Final Hours in the Marconi Room


William Oakes

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The Mesaba ice warning was received and acknowledged by the Titanic wireless operator Jack Phillips at 9:52 PM. The warning described large bergs at coordinates which lay directly in Titanic’s path.
We know that both Phillips and Harold Bride, the Junior Marconi operator, were both sleep deprived after having stayed up the previous night making repairs to the equipment which had malfunctioned.
The many hours that passed, while the equipment was down, created a massive backlog of messages.
The Titanic, being the largest and newest luxury liner, and the novelty of sending wireless messages, made for an already heavy workload for the two Marconi men.
Passengers either wanted to send shipboard greetings to home, or friends and family back home wanted to send best wishes to those making the Atlantic crossing. That coupled with the normal business messages, stock trades, and arrival arrangements, made the back log a mountainous nightmare for Phillips and Bride.

There has been controversy and criticism surrounding the Mesaba message for years. I have heard many comments in many Titanic discussion rooms blaming Phillips for the sinking of the ship. “If only he had delivered that message to the Bridge!”
Certainly, his mistake was a factor; one of many, that resulted in the catastrophe.
But for me it is hard to blame Phillips.
I can easily picture a scenario whereby that message came in, immediately followed by more wireless traffic and then even more messages came in from the pursers office to be sent.
Already, exhausted, overwhelmed, and the workload seeming increasing by the moment, it is easy for to me to see how Phillips had every intention of getting that message to the bridge, but became distracted and forgot.
I have often wondered why there wasn’t a “runner” hired as crew to deliver those messages, but in normal circumstances it probably wasn’t needed.
No, on the night that RMS Titanic sank, so many unique circumstances combined sequentially to create a terrible disaster.

I can picture a scenario whereby, Captain Smith, hurries into the Marconi room and tells Phillips, “We have struck a berg. Send out a CQD and tell all ships within range to come to our aide immediately.”
At that very moment, Phillips probably said to himself, “That berg warning…. I completely forgot it.”
Guilt and anger, combined with fear and fatigue would have now prompted any man to work until the last possible second; probably trying valiantly to overcompensate for his mistake.
Little wonder that Phillips stayed at the key with his headset on even after the Captain released both he and Bride, and even after the Marconi spark was gone.
I wonder if told Bride about the message or if he was afraid to.
I wonder if he truly tried to save himself, or if his guilt, combined with the agonizing death screams all around him in the cold waters, caused him to just succumb and die.
I’ve never bought into the theories and the tales that he was one of those on collapsible B.
So then, there is my two cents worth on the issue.
I’d like to hear yours.
 
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Bo Bowman

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William, I have also wondered about the Mesaba message, and why it didn't get sent immediately to the bridge. But weren't there other ice warnings that did? I'm not fully aware of the protocols of the wireless business in 1912, but the first and foremost responsibility of those two operators was to transmit paying messages for the passengers. Ship's business took a back seat, although matters of safety should of course be an exception.

Following any tragedy, guilt - whether real or imagined - can destroy you. Thanks for the insight on Phillips, which I hadn't thought of before.

Regards,
 
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William Oakes

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Bo,
Thank you for the kind remarks.
The thoughts about Phillips came to me this week after studying the great ship for over 50 years.
It just dawned upon me that he must have been wracked with guilt.
The Edwardian age was a time when men, to a great degree, still lived by a code of Chivalry.
As the events of that night and morning unfolded, I can't help believing that Phillips was regretting every second, and that the ice warning was weighing heavily upon his conscience.
I hope that the man is at peace, in a better place.
 

Dave Gittins

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The Mesaba warning was not addressed to Titanic's master. It was only labelled "ice report". Phillips followed usual procedure and didn't give it priority. Commonsense is not so common.
 
Nov 14, 2005
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William, Bo, Dave you all bring up good points. Interesting thread. My 2 cents...I'm sure it crossed his mind but I don't think he was racked by it. As Dave said he followed usual procedure for the time. It wasn't until after Titanic that the proceedure got changed. Ok time for a "IF". If its true as to what has been reported that Phillips and Smith laughed when Bride said "Send out the new SOS, it might be your last chance to use it". That doesn't sound like Phillips was so devestated he couldn't engange is some playfull banter. Anyway just my thought on it. Stay safe out there everybody.
 
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TimTurner

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Phillips also wasn't a navigator. He'd been getting ice reports the whole voyage. Some of these were far clear of Titanic's path. It is unlikely that Phillips had any idea what the coordinates meant. They may as well have been on the Moon. Or they all could have been dead in front of the ship. For all we know, he thought "My goodness, hasn't the bridge had enough ice warnings?! - what is one more?"
 
