Encyclopedia Titanica

Titanic’s Call Letters MUC & MGY

Why was Titanic's call sign changed from MUC to the now-familiar MGY?

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Titanic Wireless Array
A heavily retouched photo showing Titanic's wireless array

When reading the transcripts of the Titanic disaster, or through the wireless messages sent out during that fateful night, the letters MGY are prevalent. These letters were Titanic’s call letters, or its wireless identity. For many Titanic enthusiasts, these call letters are the only ones they know. However, as Titanic historians John P. Eaton and Charles A Haas revealed in their research, Titanic was originally given the call letters MUC.

To understand the call letters, let us first understand how they were assigned. The Reports of the Department of Commerce and Labor 1912, by the US Department of Commerce and Labor, would describe the European way of assignment:

The service regulations of the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention provide that every wireless ship or shore station shall have its own call letters (signifying its name), which must consist of three letters of the alphabet. To prevent duplication of call letters is one of the duties of the International Bureau of Telegraphs at Berne, Switzerland, which has charge of general administrative work in interest of wireless telegraphy.

The US did things slightly differently as noted in the same publication:

Call letters for American ships equipped with wireless have been assigned almost haphazard by the wireless companies. The Code List for 1911 (pp. 102-103) contains a list of 361 American merchant vessels and yachts, arranged according to their wireless call letters. This publication was for the convenience of shipmasters in signaling, but the list when assembled shows defects. In some instances three letters of the alphabet are used, in others a letter and a number, and on others a number alone. Where two letters are used, in 6 cases the same two letters have been assigned to three vessels, and in 25 cases the same letters have been assigned to two vessels.

The publication would go on to recommend that the US get in line with its European counterparts and prevent such duplications. It would argue that using the three-letter system ‘18,000 distinctive calls [could] be assigned without duplication’ which was believed to be sufficient ‘for years to come.’

Looking at the list of ships in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, for the fiscal year ending in 1911, it appears British ships equipped with Marconi wireless systems were given call letters prefixed with the letter ‘M’. Those using the United or Fessenden systems were prefixed with the letters ‘U’ for most, and ‘F’ or ‘T’ for some. There are a couple of exceptions which may lie in the history of the ships themselves (i.e. their routes, original owners, and such), though such research is beyond the scope of this paper. With that, let us look at Titanic’s call letters.

Contrary to the assertion by John P. Eaton and Charles A Haas, that Titanic received its call letters of MUC in January 1912, Olympic and Titanic’s call letters actually first appeared in 1910. They would be listed in the List of Wireless Telegraph Stations of the World, compiled by the US Bureau of Steam Engineering corrected to October 1st of that year:

Ship Call Letters Power in Kilowatts Wavelength in Meters Range in Miles Company
Olympic MKC 300 250 White Star Line
Titanic MUC 300 250 White Star Line

Neither ship appears in the 1907, 1908 or 1909 edition of this publication.

These call letters line up with the call letters of other White Star Line vessels which all began with ‘M’ and ended – like their ships – in ‘C’.1  This is the same pattern as was used by the Cunard Line whose ships and call letters ended in ‘A’.

Company Call Letters Ship Company Call Letters Ship
White Star Line MHC Adriatic Cunard Line MCA Campania
MYC Afric MAA Carmania
MFC Arabic MRA Caronia
MBC Baltic MPA Carpathia
MPC Canopic MEA Etruria
MDC Cedric MIA Ivernia
MLC Celtic MLA Lucania
MRC Crectic MFA Lusitania
MGC Cymric MGA Mauretania
MMC Majestic MNA Pannonia
MOC Oceanic MSA Saxonia
MQC Persic MVA Slavonia
MWC Runic MTA Ultonia
MJC Suevic MUA Umbria
MTC Teutonic    

On March 25th, 1911, the US company Bubier Publishing, as well as its affiliated London company H. Alabaster Gatehouse Co.,2 published the book The Wireless Operators’ Pocketbook of Information and Diagrams by L. Wilbur Bishop. In the appendix Titanic’s wireless call letters are listed as MUC.3  It would also be listed as such in the May 1911, edition of Electrician & Mechanic4 and the July 6th, 1911, edition of The Model Engineer and Electrician.5

The Commissioner of Navigation to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor for the Fiscal Year ended on June 30, 1911, would only have the Olympic with its MKC call letters and an asterisk showing that its wireless was ‘inspected by wireless inspector.’

The April 1911 edition of The Marconi Graph would have an article reading, “The White Star Company's sailing ship "Mersey," for training of cadets, together with four of the Company's steamships, SS. "Medic," "Afric," "Persic" and "Runic," having a service between England and Australia via the Cape, were recently fitted. The "Olympic" and "Titanic" will also be included.”

