One of radio's most important initial uses was for commercial communications for ocean-going vessels. This opening chapter from Collins' book reviews what it was like to travel across the Atlantic Ocean in the fall of 1911. In 1910, the United States had passed a radio act which required radio equipment aboard ocean-going passenger vessels, of any nationality, which visited U.S. ports. This act was strengthened in 1912, following the sinking of the Titanic. However, even before the 1910 act, most of the major passenger lines had already installed radio transmitters on their ships.

The ocean radio services also indirectly helped to promote land-based amateur radio. The nightly news summaries mentioned in this chapter, although sent by stations located along the coast, were audible throughout much of the continental United States. Thus, these broadcasts were an incentive for amateurs to set up receivers and learn the telegraphic code, so they could hear the news transmissions, and find out the latest news before the daily newspapers were delivered.

The Wireless Man, Francis A. Collins, 1912, pages 3-25:


SAILING day finds the wireless operator early at his post. Long before the passengers come aboard and commence to search for their state-rooms, the wireless booth is a center of activity. The machinery is carefully overhauled, supplies are looked to, and a number of test messages are sent out. The operators do not call up any one in particular at this time, but depend upon the sharp crack of the sending apparatus to tell them if everything is working properly. Every detail of the apparatus is examined, including of course the wires strung from the topmasts. The tests are made fully three hours before sailing, when the operators are free until the boat leaves, almost the only care-free interval they will have until the steamer is docked on the other side of the Atlantic. Sea Gate
    The first regular wireless message is sent out as the steamer slowly backs from her pier. It is timed just five minutes after sailing. The sharp crack of the sending apparatus is usually drowned by the roar of the whistle calling for a clear passage in mid-stream. All transatlantic steamers send to the wireless station at Sea Gate, while the coastwise steamers call up the station on top of one of the skyscrapers on lower Broadway. This is merely a formal message, but no wireless log would be complete without it. This first message is known as the "T R," no one seems to know just why. The wireless station replies as briefly as possible and the wireless operator shuts off.
    Business soon picks up. Before the passengers are through waving farewells some one has usually forgotten an errand ashore or decided to send a wireless (aërogram is the word) and visitors begin to look up the wireless station. It is usually a detached house on the uppermost or sun deck, just large enough for the mysterious-looking apparatus and a bunk or two. Before the voyage is over most of the passengers will have become very familiar with the station, for it is after all about the most interesting place aboard. If no messages are filed for sending, the operator picks up the shore station and clicks off the name of his ship, as for instance, "Atlantas. Nil here."
    Should the operator have any messages to file he will add the number, for example: "Atlantas 3."
    The receiving station picks this up and replies quickly. If it has no messages to send, it will reply, "O K Nil here."
    Should there be any messages to deliver it will reply, "O K G" (go ahead).
    All the way down the harbor the great ship is in constant communication, sending and receiving belated questions and answers. The passengers who have been calling their farewells from the ship's side as the waters widen are merely continuing their conversations with the shores now slipping rapidly past. Your message meanwhile will be delivered almost anywhere in the United States within an hour and in near-by cities in much less time. message
    The wireless service is the last detail needed to give you the impression that your steamer is a great floating hotel. A steward comes to your room to deliver an aërogram written on land a few minutes before, as any messenger boy would look you up at home. If you are walking on deck or lounging in the smoking room or library, you are paged exactly as in a hotel. Meanwhile a bulletin posted at the head of the main companionway or in the smoking-rooms, announces the latest weather forecast, the land station and the various ships then in wireless communication. A little later the daily newspaper will be published.
    One of a thousand advantages of having the wireless apparatus aboard is the control it gives the captain if his ship should chance to ground down the harbor. The ship's owners are informed about the trouble almost immediately and assistance can be rushed from the nearest point in a few minutes. There is the case, for instance, of the great liner with a thousand passengers which sailed from New York one election day and stuck her nose in the mud just inside Sandy Hook. Late at night a tug filled with newspaper men ran down the bay and came alongside. To their surprise they found the passengers in high good humor, lining the decks and shouting the latest election returns, which were being announced meanwhile in the cabin exactly as on any newspaper bulletin board.
    The ship keeps its wireless connection with land through the Sea Gate station for several hours, even after the point has been left far astern. If the vessel be bound down the coast, a formal report will be sent from the Ambrose lightship and later Scotland lightship. The transatlantic liner keeps her instrument carefully attuned to the tall masts at Sea Gate until she has left them about ninety miles behind. About this time she will add "Good-by" to one of her messages, and turn to the next wireless station on her course at Sagaponack, Long Island. Throughout the long run along the shore of North America she will let go one wireless grasp only when another is within easy reach.
    Out here on the Atlantic, far out of sight of land, the wireless station becomes far more interesting than it appears ashore or alongside the dock. A shore station may be a marvelous toy, but at sea this invisible link with the land is always more or less in one's mind. The door of the wireless booth seems to open upon a bridge which crosses the sea. The wireless room has the fascination of a newspaper bulletin board, since all the news must reach one by this channel.
    It is considered a great privilege to "listen in" during an Atlantic crossing. There are very few hours indeed when a visitor to the wireless-house cabin would not be seriously in the way. If a corner of the cabin be found for you, however, and the receiving apparatus clasped to your ears, you will be amazed to find how busy the apparatus is kept. The air above New York harbor is far more crowded with wireless messages than are the waters with ships. You are, besides, in range of many commercial stations and hundreds of amateurs. Long after the shores have disappeared from view the incessant chatter continues.
    Before an hour has passed the visitor finds himself distinguishing between the faint long distance calls and the local wireless messages. With a little more practice it would be possible to recognize the touch of some of the operators.
    Some four hours after your ship has passed out of Sandy Hook, or after a ninety mile run, the operator bids the Sea Gate station good-by and begins to feel ahead for the next stations at Sagaponack or Siasconset. If your ear is sensitive, you have probably heard Nantucket's call some time before. For a few minutes all sending and receiving is stopped while the ship throws out her name, over and over again. Soon the wireless man catches Nantucket's reply, and explains that he could recognize the operator's sending among a thousand.
    "It is as easy to recognize an operator from his touch as it is to pick out a familiar voice in a crowd," he continues. "They sound much alike to you, but you will soon get to know a man's speed, his touch of the key, whether light, strong, or hesitating. Almost every operator, besides, has some little trick of his own. Then there is a great deal of difference in the machines themselves."
