Sound of rockets


May 12, 2002
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After a long time, I've finally gotten around to starting my article on the propagation of sound from Titanic's distress rockets. Due to the presence of the sea surface, the loudness of the sound is a complicated function. It depends on the distance between the source and the listener, but also on the heights of the source and the listener above the sea. So, I'd like to try and get a consensus on

1) How high above the water the rockets were when they exploded.

2) How high above the water Stone and Gibson were on the Californian.

Anyone care to contribute? If anyone knows how loud the rockets were at a known distance, that would be a great help too.

I'll be away for a few days, but I look forward to reading your responses when I get back.

Cheers

Paul
 

Dave Gittins

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Paul, this is something that few start to understand. Titanic did not fire rockets as commonly understood. We tend to use the word as a short cut. They were really socket signals, which were small mortars that used a charge of gunpowder to send a container of pyrotechnics high into the air. Then a second explosion scattered stars.

So we have two bangs. The first is about 65 feet above the sea, give or take a bit for the fact Titanic was sinking. This was a loud sound, because the powder charge was equal to that used in a 12 pound cannon. Socket signals were accepted as alternatives to signal cannon. The second bang took place at between 700 and 800 feet and was comparatively tame.

Personally, I wouldn't like to estimate how far the sounds could be heard on a still night at sea. My best guess is 5 to 8 miles, based on the fact that signals from Carpathia were heard well before she arrived at the wreck site. See my site for why I think Carpathia was quite close when she started firing signals.

- Carpathia. Legends and Reality.
 
May 12, 2002
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Hi Dave,

Thanks for the information. I guess I now need to find out how big a bang a twelve pound charge makes. Out of interest, do you know how big the second "star scattering" charge was?

Cheers

Paul
 

Lee Gilliland

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Dave, I understand there were only approximately 8 rockets (excuse me, "socket signals") fired - is this just because only one box was actually fired off? Have you any idea why they did not continue signalling?
 

Dave Gittins

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Lee, there's no firm agreement on the nunmber fired. Lord Mersey picked on eight, probably because of his habit of giving preference to the evidence of officers rather than seamen. Lightoller said eight but other witnesses said anything up to a dozen. If I dig about, I might have something on how they were packed.

I think they stopped signalling for no reason at all. It's just another example of how things were done that night. Never assume that they were always following a reasoned course of action. People don't act like than, even when they are not on a sinking ship. Under stress, weird things are done.
 
Mar 18, 2000
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Re: socket signals.

Rowe testified that there were signals on the bridge (US Inquiry page 522), but that he also brought extras from the stern area.

Rowe, in a 1960s letter, claimed that exactly 7 rockets were fired. As Dave G. said, other witnesses said different.
 

Simon Koncz

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There are some problems here.

The socket signals carried by the Titanic were made by the Cotton powder company Ltd. Again, they were very sophisticated, perhaps way more so than the average distress pyrotechnic carried by most vessels. They fired a projectile to at least 800 feet, (just shy of the height of the Eiffel tower) They released a cluster of white, slowly falling balls of light when they burst.

But my main problem is, THEY WERE LOUD.

"Up it went, higher and higher, with a sea of faces to watch it, and then an explosion that seemed to split the night in two" From Lawrence Beesleys account.

"They were incessently going off, they were nearly deafening me" Lowe.

I am trying to imagine the report. In my "yoof" I used to live in Ramsgate, on the coast in Kent. Often the orange maroon would be launched, to summon the Ramsgate or Margate lifeboat crews, about 3 and 5 miles away. It too would climb to a very considerable height, and when it burst the sound was like a crack of violent thunder. Alarming, literally. It would wake you up, even if asleep. I am assuming these were similar.

So why is there no mention of sound in the Californians crew members accounts? I think they would be audible at over 10 miles. But to the crew of Californian, silence.
If the Califorian was at the distance claimed by the British enquiry, the reports of the socket signals bursting would have been audible to everyone on the drifting and silent Californian. If the C was as close as Boxhalls claims the "mystery ship" was They would have awoken Lord and rattled the china.

