Did the Wireless Operators Know


Logan Geen

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Dec 2, 2001
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This is a question I have been wondering about for some time, and one for which I have never come up with an answer: Did Titanic's radio operators know there was a mystery ship 10 miles away, and did they try to contact it? Were they aware that the Californian should have been nearby or did that never occur to them? I read somewhere they did, and I cannot help but wonder whether or not they had any idea.
Also, I am wondering if no one thought to wake up Evans on the Californian simply because they didn't think the ship they were watching had a wireless. After all, in 1912 relatively few ships had radios and most did not have 24 hour shifts. Therefore waking up the radio operator may not have been the first impulse for Stone or Lord. If they believe the ship was a tramp steamer (it's possible, see Dave's mystery ship site) that they may have assumed the ship had no wireless. It would still have been a good idea to check, of course, but it simply was not the first reaction.
 
Jul 9, 2000
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Hi Logan, I don't know if Philips or Bride had any idea about the "mystery ship" at any distance. They were pretty busy during this whole episode, so I don't think it even occured to them to ask.

On whether or not it occurred to anybody to wake up Evans on the Californian, somehow I doubt it. I also have serious reservations on whether there would have been any value in doing so, and I'm not alone in that opinion. (See Dave Gittins site at Titanic Navigation and South Australian Cruising. We know now from the location of the Titanic's wreckage that Boxhall's fix was off by a very wide margin. About 14 miles or so.

So suppose somebody gives Evans a shake. The man gets up, gets things going and gets the distress call right away. Now comes the problem as the position given is at least 19 to 20 miles away from where the Californian was known to be, but they can see rockets/socket signals much closer to the Southeast.

Where do you go? The reported position given by an officer on a crack liner, or the rockets where you know something is going on, but you're not entirely sure what?

Nasty little connundrum.

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 

Logan Geen

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Dec 2, 2001
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That's true...Evans would have had to ask the Titanic flat out if they were sending up rockets and Phillips/Bride probably were not aware. Lord probably would have been able to put two and two together, but you never know. I am wondering whether Smith may have mentioned the mystery ship when he came in. He was certainly aware, and as the morse lamp/rockets were not working he may have wanted to try the wireless. Again, that may not have been his first impulse either.
 
Jul 9, 2000
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On this we can only guess, but I'm not certain Captain Smith would have told them anything. One would have to wonder what the point would be. The concern Phillips and Bride had was to get help from anyone who was listening. There wouldn't have been anything they could do about somebody who wasn't.

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Titanic was sending a CQD to all wireless stations within range. By international convention, all ships in receipt of that call (no matter that CQD had been officially replaced by SOS...every marine wireless operator knew what CQD meant) were required to respond. If the responding ship did not include a position in their response, Phillips would have known by the strength of the received signal which stations to query first. As far as Phillips was concerned, there was no response from MWL (Californian) to his CQDs, so for all practical purposes, MWL did not exist.

Parks
 

Dave Hudson

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Apr 25, 2001
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Logan,

RE: whether or not anyone thought of waking Evans,

Probably not. Titanic was not equipped with red rockets (which would have indicated distress). White rockets were company signals, and while I'm not fully sure of what that means, I believe that company signals were used by ships without wireless. They simply meant "We are here and cannot communicate in any other way. Don't run into us." In other words, since the rockets were white, the crew of the Californian would have thought that wireless would have been useless.

David
 
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Uh...David...you might want to do a little more research on this. Red has no real meaning as to distress at all in and of itself. In fact, distress signals could be rockets or shells throwing stars of any colour used one at a time or at short intervals.

According to the report issued by the British Inquiry, the Titanic was equipped as follows; "Distress signals. - These were supplied of number and pattern approved by Board of Trade - i.e., 36 socket signals in lieu of guns, 12 ordinary rockets, 2 Manwell Holmes deck flares, 12 blue lights, and 6 lifebuoy lights."

For more complete information on rockets and what they mean, go to http://home.earthlink.net/~dnitzer/Frameset.html

This is a part of Dave Billnitzer's site dealing with Rockets and the Law. He's made quite a study of this.

