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Radio at Sea (1891-1922)
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The first major use of radio was for navigation, where it greatly reduced the isolation of ships, saving thousands of lives, even though for the first couple of decades radio was generally limited to Morse code transmissions. In particular, the 1912 sinking of the Titanic highlighted the value of radio to ocean vessels.
Pre-Radio Technologies -- Early Radio Development -- Commercial Service -- SOS Distress Call -- Radio Use During Emergencies -- Shipboard Newspapers


Prior to the introduction of radio, maritime communication was generally limited to line-of-sight visual signalling during clear weather, plus noise-makers such as bells and foghorns with only limited ranges. Beginning in the mid-1800s, an international convention was developed using special semaphore flags to exchange messages between merchant ships, as reviewed by the The International Code of Signals section of the 1916 edition of Brown's Signalling. In the same book, Examination Paper on the use of the International Code of 1901 provided an overview of signalling proficiency that a candidate needed to master in order to qualify for a Certificate of Competency issued by the British Board of Trade Examinations. Over time an extensive vocabulary of signals was created, even as the expansion of radio was beginning to make visual signalling obsolete. The Urgent and Important Signals: Two Flag Signals section of Brown's Signalling reviewed over 600 basic signals, grouped by category, with meanings as diverse as "Where are you bound?" (SH), "In distress; want immediate assistance" (NC), "Keep a good look-out, as it is reported that the enemy's war vessels are going about disguised as merchantmen" (OJ), and "Heave to or I will fire into you" (ID). And in addition to the two-flag signals, there were thousands of three- and four- flag groupings, for communicating a huge variety of messages, including ship identifiers, geographical names, temperature and barometer readings, compass points, and units of measurement. The thousands of signals in part resulted from an apparent attempt to include every possible variation of a phrase, e.g. BUP stood for "He, She, It (or person-s or thing-s indicated) had (has, or, have) not done (or, is, or, are not doing)", which is included in a small selection of these additional signals from the U.S. Navy's 1909 edition of The International Code of Signals. The development of radio resulted, by 1911, in the addition of two more visual signals -- ZMX for "Wireless telegraph apparatus" and ZMY for "Report me by wireless telegraphy" -- which heralded the beginning of a major decline in the use of seaboard visual signals. However, to this day, NC continues to be an international distress signal when using flag signalling.

In the 1872 edition of the annual Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, Captain P. Columb's Visual Telegraphy. Signals of Distress, &c., in the Mercantile Marine reviewed the confusion and limitations currently encountered by ships trying communicate during emergencies, while suggesting that the "immediate object for the Telegraph Engineer... should be devising means for communicating at night, and in fog". Thomas Edison attempted to provide a solution in 1885, applying for a U.S. patent for a Means for Transmitting Signals Electrically, an invention with which he believed "signals can be sent and received between ships separated a considerable distance". (Although this system was designed to transmit wireless telegraph signals, it employed electrostatic induction rather than radio waves). Edison was issued U.S. patent 465,971 in December, 1891, which caused a brief flurry of excitement--in its May, 1892 issue, The Sailors' Magazine and Seamen's Friend reprinted a short report from The Marine Journal, Sea  Telegraphy, which proclaimed that "Once this device is in general operation, there is sure to be a remarkable decrease in loss of life at sea." However, the new system's range proved to be much more limited than expected, and was never put into commercial operation. The May 8, 1898 New York World Sunday Magazine reviewed, under the somewhat misleading title of Official Wireless War News Under Water Demonstrated by the World, a successful telegraphic test transmission through three miles (five kilometers) of water, conducted by C. E. Dolbear, but by now it was becoming apparent that radio transmissions would soon be much more efficient and flexible.


