The World's Work, February, 1904, pages 4467-4470:
THE WORK OF A WIRELESS TELEGRAPH MAN
JUST HOW MESSAGES ARE SENT AND RECEIVED AT SEA -- THE FAINT CALL OF A STEAMER ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILES AWAY -- HOW WIND AND WEATHER AFFECT TRANSMISSION
A YEAR or more ago the first Marconi operator on a transatlantic liner began his work. Now hardly a week goes by that we do not learn of a new ship equipped for wireless telegraphing, and the Marconi man has become a recognized feature of ocean travel. I have traveled with these men, and I shall describe a night spent with one aboard the St. Paul.
A wet wind blew in from the southwest all the evening, and the ship swung along through easy seas at a twenty-knot gait, well in midocean. Below, on the promenade decks, the passengers heard now and then a sibilant crackling that seemed to come from somewhere in the air above the ship--a peculiar sound, almost too high-pitched for some ears. Aloft, on the fiddley deck, the wooden house, ten feet square, whence the crackling noise issued glowed with electric light. Here we sat, the operator in his shirt-sleeves at the big key, now and then rapping out a call that, within the narrow confines of the little cabin, sounded like sputtering pistol-shots; showing blue-white lightning flashes as the current leaped from the "sparker" at each bend of the wrist, and causing blue flames to play about the six leyden jars.
For minutes at a time the call shot forth, then the operator would shift connections to the receiver and listen for as many minutes, carefully adjusting and readjusting the delicate instruments meanwhile. There were two of these receivers, one to take the place of the other if a fault should show while a message was coming in. They were blocks of delicate and complicated machinery, carefully cased in wooden boxes, their supports carefully padded to steady them against the least vibration. There was a strip of paper to record messages, like the tape on the old Morse telegraph instruments; but that is not necessary to the operator who can "read by sound." This accomplishment is no mean one, however, for the sound is a very delicate ticking hardly to be noticed by the inexpert, and very different from the pistol-shots of the sender. The wires from the machines passed through the roof of the office to the top of the aftermast directly above, and were held apart by a long wooden "spreader," which made them look so much like stays that the uninitiated would hardly distinguish them from a part of the ship's rigging.
Word came down from the bridge early in the evening that we should probably pass the Philadelphia some time between midnight and dawn. This meant all-night work for the Marconi man, who takes care to be at his instrument an hour or two before a ship is expected to come within his reach. The amount of electric power aboard an ordinary liner is sufficient to send wireless messages 150 miles under favorable circumstances. Knowing the sailing-days and speeds of the ships that they are likely to meet or overtake, the navigating officers of a liner can calculate roughly when they are likely to come within the required radius of another floating telegraph office. Thus the operator was "feeling about" this evening in the upper air.
Toward midnight the first answer came to the receiver from the unknown deep--faint, disconnected taps. The operator called and listened, but the faint tapping, though it grew louder, did not become coherent, nor could he read it on the tape. We got the letters P. H., which surely meant the Philadelphia, and our own call; then everything suddenly ceased. The ship was within reach, we knew, but there was no further answer to our constant query of P. H., P. H., P. H. Connections were broken in some way and it was for us to find out how.
The hunt that ensued for the cause would have put a Scotland Yard detective to the blush. One receiver was tried, adjusted, and readjusted, then the other was switched in and tested in the same way, but with no result. We went over every connection, breaking and remaking them all and taking especial care that the wires were bright and firmly attached, assuring ourselves that they were perfectly right. The "sparker" was examined, the leyden jars were replaced by new ones, and the great coil with its ninety miles of fine wire was critically examined. The insulation where the wires went through the roof might possibly have "short-circuited" during the rain, so this was taken out and renewed. Still there came no further answer to the raps of the sender. The trouble was surely outside the house. It might be a break in the wires aloft.
We went outside and gazed upward into the darkness, but the wires seemed to be intact. For an instant the full light of the moon flooded through the scurrying clouds and let us see where the trouble lay. From a nearby cleat the operator cast off the slender lines of the signal halyards, which had blown against the wires and thus grounded the line, and made them fast and taut some feet farther away; then he plunged into the house again.
The instrument was ticking cheerfully with a call from the Philadelphia and the tape was registering it accurately. We answered the call, and in another moment "talk" began to pass between the two ships--matters of interest to one ship or the other, messages between passengers, and finally the news of the day from either side. Two hours later the reading by sound became difficult, the tape began to miss, and the last faint goodbys were said.
Sometimes a vessel has been in almost daily communication with others all the way across. Such was a recent experience of the Ivernia. After leaving Liverpool, communication was kept up with the Marconi station at Waterloo until the Rosslare station called the ship. On the following day--Wednesday--when the liner was thirty miles off Queenstown, the Admiralty's station at Roche's Point informed her that the weather was too rough to send the tender outside, which necessitated entering the harbor. On leaving Queenstown bay, communication with an incoming steamer was established and kept up f or some time. At noon messages were exchanged with the Brow Haven station, eighty-five miles east, and rough weather and fog were reported ahead.
About ninety miles off Brow Head it was learned that a second-cabin passenger had lost her ticket. Queenstown was called, and it was learned from the office that the woman had bought a ticket, as she said. The difficulty was satisfactorily adjusted. The same day a homeward-bound steamer from New York was spoken, and many messages were exchanged between passengers. The next day another English ship sent word through the air, and on Sunday a German liner was heard from, the vessels communicating for some time over a distance of 100 miles. Immediately afterward a Frenchman was heard talking with the German. Monday was another busy day for the Marconi operator, for messages were exchanged with the Umbria, the Minneapolis, the Kroonland, and a Hamburg boat. The Marconi man on this trip earned his salary as well as the commendation of the ship's company.
To borrow money from a ship 100 miles away would have been an impossible feat a year or so ago, but recently it was accomplished by telegraph. A young man found himself aboard ship, homeward bound, his passage paid, but without money for incidental expenses and for landing. He knew that his mother was on an east bound ship. The probable date and hour of the meeting of the two vessels were calculated. The purser of the east-bound ship was instructed to lay the unfortunate's case before his mother. It took but a few minutes for her to place money in the hands of her purser, who instructed the purser of the west-bound liner to pay it to his passenger.
The charge for transmitting messages from ship to ship at sea is sixpence a word, with the address and signature free. From ship to shore the rate on the American side is $2 for ten words and twelve cents for each additional word, with no charge for address and signature, the regular tolls for transmission from the office on land to the final destination also being collected on shipboard, of course. On the English side the charge for a marconigram from a liner is six shillings for twelve words and sixpence for each additional word, the signature and address being charged for in this case.
The Marconi man's status on shipboard is that of a ship's officer. His duties are confined entirely to the management and handling of his instruments in the little office on the fiddley deck. At meals he may mess with the junior officers or sit with the saloon passengers. If, therefore, his work is arduous, he has at least pleasant surroundings. There is one post, however, which is much less comfortable than the service on a swift liner. That is the Nantucket South Shoals lightship, where two men are stationed the year round. In the ground swell of the shoals the vessel rolls and pitches unceasingly. From November until May the service is continuous, the operators not being relieved during that time; in the summer season they alternate between the ship and the shore station at Siasconset, one month ashore and two at sea. The lightship is farther from land than any in the world--fifty-two miles--and is visited only once a month by the lighthouse tender. In winter the weather is often so stormy that the tender is unable to reach the ship till weeks after the appointed time. The passing of each ship is chronicled by the Marconi men to the waiting wires ashore, messages and news pass constantly back and forth, and so excellent is the service that during a whole year there was but one interruption.