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 
Mar 20, 2000
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All,

I thought it had been established that white rockets did NOT exclusively mean company signals. George? Where are you?

Regarding the contention that wireless would have been ineffective in directing Californian to the aid of Titanic, this seems such an ignorant argument to me. Once the set was up and Evans received Titanic's SOS, Californian would have known where to go even if Titanic's position was not precisely what the rockets indicated.

And as far Phillips and Bride being unaware of rockets being fired, I think they were probably well aware. By all accounts the noise of their detonation was terrific. Even if they didn't hear it themelves, somebody would have told them. Afterall, they were aware the boats were going off. They either stuck their heads out of the shack to see this for themselves or else they were told of it. If they did look out to see the boats leaving, they would have also heard/seen the rockets.

Thus the wireless WOULD have been important and in fact crucial. This whole argument that it's understandable that Californian's radio operator wasn't awakened, makes no sense to me. So what radio was new; it wasn't THAT new. Even so, as Californian HAD a radio, they should have used it. Wireless and Marconi had been big enough in the news since the Republic sinking to have made an impression on the rankest landlubber.

Therefore, to my thinking, if the men on Californian were such numb-skulls that they didn't realize radio's significance, all the more reason they should be criticized. They ought not to have been at sea at all if they weren't aware of the latest technology. No one can ever convince me (and I imagine a lot of others) that Californian's wireless being incapacitated is an excusable or reasonable oversight. To me, it is the very core of the tragedy of Californian's pathetic inaction.

Randy
 
Jul 9, 2000
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Hi Randy, given the sketicism with which wireless was held at the time, I'm not sure I can agree with that. Whether the skepticism was justified in no way eliminates the fact that it was there. What looks obvious to us as seen through 90 years of hindsight and study may not have been anywhere near as clear to the players then.

Should it have been? Perhaps. It seems reasonable on the face.

Was it? Well, this is problematic at best. In any event, the wireless solving the problems would have to assume that the people on the Californian would think to ask the questions in the first place. I can't take it for granted that they would have.

As to whether the Californian saw boats leaving...well...not in the blackest dead of night at a range of between 8 to 20 (Depending on who's story you believe) miles they didn't. I can gaurantee you that much.

Yes, it's that dark at sea at night. Trust me on this point. I know!

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Michael,

Its clear from my post I was referring to Titanic's operators seeing the boats leaving. Even I'm not stupid enough to think Californian was THAT close!
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My point was that as Bride and Phillips knew that much, they probably also knew rockets were being fired. Therefore if Californian HAD been in radio contact with Titanic, her operators could have verified it was they who were firing the rockets.

I still say wireless, while new at that time, was already a well-known invention. The fact that even a small ship like Californian had wireless is good enough proof that it was getting to be fairly pervasive. And I repeat that the Jack Binns story was legendary by 1912. I bet its the reason Californian even had radio. Ironic.

Those men on Californian were either inept or else they purposefully avoided using the radio. It's one or the other.

Randy
 
Mar 3, 1998
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And as far Phillips and Bride being unaware of rockets being fired, I think they were probably well aware.

Randy,

What? Did I miss something? When did this come into play? Whether or not Phillips or Bride knew about the rockets is immaterial...what was important is that they knew that they had to send out a distress call and summon as much aid as quickly as possible. Which, in a way, is the wireless equivalent to a socket signal.

Parks
 
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Sorry about the misunderstanding on the boats OM. My bad.

Regarding the wireless, whether it was well known or not, and the Republic notwithstanding, it was still everywhere mistrusted or regarded with skepticism as to it's usefulness. The Republic's example didn't really change that attitude. Nor was wireless so widespread that anyone could assume that ships had a set. Most of them didn't. Hell, the Californian's set had only been recently installed.

Yes, Bride and Phillips could have verified that they were firing the socket signals, but given the position report that was being used, how would anyone on the Californian's bridge know that the signals they saw actually came from the Titanic or another ship? That's the connundrum they would have had to resolve. Guess right and you're a hero. Guess wrong...oh well.

