In the decade prior to World War 1, as wireless use expanded, most people thought radio telegraphy was novel and useful. It allowed people to talk to one another across great distances, to think about what others were feeling and to respond at once without the time to reflect afforded by written communication.
But in 1912, as the Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean, this attitude changed dramatically. 104 years later today, I highlight some of the main communications implications brought on after the sinking of the Titanic and explain the public’s new way of thinking about “experience of the present”.
For Stephen Kern, writing in his book The Culture of Time & Space 1880 – 1918, “…a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space. Technological innovations including the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and airplane established the material foundation for this reorientation.”
The history of wireless telegraphy begins with a paper by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864, which argued that electromagnetic waves must exist and should be able to be propagated through space. In 1887 Heinrich Hertz produced those waves in a laboratory, and in 1894 Guglielmo Marconi devised an apparatus to transmit and received them.
In 1904, the Marconi Company established the first wireless news service with nightly transmissions from Cornwall to Cape Cod. The first distress signal from a ship at sea was sent in 1899, and in 1909, following a collision between two ships, a wireless call saved 1,700 lives. By 1912 the wireless was an essential part of international communication linking land stations and ships at sea in an instantaneous, worldwide network.
On the night of April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the largest moving structure ever built, The Titanic, steamed at a recklessly high speed into an ice field in the North Atlantic. At 12:15 a.m. the captain ordered his wireless operator to send the distress call. This caused airwaves to travel far enough for dozen ships to become aware of the disaster.
Ten ships heard the call from over a hundred miles away and remained in contact but were too distant to help, as were also the Hellig Olav at 90 miles and the Niagara at 75 miles. The Mount Temple was 50 miles away but had to move slowly through ice fields. The Carpathia at 58 miles was the first to arrive, but not until almost two hours after the Titanic went down with 1,522 passengers.
During the two hours from the first distress call until the radio operators abandoned the radio room they sent 30-35 messages, which were heard as far away as Italy; but not by a ship four miles away. This particular ship, the Californian was close enough (approximately 19 miles away) to have saved all the passengers, was not in wireless contact. The wireless operator had hung up his earphones for the night about ten minutes before the Titanic sent out its first CQD.
The world began to get news of the disaster at 1:20 a.m., when a wireless station in Newfoundland picked up the message that the Titanic was sinking and was putting women off in boats.
An officer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company praised the communication that made it possible to follow the rescue. The telephone and wireless, he wrote, “enabled the peoples of many lands to stand together in sympathetic union, to share a common grief.” Although the wireless had been used before to save lives at sea, the rescue effort was particularly highlighted because so many were aware of the tragedy: the survivors watching from lifeboats, the wireless operators in distant places, and the frustrated seamen in the rescue ships.
This epic relationship between steam power and wireless telegraphy led numerous artists, poets, and novelists to later debate the issue of sequence versus simultaneity. Thinking on the subject was divided over two basic issues: “Whether the present is a sequence of single local events, or whether the present is an infinitesimal slice of time between past and future.” In essence, the ability to experience many distant events at the same time, made possible by the wireless and dramatized by the sinking of the Titanic, was part of this major change in public perception when thinking about the “experience of the present.”
In summary, the Titanic disaster illustrates issues about broadcasting and the limitations of monopolies early in the cycles of technological adaptation. In effect, the Titanic used wireless technology that was rapidly becoming obsolete. Yet American Marconi and its British parent company were notorious for a technological conservatism, especially with respect to using a rapidly obsolescing approach to radio communications – the spark transmitter. It had been apparent since at least 1906 that continuous wave, high frequency transmissions were possible and far more efficient. The New York Times said May 2: “Sixteen hundred lives were lost that might have been saved if the wireless communication had been what it should have been.” Four months later, on August 13, the Radio Act of 1912 is passed.