How Amateur Radio Sank the Titanic

Because April is International Amateur Radio Month, we’ll be talking about all things radio for the next few weeks – be sure to check back for our posts on the history of radio, a legend of radio broadcasting, and why we think everyone should be an Amateur Radio operator!

Titanic under construction at Belfast. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Titanic during its construction. Reprinted from Richmond, Virginia, and the Titanic by Walter S. Griggs Jr. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (pg. 28, The History Press, 2015).

At 12:15 AM on April 15, 1912, a message rang out across the Atlantic: “CQD MGY 41.46 N 50.24 W.” The message, sent by a Marconi radio operator, came from the doomed RMS Titanic 30 minutes after striking the iceberg that would end the ship’s maiden voyage. It was followed by a series of messages from the ill-fated vessel, many of which went unreceived, or failed to establish any meaningful contact. Meanwhile, novice radio operators on land clogged the airwaves with false news of the sinking, leading to the early spread of misinformation, and later, overwhelming public ire. While the Titanic’s radio and its operators were to thank for the 745 survivors of the tragedy, the malicious behavior of amateur operators was blamed in the disaster’s aftermath – raising questions of how something so disastrous had been allowed to occur, and what could have been done to avoid it altogether.

Radio technology was still in its infancy in 1912, and was surprisingly complicated to use: Restricted to Morse code for transmissions, most radio transmitters at the time were referred to as “spark” transmitters, as they relied on sparks of electrical energy. This type of transmitter could not continuously emit radio signals, making voice messages virtually impossible. Spark communications also covered a large bandwidth, making interference from outside messages inevitable. As a result, despite being marketed as a maritime technology, radio was considered a relatively inefficient means of emergency communication.

Titanic and Olympic together at Belfast. Possibly the only picture of the two sister ships together. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

RMS Titanic with its sister ship, RMS Olympic. Reprinted from Richmond, Virginia, and the Titanic by Walter S. Griggs Jr. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (pg. 30, The History Press, 2015).

This inefficiency was evidenced by its problems on the Titanic – although a radio was onboard the ship with two operators, it was never intended for emergency communication. Instead, the “Marconi room” was primarily for passengers to send telegrams from the ship as it journeyed from Southampton to New York City. The Titanic was one of only four ocean liners to employ two Marconi company radio operators, named Jack Phillips and Harold Bride. Both Phillips and Bride struggled with the volume of telegram requests, which were difficult to transmit to the far-off Marconi station in Newfoundland.

This focus on telegrams led to the first of many mistakes by the Marconi operators, as they ignored several warnings of ice, failing to deliver them to the bridge for review. Their negligence was complicated further by the fierce competitive nature of their position’s – in 1912, Marconi nearly held a monopoly over the radio industry, and there was an intense rivalry with their main competitor Telefunken. As a result, even after the Titanic had begun issuing distress signals, some Telefunken operators who answered were told to “keep out” by Phillips, who refused to deal with his company’s competition. As a result, while the radio could have helped to prevent the tragedy outright, it instead only helped to save a small portion of those onboard the ship.

A story in the Times Dispatch announcing the sailing of the Titanic. Author’s collection.

Reprinted from Richmond, Virginia, and the Titanic by Walter S. Griggs Jr. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (pg. 48, The History Press, 2015).

The limited scope of early radio technology was further complicated by its popularity with novice operators, who neglected to keep airwaves clear for official messages, and often maliciously interfered with transmissions. Professional radio operators had struggled for years with amateur operators (derisively called “hams” for their “ham-fisted,” poor Morse code skills) interfering with messages. Many of these amateur operators were younger than twenty years of age, and considered it good fun to play practical jokes on the navy by delivering false messages. They also tended to clog the large bandwidth of spark transmitters, making it difficult for others to send crucial messages.

The government failed to remedy the complaints made about amateur operators, who were completely unregulated at the time of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912. This led to several complications concerning the disaster, particularly with information relayed in the aftermath. It had been initially reported on land that a radio transmission claiming that “all Titanic passengers safe; towing to Halifax” had been delivered to a Marconi station, which was quickly printed within major newspapers to assuage the fears of passengers’ relatives. The falsity of this transmission was quickly discovered, as the truth began to spread late on the 15th, nearly a day after the crash. Many were incensed at such misinformation, and blame quickly fell onto ham operators. It was suggested by Captain Herbert Haddock of the Titanic’s sister ship RMS Olympic that novice radio operators had interfered by stitching together two separate telegrams (one asking “are all Titanic passenger safe,” and another stating “towing oil tank to Halifax”) to create the misleading message.