As to the Californian's officers, I don't think anyone will ever mistake them for intellectual giants no matter where they stand on this matter. I don't think that they perposefully avoided using the wireless though. I doubt if they even occured to them to give it any thought at all. Rightly or wrongly, that was the prevelant attitude of the time.

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 
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You know, there was (and probably still is) an axiom in the carrier Navy...no fixed-wing aviator would have anything to do with rotary-wing (helicopters) unless that aviator ends up in the water. Then, the downed aviator prays for a helo overhead, lowering a collar for the rescue. It strikes me that much the same held true for ships' Masters and the new technology of wireless in the early 1900s...a ship's Captain, raised in the days of sail, probably had no need for the wireless until his ship was sinking beneath his feet. After all, before Titanic sank, the wireless sets proliferated aboard liners more for the convenience of paying passengers than anything else (which is why the equipment was operated and maintained by wireless company personnel, not the ship's crew). Marine telegraphy is those days was very much a for-profit business.

Californian was carrying no passengers on the night of 14 April. Cyril Evans called an end to his own day, having satisifed the terms of agreement between the Marconi Company and the Leyland Line, as well as the regulations imposed on wireless stations by the Postmaster-General. It appears that no one on the watch thought to rouse the Marconi Co. employee when they saw rockets in the distance. I assume that there was no direction for them to do so in their standing night orders.

But where the Californian watchstanders were overly conservative, Captain Smith appears to be progressive in his belief in the new technology...he turned to the Marconi operators early to put out a distress call. Smith differs, though, in that his ship was sinking beneath his feet. Was he really progressive, or made desperate by the situation?

However, if the testimony is to be believed, the first thing that Lord ordered after viewing the steamer with two masthead lights at daybreak with Stewart was to rouse Evans. So, maybe his own ship didn't have to be sinking for the Master to think about the wireless. Was Lord then the progressive one? Even Stewart, who appears to have been concerned about the sequence of events that happened before he assumed the watch, didn't send a runner to wake Evans on his own initiative.

I find it curious that Groves didn't think to use the wireless. Groves, of course, didn't see the rockets, but he had noticed the lights of the steamer and reported them to Lord as per the standing night orders. Lord responded by ordering Groves to call the distant steamer with the Morse lamp, but Groves' attempts proved unsuccessful. Groves continued to watch the steamer until relieved by Stone. Now, given that Groves was somewhat of a wireless enthusiast and even stopped by the Marconi Room to visit his friend Evans on his way to turn in, one would think that of all of Californian's officers, Groves would have been the most likely to consider the wireless in raising the mystery steamer. Actually, Groves had done his duty by reporting the steamer and once Lord saw it for himself, Groves had no further specific responsibility for paying special attention to it, as long as the lights remained basically unchanged. The fact that he didn't satisfy his watchstanding curiosity by turning to the object of his personal enthusiasm speaks a bit about the relationship between a ship's deck officer and the wireless operator of that time, but doesn't really answer the question about the competancy of Californian's officers.

Personally, I don't believe that the lack of thought for the wireless means that Groves, Stone, Stewart or even Gibson were inept. I do believe that those officers showed a lack of initiative; then again, if they had been stellar performers, they would more than likely would have won billets aboard the Mail Boats.

As far as the assertion that the officers of the Californian purposely avoided using the wireless is concerned, I have to ask: what possible motive would any of them have had to do such a thing? Just because the question can be asked doesn't mean that it makes sense to do so.

Parks
 
Mar 20, 2000
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All,

I'm not buying it - not for a cent. Somebody needs to site some sources that back up this idea that the wireless was considered so utterly inadequate and such an unreliable instrument.

The Californian sure as heck relied on it for news of ice and believed enough in its accuracy to stop in the night for its own safety.

Californian was worried enough to send an ice-report, perhaps the crucial one, to Titanic not long before the accident.

