Business arrangements

Roxy Eastland

Member
May 26, 2012
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Wiltshire, UK
I wonder if someone could explain exactly what is meant when we read that the Marconi operators weren't employed by WSL but by Marconi. I mean what the business arrangement was. Did Marconi rent the rooms and provide everything necessary? Or did WSL pay Marconi to have the extra service available? I have just read on another thread that the operators were paid by both WSL AND Marconi, which has confused me even more. Did the operators therefore have obligations to WSL as well as Marconi?

Thank you

Roxy
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Iowa, USA
Roxy, I hope our more knowledgeable members are going to chime in here, but the answer probably has something to do with the two very different tasks Titanic's Marconi operators had to do. They were, of course, given the responsibility for communicating information regarding the ship itself - position, distress calls, anything that had to do with the actual business of operating a ship at sea. That would have been a responsibility to White Star Line, obviously.

But there was another side to Marconi's presence aboard Titanic - that of providing ship-to-shore messaging for those passengers desiring it. It was a very lucrative service; cost was 12s 6d for the first ten words, and 7d per word thereafter (one 1912 shilling was supposedly worth about £3.29 today, meaning that those first ten words cost around £40 - over $62 in today's U.S. dollars). It was a fairly new and technically advanced service for its time, roughly equivalent to having access to a satphone today. Essentially, it was wireless telegraphy, with Morse code dots and dashes being transmitted by radio instead of over telegraph wires, then decoded and set down in words on a telegram blank for delivery to the recipient. Such a message was called a Marconigram.

The story goes - and I'm not vouching for it, because if I've learnt anything here, it's to check with the experts - that the Marconigram service was so popular with Titanic's First Class passengers that it interfered with WSL traffic - that Phillips and Bride, the Marconi operators aboard, could not keep up with both as smoothly as might have been desirable.

On the Titanic Radio Page ( THE TITANIC RADIO PAGE ) it is said that 250 passenger messages, both incoming and outgoing, were handled between the time Titanic left Southampton and the collision. That would have meant some serious revenue for Marconi! The Titanic Radio Page states that Philips and Bride were employed by Marconi, but that they received their pay from White Star Line, which may or may not be entirely correct, so if any of our experts disagree with that, I hope they'll speak up.
 

Dave Gittins

Member
Apr 11, 2001
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I can confirm that the operators were paid by both White Star and Marconi. They signed articles putting them under Captain Smith's command. The practice seems to have varied and on some ships the operators received only a nominal shilling a month from the ship's owners, just to make them members of the crew.

Normally the operators handled the traffic easily, but on the night of things went wrong. To quote myself---

All went well in the radio room until the night of 13 April. At about 11-00pm, the radio ceased to function and Phillips and Bride began to seek for the cause. At first Phillips suspected a faulty condenser, but this proved to be intact and he looked further. Eventually he found that a wire leading from the secondary coil of a transformer was in contact with a metal part of its case. The wire was carefully insulated and Titanic was once more back on the air. George Graham’s message was sent to Cape Race, and its receipt was confirmed at about 4-00am Titanic time. Harold Bride took over the equipment, as he normally did during the small hours. As Titanic’s last day dawned, a weary Jack Phillips enjoyed the last brief sleep of his short life. He would be ill-prepared for the ordeal to come.
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Dave: It strikes me that you might be able to answer something here that I've always wondered about. Did Marconi charge passengers for both outgoing and incoming messages, in the fashion of today's cell services, or for outgoing only, as with a landline today?

If it was both outgoing and incoming, it was a bloomin' gold mine. The figure of 250 messages (in only 36 hours) would have generated over fifteen thousand dollars in today's money at just the minimum ten-word rate. Considering that Marconigrams were available on many ships, and that most ships spent days at sea, I would rate Marconi's 1912 stock (if it was a public company at the time) as a "buy."
 

Dave Gittins

Member
Apr 11, 2001
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I can't say for sure, but I fancy only the senders paid for Marconigrams. I'm old enough to have delivered telegrams and only the senders paid for them.

Some people certainly fancied Marconi shares, especially after the sinking. There was a major parliamentary inquiry into the dealings of Sir Rufus Isaacs, the Attorney General. There's a good deal about it in Titanic: The Death and Life of a Legend, by Michael Davie (with my updates). For a time, the "Marconi Scandal" threatened Isaacs' career but he came out of it OK. mostly because he dealt in American Marconi shares and American Marconi had no dealings with the British government.
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Iowa, USA
Dave: Thanks for the info. Even if only outgoing messages were chargeable to passengers, Marconigrams represented a nice bit of extra revenue. Using an assumption that half those 250 messages were outgoing, that's still $7500 in today's money in only 36 hours.
 
Jan 28, 2003
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I think Signor Marconi, Nobel prize winner and millionaire, is a great example of those who don't originate the idea, but commercialise it. One tends to feel such people do not entirely deserve their wealth and reputation, but on the other hand, they do put scientific ideas to excellent practical use, albeit for profit. You can't have everything. I don't know, but I've always had the impression that the Marconi operators, however they were paid, sensed that commercial traffic came first - before disaster struck. In any case, whether that is true or not, it was a hopeless dilemma to put them into. But then, did anyone think the Marconi system would be having to try to save a huge ship on her maiden voyage?