Titanic-Californian Morse lamp communication

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Brigitta Lienhard

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From the Californian’s watch that night they observed on the southern horizon a large steamer on a westward heading for a period of time leading up to Titanic’s 11.40 p.m. collision. At this time, the large liner (Titanic) veered to port making her starboard deck lights slowly become extinguished as observed from the Californian - and here is no later mention of this course altering back to the original heading. Obviously to those on Californian, she had turned southwestwards to skirt around the icefield. I would imagine from those observations, Titanic had never resumed her prior heading - which to those aboard Californian obviously believing that the ships continuation on that course slowly made her appear to slip below the horizon. In actual fact, she was sinking by the head and stationary. (this is my understanding of what happened)
If Titanic had again turned to the starboard to clear the stern - would not her side lights have once again become visible? I have often wondered whether there had been any bergs between the Titanic and the Californian which could have obscured observations between the two ships.
The Californian attempted to contact the ship via Morse lamp, yet this failed to solicit any response. The times that they both attempted this type of communication don’t appear to coincide with each other. I would image that if both had continued, they would have likely struck a period that both parties could have observed each other. It appears that the Titanic was stern on to those on the Californian. Hardly ideal conditions.
I found it interesting that James Bisset [2nd officer on Carpathia] mentioned from his observation that night on the bridge wing that the night was cloudless, with all the stars shining brightly - "the peculiar atmospheric conditions of visibility intensified as we approached the icefield with the greenish beams of the Aurora Borealis shimmering and confusing the horizon ahead ahead of us ………." [interestingly -green flares had been fired from one of the lifeboats & Bisset recalled that the water had a sinister greenish crystal tinge that morning]
It strange that no one has mentioned the Aurora Borealis.
 

George Behe

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Dec 11, 1999
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Hi, Brigitta!

>If Titanic had again turned to the starboard to >clear the stern - would not her side lights have >once again become visible?

Titanic's red port sidelight *did* become visible to observers on board the so-called 'mystery ship' situated to the north; the Titanic's bows were pointed northward when she stopped, and the 'mystery ship' was situated off the Titanic's port bow.

All my best,

George
 

RJ Emery

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Dec 13, 2007
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Using their Morse lamps, both the Titanic and Californian attempted to signal a nearby ship, estimated by their respective crews to be about five miles away.

I presume the Titanic Morse Lamp was electric, but I wonder if it was also electric aboard the Californian. Was it?

Has there been any study or investigation as to how distant a Morse Lamp signal of that era would be visible at night on the open ocean?

Any information on the apertures of both ships' lamps or their respective candlepower?

On the Titanic, the lamp was apparently fixed, and presumably there was one on both sides of the bridge. On the Californian, I believe the lamp was portable, making me doubt it was electric.

The use of a kerosene lamp does not necessarily mean it would be less bright than an electric one. The beam from lighthouses were often kerosene powered, their power greatly enhanced by a Fresnel lens.

And that leads to another issue. What was the lens, if any, on these Morse lamps? That would have a major impact on the distance a signal from such a lamp could be seen.

Assuming a plain glass front, I would suspect that with a 6-inch aperture at most, a Morse lamp signal would soon become indistinguishable at any moderate distance, a distance I would like to estimate if not already analyzed and determined.

IIRC, survivors of the 1986 sinking of the Pride of Baltimore, a tall ship blown over in a white squall, were adrift for four days in a rubber life raft largely without food or water. As it passed them at night, the eight survivors were able to flag down a huge oil tanker using only a weak battery-powered handheld flashlight signaling SOS. They were lucky. Lots of ships passed them by, taking no notice -- or not wanting to take notice -- of the light or the raft on the sea. Also consider what it takes for a large modern oil tanker to make a U-turn, which it did.

[Moderator's Note: This message, originally posted as a separate thread, has been moved to this pre-existing thread addressing the same subject. MAB]
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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We know much about Titanic's Morse lamp. Here's a bit from Titanic: The Ship Magnificent.