And Lord sure was interested enough in the wireless the next morning to want to switch it on and find out what had happened.

So it looks like the only time the wireless was a questionable and valueless tool on Californian was in the middle of the night when it sat idly by watching rockets searing the sky. Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Michael you sound very much like you're becoming an apologist for Captain Lord. This is not meant as an affront; just an honest observation. Of course you have every right to feel that way if you want to.

I have said often that I agree Lord was no ogre and that we must try to understand the man and that much fault must lie with the officers who served - or rather failed to serve - their captain on the worst night of his life and career. But by the same token, I am tired of Lord and the Californian being given an "out" at every juncture and an excuse being made for every mistake made in the situation. It really has become the most absurd argument when we start thinking it's rational that Californian's wireless couldn't have made a difference that night, that it really was being duped by some unknown "mystery" ship in the region firing rockets, and finally that even if Californian had heard the SOS, that they still would have been unable to act.

Please. Unable? Unwilling perhaps. I mean, come on, Carpathia dashed madly through the night without the aid of flares going up on the scene and they managed to get to the Titanic.

No, the "wireless-was-just-some-new-fangled-tool-that-we-didn't-really-understand" idea is lame and defenseless. Another tact will have to be found.

Now, understand me - I'm not angry. I'm just at a loss for understanding this line of thinking. I have much respect for Michael and others - Parks, Tracy, etc - who are trying to examine other possibilities in the unfoldment of perhaps the most central issue of the Titanic story - the life-saving efforts both on board the sinking ship and that being contemplated on vessels in the vicinity.

But it's frankly aggravating to hear so many hypotheses geared toward eliminating Lord's blame without a balance.

My apologies for a tense post. It is not directed to any one person, certainly not Michael whom I regard as a friend, but is just the outpouring of my strong feelings on what I see as the saddest "what if" in the whole scenario. This is the most emotional topic for me. I just can't help thinking of Titanic's people drowning while the men on Californian strolled the deck or slept below blissfully unaware. I want to believe that Lord and his officers would have helped those people if they could have done so: so why didn't they? Therein lies the only conundrum. The reason for Californian's inaction cannot be its officers' superficial faith in the emerging technology of radio. It runs deeper than that. It lies in the fitness of these men as seaman, in their ethics, their morality, in their fear, and their ignorance. It lies in their humanity. That is something that we must learn to accept with all its myriad flaws.

Until we stop trying to defend the men on Californian and search rather to understand them, they will never be released from their guilt. It may be a tired old saying but it remains a true one: "The truth shall sat you free."

My time in the pulpit is over. Exit stage left.
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Randy
 
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Parks,

Your stance is more lenient than mine as to the conduct of the Californian's crew but you make some very valid points.

As to what motive Californian had to purposefully ignore Titanic's rockets? That's an easy one. It was simply to protect their own ship and thus their own lives. I feel they could have made a successful attempt at rescue. And that's why I'm so critical. But I don't KNOW for sure that they could have safely made it to Titanic's side. Their fear may have been justified. And maybe it wasn't.

It's the same really for me on this issue as that of Titanic's own pathetically underfilled lifeboats, particularly the boat carrying a special forvorite of mine. These boats could probably have - and I wish they had - made a safe return to pick up swimmers. They didn't, though. Why? The plain human frailty of fear is my guess. Is it understandable? Yes. Is it excusable? Perhaps not. In a moment of crises we are each worried naturally for our own preservation. Later we wish we had done more. It is only the exceptional human being who is a natural hero. We saw it quite recently in our own modern disaster, one none of us now living will likely forget.

So it was that Fifth Officer Harold Lowe was a hero and Fifth Baronet Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon was not. In the same vein, Captain Arthur Rostron was a hero. And Captain Stanley Lord was not. But were Sir Cosmo and Captain Lord lesser men? I don't believe so. It's just the others were greater.

Randy
 
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given the position report that was being used, how would anyone on the Californian's bridge know that the signals they saw actually came from the Titanic or another ship?

