipment aboard the ship. ("Expedition To Salvage Titanic's Wireless Telegraph Gets The Go-Ahead", NPR) Ideally, RMS Titanic Inc wishes to do this without cutting into the ship hull which is in a poor state of deterioration. The planned expedition is being opposed by a number of international organizations including NOAA of the United States. Opponents argue that the apparatus cannot be retrieved without damaging the ship, and the wreck site should be treated as a grave and not be disturbed any further. The legal battle is complicated, but the expedition is scheduled for 2021. Opponents continue to fight in the courts. ("US challenges planned expedition to retrieve Titanic's radio", ABC News) This is just the latest, since the Titanic's final resting spot was discovered, in the debate between how to best preserve the ship and artifacts for historical and scientific study but also honor and respect the memory of the people who perished aboard the famed ocean liner. The Marconi wireless apparatus is of particular significance given its crucial role in the events leading up to the collision and the aftermath.

Guglielmo Marconi and his wireless telegraph

Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless telegraphy using radio waves in 1894. After making improvements over his original design to make it effective over greater distances, Marconi received a British patent in 1896. (Patent number 12039: "Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor") In 1901, he successfully demonstrated the transmission of a wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean. (Marconi would win the Nobel Prize in 1909) Within a short time, high powered radio stations were established on both sides of the Atlantic in England, Ireland, Canada, and the United States. Ocean-going vessels were being equipped with the new technology, and it allowed ships at sea to maintain contact with the mainland. It would significantly alter the navigation of overseas travel.

The wireless room aboard the RMS Titanic was situated aft (rear) of the officer quarters on the Boat Deck, the uppermost deck where the lifeboats were stored. There were three separate rooms. One room contained the receiver, the operators' table, and control gear. A second room, called the silent room, held the transmission apparatus. Then there was a room utilized by the operators as sleeping quarters. On her maiden voyage, the Titanic wireless operators were Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. Neither man was an employee of the White Star Line who owned the Titanic. The two men actually worked for the Marconi Wireless Company.

Jack Phillips hailed from Surrey, England. He began his career at the Godalming post office where he started his wireless telegraph training. In 1906, he transferred to the Marconi Wireless Company. His first assignment upon completing his training was the White Star Line ship Teutonic. He then worked on ships for a number of different companies including Cunard. In May 1908, he was assigned to Ireland's main radio station in Clifden. He remained there until 1911 when he transferred to the Adriatic and in early 1912 to the Olympic, Titanic's sister ship. In March of 1912, he was sent to Belfast, Ireland to become the senior wireless operator for the Titanic. At the young age of 25, Phillips was one of the most experienced wireless operators aboard a ship.

Harold Bride was 22 when he joined the crew of the Titanic as the junior wireless operator. He worked for his family business in order to pay for his wireless training first with the post office and then with the Marconi Wireless Company. He graduated in 1911 and worked on a few different ships, including the Cunard Line ship Lusitania, before receiving the assignment aboard the Titanic in March 1912. He joined Jack Phillips in Belfast, Ireland. During the sea trials and the voyage from Belfast to Southampton, Phillips and Bride worked on calibrating and testing the equipment.

It is important to stress that both men worked for the Marconi Wireless Company and not the White Star Line. Neither was a trained seaman or a navigator. The Marconi Wireless Company made its profits by selling messaging services to passengers. Therefore the focus of the two operators had been on the transmitting and receiving of personal messages for the passengers who paid for the service. It was not on ship-to-ship messages or navigational messages. Wireless telegraphy was still a fairly new technology and viewed by many aboard the ship as a novelty. Over the first few days of the voyage, the operators were deluged by work, namely from first-class passengers who could easily afford to send messages. There were business messages to New York or London. Messages to book accommodations or transportation upon arrival in New York. There were social messages to friends and family most of which concerned trivial matters. On the night of Friday, April 12, the apparatus broke down. Harold Bride would later testify that Phillips suspected the electronic components of overheating. The two men worked through the night until Saturday morning. They jerry-rigged the equipment and were able to get it fully functional, but they faced a daunting backlog of messages that needed to be sent. By Sunday, April 14, both men were exhausted.

It was on that Sunday, April 14, that the Titanic began receiving warnings about ice.

  • 9 AM: Cunard Caronia reported bergs, growlers, and field ice.