"This lamp assembly was fitted to a pole that raised it above the wing cab roof. Inside the lens was an electric light bulb of 25 to 50
candlepower. Such a light source could never have been seen at any distance except for the special character of the lens: a circular dioptric lens, similar in appearance and identical in function to the Fresnel lens of a lighthouse. Each glass lens was cast with concentric rings of glass
prisms which concentrated and focused the light from the small electric bulb into a much brighter and more powerful beam that radiated straight out over 360º in a horizontal plane."

There's plenty more about how it was operated.

Californian's lamp was "on top of the bridge" according to Gibson. This suggests a fixed electric light, as does Captain Lord's opinion that it could be seen for ten miles. We know nothing of its specifications.

Some of these lamps were rather elaborate, with as many as 16 small lamp bulbs of around six candlepower each. They even had a means of pre-heating the filaments, so as to speed up operations.
 

RJ Emery

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Dave,

If Captain Lord said the Californian's Morse Lamp could be seen for ten miles, I will accept that. I do not believe he ever had any reason to knowingly give wrongful testimony. And if his lamp could be seen that distance, I am sure the Titanic's, probably being state-of-the-art, could be seen that distance as well.

Ten miles is also about the limit that two ships could reasonably see each other given the curvature of the earth.

Still, I wonder how large or bright the beam would appear if viewed from ten miles distant. My thought is that it might easily be missed, given that it would be on or close to the horizon.
 
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Timothy Trower

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Dave,

I just checked my copy of TTSM, and I don't find a specific reference to the details that you quote and refer to about the Morse Lamp. Am I missing a footnote that references the actual source material used in TTSM?
 
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>>Ten miles is also about the limit that two ships could reasonably see each other given the curvature of the earth.

Give it a couple more miles, RJ - and allow any ships so situated to disappear gradually from each other's view as the distance between them increases - or as one of them sinks.

Roy
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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Checking my trusty Norie's Tables, I see that the upper decks of Titanic would have been visible from Californian at around 16 miles, in round figures.

This is part of the confusion. Titanic was sufficiently close to be seen, but too far off to be identified, especially when seen from almost head on.
 
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Timothy Trower

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Dave,

Ah, but I have both hard and electronic copies myself, and what I am looking for is the actual source of the information -- "Shipbuilder", "Engineering", etc.
 

Dave Gittins

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Tim, you'll have to ask Bruce and friends. As they say in the introduction, they have not attempted to reference the book like an academic treatise. As they say---

"A bibliography has been provided to list all
the sources for all research material used, although because of the wide range of period resource materials employed, specific references as to sources have not been provided throughout the text. Where they do appear in some specific cases; they are referenced as numbered endnotes. In addition, endnotes have also been used when additional explanatory text is required."

Providing sources for everything in a book of this kind is hardly practical. My own book contains more than 900 references, many containing multiple citations. I tried to limit references to points that were new, obscure or controversial. My use of pop-ups made this work reasonably well on screen but such numbers would be very cumbersome in printed books. I think there are times when we just have to trust the authors. We've been doing that for most Titanic books for years!
 
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>>Titanic was sufficiently close to be seen, but too far off to be identified, especially when seen from almost head on.

So, Dave, if the Titanic was just close enough to the horizon that only its upper decks could be seen - but even that wasn't reliable since it was facing the Californian almost head on with its very dimly lit bow section, a person who hadn't seen it approaching broadside (Lord) could have mistaken it for just about anything?

It still doesn't excuse their lack of any meaningful response to the rockets, but I can see where Captain Lord might have convinced himself he hadn't been looking at the Titanic. He always seemed to invoke Boxhall's erroneous CQD position as the "actual" wreck site, and to have based his 18-1/2 mile distance on that, rather on the events earlier that morning. Convenient rationalization.

R
 
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Timothy Trower

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Dave,

This isn't a typical Titanic book. This is the closest to an encyclopedia that we've seen yet -- but it is apparently not sourced. Sure hope this is fixed in the second edition.
 