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May 3, 2005
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Tim Turner -

I would have to agree with your comments.....
And.......
I don't know if any other Navy veterans will agree. But I have thought of Phillips and Bride as being sort of fore-runners of a combination of present day ET's and RM's. Same thing as for being what your "Specialty Rating" would be just concerned with your job and you had no need of knowledge of things such as what coordinants meant.
Also I think there have been some discussions whether the reports were just that and maybe would have had more impact if they had been something of a more official nature ?

And at least one more thing. :)
After reading all the learned and experienced posts by Jim Currie and Samuel Halpearn in particular I have come to realize that there is no way I could ever claim to have been a "sailor."
I was only in the USN for only one four-year enlistment. I had nearly advanced from ETSR to ET1 but that was about par for the course and l knew very little about navigation, etc......Except I think I did learn how to keep the radar running and how to fix it if it didn't.
For that reason I think I can identify and sympathize with Phillips and Bride.
I wonder if Phillips and Bride might have felt the same way ?
 
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Dave Gittins

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Phillips would have understood Lat and Long perfectly well. He had beside him the Marconi chart for the month of April 1912. It shows the expected Longitudes of Marconi ships on the North Atlantic.
 
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TimTurner

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Well, my thoughts on it:

I don't think the Marconi chart is anything so useful for that. It's meant to tell when one might expect your radio's circle might collide with another ship's radio circle. That's a range of potentially hundreds of miles - much further than iceberg collision. Using that chart would be like using a map of the world to drive your car, where England is the size of a postage stamp - yes, you can confirm that you're somewhere within a hundred miles of the car in front of you.

The chart has no latitude, so it really functions more like a time table "Sunday PM, expect to hear Titanic".

Looking at the chart, I don't know how much it was actually used by Marconi operators. It looks like it shows the top perhaps 50 major liners. Was that every ship? If it was less than 30-50%, I think most Marconi operators would glance at it, but tend to trust the voices they actually heard rather than what the chart predicted. Too many uncharted marconis. Too many operators away from the key. Too many factors affecting ship's schedules, marconi range, etc. Something to be familiar with, and occasionally useful, but probably not poured over.

I'm familiar with latitude and longitude, but I wouldn't expect to know that an arbitrary location was near a ship's course unless I stopped to plot it out - not unless the ship's course was running due East/West, North/South.

And I think here's a big key: It doesn't matter how well Phillips knew the charts, latitude and longitude if he didn't know the ship's course. How fast were they moving? Did the captain plan to adjust course? Did Phillips know that they'd "turned the corner"? Without knowing the ship's navigational routine rather intimately, I think the wireless operators would only have a vague idea of where they were. Remember that Captain Smith had to give the wireless operators the coordinates for the CQD message - which had to be corrected later by Boxhall (who's coordinates were also wrong) and the wireless operators were none the wiser.

Combine all that with the massive workload Phillips had, and I think it's unlikely he had more than a vague idea of what their location was that evening. Yes, he could have known, but it wasn't his job and he didn't have time to find out. I think in many cases, the operators would know, but it wasn't expected of them and it wasn't their job, and I don't think it was something trivial that they'd know offhand.
 
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Nov 14, 2005
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Dave, Tim. I'm not familar with the Marconi chart. Did it list/show all ships or just ships that had radio? Or more specifically Marconi sets?
 

William Oakes

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Great Stuff, and thanks everybody. I am learning some different perspectives here that I hadn't considered before.
For that I am very grateful.
 
Nov 14, 2005
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Thanks for that link. Most interesting. It answered my question about other ships on the lists using different equipment other than Marconi. I looked up a few ships on that list and came across some info that said Marconi did try to block Telefunken early on (before Titanic) from using its stations but a prince got caught up in that and was prevented from sending/receiving messages while on a voyage. He was so mad about it that Marconi was later forced to allow all to use the stations for traffic and vice versa. Thanks again!
 

Julian Atkins

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Hello William,

I am unable currently to provide you with all the links I would like to as my laptop charger has ceased to charge, and my stack computer is currently in bits. However, I hope you have read Lightoller's evidence at the British Inquiry and that of Marconi operator Stanley Adams on the Mesaba, and the evidence of George Turnball (Marconi DM) again all at the British Inquiry.

You would do well to look at Paul Lee's website and his paper on all this. If you do a search on here for Mesaba you will probably get all the links.

If you read all of Bride's British Inquiry testimony you will see that when questioned by Counsel he was lead to a timing of the evening of 14th April that was significant - it was when Titanic got Cape Race - until then the Marconi operators had little to do - despite the repairs earlier. The PV's of all other ships we have records of indicate Titanic did very little via wireless on the 14th April.

There was no 'backlog ' of messages on the 14th April!

Cheers,

Julian
 
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