The List of Wireless Telegraph Stations of the World, compiled by the US Bureau of Steam Engineering, corrected to January 1, 1912, would state the following:

Ship Call Letters Power in Kilowatts Wavelength in Meters Range in Nautical Miles Company
Olympic MKC 300, 600 340 White Star Line
Titanic MUC 350 250 White Star Line

Olympic and Titanic had call letters that lined up with other White Star Line ships, with ‘M’ being for British ships using the Marconi wireless apparatus, the second letter being the identifier for the ship, and the third being the letter ‘C’ to indicate that the ship belonged to the White Star Line, so why did Titanic’s call letters change, and why did its call letters, once changed, end in ‘Y’?

It has been proposed that Titanic’s call letters were changed due to the Canadian land station Three Rivers P.Q. (Trois Rivières) also being assigned the call letters MUC. In 1910 Three Rivers was designated the call letters MRS, which coincided with the steamer Tomaso di Savoia. The call letters MUC for Three Rivers started appearing in 1911, as published in the October 28th edition of the Canadian Gazette.

This change most likely came about due to an agreement concluded on April 5th, 1911, whereby the Canadian Government purchased the wireless stations at Montreal and Three Rivers. They also ordered that a station be built at Magdalen Islands. “The agreement also provided for the Marconi Company to operate and maintain on behalf of the Canadian Government the Wireless Telegraph stations on the eastern coasts of Canada, twenty in all, for a period of twenty years.”6

However, not every 1911 publication had these new call letters. The Wireless Operators’ Pocketbook of Information and Diagrams and the May edition of Electrician & Mechanic would merely have MRS. This is likely due to the information not being available at the time of publication.

The 1912 List of Wireless Telegraph Stations of the World would have Three Rivers only as MUC, with MRS being used only for the steamer Tomaso di Savoia. The 1913 Year-Book of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony by the Marconi Co., would also have the Three Rivers as only MUC.7

Could it be that Three Rivers changed their call letters from MRS due to the call letters also being assigned to the Tomaso di Savoia, or because of the agreement made by the Canadian Government, or both? Did this change then lead to the changing of Titanic’s call letters to MGY? Perhaps, though this still does not answer why the call letters ended in ‘Y’ and not ‘C’.

To complicate matters further, in 1910 the call letters MGY would be designated to the steamship Yale:

Ship Call Letters Power in Kilowatts Wavelength in Meters Range in Miles Company
Yale MGY 400 200 Metropolitan Line

This would not be the only call letters this ship would have within this very publication.  In the alphabetic list of call letters, the call letters RY is also given. Tracing this ship back to earlier editions of this publication we find the following.

1908
Ship Call Letters   Wavelength in Meters Power (miles) Company
Yale RY   400 200 Metropolitan Line
1909
Ship Call Letters Power in Kilowatts Wavelength in Meters Range in Miles Company
Yale RY 400 200 Metropolitan Line
Yale and Harvard
Postcard depicting the Yale or Harvard

In 1911 Yale would continue to be given both the call letters RY and MGY. The List of Wireless Telegraph Stations of the World, compiled by the US Bureau of Steam Engineering, corrected to January 1, 1912, would revert the call letters back to only RY.

Ship Call Letters Power in Kilowatts Wavelength in Meters Range in Nautical Miles Company
Yale RY 2 400 300 Pacific Navigation Co.

A quick history of this ship, and its sister Harvard, may clear up why the call letters were changed.

While the Metropolitan S.S. Co. was under the Morse rule, an offshoot known as the Metropolitan S.S. Co. of New Jersey was formed, and they had built, in 1906, by the W. and A. Fletcher Co. of New York, the well-known steel, twin screw, turbine, oil-burning steamships “Yale” and “Harvard,” for passenger service on the New York and Boston “outside” line. Each steamer measured 3700 tons gross, 376 feet long, 61 feet beam, the engines indicated about 10,000 horse-power; they were extremely fast, making 23 knots when pushed. Leaving either end of the line at 5 P.M., they arrived at their destination at 8 the following morning, distance about 330 miles. At this time the Cape Cod canal had not been finished, and the “Harvard” and “Yale’s” course lay around the “Cape” and over the dangerous, narrow and intricate Nantucket shoals and Vineyard Sound; they also usually went around the east of Long Island when the tide was against them in Long Island Sound. In the autumn of 1910 the “Harvard” and “Yale” were chartered, for $860,000 a year, to the Pacific Alaska Navigation Co., who took them to the Pacific coast and operated them between San Francisco and San Diego.8

The November 10, 1910, edition of the Nautical Gazette9 would further detail:

That a new steamship line between Boston and New York, taking the place of the former Metropolitan line service, on which the steamers Harvard and Yale are operated, is soon to be established by the New York, New Haven and Hartford R.R. Co., was the information contained in a statement issued by President Chas. S. Mellen of the New Haven road. Mr. Mellen’s statement was made in reply to reports that his company was responsible for the withdrawing of the Harvard and Yale, and discontinued of the water service between New York and Boston, and says in part:

“The steamers Harvard and Yale are owned by the Metropolitan S.S. Co. of New Jersey, in which company New Haven road, neither directly or indirectly, nor so far as I know, any of its directors, officers or employees are interested to the extent of one single dollar, and the New Haven company has no part or parcel on the transfer of these steamers from the line between New York and Boston to the Pacific Coast.”