The weather conditions that night were most abnormal. The North Atlantic was as flat and calm as a millpond. Windless, clear, although moonless.
If anything such conditions would favour increased sound propagation.

The C must have been at least 15+ miles away. Just the socket signals were visible, and not too impressively either.
 

Senan Molony

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Japanese passenger, Masabumi Hosono:

“All this while, flares were signalling emergency and were being shot up into the air ceaselessly, and the hideous blue flashes and noises were simply terrifying.”

Lightoller in his 1935 book (Titanic and Other Ships, p.161) said the rockets burst a couple of hundred feet in the air with a “loud report.”

Lady Duff Gordon was just getting into boat 1 at Officer Lowe’s location. She wrote on page 171 of her 1932 book Discretions and Indiscretions- “Just beside us was a man setting off rockets and the ear-splitting noise added to the horror…”

Third Officer Herbert Pitman also described the noise:

Senator Smith: Did the firing of the rockets make any noise, like the report of a pistol?
Pitman: Like the report of a GUN. (He means like artillery, rather than a handgun.)
[US p.294]

The night distress regulations emphasised (in order of their listing) -

1. Sound
2. Light
3. Sound and light (carried in lieu of 1)

Californian heard no sound. The Mystery Ship certainly did.


NIGHT distress
“The following signals numbered 1, 2 and 3 when used or displayed
together or separately shall be deemed to be signals of distress at night:
(1) a Gun fired at intervals of about a minute.
(2) Flames on the ship as from a burning tar barrel, oil barrel, etc.
(3) Rockets or shells of any colour or description fired one at a time at short intervals.”

Some people demand that the Californian diagnose distress, despite having a ship 'something like ourselves' in view that was perfectly fine. The low-lying illuminations (soundless) were in her direction.

Gun signals made bangs. You could hear them at night. (Same with fog apparatus.)

Then there was flames, etc. for light at night. Good way to signal distress.

Rockets offered both sound and light - but officialdom was rooted in the old way of thinking. Starting with noise.

So Titanic's socket signals were specifically carried "in lieu of guns." And it says so in her papers.

The third option (rockets) was therefore primarily wanted to indicate distress through a bang, although any light was helpful, a bonus as it were. Therefore pyrotechnic light, of itself, does not give distress unless it is fired at short intervals. Soundless short-interval rockets might be okay, as long as they went high - because company signals did not rise high and could be distinguished by that quality. They were frequently used.

Carpathia used company signals (as well as distress rockets) when responding, because it was hoped the Titanic crew survivors would see that it was a Cunarder (the one they had been in contact with) coming to assist.

Incidentally, Beesley and others in boat 13 heard a Carpathia rocket while that ship was still hull-down, in other words, not in view. Vessels in view of each other would therefore naturally have heard. The Mystery Ship heard.

The bang of a rocket (option 3 at night) returns to the gun bang (1), which was intended to be at intervals of about a minute.

The old thinking is only modified by the draughtsman's pause for thought that you may not be able to produce one rocket after another at minute or "about a minute" intervals, so they just put "short intervals."

But the governing intention, it seems to me, is that it would be parented by option 1, and certain ideas flow therefrom. (Because one can argue long about "short." One man's short is another man's long).

The drafting civil srervant wanted the person to aim to be as close as possible to intervals of 'about a minute,' while recognising that it might not always be possible given the manhandling involved with rockets.

Captain Lord -
6957 – At the distance we were away from that steamer, if it had been a distress signal we would have heard the report.
6959 – We did not hear the report, we were close enough to hear the report of any distress signal.
6960 How many miles off were you? – About four or five–four to five miles.

Sound, therefore, is an essential ingredient.
 

Senan Molony

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DATELINE - Cornwall, March 14, 1912.

Exactly one month before the Titanic struck.

The ss South America goes aground at night.

