Marconi assisted collision


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Bryan Ricks

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Hello all. I have been reading this board for 2 years now and am amazed at what I have learned. Without rehashing details that more qualified than I can present--this is some of the overall impressions that I have.

The officers of the Titanic were not the reckless lot that is popularly portrayed. These were experienced officers, and no matter what the unseasonable weather created--they would know that ice was out there. Course changes seem to reflect the awareness of ice and an attempt to delay reaching the field. The night watch was aware that ice would be sighted before morning.

With Marconi radio, the crew now had real time reports of where the ice field was located. By knowing the presumed exact location of the ice--would this beckon the crew to travel at a faster rate up to the ice pack, and then simply slow down and pick their way through it with minimal delay.

I liken this to driving a car up to a light pole. When you know the exact location, it's a simple matter to drive up to the pole and stop just before it. Add some fog, with the exact spot of the pole not known and a more cautious approach is made.

Before wireless, a captain would have to rely on ice reports that were perhaps days to weeks old. In addition to the knowledge that currents make things move, a prudent officer would take a slower approach to possible ice.

Hence, is it plausible that a device that saved so many of the lives, could have actually had a small implication in contributing to the collision?

Of course, I could be completely blowing sand out of my mouth.

Bryan
 
Jun 12, 2004
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>>Hence, is it plausible that a device that saved so many of the lives, could have actually had a small implication in contributing to the collision?<<

I wouldn't say that it was as much the device as the human factor behind it's operation. I have no qualms regarding Philips' and Bride's overall performance, but several iceberg warnings failed to make it to the chart room and the attention of the officers, making the issue a lack of communication (relayed to pertinent personnel) and not the actual operation of the wireless. One person that would provide very enlightening information on this is Parks Stephenson.

What's the deal on this, Parks?....
 

Bryan Ricks

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I don't mean to say there was an error on the part of the radio operators. I also don't ponder the fact of the missing ice reports.

Moreso, in the light of a new technology that gave information in a real time perception that wasn't available before, the reliance on such a new cornucopia of information gave a false confidence in the location of the ice field.

There is a common historical pattern where the reliance of technology can supercede the common wisdom of experienced persons. Especially, in the infancy of such technology. The Andrea Doria/Stockholm collision is an example of reliance of inaccurate radar data conflicting with established seamanship. I won't even go into the aeronautic field of technologic mishaps.

I'm not trying to bash wireless, but just wonder what part it may have had in contributing to the collision...if it had any at all.

Bryan
 
Jul 9, 2000
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>>the reliance on such a new cornucopia of information gave a false confidence in the location of the ice field. <<

While I can't dismiss that, I'm inclined to doubt it. I don't think you'll find that Titanic's officers had a lot of illusions in this regard. Reports were just that...reports...and these people well knew that even with real time information, the best they could get was a general overall picture of where the icefild was, not the exact specifics. Hence the reason for alerting the watch and particularly the lookouts to be watchful for pack ice and bergy bits.

>>I'm not trying to bash wireless, but just wonder what part it may have had in contributing to the collision...if it had any at all.<<

Unfortunately, the probability of some of the reports failing to reach the bridge would tend to speak against this. As I'm sure you may be aware, miscommunication has been a factor in a lot of disasters and still is. From where I sit, this seems to be one of the real problems at play.
 
Oct 28, 2000
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Bryan may well have a point with regard to the existence of wireless playing a role in creating the accident. The stream of ice reports could have served to give Captain Smith and his officers confidence in their ability to avoid the danger when the time came. You might say this would have raised the complaicency factor. Human beings are naturally less afraid of dangers they know than those they do not.

Even so, I do not believe that any individual ice message--delivered or not--can be blamed for the accident.

-- David G. Brown
 

Bryan Ricks

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David,
Exactly my point. Many disasters are a result of a compilation of seemingly innocuous events that by themself did no create the event. But, together...disaster resulted.

I would not propose that wireless was solely responsible for the sinking, but wonder how the advent of real time reporting of ice fields may have influenced the Titanic's approach to destiny.

Bryan
 
Mar 3, 1998
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First off, the assertion that some ice messages were not delivered to the bridge is unproven. Without the testimony of those officers who did not survive (particularly Captain Smith and Jack Phillips), we can never state with certainty that any particular message was not received and drawn on the Captain's plot.