Just a few years after Heinrich Hertz's historic proof of the existence of electromagnetic radiation, the Notes section of the April 10, 1891 The Electrician (London) included a strikingly advanced suggestion, that someday lightships might use microwave beams to overcome the problem of fog interfering with shore communication. In a December, 1891 lecture given at Inverness, Scotland, Frederick T. Trouton returned to this topic, noting that "There is little doubt that a powerful beam of this sort would, unlike light, be unabsorbed by fog; so, looking into the future, one sees along our coasts the light-houses giving way to the electric house, where electric rays are generated and sent out, to be received by suitable apparatus on the passing ships, with the incomparable advantage that at the most critical time--in foggy weather--the ship would continue to receive the guiding rays." A similar prediction appeared in the July, 1892 issue of The New England Magazine, as an extract from Elihu Thompson's Future Electrical Development stated "electricians are not without some hope that signalling or telegraphing for moderate distances without wires, and even through dense fog may be an accomplished fact soon", making possible a sort of radio-wave lighthouse. Similar ideas were expressed by A. E. Dolbear in The Future of Electricity from the March, 1893 Donahoe's Magazine.

Although it would turn out to take decades before practical microwave transmissions were developed, it was only a few years later that Marconi would introduce a successful system using longwave signals, and soon many of the larger passenger liners began carrying radio equipment. The addition of shipboard operators quickly captured the public imagination -- The Work of a Wireless Telegraph Man, by Winthrop Packard, from the February, 1904 The World's Work, recounted the activities of a Marconi operator on the passenger liner St. Paul, at a time when shipboard radio transmitters were so rare that operators had to wait for other similarly-equipped vessels to come into range. The October 12, 1907 issue of The Outlook reported about initial tests of Wireless Telephones at Sea, conducted using DeForest equipment on the U.S. Navy's Connecticut and Virginia, noting that "The practical possibilities of these mysterious ways of communicating the voice and messages promise in the near future a practical reduction of the remaining perils of sea travel." Arthur D. Howden Smith reviewed the many contributions of assorted Men of the Wireless in the April, 1909 Putnam's Magazine. In the October, 1910 The Railroad Telegrapher, the Log of a Naval Wireless Telegrapher by an unnamed "correspondent", an experienced landline telegrapher recounted the frustrations of working at a coastal naval station, communicating with poorly trained Navy radio operators along the northeast Atlantic coast, including one who wanted to "run my batteries down again to practice with him by telling him what I think of hams in general and him in particular". In the December 23, 1911 issue of Chamber's Journal, an unnamed Marconi Wireless operator reminisced about a decade of Life as a Wireless Telegraphist, including a time when mysterious printing by a tape-coherer receiver turned out to be due to the fact that "a big beetle was crawling about the relay of the receiver". The September 11, 1913 New York Herald reported that the Prince of Monaco Sees City After Forty-Five Years and Explains Musical Mystery of the Sea -- the "musical mystery" was that the spark set on board the steam yacht Hirondell had been designed with adjustable tones, so it could be used to play simple tunes. Sparks of the Wireless by Walter S. Hiatt in the April, 1914 Scribner's Magazine took a romantic view of the life of radio operators on ocean-going vessels, declaring "The youths of the world are running away to sea again".


Radio on the high seas soon developed practical applications. Wireless Telegraphy on Mail Steamers, from the November 19, 1904 Electrical Review, featured Emile Guarini's overview of radiotelegraphic operations by mail packets running between Ostend, Belgium and Dover, England. Wireless Tracking of Fish, from the December 1, 1906, Electrical World, reported that six Atlantic Coast vessels of The Fisheries Company had been outfitted with DeForest equipment, so they would be able to "notify each other and all assemble without delay to the location where the fish are being caught". By 1912, when Francis A. Collins' The Wireless Man was published, all the major passenger liners were equipped with radio transmitters. In the opening chapter of this book, Across the Atlantic, Collins reviewed how radio now kept vessels on transatlantic voyages in nearly constant communication with shore stations and each other. Initially large passenger liners were the primary commercial ocean-going vessels to install radio transmitters. But in the 1913 edition of Marconi's annual The Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony, Wireless Telegraphy and the Mercantile Marine promoted the money-saving benefits of radio for smaller ships, proclaiming that "Wireless telegraphy is now recognised as an essential part of the equipment of ocean-going passenger vessels, and, to a rapidly increasing extent, of cargo vessels and smaller craft." The 1916 edition of Brown's Signalling noted that "Any book dealing with signalling in general is incomplete without a reference to wireless telegraphy which, for mercantile signalling, offers so many advantages over other methods of signalling" in its The Quenched Spark System section, which featured a shipboard installation offered by Siemens. The General Information chapter of Percy S. Harris' 1917 book, The Maintenance of Wireless Telegraph Apparatus, covered the basics for operating a Marconi shipboard radio installation, in part noting that "Nothing is more irritating than to find, when the point of a pencil suddenly breaks, that there are no sharpened pencils in reserve." After World War One, the development of vacuum-tube transmitters made radio telephones practical, and an advertisement in the December, 1920 issue of Motor Boating promoted the De Forest OT-10 transmitter for use by "yachts and motor boats", while the April, 1922 issue of AT&T's Long Lines magazine reviewed, in Telephoning to Sea, an early experiment by AT&T communicating between a land station located at Deal Beach, New Jersey and the S. S. America.