The accusations directed at amateur radio practitioners did not stop there: It was also claimed that ham operators had been “gumming up” the available bandwidth, making it difficult for the Titanic to send messages, or be heard by nearby ships. In the weeks following the Titanic’s sinking, both the UK and US launched investigations into the catastrophe, concluding that several factors had contributed to the large-scale of the disaster, including failures in radio and “amateur interference,” as Marconi officials blamed “unrecognized stations” making communication difficult. As a result, a grand majority of the blame of the sinking was placed on faulty radio operation, particularly by amateur users, along with a lack of sufficient lifeboats and poor leadership from the vessel’s captain.

Life insurance advertisement that was in the Times Dispatch. Author’s collection.

Reprinted from Richmond, Virginia, and the Titanic by Walter S. Griggs Jr. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (pg. 84, The History Press, 2015).

The Titanic sinking had some inevitably large effects on radio and broadcasting, given all of the confusion and fury over the sinking. Only four months after RMS Titanic was lost, the American government passed the Radio Act of 1912 – the law was the first action taken by the US government to gain control of the airwaves, and required all operators to hold a valid federal license to use radio equipment. In addition, it restricted amateur users to bands less than 200 meters – wavelengths far below where official maritime communications would be conducted, reducing the chances of interference with transmissions. These requirements carried hefty consequences if ignored: Someone found in violation could be subjected to a fine of up to $2500 USD (approximately $63,000 USD today) and up to five years in prison.

Amateur radio soon found itself with far less operators, forever changed by the events onboard the Titanic, though it was impossible to blame only one factor in the sinking. Unfortunately, the combination of poor leadership, a lack of emergency preparedness, and both professional and novice radio errors was simply too much for the Titanic to bear – creating one of the greatest maritime disasters in history, and leaving an indelible legacy on those industries surrounding it.

For more information on RMS Titanic, check out Richmond, Virginia, and the Titanic to learn about the ship’s connection with the people of Virginia. Or try our radio titles for more information on broadcasting in the United States.

Are you surprised by the major role radio played in the fate of the Titanic? Let us know in the comments below!

Posted: 4/16/2018| with 15 comments

Glenn Killam VE3GNA
What a load of biased hogwash!! You obviously know very little about amateur radio and its operators. Amateur radio operators were, above all, experimenters. Many of the communications tools we have today, such as cellphones, are there directly or indirectly because of their experiments with new technologies. Today's ham uses not only traditional voice and CW, but also a vast diversity of digital modes which use very little spectrum and low power in order to cover long distances. In 1912 Spark transmitters were the norm and they were severely limited in range by their inefficiency and that of the receiving equipment of the day. A ship 400 miles out to sea could not be interfered with by another transmitter as it could not hear it nor could it be heard.
5/8/2018 9:50:07 PM

Gary E. Kohtala - K7EK
Surely this must be an April fool's joke. Too bad the author does not have a clue as to what he is talking about, especially when it comes to the leaders and pioneers of radio, amateur radio operators. The author is obviously regurgitating rumor and innuendo as is done daily on today's social media, read FaceBook. Just pass on the lies as you hear them. You will sound like a subject matter expert or scholar.

Best regards,

Gary, K7EK
5/8/2018 9:23:25 PM

Ron Swartz
Where is the proof that the 'author' used for her 'facts'? I would like to see the bibliography about amateur radio operators. I think this is probably hogwash and no credit should be given. How can any author be given credit for this ridiculous stuff? The Titanic hit an iceberg! Without hitting the iceberg, it would probably have made it to New York.
5/8/2018 6:34:49 PM

Gerry Hull W1VE
On behalf of the almost 800,000 Amateur Radio operators in the United States and Canada, I ask that you please remove this blog post, or at least change the title to something like "Innocent Hams blamed for the corporate screw up". You consider yourself a "History" publisher? Revisionist history, I assume. From the dawn of radio history until the current time, Amateur Radio operators take pride in what they do -- they police the airwaves, and they, from the beginning, have advanced the radio art. What everyone today knows as broadcasting came out of ideas from hams. They are the ones that provide Emergency Communications when nothing else works. Backtracking on 5/7/18 with the excuses does not let you off the hook on this one. Shame on you! This is no way to celebrate Amateur Radio month.
5/8/2018 6:21:03 PM

John Risewater
This is sensationalust crap. Shsme on you and your gake story.
5/8/2018 4:03:24 PM

Arcadia Publishing
Thank you everyone for your comments! Our intention with this article was to provide a unique perspective on the Titanic tragedy with a relatively popular opinion of the time. The article does not reflect any of Arcadia's own opinions on amateur radio (and the author of this post is herself the daughter of a ham, and spent many of her formative years with her father's amateur radio club). We hope that the article provides a third-party look at what some blamed the Titanic tragedy on at the time (whether they were justified or not), and some of the actual factors that contributed to the sinking (like the misconduct of some Marconi operators). Thank you again everybody for your comments, as we start building better content for our readers!
5/7/2018 2:36:00 PM