207028.jpg


The alarm is raised by someone living on the coast who HEARS her rockets. He is awakened by the sound, not seeing them as he is indoors...

Reported by The Times of London, March 1912.

207029.jpg


We draw the obvious conclusions in relation to the distress signals of the RMS Titanic.

A bloody great bang. Sufficient to raise the dead.
 

Simon Koncz

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Here is an excellent description of the mechanics of the socket signals used by Titanic, and their operation and appearance.

From an exchange between Lord Mersey and Lightoller, at the British enquiry.

14150 Now then, about signals from your boat (sic) You have rockets on board, have you not? Were they fired? - (Lightoller) You quite understand they are termed rockets, they are actually distress signals. They do not leave a trail of fire.

14151 Distress signals? - Yes I just mention that, not to confuse them with the old rockets that leave a trail of fire.

14152 These are distress signals? - Actual distress signals.

14153 What sort of light do they show? - A shell burst at a great height in the air, throwing out a great number of stars.

14154 What is the colour? - Principally white, almost white.

14155 How are they discharged? Are they discharged from a socket? - In the first place, the charge is no more and no less than you would use in a 12 pounder or something like that. In the rail is a gunmetal socket. In the base of this cartridge, you may call it, is a black powder charge. The hole down the centre of the remainder is blocked up with a wooden peg. You insert the cartridge in this socket, a brass detonator, which reaches from the top of the signal into the charge at the base, is then inserted in this hole. There is a wire running through this detonator, and the pulling of this wire fires that, and that in turn fires the charge at the base of the cartridge. That, exploding, throws the shell to a height of several hundred feet, which is nothing more or less than a time shell, that explodes by time in the air.

14156. Had you yourself anything to do with sending up these distress signals? - No, my lord.

What Lightoller is describing are more like artillery shells than simple flares. They are compared to a "12 pounder" a FIELD GUN artillery piece only fairly recently used by the British army in the Boer war.

The Cotton Co signals had a clockwork or powdertrain fuse that ignited a sophisticated pyrotechnic and highly audible warhead.

These were serious projectiles.
 

Senan Molony

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Lightoller was recalling nearly perfectly the official description -

207031.jpg


The important thing to note here is that these were SOUND signals, hence a loudness-based distress signal.

Furthermore, look at the specified use of the explosive Tonite. (Nothing to do with Jay Leno, it is pronounced "tow-night."

Tonite was a breakthrough because it provided the loudest bang developed to that date.

Perhaps there is a clue in the name.

It derives from the Latin verb Tonat.

"It thunders."

The Mystery Ship heard it. Could not have avoided doing so.
The Californian heard nothing.
 

Simon Koncz

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No Michael I dont buy that experiment at all.

Were the projectiles used real authentic copies of the Cotton Co product? Filled with authentic tonite, or were they souped up fireworks?

Sounds like a publicity stunt to me and a poor experiment.

The argument about sound propagation I read only affects low frequency dull booming sounds. Tonite (and the maroons I was familiar with) gave off a high, air splitting cracking thunder sound. Hardly dull or a boom.

I genuinely think the C was at least 15+ miles away, why else did Gibson not hear anything of a tonite blast? And according to his sworn affidavit, he only observed the signals through binoculars? Makes the observation logically even further.

I genuinely think a 3rd ship was between C and T that night.

Doesnt make me a pro Lord type. Just a pro facts guy.
 
Jul 9, 2000
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>>Sounds like a publicity stunt to me and a poor experiment.<<

Some aspects of it may have been, however, sound propagation is what it is. Doesn't matter what kind of sound it is. What matters is that it loses strength with distance. Signifigently at that, and this much is a demonsterable fact. Whatever one thinks of the Californian or any mystery ships...real or imagined...one doesn't trump physics with an arguement.

For whatever it may be worth...and that may not be much depending on your point of view...any nominal mystery ship in between wouldn't have heard anything that dramatic either but that doesn't do them much good.