By 1913 Yale was listed in the ‘Radio Stations of the United States’ July 1st edition as such:

Ship Call Letters Service Wavelengths Station Controlled by Company
Yale WRY PG 300, 600 Marconi Metropolitan S.S. Co, (Pacific Steam Nav. Co.

This change in call letters was due to the US finally, in 1912, getting in line with the rest of the world when it came to call letters, as reported:

The Senate of the United States, on April 3, ratified the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention with accompanying regulations, which, in due course, will be proclaimed by the President and become law of the land.

Regulations XV provides:

“The signals to be employed are those of the Morse International Code”
This code is popularly known to operators in this country as “Continental Morse.”
Regulation IV., 2 provides:
“The calls shall be distinguishable from one another and each must be formed of a group of three letters.”
The concluding paragraph of Art. XXXVIII provides:
“The International Bureau (at Berne, Switzerland) shall see to it that the same call letters for several wireless telegraph stations shall not be adopted.”
The Bureau of Navigation has completed, through the usual diplomatic channels, arrangements with the Berne Bureau for the assignment of call letters to American ships and shore stations. When the readjustment of call letters has been completed, it will be forwarded to the Berne Bureau and issued in its publication for the formation of ships and shore stations of all nations. American ships will thus become part of the world’s system of radiocommunication, each ship and shore stations having its own call letters which can be recognized by the ship and shore stations of all other nations.

The International Bureau has assigned the two series beginning with K and W to American merchant vessels. …The Bureau has adopted the plan of assigning the groups of call letters (composed of three letters each) beginning with K, to vessels usually on the Atlantic and the group beginning with W to vessels on the Pacific.

The new system of call letters will go into effect on July 1, 1912, as arrangements cannot be completed sooner.10

Based on all the above information, it seemed that Titanic’s call letters of MGY were never in danger of being duplicated once Yale reverted back to RY, and subsequently WRY.

It should be noted though that duplicated call letters were not unique to Titanic’s two call letters, and when one reads through the sources presented in this paper, they will note quite a few. Due to this, it is hard to definitively say whether Titanic’s call letters were changed due to duplication, though as of now, that is the best hypothesis. Though why Titanic’s call letters, when changed, ended in a ‘Y’ instead of the classic ‘C’, is still a mystery.11

Notes

  1. The White Star Line ships Corinthic had the call letters MWT, while the ship Ionic had the call letters MWI. Both these ships originally belonged to the Shaw, Savill and Albion Line before becoming White Star Line ships with their call letters staying the same.
    The White Star Liner Medic is listed in 1912 as MKK and MXC.  In 1910 and 1911 though the ship was only listed as MXC.
    The White Star Line training vessel (sail) Mersey was given the call letters MWJ.
  2. Catalogue of Copyright Entries for the year 1911; Library of Congress Copyright Office; Washington Government Printing Office 1911
  3. The Wireless Operators’ Pocket Book of Information and Diagrams;  L. Wilbur Bishop; 1911 pg. 14 of appendix
  4. Electrician & Mechanic Vol. XXII No. 5; May 1911 (pg. 339)
  5. The Model Engineer and Electrician Vol. XXV; Percival Marshall & Co. London; 1911 (pg. 20)
  6. The Year-Book of Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony; The Marconi Press Agency Ltd.; St, Catherin Press London; 1913
  7. By 1914 Three Rivers was given the call letters VCB and the call letters MUC were given to the steam yacht Erin owned by Sir Lipton. MGY was given to the steamship Filey.
  8. Some Account of Steam Navigation in New England; Francis Bradlee; The Essex Institute 1920 (pg. 137-8)
  9. The Nautical Gazette Vol. 79 No. 18; November 10, 1910
  10. The Master, Mate and Pilot Vol. 5 No. 1; June 1912
  11. Perhaps the answers lie in records of the International Bureau of Telegraphs in Berne, Switzerland, or for any other meeting of the organization? Perhaps even in Three Rivers?

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2024) Titanic’s Call Letters MUC & MGY (Titanica!, ref: #787, published 29 April 2024, generated 19th June 2024 04:23:11 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanics-call-letters-muc-mgy.html