Michael: Given that the collision position, as determined by the 90/92 Re-Appraisal, is actually slighter *further* from the Californian's stated position than the CQD location (19.5 miles), there should be no such conundrum. If the Californian could observe rockets being fired 20 miles away to the SSE, it should have been fairly evident to them that there was NO other ship only 19.5 miles to the SSW also firing rockets. True?

Whether or not Phillips or Bride knew about the rockets is immaterial...what was important is that they knew that they had to send out a distress call and summon as much aid as quickly as possible.

Parks: Stay with the context here. Had another ship chimed in asking "R U firing rockets?" in an implied effort to confirm Titanic's position visually, it would have become very material indeed! (Especially since that would indicate that the ship was within about 25 miles -- the theoretical maximum visibility for socket distress signals, as I recall.) What better way to get aid is there than reply, "Yes, that's us!"?

Since Bride reported making frequent trips back and forth to the bridge while Phillips was busy sending, I suspect he knew about the rockets. Hell, from Lowe's description while loading lifeboat 3 -- "they were nearly deafening me" -- I'd assume practically the whole ship knew just from the sound. (And the Marconi shack was only about 50 feet from there!)

Randy: Leslie Reade did extensive background searching to investigate this "confusion" about "company signals", in "The Ship that Stood Still". In my mind (and in his, with good reason), that whole business is a red herring! White pyrotechnics were almost NEVER used as any (part of a) company signal, a complicated affair of multiple components. Most importantly, *rockets* and socket distress signals were NOT employed as company signals on the high seas, only in coastal areas. The Californian observed white "rockets" fired at intervals, and as Beesley said 'Anybody knows what rockets at sea mean'.

David: Red did not become a standard color for distress signals until MANY years later. Distress rockets in 1912 were internationally defined as "Rockets or shells, throwing stars of any color or description, fired one at a time in short intervals."

Regards to all,
John Feeney
 
Mar 20, 2000
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John,

Thanks for the clarification. I knew I'd read somewhere that there was no regulation color for distress rockets. I wonder then why this keeps getting muddled?

RE: the Beesley quote. Like much else the man had to say, that one's a classic. On this issue, I too often think of his words. They sum it up better than any others.

Randy
 

George Behe

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Hi, John!

> Leslie Reade did extensive background searching >to investigate this "confusion" about "company
> signals", in "The Ship that Stood >Still". In my mind (and in his, with good >reason), that whole business is a
> red herring! White pyrotechnics >were almost NEVER used as any (part of a) company >signal, a complicated
> affair of multiple components. >Most importantly, *rockets* and socket distress >signals were NOT employed
> as company signals on the high >seas, only in coastal areas. The Californian >observed white "rockets" fired at
> intervals, and as Beesley said >'Anybody knows what rockets at sea mean'.

What more can one say, old chap? You've said it all.

All my best,

George
 
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Somebody needs to site some sources that back up this idea that the wireless was considered so utterly inadequate and such an unreliable instrument.

Randy,

Just to (hopefully) clarify a potential misunderstanding...I am not claiming that the wireless was considered a "a questionable and valueless tool," even in Californian. Your arguments against that contention are valid, but remember that Lord was the one who directed the use of wireless in the instances you recount. What I am saying is something subtly different...that the watch officers of the Californian that night did not have the presence of mind to include wireless in their options to contact the distant ship. Maybe they didn't consider the situation critical enough to warrant it...I don't know. But I read your words as implying that the thought of using the wireless occurred to Groves or Stone, and that thought was subsequently rejected. I contend that the thought didn't occur to them at all. Not even to Groves, who even put the headphones up to his ear.

I'm not making apologies for Lord, Groves, Stone, Gibson or Stewart. Nor am I addressing their motives that night. My only reason to join in this discussion was to provide my opinion about the use of the marine wireless set, based on my research in the area. I am not here to claim that the attitude at that time was ""wireless-was-just-some-new-fangled-tool-that-we-didn't-really-understand," but in fact to say that the prevailing attitude at that time was more complex. Let me put it another way...the shipping lines contracted with the various telegraph companies to install equipment for the convenience of the passengers. The Postmaster-General regulations concerning the operation of a marine wireless station were written primary to set the standards for exchanging (and charging for) passenger traffic...I can count on one hand the number of paragraphs relating to use of the wireless for navigational and Admiralty purposes. Only after Titanic sank did the industry start to see wireless in a true dual-purpose role.