    Then he plunges into the work of sending and receiving messages. It was the Nantucket station, he will explain to you, that first picked up the C.Q.D. call of the ill-fated Republic and by its promptness gave the rescue steamers the news in time to save all on board. The first call of a station is always listened to with a thrill of expectation.
    An incessant chatter of shore talk reaches every ship, but your boat, you will find, has no time for idle gossip. Let a faint call flash in from the Atlantic and every nerve is strained to catch it. From now on you will be constantly picking up news from the incoming steamers and their messages are certain to be interesting. When a steamer is far out on the Atlantic and out of direct communication with the stations near New York it is cheaper to relay messages from one steamer to another than to send to the far northern stations and have them cable New York. In other words the steamers scattered along the ocean lanes are used as stepping stones to communicate with New York, and vice versa.
    About this time you may look for news from the steamers on "the banks," as the region along the eastern shore of Newfoundland is called. Such news is of the greatest importance and must be carried instantly to the captain, who makes his plans accordingly. The incoming steamer reports the weather, the presence of fogs or icebergs and their exact location. News of this kind takes precedence over everything else and the apparatus is tuned to catch these reports whether it gets the regular messages or not.
    Your wireless operator seems to be on the friendliest possible terms with all the wireless stations. The men are constantly changing about between the ships and the shore stations. To this group of operators the world seems small indeed. The men may not meet for years and yet in stations thousands of miles apart this friendship is kept alive by almost constant conversation.
    When Siasconset is dropped astern the apparatus is attuned to the lonely station at Cape Sable on the bleak shores of Nova Scotia. The steamer has been plowing steadily ahead for two days over the trackless ocean, but is still in almost instant communication with its last port. The wireless man will probably find time for a friendly word or two to cheer up the lonely watchers in these northern stations. The operator on one of our crossings explained that on his westward trip a few days before Cape Sable had been silent for as much as half an hour. There had been a slight accident to the machinery and in this isolated position the wireless man must make his own repairs. Our operator understood perfectly, but he found time to ask his friend if the fishing were good and received instantly an indignant reply.
    After Cape Sable, the ship continues its shore messages through the wireless station at Sable Island. Our ship is far north now and the wireless stations are well up towards the region of perpetual snows. If you have sailed out of New York on a hot summer's day it will be difficult to picture to yourself the man who is now talking to you, perhaps wrapped in heavy winter clothing, looking out on a field of ice. It is not uncommon to receive messages from the tropics and from the stations near the Arctic circle at the same moment. If the operator wishes to do so, he can tune his instrument now to pick up the series of wireless stations scattered along the Labrador coast. These stations are not used by the transatlantic steamers but work only with the vessels, sealing expeditions, etc., plying in these waters.
    The good ship is now nearing the easternmost point of North America and picks up the last land station at Cape Race. Once more a batch of messages is received and despatched. Cape Race is not a post to be coveted. It is one of the most isolated in the world and throughout the greater part of the year perhaps the coldest. Operators stationed here have gone blind from the glare of the sun upon unbroken ice fields. In leisure hours they have some compensation in hunting wild northern game. Yet throughout the long Arctic winters they have the latest news only a few minutes later than the newspaper offices in London or New York. An operator stationed here once broke the monotony of his life by betting with the wireless men on the ships on the baseball games which were reported to him, inning by inning. newspaper
    Ever since the steamer left New York the editors of her daily newspaper have been receiving the latest news and publishing it in their daily editions exactly as in any well-equipped newspaper ashore. This news is sent out regularly from a station at Cape Cod. The news of the world, including the latest stock-exchange quotations, is boiled down to five hundred words and is sent broadcast out across the Atlantic at ten o'clock every night. It is thrown out for about 1,800 miles in all directions so that any vessel between America and the middle of the ocean may catch it. When the despatch is completed there is a pause of fifteen minutes, when it is repeated over the same enormous area and the repetitions continue steadily until 12:30. The ships suit their own convenience, picking up the news at the most convenient hour, when they are not engaged with other messages.
    When the calls from the Cape Race station grow faint and are finally cut off, our steamer ends its direct service to shore. We are now more than one-third of the way across the Atlantic. Nevertheless the ship is rarely ever completely out of touch with the shore throughout the crossing. The ocean lanes are so peopled with great ships that a message can be relayed from ship to ship and thence to the land station in an incredibly short time.
    And for nearly a thousand miles farther across the Atlantic the regular news service still pursues our ship, to the very middle of the Atlantic. Regularly every night at 10:30 the operator tunes his instrument to the Cape Cod station and writes down the latest news at the dictation of the operator now more than a thousand miles away. The ship's course has marked off a considerable arc of the circumference of the globe and the ship's time has been set ahead until the news sent out at ten arrives early in the evening, even before it is dark.
    Half way across the Atlantic, before the Cape Cod messages have died away, our operator catches his first message from Europe, flung out to welcome him from the powerful station at Poldhu on the Cornwall coast. There is no region of the broad Atlantic so remote that we cannot listen to one or the other of these stations. Poldhu sends out news and the stock reports, five hundred words, exactly as does Cape Cod, beginning every morning at two and repeating the messages at regular intervals until three o'clock. And so the wireless newspaper you pick up at your breakfast in any region of the Atlantic is quite as up-to-date as the one you read at home.
    Even in the middle of the Atlantic there is very little rest for the wireless operators. There is scarcely an hour our ship is not in communication with one or more vessels. On a single crossing of one of the great steamships there are from five to six hundred wireless messages transmitted and received. When a ship is picked up a notice is posted in the companionway, smoking-room, and elsewhere, announcing that messages may be sent to such a vessel up to an hour, easily calculated, when she will be out of range. There are sure to be a number of passengers on board with friends on other vessels who are only too glad to exchange messages.
    The first direct landward messages are exchanged with the station at Crookhaven on the Irish coast. Land will not be sighted for many hours but the passengers are at once busied with preparations for going ashore. There are scores of messages filed for both sides of the Atlantic, announcing a safe arrival, for under the protecting arms of the wireless one feels himself almost ashore. Greetings are exchanged, invitations extended, and the details of land journeys arranged.
    When Crookhaven is dropped the Liverpool steamer next picks up the wireless station of Rosslare at Queenstown, and Seaforth at Liverpool. For the other steamers there is the Lizard, Bolt Head, Niton, and Cherbourg, passing in rapid succession.
    But the thrill of the ancient sea-cry of "Land ho!" has been anticipated a thousand miles off shore.