If Californian could at least see the rockets, and it's really not seriously or credibly disputed that they did, then a ship which was closer wouldn't have had a problem seeing them either.

Kind of puts them behind the 8-ball, doesn't it?
 

Simon Koncz

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In the UK its called snookered
happy.gif


Still not sure about the propagation argument. It has to do with the pitch of sound, lower pitch, poorer propagation. Dull booming sounds dont travel as well. Tonite aint a low pitch sounding explosive. Its high toned, like a crack blast detonation. It may even have been a factor in its development. Early 20th century acustic physics was no slouch.

But this closer ship was, by all titanic witness accounts, underway. The Cal was dead in the water, shut up for the night.

The Californian is certainly guilty of a chain of command collapse regarding deck watch procedures. Who is to blame may be argued as moot.

The putative 3rd ship though, is criminal. It was within 2 -4 miles, underway, and LEFT the scene. At least the C never moved.

Just my tuppence
happy.gif
 
Jul 9, 2000
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>>The putative 3rd ship though, is criminal. It was within 2 -4 miles, underway, and LEFT the scene.<<

Was it? Really? Eyewitness accounts are hardly consistant here and it's known that the Californian weathercocked around during the night. As deceptive as visual conditions are at night, it's not hard to see how such a ship could be seen or mistaken for being underway even though she wasn't.

In any event, what does matter is not so much the question of whether or not the socket signals were heard. What matters is that they were seen.

In that context, if it can be argued that the Californian had no excuse, certainly a ship which was closer didn't.

Keep in mind I'm not hostile to the possibility of a ship in between. (This is one of several areas where Captain Lord's critics and I part company). It doesn't take away from his accountability in this matter but it does mean that if Captain Lord belonged in the defendant's dock, he should have had some company.

That includes the two idiots who were on watch as well as anybody on watch on the proposed mystery ship.
 

Simon Koncz

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Indeed, if the third ship actually existed, which is not proven. I havent read the newest research on the subject, but I am scrambling to catch up on the latest thinking.

Very sane post as always Michael.
 
Jul 9, 2000
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I'm afraid that there's not a whole lot to go on in terms of new research. If there was a third vessel in between, it's a cinch that any documentation they would have had to the effect...read that to mean the scrap log...would have "accidentally" gone over the side!
wink.gif
 

Jim Currie

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Perhaps we are all missing an essential point?

When you think of the word 'rocket', what image is conjured up in the mind's eye?

I suggest a bang! whoosh! 'bang' then 'twinkle twinkle little stars'!

That would most certainly not be what might have been seen by anyone seeing and/or hearing Titanic's distress SIGNALS - not rockets. To all intents and purposes, these were star-shells not rockets. The path of a rocket is marked by an incandescent trail.

Place yourself on a pitch dark flying bridge. You are pacing up and down to keep warm. It is freezing cold so you are shrugged down into the high lapels of your bridge coat with your cap tugged down over your ears. Something catches your eye - a brief flash in the sky - not I hasten to add - a bunch of bright twinkling stars that hang briefly in the air before being extinguished. It's a shooting star!

Five or six minutes later, you see more visual activity near the mast-head light of a ship close-by. You have not been staring in that direction but have enough time to raise your binoculars, focus them and see what looks like little white stars low down on the horizon beside the mast-head light of the other ship. Incidentally that's the only reference you have with regard to the height of anything above the horizon or indeed the horizon itself.
You have seen rockets before but you have never seen or heard a star shell or distress signal fired before so what do you think you are looking at? No idea! So you keep your mind open as well as watching in the general direction. Meantime. you think about distress signals and company signals and any other kind of signal you either know or have heard about. As time goes on and still no repetition, you begin to forget about what you saw or think you saw. Five minutes can be a long time to stare in one direction when you are supposed to be watching all round. That's one of the reasons why distress signals should be sent up at short intervals!
However, 6 minutes later, your vigilance is rewarded; you see another of these signals but no sound. That's three of them now. What the heck is it? They can't be being sent up for nothing but they are not by any means being sent up at short intervals and there is not a single sound.
You continue to watch.