RJ Emery

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Roy,

It still doesn't excuse their lack of any meaningful response to the rockets, but I can see where Captain Lord might have convinced himself he hadn't been looking at the Titanic. He always seemed to invoke Boxhall's erroneous CQD position as the "actual" wreck site, and to have based his 18-1/2 mile distance on that, rather on the events earlier that morning.
I will defend Captain Lord. I am not at all convinced his response or lack of same was callous to what was ultimately observed by himself or his officers. Lord was seeing his own mystery ship, and not the same mystery ship that the Titanic saw. Yes, TWO mystery ships. Any rocket bursts came from over the horizon and without sound I might add. But those are yet other arguments to be made elsewhere, not in this thread about Morse lamps.

Nevertheless, your quoted comment above needs to be addressed:

Let us assume Captain Lord did interpret the rockets as being distress signals, with or without additional wireless contact. Just how do you expect the Californian to have effected a rescue?

1) The Californian was keeping some steam up, but it probably would have taken another hour for it to raise enough steam to begin navigating towards the Titanic. Let us assume Captain Lord began his response at 1 am, noting also that the two ships clocks were at least 12 minutes apart, with neither being set to true GMT/UT.

2) The Californian and the Titanic were on the same side of a large ice field that blocked the Californian and numerous other ships from forward progress. At about 2 am, the Californian could begin steaming at about quarter speed, 3 knots in her case. Later, that could be increased to half-speed or 6 knots. Her top cruising speed was about 12 knots.

3) The straight line distance to be covered was at least 17 nautical miles if not as much as 22 nautical miles.

You would have Captain Lord charge in darkness into a field of ice and icebergs and risk the sinking of his own ship. The icebergs could not be seen until one was almost on top of them. The Titanic proved that. And the 2007 sinking of the MS Explorer proved that you don't need an iceberg to sink a ship in arctic waters.

You can play with the math as you will, but I figure the Californian would not have arrived on the scene until about 5 am, well after the Carpathia arrived, and certainly not before 4 am.

The Californian would have been of little help.

Much has been written about the Carpathia forging ahead in ice filled waters, but it was coming from a different direction and did not have to traverse the same thick ice field that stopped the Californian. It also spied its first iceberg in the vicinity of the Titanic sinking after daybreak.

Lord actually learned of the sinking at 6 am. With steam already up in preparation for movement, Lord immediately departed for the Titanic's reported position. Having found in daylight a somewhat less hazardous course through the ice, he arrived at the reported position at 7:30 am, only to find nothing there (except the Mount Temple). The Californian, to Lord's credit, steamed at 13 knots -- and possibly 13.5 knots at its maximum -- most of the way the latter half.

The Titanic sank further east, and what lay between Californian and the true disaster site was a vast ice barrier. Lord sailed SE around, then NE through a thinning field to Carpathia's position, arriving there at 8:30 am. And so it took Lord 2.5 hours to get from where he was to where he was needed under daylight conditions, regardless if it was 5 miles, 10 miles or 50 miles that separated the two steamers that night.

In short, whatever Lord attempted to do that night, he would not have succeeded, and he may well have added to the tragedy with the sinking of his own ship.

Now, about those distress rockets.

Both the Etonian and Ultonia reported fishing vessels in the area. Sealing vessels were also reported. It was the custom of sealing vessels to recall its hunting boats and parties by firing rockets or by the use of whistles. Any sealers in Titanic's area may well have thought the ship to be yet another sealer firing rockets to recall its seamen, or the sound of steam escaping the ship to be that of whistling.

Note also what stopped the Californian was minimally an ice floe. An ice floe is something thick enough that will support the weight of a man or a hunting party of sealers. An ice field is even larger and thicker.

Whatever the Titanic was firing or the manner by which they were fired, and observed, they simply did not rise to the point where a distress situation was discerned at the time by any of the professional mariners aboard the Californian or any other legitimate vessel.

Had Lord been better apprised of the total number and frequency of rockets, he might have reached a different conclusion earlier that night, but as I have already shown, it is doubtful it would have made any practical difference at all.