In 1905, the distinctive Morse code character string ...---... (SOS) was adopted by Germany for signifying distress, as reported in German Regulations for the Control of Spark Telegraphy, from the May 5, 1905 issue of The Electrician. (A German-language account of the adoption of the April 1, 1905 regulations appeared in the April 27, 1905 issue of Elektrotechnische Zeitschrift: Regelung der Funkentelegraphie im Deutschen Reich). In 1906, SOS was adopted at the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention as the official international standard for distress calls, although Marconi operators in particular were slow to conform -- G. E. Turnbull's Distress Signalling, from the 1913 edition of the annual The Yearbook of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony, noted that the Marconi companies had adopted "C.Q.D." as a distress signal in 1904, only to have it supplanted by the international ratification of "SOS" two years later. Turnbull reports that even after this some of the old-time Marconi operators continued to use C.Q.D. for a time, although "The change of the call letter is, however, a sentimental regret, and 'C.Q.D.' is being gradually forgotten." However, in 1909 not all the Marconi operators had made the switch, reflected by the title of Alfred M. Caddell's article about the sinking of the Republic, C Q D, which appeared in the April, 1924 issue of Radio Broadcast magazine. The February, 1909 issue of Modern Electrics printed a transcript of radio communication related to this event in Operator Binns' Wireless Log. And a review by Baltic Captain J. B. Ranson of the twelve long hours it took to find the Republic, The Triumph of Wireless from the February 6, 1909 issue of The Outlook, included Ranson's opinion that, due to recent scientific advances -- especially radio communication -- "the passenger on a well-equipped transatlantic liner is safer than he can be anywhere else in the world." (Because three-dashes in American Morse stood for the digit "5", unlike International Morse where it stood for the letter "O", in some U.S. practice the distress signal was referred to as "S5S", for example, "S 5 S" Rivals "C Q D" for Wireless Honors, from the February, 1910 Popular Mechanics.)


Radio greatly reduced the terrible isolation of ships during emergencies, and was quickly responsible for saving thousands of lives. Notable Achievements of Wireless, from the September, 1910 Modern Electrics, reviewed the accumulating examples where radio had provided maritime assistance, beginning with the January, 1909 sinking of the Republic. However, initially there was some resistance among shipline owners. Schwerin's Objections to the Wireless, from the August 11, 1909 Hawaiian Star, reported the belief of a vice-president of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company that "When the water struck the engine-room of the Republic the wireless machine was rendered useless and all the talk of Binns' heroic conduct was made out of whole cloth", and "I fail to see that the wireless in any way protects a vessel from disaster." Thomas Appleby remembered a less serious 1909 event, when, as an operator at station AX in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he "babysat" a burning ship which eventually made its way safely to port.