Mike Fatchett W0MU
Wow Fake news! What a bunch of nonsense. Ham Radio Operators had nothing to do with this. Any Ham operators at the time were probably better operators than those on the boat and would have been able to handle the emergency traffic. Did a neighbor just put up a tower near the author and he is ticked off? I can't wait for your next episode of what can we lie about.
5/7/2018 3:09:58 AM

Glen Reid
What sank the Titanic was hitting an iceberg almost 400 miles from the nearest land.
Arcadia and History Press should avoid such an inflammatory headline to sell what appears to be a book fraught with misinformation regarding radio communications in 1912.

Radio communications of that era were handicapped by:
> the short range of the equipment -- requiring many relays -- messages were often garbled,
>the fact that all radio stations (commercial. military and civilian) transmitted on virtually the same "wavelength" and
>an almost complete lack of regulation.

Hopefully your "radio titles" are better informed and documented than this.
5/5/2018 3:17:38 PM

Bob Fischer
5/5/2018 12:43:47 PM

Catherine Ellis
Loved your discussion - one that is not frequently mentioned.
5/5/2018 3:45:42 AM

John Smale K2IZ
I actually had to read this article several times and I am still amazed by the amount of misinformation and how loosely this article was written, first of all we have to rely on printed articles, there is nobody left alive that can verify any information, articles that were written in the time of sensational writing of articles to help that paper sell more than the competition, I believe the term Yellow Journalism was still used at the time.
I do not see any mention of the fact that the reason the two radio operators were overloaded with outgoing traffic might have been caused by problems with the Marconi gear that had just been installed and it wasn't until almost 2 days since leaving port they finally got it working. The equipment and the operators belonged to the Marconi Company and not the White Star line, they were there to make a profit for Marconi, in the history of this event I have seen at one point it was said that Jack Phillips told another ship to basically shut up, he was working Cape Race.
Amateur Radio seems to have been tarred with a rather broad brush in this article, but how can someone be classified as a Novice or Amateur Operator? At the time there was no government control, basically everyone was expermenting. I had the pleasure to meet Marconi's youngest daughter back in 1983, she did mention that her father always liked Amateur Radio Operators, "after all, he was one himself".
Unfortunatly it took the Titanic diaster to get a lot of things to happen, if it hadn't been the Titanic it might have been another ship, what seems to have been the attitude of the time that the ship was unsinkable, therefore enough lifeboats were not needed, the need for profit above safety, that the Marconi operators didn't feel it was important enough to call the bridge and have someone pick up the ice warning, the list goes on and on.
5/4/2018 11:53:07 AM

Pete Malvasi
What a terribly written and misleading article. First the author states that the wireless technology was considered “an inefficient means of emergency communication” - I wonder what the more efficient alternatives were.

The idea that hams interfered with the sos messages is confused with some after the fact messages that all passengers were safe. Two different issues. I wouldn’t doubt the erroneous information but would highly doubt those messages were only from amateurs and just as likely could have been from commercial stations. Just as with our 911 and other modern day disasters there is always mid information after the fact. And the allegation that hams may have interfered with sos message is absurd. The range of ham transmitters at the time were very limited and any help would have only been practical from ships very close to titanic and easily in receiving range IF they had been monitoring - and we know most were not.

Finally he says as a result the number of hams drastically was reduced. And that did happen but because of ww1 and not the titanic. And then Marconi Corp lobbied for protection of the amateur service because it was essential to building a base of experienced technicians and operators.
5/4/2018 3:37:39 AM

Arcadia Publishing
Thank you for reading our post, and sharing your feedback! We have corrected this oversight.
5/3/2018 7:32:41 PM

Marnix A. van Ammers
I assumed the author meant that maritime wavelengths were shorter than 200 meters, so maritime radio operators would be using higher frequencies and amateur radio operators would use the lower frequencies . What were the frequencies used by the maritime industry in 1912?
5/3/2018 6:58:14 PM

Fred Seibold W9FWS
Quote from above review: it restricted amateur users to bands less than 200 meters – frequencies far below where official maritime communications would be conducted, ...end quote. Your review author, in his rush to condemn ham radio operators, has revealed that he knows little about radio. He has confused wavelength with frequency. Frequencies below 200 meters would be ABOVE the frequencies used for marine communications at the time. As the wavelength becomes shorter, the frequency is HIGHER. "(L)ess than 200 meters" is a HIGHER frequency than 200 meters.
5/3/2018 5:01:24 PM

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