Back to Morse lamps.
 

John Flood

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Mar 1, 2004
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"Lord was seeing his own mystery ship, and not the same mystery ship that the Titanic saw. Yes, TWO mystery ships."

I'm not a great believer in the two mystery ship theory. What became of either of these ships? Did the rocket firing ship near the Californian sink also, or was it as you say, a whaling ship firing rockets? It also means that there is now three ships in the vicinity, all ignoring the Titanic's distress signals. It seems a bit improbable to me.

I think that the Californian saw the Titanic's distress signals, and possible the Titanic itself, head on, making it look like a smaller ship.

If there is to be a mystery ship, it is the one that Boxhall saw, and what Captain Smith saw (I seem to recall he suggested that the lifeboats row to this ship and return). It seems a bit to close to be the Californian, in my humble opinion. Grenade thrown...I'll duck for cover now!! ;-)
 
Mar 22, 2003
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John, you are quite right in your assessment of what was seen from the bridge of the Californian. Gibson's written account to Capt. Lord clearly shows that Titanic's upper decks had to be above the visual horizon for that detonator flash to be seen.

Regarding what was seen from Titanic, 4/O Boxhall, who looked at the ship through glasses, was quite specific that the ship was not a simple fishing or whaling vessel but a 4 masted steamer with two masthead lights. For something that appeared by the brightness of its lights to be only 5 miles away, lifeboat 8 was not able to make any headway having rowed toward that steamer until daybreak. She was a good 3 to 4 miles from where the Carpathia stopped when she turned around. [See Crawford's testimony]. Boat 8 was also one of the last of the boats to be picked up.
 

RJ Emery

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John,

I'm not a great believer in the two mystery ship theory. What became of either of these ships? Did the rocket firing ship near the Californian sink also, or was it as you say, a whaling ship firing rockets? It also means that there is now three ships in the vicinity, all ignoring the Titanic's distress signals. It seems a bit improbable to me.

I think that the Californian saw the Titanic's distress signals, and possible the Titanic itself, head on, making it look like a smaller ship.

If there is to be a mystery ship, it is the one that Boxhall saw, and what Captain Smith saw (I seem to recall he suggested that the lifeboats row to this ship and return). It seems a bit to close to be the Californian, in my humble opinion. Grenade thrown...I'll duck for cover now!! ;-)
I believe it has now been fairly well established that the Titanic and Californian were actually at least 17 nautical miles and possibly as much as 23 nautical miles apart that night.

Both Captains estimated the distance to their respective mystery ships to be about five miles. I maintain that both were highly experienced mariners and could be relied upon to judge the distance to a nearby vessel. Captain Smith even ordered a lifeboat to row to the nearby ship. Could both Captains' margin of error be more than 300 percent at the same time? I very much doubt it. They saw what they saw, and I accept it as fact, subject to normal variance for an estimate of that type under those conditions.

One or more Titanic passengers in lifeboats reported the nearby mystery ship just steamed away. The reference for that I recall being in Walter Lord's ANTR, but I haven't yet found the page were it was written. The Californian was stationary all through the night, so in my judgment, it could not have been Titanic's mystery ship given all the motion reported.

Can't accept a four ship theory? It gets even more interesting with the inclusion of fishing and sealer vessels in the immediate area, none of which would have been Titanic's size and probably even smaller than the Californian.

As explained previously, none of the legitimate ships who were in a position to witness Titanic's rockets as distress signals took them to be that. (I leave open the possibility that Titanic's mystery ship was a rogue steamer.)

Other open questions: Once it was responding to Titanic's last reported position, what other vessels (excluding Mount Temple) did Captain Lord observe in the immediate vicinity w/wo glasses?

How could Titanic's last reported position be so wrong? Or could it have drifted to the position Ballard later marked in 1985? And was that position correct, given the finding in 2005 of two intact hull sections a mile or more from Ballard's determined position?

You needn't duck for cover. I am willing to discuss and debate all salient points with anyone who has an open mind about these matters. I know I don't have all the answers, but I seek the most plausible explanations for what might have and did occur that night.
 