In late 1924, Radio Age magazine ran a four-part series, Reminiscences of an Old Operator, which reviewed Arthur Leech's work as an Atlantic Coast ship operator, starting in 1909 at the age of 15 -- included was a recounting of the sinking of the Merida in 1911, when it took a couple of hours before any other operators were awake to hear the distress call. Radio Broadcast later ran two articles about SOS emergencies which had occurred in the 1910s, written by George F. Worts under the heading "Adventures of a Wireless Free-Lance". My First SOS--A Farce Comedy was humorous, while A Thrill that Came Thrice in a Night-time reviewed a series of events which saw both rescue and tragedy. Some Stirring Wireless Rescues, a chapter from Francis A. Collins' 1912 The Wireless Man, reviewed a number of incidents which had occurred over the previous three years, while noting that radio had changed things so much that an "up-to-date Robinson Crusoe", instead of facing years of isolation after a shipwreck, would now be able to radio for help, then listen to the latest stock market quotations while awaiting rescue. However, radio did not eliminate all the fatalities, as American Marconi's J. Andrew White, in the July, 1915 The World's Advance, reported the dedication of A Memorial Fountain to Wireless Operators, which commemorated ten operators who had lost their lives at sea. A February 1, 1916 pamphlet issued by the Department of Commerce, Important Events in Radiotelegraphy, included an extensive section, Wireless as a Safeguard to Life at Sea, reviewing radio's use in seagoing emergencies and rescues. In 1919, David W. Bone reviewed British World War One maritime activities in his book Merchantmen-at-Arms, and noted in the On Signals and Wireless chapter that "If to one man we seaman owe a debt unpayable, Marconi holds the bond". During the war, radio operator Dale Clemons kept a diary of his harrowing Atlantic run aboard an armed freighter, which his daughter, Bette J. Clemons, drew upon to document his adventures in a 1991 book, Wake of the Wirelessman (radio operations extracts).

One of the most dramatic sea disasters was the sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic on the morning of April 15, 1912. The Titanic -- along with the Carpathia, which picked up the survivors -- was staffed by Marconi Wireless operators, and Marconi shore stations along the Canadian, Newfoundland, and U.S. coasts handled most of the communication as the Carpathia slowly made its way to New York City. In addition, many inland stations tried to get information about the disaster, which in this unregulated era resulted in extensive interference and confusion. Included in all this was the American Marconi equipped facility, MHI, located atop the New York Wanamaker department store, where David Sarnoff was station manager. Sarnoff would later vastly exaggerate his importance, in progressively embellished retellings, including completely false claims that he was first in the United States to hear of the disaster, and that President Taft silenced other stations so that Sarnoff could become the sole link for gathering information. However, the operators at the New York Wanamaker station did spend long hours listening for reports and survivor lists. A collection of extracts about the Titanic comes from the Boston American and recountings by David Sarnoff: The Titanic and the New York Wanamaker Station. Marconi management also sent messages to the operators aboard the Carpathia, telling them to limit what they were publicly reporting, until their accounts could be sold to the newspapers. These activities, plus a complaint that the operators aboard the Carpathia were unresponsive to Navy vessels sent by U.S. President Taft, were covered by the New York Herald: Marconi Company and Titanic Disaster Communication. Amateur radio operators were blamed for much of the chaos experienced immediately after the Titanic sank, but it has never really been clear how many of the problems were actually their fault. In 1922, in The Book of Radio (Titanic extract), Charles William Taussig wrote about the next evening after the Titanic sank, as amateur operators, voluntarily responding to the emergency, scrupulously maintained complete radio silence in the New York City area, in order to avoid interfering with the survivor lists being transmitted by the Salem.


One area where radio's revolutionary effect on ocean-going communication was readily apparent was when shipboard newspapers started to include daily news summaries. As early as 1899 Guglielmo Marconi used onboard reception in order to prepare a shipboard newspaper, as reported in A Wireless Telegraphy Newspaper, from the November 22, 1899 Electrical Review. Regular nightly summary news transmissions by Marconi shore stations followed, beginning in June, 1904 -- their introduction was reported in Mid-Sea Wireless Telegraph News, from the May, 1904 The Electrical Age. Thanks to radio, the late 1906 issues of the S. S. Hamburg's onboard newspaper, The Atlantic Daily News, featured news reports "received by Special Marconigrams", and passengers were also notified that they could send telegrams to nearby ships and shore stations.

"Until the dawn of this century ships great and small sailed for distant ports and, once they had passed over the horizon, were lost to the world until weeks or months later when they were again sighted on shore. Once out of sight of land those who went down to the sea in ships belonged to another world--a world of stark loneliness and utter silence. Ships burned or foundered in storms with not so much as a whisper reaching land to tell their fate. The crew of a sinking or burning ship fought their battle for life, silently and alone. Wireless telegraphy with its magic powers was to wrest from the sea its ancient terror of silence and to give speech to ships which had been mute since the dawn of navigation."--Karl Baarslag, SOS to the Rescue, 1935.