Sept. 28 -- In communication with Liverpool all day.
Sept.29 -- In communication with Crookhaven all day.
Sept.29 -- 12:40 a.m., signaled Scheveningen Haven, 315 miles.
Sept.29 -- 1:50 a.m., signaled Pola, Austria, 930 miles.
Sept.29 -- 9:20 p.m., signaled Scheveningen Haven, 600 miles.
Sept.30 -- 12:20 a.m., signaled St. Marie-de-la-Mer, 920 miles.
Sept.30 -- 1:11 a.m., signaled Seaforth, Liverpool, 400 miles.
Sept.30 -- 2:40 a.m., signaled Scheveningen Haven, 705 miles.
Sept.30 -- 10:39 p.m., signaled Seaforth, Liverpool, 800 miles. Sent messages.
Oct.1 -- 3:20 a.m., signaled Seaforth, Liverpool, 890 miles.
Oct.1 -- 9:30 p.m., signaled S.S. Cameronia, 1,000 miles.
Oct.2 -- 1:40 a.m., signaled Cape Race, 900 miles. Sent messages.
Oct.2 -- 2 a.m., signaled Seaforth, Liverpool, 1,250 miles.
Oct.2 -- 7:45 p.m., signaled Cape Race, 550 miles. Sent messages.
Oct.3 -- In communication with Cape Race all day.
Oct.3 -- 11:59 p.m., in communication with S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II, eastbound, and remained in touch until 8:50 p.m. on Oct. 5th, making over 1,000 miles ahead and astern. Kaiser says, "We cannot get out of your range."
Oct.4 -- In communication with Cape Race and Sable Island all day.
Oct.5 -- In communication with Sable Island and Cape Sable all day.
Oct.6 -- In communication with Cape Sable, Siasconset, Sagaponack, Cape May, Sea Gate, all day.
Oct.7 -- In communication with Sea Gate. Docked 8 a.m.

    On October 2nd the Cedric was in communication with both Cape Race and Seaforth together; the signals from both stations were very good, the total distance covered from Cape Race to Seaforth being 2190 miles.