RJ Emery

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Samuel,

Regarding what was seen from Titanic, 4/O Boxhall, who looked at the ship through glasses, was quite specific that the ship was not a simple fishing or whaling vessel but a 4 masted steamer with two masthead lights.
That wasn't quite the case. Here are Boxhall's own words:

15400: Did you watch the lights of this steamer while you were sending the rockets up? Yes.

15401: Did they seem to be stationary? I was paying most of my attention to this steamer then, and she was approaching us; and then I saw her side lights. I saw her green light and the red. She was end on to us. Later I saw her red light. This is all with the aid of a pair of glasses up to now. Afterwards I saw the ship’s red light with my naked eye, and the two masthead lights. The only description of the ship that I could give is that she was, or I judged her to be [emphasis mine], a four-masted steamer.
Note also that in my mind his description rules out the Californian. The Californian was stopped, and while it was drifting, its motions would hardly match Boxhall's descriptions of the mystery ship, even if the Titanic herself was drifting, given the short amount of time involved. And given this distance involved, it is very doubtful anyone on board the Titanic was actually seeing the Californian. No, if anything, the comments here in my judgment reinforce the case for Titanic's own mystery ship.
 
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>>Note also that in my mind his description rules out the Californian.<<

No it doesn't. The list of four masted merchent vessels absolutely known to be in the area and within visual range of the Titanic can be counted on one hand with four fingers to spare. The Californian was a four masted steamer and was known to be within visual range. Even the most determined of Captain Lord's champions don't bother denying it. They attempt to explain it away, but they don't deny it.

And far from refuting what Samuel said, the testimony you cited backs it up. Granted, Boxhall didn't use the term fishing or whaling vessel, but he wasn't addressing what his mystery ship was not. He was addressing what it was.

While you're at it, note the this tidbit which is in his testimony from the start:

15392. And then you saw this light which you say looked like a masthead light?
- Yes, it was two masthead lights of a steamer.

Looks pretty specific to me. For anybody interested, Boxhall's full testimony and in context begins at http://www.titanicinquiry.org/BOTInq/BOTInq13Boxhall01.php

>>The Californian was stopped, and while it was drifting, its motions would hardly match Boxhall's descriptions of the mystery ship,<<

She was doing more then that. In addition to drifting, she was weathervaning around in the current. That would certainly produce the illusion of the vessel making way.
 

RJ Emery

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Michael,

The list of four masted merchent vessels absolutely known to be in the area and within visual range of the Titanic can be counted on one hand with four fingers to spare.
What proof can you offer for the rather bold and unsupported statement above?

The Californian was a four masted steamer and was known to be within visual range.
Known by whom? The Californian was twenty miles away, too far to be seen. Boxhall claimed to have seen a red light without glasses. He would not have been able to see that light unaided from twenty miles distant. Captain Smith estimated the vessel to be about five miles away. How do you account for that disparity?

What proof can you offer that absolutely puts the Californian within visual range of the Titanic? And what is that distance between the two for which you can provide incontrovertible proof?

Boxhall did not know what he was seeing. He assumed it was a four masted steamer. It could have very well been something else. Remember also, he was a junior officer, and whatever his abilities then or later, he never made captain in his career.

I don't believe there is any other testimony or evidence that describes what the mystery vessel might have been or definitely was. If there is such testimony or evidence, kindly cite it.

In addition to drifting, [the Californian] was weathervaning around in the current. That would certainly produce the illusion of the vessel making way.
Yes, it would, if it was within visual range, which the Californian was not. Also, the Californian did not make a 360 degree turn or even a 180 degree turn in the time allotted for the illusion you cite.

Moreover, both the Californian and the Titanic were actively signaling via Morse lamp their respective mystery ships. If the Titanic and the Californian were within visual range of each other and were each other's mystery ship, their respective Morse lamps would have been seen and communication established. That did not happen for the abundantly obvious reason they were both too far apart and out of each other's visual range.