Example: the real reason behind posting two wireless officers to Titanic was not to maintain a continuous watch for navigational purposes. The White Star Line paid the extra money to the Marconi Co. for a second operator aboard the larger liners because it was expected that the larger volume of passenger traffic for those ships would require 24-hour processing in order to be completed in a timely fashion. Cyril Evans manned his station alone because the volume expected from Californian was such that one operator could handle it. There was thought given to an automatic alarm bell that would alert an off-duty operator when the recognisable patterns of a distress call excited the receiving aerial, but none of the wireless companies could make the notion work reliably. I don't have cost element reports from the different wireless companies of that period, but I don't see a lot of effort/expense spent trying to rectify this problem. Despite what is found in Shipbuilder, Titanic did not carry any type of automatic alarm or inker.

Randy, one last clarification...I did not seek to address the contention that the officers chose to purposefully ignore Titanic's rockets. I am only addressing the use of the wireless. This goes back to my point above. I don't see Gibson saying, "Sir, why not have Sparks attempt to raise that ship?" and Stone replying, "No, I don't trust the new contraption." I believe instead that during the entire time that Stone watched the lights in the distance, it never occurred to him to use a passenger luxury item as a navigational tool.

Parks: Stay with the context here. Had another ship chimed in asking "R U firing rockets?" in an implied effort to confirm Titanic's position visually, it would have become very material indeed!

John,

I believe that I am staying within context. You're asking me to consider relevant a question that was never asked of Phillips. I think I'm within context when addressing those issues that were faced by Titanic's wireless crew and attempting to keep people from straying too far into "what if?" scenarios to keep the conversation from becoming too diluted. I think you and I are in agreement that Phillips did provide answers to questions about events happening outside his wireless shack. If we're just differing over semantics, then simply chalk it up to my tendency toward ultra-conservative interpretation.

Parks
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Parks,

RE: the pervasiveness of wireless pre-1912

Not to be argumentative, but I'm reasonably sure that even a cursory flipping through any large library's Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature will yield citations for articles bearing out that wireless was more than a crude novelty during the first decade of the 20th century. I'm not at the library but taking a few minutes on my lunch hour, so all I have at hand is a copy of the book "Titanic Extra" with its many facsimile pages of contemporary newspapers.

I've found among other articles, this one which appeared in the New York Herald April 15, 1912, p 5. I won't quote it all but here are the most relevant passages:
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MARCONI DISCOVERY AGAIN PROVES ITS VALUE TO THE WORLD BY SAVING LIVES

...It was first used successfully in the Russo-Japanese War and since that time a wireless outfit and operator are considered necessary adjuncts to any sea-going vessels. Already the call CQD and SOS, recognized by all vessels as the distress signal, has saved thousands of lives by bringing swift ships to the rescue of wrecked vessels.

The United States Naval Department controls the government wireless stations which do both governmental and commercial business. On the Atlantic coast, as well as at sea, the American Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company is recognized as one of the country's most important commercial institutions.

Wireless telegraphy has been of the greatest value along the seacoast and on board steamships.

Congress in 1910 passed what is known as the Wireless Ship Act which requires all ocean steamers carrying 50 or more passengers to be equipped with wireless apparatus capable of operating for at least 100 miles..."
_________________________________________________

This article certainly confirms the importance of early radio for lifesaving purposes at sea and moreover that the Navy was in the forefront of this technology in the US.

Glancing though other pages I see that Jack Binns himself penned a special article on wireless for the Boston American on April 16, p 5 c.5.

An article, again in the Herald for April 22, covers the issue of "wireless reform" (i.e., higher wages for operators, better working conditions, more relief operators).

Randy