But this point is really moot, anyway. We do know from Lightoller's testimony and the log of receipts that Titanic's officers knew where they could expect to enter a region of ice as early as 9 hours before the collision. Later messages (like the Mesaba message) would confirm what Smith, Lightoller and Murdoch already knew. For details about my justification for this claim, please read the explanation on my website (Titanic FAQs section).

This leads us to the question at hand...did the reported ice location contribute to the collision? I don't think so. If you look at the chart on my website, you will see that the ice warnings described a region of ice, not a specific location where an iceberg could be found. Yes, some iceberg locations were reported, but the prudent mariner understands 1) that even though the location of some icebergs are provided, there can be no assumption that all icebergs have been spotted; and 2) iceberg positions change over time, as current and wind work against the ice. An iceberg position report can be used to estimate the position of the ice at a future time, but there is a degree of uncertainty with such an estimation. An additional consideration was Smith's decision to steam south of the normal shipping lane, where most of the ice sightings were made. For these reasons, the most important bit of information that Titanic's officers should take away from the ice reports is that they would be in the ice after crossing the 49th meridian. Lightoller explicitly stated that he, Smith, and Murdoch concentrated on this bit of information.

Titanic's officers were experienced in their craft...I therefore do not assume that they were complacent about the location of the ice ahead. If anything, I believe that the ice reports prompted a sense of caution amongst the senior deck officers, as evidenced by the bridge discussions during the lunch hour and later during Lightoller's watch (I suspect that there was a similar conversation between Smith and Murdoch during the latter's watch, but since neither participant survived, that speculation will forever remain unproven), and Murdoch's order to Hemming to block the light forward.

I would propose instead that it was the lack of wireless in the decades prior to the disaster that contributed to the sinking. The accepted wisdom that it was safest to steam through known regions of ice at full speed during conditions of clear visibility was supported by the known facts of the time (this wisdom was adopted only by the passenger shipping lines to justify their quick transits...ice captains who did not have to deal with the pressure of maintaining schedule did not hold with this "accepted" wisdom. See Shackleton's comments during the BOT Enquiry for more on this). Unfortunately, we can see with hindsight that the "known facts of the time" held a fatal error...without wireless, many ships went to the bottom without divulging the cause of their foundering. Using post-1912 data, it can be extrapolated that many of the unexplained disappearances of ships in the late 1800s-early 1900s timeframe must have been due to ice. The so-called enviable safety record that was used to justify the aggressive approach to ice fields might not have been so enviable if there had been a capability to determine the cause of all losses during the period.

My opinion is that the collision occurred because Titanic steamed through a known ice field at an excessive rate. I believe that she did so because of an accepted industry-wide mindset that was based on incomplete and misleading information. Had wireless telegraphy been around decades earlier, then maybe that mindset would not have evolved into the Titanic disaster. Under no circumstances, though, do I believe that having a wireless telgraphic capability aboard gave Titanic's officers a fatal sense of complacency. On the contrary, I believe that it was a lack of wireless capability in the decades prior to the disaster that contributed to the evolution of an industry-wide practice that influenced Smith to approach the ice field aggressively.

Parks
 

Jamie Bryant

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I completely agree, complacency was a main factor. Being on a such a large ship with the cream of technology at their disposal would have made them forget they were in the middle of the North Atlantic and potentially very vulnerable.

One of the key moments was Phillips telling the Californian Marconi to "shut up".
 
Mar 3, 1998
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quote:

I completely agree, complacency was a main factor.

Jamie,

I hope that was not in response to my post, because I argued against complacency playing a significant role in the ship's navigation leading to the collision. On the contrary, I argued that Titanic's crew adhered to a notion that only in hindsight has been shown to have a fatal flaw. If you're disagreeing with my opinion, that's fine, but I want to make sure that my point was not misunderstood.

quote:

One of the key moments was Phillips telling the Californian Marconi to "shut up".

How so? Titanic's officers knew all they needed to know about the ice region several hours before Evans tried to raise the Titanic, but even if Evans's message was key to the event, then the defining moment, in my opinion, would have been when Evans failed to use the proper protocol to send an ice report.

Parks

Parks​
 

Inger Sheil

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Great post, Parks. I think you also highlighted an important factor we have to take into account in our analysis - our incomplete information, due to the loss of so many key players. We can't be certain that every message didn't make it, and we can't know what conversations took place between Smith and Murdoch in that last watch. And you also highlight the chilling fate of many ships that went to the bottom without ever disclosing their fate. Although in sail and not steam, one of Lowe's earliest ships met this fate not long after the left it. It was assumed lost in the southern ice, along with several other ships that particular year. But as their fate was not proven, they are not usually included in any list of vessels lost due to ice.
 