In the next 18 to 20 minutes, you see 2 more, a total of 5; time to indulge in time honoured practice of 'when in doubt get the Old Man out'.
You whistle down to your superior and tell him what you are seeing. You know he is concerned about the other vessel since he had enquired about her 10 minutes before you saw the first signal.
Your boss tells you to use the signal light and call the nearby vessel up. This is a reasonable order since the other ship is obviously within signalling distance.(important!)
As ordered, you start calling him up using the International Code letters AA..AA..AA..
While signalling, you focus your eyes in the direction of the other ship's red side light. You know that if he replies to your call, you will see - just above that light- a long flash - the morse letter 'T' meaning he has seen your call signal and is ready to receive a message from you.
You watch in vain.

You are then joined by your Watch Apprentice - Gibson who you order to continue calling the other vessel with the signal lamp.
During the next 20 minutes, the other vessel seems to send up 3 more signals but completely ignores Gibson's signals. Meantime, you have been, as previously instructed, watching for movement in the other vessel. You do this by frequently taking bearings of her by the standard compass. You know that if she moves at all, her bearing will change.
Before the last signal is seen, your vigilance is rewarded - the other vessel's bearing starts to change - she is underway.
Oh well! you think inwardly - 'Panic over. She is obviously not too distressed if she can move off under her own steam. Obviously there was some reason for her signals but it seems they have sorted-out their problem and are off again.
I'll keep an eye on her for a while'.

Eventually the other vessel disappears from sight. You remember the Captain's orders that you were to report to him if the other ship replied to you signals. It had not done so but never the less, you send the Apprentice down to put the Captain's mind at rest. You would guess that since the report was that the other ship had moved off, the Captain would be able to get some rest in the knowledge that there were no other vessels near his ship that might cause a problem.

So how does this relate to the sound of rockets and the mystery ship? Simple! They did not hear a sound.
'Ah but' I hear the words of the doubter, ' the other ship was too far away for the sound to be heard'. I've got news for you - 4 to 7 miles is by no means too far away! I have heard human conversation across 4 miles of still water on a flat calm night and can prove it.
However, there's another indication as to how far the other ship was from Californian and it can be found in the evidence given by Officers Stone & Groves and Apprentice Gibson. Each one of them tried to contact the other ship by flashing signal light and failed - not because the other ship was too far away but because it simply did not acknowledge their attempts at contacting it.

To understand the connection between signalling and distance you have to know a bit about the process.

The night signalling apparatus on board merchant ships, principally lights which could be used for transmitting messages by International Morse Code, had limited effectiveness. That effectiveness diminished with distance.
We know that Lord referred to his signal lamp as being powerful but even a powerful lamp has limitations if it is of the all-round type.
I do know that many ships were fitted with such lamps. They were mounted on top of a short mast - usually at the front of the upper bridge and were used in conjunction with a portable morse key. However, seldom were those things very efficient at distances more than 5 miles and an officer would have a hard job using one if he was on his own. Lord would not have instructed Stone to call the other vessel by light if he thought the latter would have a problem contacting him by the ship's morse lamp. Indeed, in that case he might well have told Stone to call the wireless operator.

The problem with all those who 'know better' is that they do not understand the process by which information progresses from unimportant to life threatening. In this case, The captain of Californian received the information as described. he went through the usual processes of finding out. The processes he normally pursued. He was told that a ship seemed to be
having a bit of bother. He therefore told his officers to find out what it was.
Now if the ship in bother was as near as has been suggested then its officers could clearly see another ship nearby signalling to them. If the 'bother' was dire distress and in the process of sinking it would only be reasonable to assume that the officers of the problem ship would tale any offer of assistance. Need I labour the point?
 

Simon Koncz

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Good post Jim. Good "reality check" stuff.

Im confused about the signalling lamps. I fear I am thinking Aldis lamp. Were the signalling lamps in use of an earlier and/or different design?
 

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