  • 11:40 AM: Dutch ship Noordam reported much ice in the same vicinity

  • 1:42 PM: White Star Liner Baltic reported icebergs and large quantities of ice about 250 miles ahead of the Titanic’s current position

  • 1:45 PM the German liner Amerika reported passing two large icebergs. This message was intended for the US Hydrographic Office in Washington. This was beyond wireless range so AMERIKA requested Titanic to relay the message onward. A common practice given the short range of the new technology especially during the day.

  • 7:30 PM: the liner Californian reported three large bergs five miles south of their position. This put the ice 50 miles ahead of the Titanic

  • 9:40 PM: The Mesaba saw much heavy pack ice and a great number of large icebergs and field ice. Based on the position, the Titanic was already in the danger zone outlined by this message.

The fate of these messages has been the subject of much speculation and debate. The policy of the Marconi Company stipulated that navigational messages should have priority. The general rule was if the message was addressed to the captain then it would be delivered to him directly. Otherwise, the messages were delivered to the bridge. On that Sunday both Phillips and Bride appeared haphazard in remitting such messages. In their defense though, the bridge was no better. There was no standard procedure or protocol. Each captain had their own system yet no one who survived the sinking could say exactly what that was on the Titanic. The message from the Caronia seems to have been the only one officially entered onto the chart on the bridge. The message from the Baltic was apparently handed directly to Captain Smith as he made his way to lunch. At lunch, he met Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, and the captain handed the message off to him. Ismay returned the message later in the day, but there is no record of it after this point. Harold Bride testified that he personally delivered the message from the Californian to someone on the bridge who was not the captain. As to what happened to the other messages, there seems to be conflicting reports by the surviving officers. The officers remember receiving certain messages but not others. And there was no agreement among them. Bride, himself, only could recall receiving the one message he personally delivered. As a result, some officers felt the ice was more to the north. Others believed they only needed to worry about a few bergs and smaller pieces of ice. The lack of coordination between the radio room and the bridge and even among the officers themselves produced an apparent complacency. No one imagined the vast stretch of ice lying in their path.

Recreation of the radio room aboard the TITANIC

Later that evening, Phillips continued to tackle the backlog of messages. They had gotten in range of the nearest mainland radio station at Cape Race, Newfoundland, Canada. At 11:00 PM, the Californian again broke in with the news that they were surrounded by ice. Given the strength of their signal, it was suspected they were close by at the time. A fatigued Phillips responded sharply: "Shut up, I'm busy working Cape Race." Some people have argued that Phillips didn't actually say "shut up" but used the conventional signal DDD to request other operators to be silent while a frequency was being used. Regardless, the Californian went completely silent for the rest of the night, and Phillips returned to working on the pile of outgoing messages. The Titanic struck the iceberg at 11:40 PM.

Harold Bride recalled waking up to the sound of Phillips still transmitting to Cape Race. He never felt the impact and was not aware of what had happened. Seeing how tired Phillips looked, he decided to relieve him a couple of hours before the end of the shift. It was then that Captain Smith entered the wireless room to announce they had hit an iceberg and the operators should stand by to send out requests for assistance. Ten minutes later, the captain was back asking Phillips to start sending out a distress call. Phillips began sending out a CQD - a general call to all stations.

Later on, he would also use the newly established SOS signal for emergencies. While Phillips sent out distress calls, Bride relayed responses to Captain Smith to track the progress of ships in the area. The SS Carpathia was the closest one to respond. (The Californian was closer but was silent.) Both men stayed at their post throughout the night even after the captain released them from their duties. They were eventually forced out by water flooding the wireless room.

Harold Bride being carried off in New York

Both men managed to get aboard the last lifeboats leaving the ship. The Carpathia arrived early on the morning of Monday, April 15 to pick up the approximately 700 survivors. Phillips, overcome with exhaustion and hyperthermia, died before the Carpathia arrived. Bride suffered badly from frostbite on his feet. He spent the rest of the trip assisting the Carpathia operators in sending messages from survivors to those waiting in New York. After a stint as a telegrapher in World War I, Harold Bride married and retreated to Scotland to escape the fame of being a Titanic survivor.

The Titanic disaster was a mix of bad fortune, miscalculations, and a bit of hubris. The wireless telegraph, being a new technology, had been underappreciated and underutilized in the navigation of the ship to avoid collisions. Yet, the wireless proved effective in the rescue and response efforts thereby saving numerous lives. Without it, there were few options at contacting other ships in the event of an emergency at sea. Without it, the death toll could have been higher, and who knows for how long the survivors would have needed to float in tiny lifeboats upon the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean before another ship passed by.


Learn more about the Titanic:

A Night to Remember: Walter Lord

Titanic Inquiry Project: Full transcripts of the US and British inquiries

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