Mar 20, 2000
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I am sorry but it’s just plain absurd to say that complacency did not play a part in the mis-navigation of Titanic. That Capt. Smith and his officers were relying on old standards does not take away from the fact that it was a wrong, overconfident and lethal decision to race full speed through ice. To me this argument is like excusing the British Board of Trade for the lack of sufficient lifeboats just because the organization was satisfied with old safety measures.

I don’t know that I buy that wireless facilitated the accident but it certainly seems a possibility. The fact that White Star (and I assume other shipping lines?) made a lot out of the Marconi offices on board shows that much interest and faith was invested in the new technology, not just by passengers but by the company. Also the 1908 Republic accident had made world wide news, as we all know, which could only have contributed to a sense of seagoing security, if not actual arrogance.

At any rate, I’m not saying that wireless was a factor in causing the disaster but, in my opinion, overall complacency on the part of Capt. Smith (and very likely J. Bruce Ismay) most definitely was.

I want to qualify my statement by adding that, however complacent Smith was, he and his officers showed their true characters in the unfolding of the disaster. Each were heroes. Mistakes don’t take away from courage, as we saw more recently in the 9/11 catastrophe. It only underlines our humanity.
 
Jul 9, 2000
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If I may add my own two cents to this mix, I wonder if we might not be looking for some sort of "Magic Bullet" in all this and some other lines of speculation on the causes of the accident. A "One Thing" if you will that was some sort of ultimate causative factor for the whole mess which if eliminated means that the acccident never happens.

I don't think we're ever going to find that "One Thing." The chain of events which leads to a disaster are frequently so complex and interelated that you have not one factor but a whole collection of them which leads to all sorts of mayhem. Titanic seems to be a study in how a lot of factors combine to make for a really bad night on the high seas. Exploring each is useful, but it seems to me that if we get hung up on one, we risk missing the entire forest for one of the trees.
 

Bryan Ricks

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Thanks all for the input. I'm not putting all my eggs in the "wireless was at fault" basket, or looking for "One Thing".

However, this has been something I've wondered about for a long time and haven't seen discussed on this board yet...and thought I would ask.

I'm not sure I, myself, would be ready to dismiss completely that a new technology could not create a causative factor (of many) in the incident, and appreciate everyone's point of views.

Also, complacency is a factor that I think we are all guilty of as it seems to be human nature; and isn't necessarily a point of criticism--until something goes wrong.

Bryan
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Maybe the question should be asked differently. With so many wireless equipped vessels reporting positions of hazards to navigation like ice fields and icebergs, how come the most modern steamship of its kind was wrecked on an iceberg on its maiden voyage? In other words, nothing was done to fully exploit all the warnings received. Extra lookouts not posted. Significant change in the ship's course not put into effect. Precautionary reduction in speed not taken.

I think Parks gave the answer.
 

Bryan Ricks

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Samuel,
You may have just supported my question. When you know where the lightpole is (ergo; my analogy) you don't have to take the extra precautions...because with the knowledge of the location, you don't have to take any additional precautions--as the risk is minimal.

I'm not saying that extra precautions on the Titanic wasn't taken. I just wonder if the actual location of the ice field/pack wasn't a surprise to the crew. They knew it was coming, but not quite just yet...

Bryan
 
Mar 3, 1998
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quote:

In other words, nothing was done to fully exploit all the warnings received.

Would that be the complacency referred to by some here, or something else? I agree that from our point of view, and even from the point of view of some other Masters on the same ocean that night, not enough precautions were taken by Titanic's crew, but what was their point of view? What justification would Smith give for his course of action? Surely Smith and his deck officers were experienced enough to know their business and even midshipmen with only a year before the mast knew that you don't wait until you are near a known hazard at sea before you prepare for it. The sea has a way of making fools out of smart men, and the really smart men know this. Smith, Lightoller and Murdoch had something else in mind, and I think "complacency" is too easy an answer and one that diverts one from ascertaining their true motives.

