By: John Shepler
Harold Cottam feels his heart move into his throat as the unmistakable hissing of the Marconi signal pulsates through his headphones. Shhhhh Shh Shhhhh Shh, Shhhhh Shhhhh Shh Shhhhh, Shhhhh Shh Shh. The international Morse code letters CQD, a general distress call to anyone listening. At the transmitting end, a 5,000 watt blue arc flashes on and off as JackPhillips, Chief Marconi Operator on Titanic, keys out the words "Come at once. We have struck a berg."
It's 12:25 AM the morning of April 15, 1912, and the most remarkable drama is playing out on the calm waters of the North Atlantic. Harold Cottam jumps from his wireless station aboard the Carpathia and dashes to find his Captain, as Phillips has requested. They are not the closest known vessel, but the first to positively respond that they are coming to the rescue of Titanic's crew and passengers. As Carpathia fires up her boilers, Jack Phillips continues to pound the key. CQD DE MGY. General distress call to all stations from Titanic.
The wireless is exciting new technology that fires the imagination of young men in the early part of the century. Jack Phillips is 25 years old. His deputy, Harold Bride is 21. Cottam is about that age, too. In New York City, another 21 year old once known to his friends as Davey Sarnoff, the newsboy, will soon take his seat at the Marconi Wireless station atop the Wanamaker Hardware building and not get up again for 72 hours. He will be the primary source of information for terrified families who want to know if their loved ones make it onto the Carpathia or....
Phillips is dog tired from an evening of sending and receiving the banal messages that first class passengers fund from what seems like an endless supply of shillings. So frequent and persistent are they, that Phillips has no time to run ice warnings up to the bridge. He hangs them up in the wireless room and continues to key the spark. About 11 PM he snaps at the wireless operator on the Californian, parked for the night just 10 miles or so away. The intensity of the Californian's transmission just about knocks Jack's headset off as he strains to hear the faint incoming messages. "Shut up, shut up! I am busy; I am working Cape Race!
Harold Bride wakes up and goes to relieve Jack Phillips, just as Captain Smith pokes his head in the doorway and asks for the distress call. The Cape Race traffic is quickly forgotten. Phillips switches to CQD. Bride quips that he should send the new call, SOS "It might be your last chance to send it." Phillips laughs and quickly mingles the letters SOS with CQD.
His hand never leaves the key. Bride goes to get Phillips' money for him and a life vest for himself, and he sees that the ship is listing heavily and people are starting to panic. The Captain comes to tell them they've done their duty, it is time to go. Phillips keeps sending and sending until the water starts to wash into the wireless room. A stoker comes up from behind and tries to swipe his life jacket, but Bride whacks him before he can. The two young wireless operators then head out, with Phillips running aft and Bride looking for the collapsible boat he earlier saw being readied. Amazingly, there are men still trying to get it overboard, so he lends a hand and is washed overboard and under the raft.
Bride's old teachers from his home in Beckenham, England would later claim that it was their compulsory swimming classes that saved him that night, as he swam away from the feared Titanic suction and into the waiting hands of the men who pull him aboard the capsized collapsible. There they wait and pray the Lord's prayer until they are hoisted aboard another lifeboat already filled to capacity.
In the morning, the Carpathia arrives and the men are taken up a rope ladder. When it is his turn, Bride passes a dead man on his way to the ladder. He can see it is Jack Phillips, who made it to the same boat but expired from hypothermia and perhaps the exhaustion of never taking a break from the stress of that day and night.
Bride spends a day in the ship's hospital having his legs attended to. They had been wrenched by another man laying on top of him while they straddled the capsized raft. He hadn't the heart to ask him to move. That night on the Carpathia, Bride is asked if he can help out with the wireless, and he takes his place at the key once again. The sputtering of the spark is a familiar voice, and the traffic reconnects him with the world of friends and home.