I look not just at this tragedy, but at the entire careers of the officers involved. Aside from the well-known quote of Smith's, which was probably offered in a grandiose fashion for the benefit of the public, I see no previous trend toward complacency. If, however, you would want to accuse Smith of aggressiveness, then I would concur, but taken in the context of the time, aggressiveness seems to have been highly prized and subsequently rewarded by Line management. I have utterly failed in my attempts to find anything less than consummate professionalism in my examination of Murdoch's career, but maybe I have missed something. Without precedent, I find it hard to ascribe complacency to Titanic's crew for this particular voyage. Maybe those who know the crew better than I will have reason to think differently.

I therefore conclude that the charge of complacency is a trivialisation of more complex motives. Can I define those motives? No...I came along too many years after they were gone to fully understand the situation they saw in the context of their point of view. However, I do accept, like Bryan pointed out, that sometimes a string of rational decisions taken in the context of the moment can lead to disaster. I firmly believe that the creme de la creme of the White Star Line could navigate into disaster without being lax, complacent or negligent in their duties. I also believe that this is in no way a reflection on the White Star Line only...that a similar disaster could have happened at the hands of similarly professional officers of the Cunard, Hamburg-Amerika or CGT Lines. So, I see no reason to impugn their professionalism.

But, what do I know...I am plainly absurd.

Parks​
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Complacency needs no motive. And there’s nothing sinister in it. It is a state of mind based on long-tested confidence and success. But it can sure get you into trouble.

While I see heroism in the officers of Titanic and don’t question their professionalism, I also see flawed human beings, such as we all are. It’s not trivializing their actions to label them complacent. Nobody doubts that the first class passengers were an ostentatious lot. Everyone agrees the Edwardian era in general was one of immense conceit. The captain and his men were not immune to the mindset of their world, their country, the company they served, or the passengers for whom they were responsible.

What were they if not a product of the period in which they lived? How is it a case of impugning these men to observe that they were overconfident in their wonderful new ship and, moreover, that this attitude contributed to some of the less than prudent decisions that night?
 

Jamie Bryant

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The White Star Line failed to learn from the HMS Hawke incident. Instead they turned it on it's head and used it to show the strength of the Olympic. The same can be said of Titanic's senior crew after the New York 4ft 'near miss'. Only a few weeks earlier, E.J had remarked that he could not conceive how a ship so big could sink.

Concerning the Californian, Evan's shut down his post in response to Phillips. A key moment as a few hours later, that post could have saved quite a few lives.

JB
 

Bryan Ricks

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Actually, I wasn't trying to make an issue of complacency, and actually let myself get a little off track in my last post.

I agree completely with Parks. I don't believe that the crew of the Titanic was complacent. They made decisions based on the information available and in the prudence of their experience and practices of the time. Hence, my original question:

Did the advent of real time ice reporting influence the decisions of the officers, and could that have some degree of causation to the collision?

Again, I'm not looking for a single factor responsible for the event, but is this a factor summed with others that contributed to the collision?

Bryan
 
Jul 9, 2000
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>>I agree completely with Parks. I don't believe that the crew of the Titanic was complacent.<<

So do I. At least I don't think that complacancy would have reared it's ugly head in any really overt way. These guys weren't just kicking back sipping tea and chatting about the football standings while the skipper was lying down in his cabin counting sheep. White Star ships took proper watchkeeping very seriously and I've seen no evidence that Titanic was any different. They were on the watch taking care of business and the lookouts had been given special instructions to keep a lookout for ice.

If it was a factor in even the most minimal way...and I really can't discount it entirely...I suspect it would have been of the far more subtle veriaty. Something along the lines of "This is the way we've been doing business for the longest time and since it always appeared to work, why shouldn't it continue to do so?"

They found out why, but by the time they knew it, they were already in really deep doodoo.

>>Did the advent of real time ice reporting influence the decisions of the officers, and could that have some degree of causation to the collision?<<

I can't say as I know. I doubt it. They did get reports and they acted on the information. It just wasn't enough. Parks pointed to the agressiveness which was not only encouraged but rewarded. A skipper that didn't have that quality of agressiveness in keeping to the schedule if not actually beating it tended not to be a skipper of one of the crack mail boats for very long.

>>Concerning the Californian, Evan's shut down his post in response to Phillips. A key moment as a few hours later, that post could have saved quite a few lives.<<

Could it have? Maybe, but there's no getting away from the fact that they already had known reports which they were acting on. They knew where the ice field was and the question of how to deal with it was already on their minds with a stratagy in place that was being carried out.
 
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