Harold Bride stayed with the wireless through the First World War and later tinkered with his own transmitter at home. He never again spoke of the Titanic disaster and died of cancer in 1956. David Sarnoff, who relayed the names of survivors from his wireless station in New York, became convinced that radio was the future and arranged for RCA to broadcast the Jack Dempsey, Georges Carpentier heavyweight championship fight in 1921. Hundreds of thousands tuned in. Sarnoff rose to become chairman of RCA. He was instrumental in establishing both commercial radio and television broadcasting. The SOS code that Jack Phillips established that night in April became the now famous international distress call, replacing CQD.
In 1998, wireless transmissions from global positioning satellites marked the position of the Titanic's resting place to within a few feet. Live television signals from a robot sub allowed us to once again reenter the wireless cabin of Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, where the Marconi tuning coils were seen still attached to the wall, still ready to oscillate with the signal CQD DE MGY.
First Radio Contact with Titanic made at Tenerife
"The first radio contact made from the Titanic was with the Coastal Station "Tenerife Radio" in Tenerife, Canary Islands, that was in the city of La Laguna, 600 meters over the sea level, in the zone named "Field of the Telegraph" in Geneto. This station had a goos rombical antenna. Because I live near from her I took this photo for you. It shows the "Field of the Telegraph" (Campo del Telegrafo) and the building of the old station. Today the station is not here, nor is the logbook . Only several persons are living here and they know nothing about this. But you can see the cramp iron steels for going up to the roof, and the ground is sufficiently large for a rombic antenna. Of course, when child I was here I saw everything. By radio, from time to time, I listened to the CQ of spark systems, like a bzzzzzzzz. After the year 1930, the station was put in another place not so high (from 600 meters over the sea level it passed to 300 metes over the sea level). After 1960 the station was translated again to a higher place, very far from here. At 1970 it finally was translated to another island. The logbook, keyers , etc. have disappeared. Tje magazin CQ for radioamateurs, Spanish edition, published an long article about it in January and February of this year (1999)." --- Best regards, EA8EX, Francisco Jose Davila Dorta.
Books of Interest:
Anatomy of the Titanic by Tom McCluskie. Through original drawings and notes, public records, and period photographs, "Anatomy of the Titanic" provides a stem-to-stern examination of the structure of the greatest maritime venture of its era. 200 photos plus drawings & cutaways.
Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? - Edited by Martin Gardner. This book contains the short story "Wreck of the Titan" by Morgan Robertson, also known as "Futility."
Titanic Survivor The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop Who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters by Violet Jessop and John Maxtone-Graham. Violet Jessop was probably the only rescued person with a toothbrush after the Britannic struck a mine and sank. But then she had been on the Titanic four years earlier and remembered what she had missed... In 1934, she wrote her memoirs. Few, if any, ocean liner stewardesses ever wrote their memoirs; hence, Violet Jessop's life story is doubly valuable - one of a kind as well a articulate, authoritative and informative. From her unique vantage point, whetherin pantry or glory hole, on deck or in a lifeboat, we are suddenly privy to below-stairs life aboard the great ocean liners.
Molly Brown: Unravelling the Myth by Kristen Iverson, with a forward by Muffet Brown, Maggie's great granddaughter. This is an extensively researched biography, the first really serious study of this fascinating woman who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most talked about people of the century.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
Titanic: The final messages from a stricken ship - BBC News article describing the CQD message history and details.
Is This The Most Famous Radio Transmission Ever Made - The Titanic radio operators last transmissions and the tragedy that followed.
Violet Jessop, Survivor of the Titanic, Olympic and Britannic Shipwrecks -The amazing story of another Titanic survivor.
Unsinkable Molly Brown, Tougher than Titanic - A related article on the life and times of the amazing Maggie Brown.
Encyclopedia Titanica - An in-depth resource for anyone interested in the Titanic. Contains over 2,000 biographies, 700 related documents, 1,000 photos, ship's deck plans, movies and animation. Serious researchers and casual browsers will find what they are looking for here.
Copyright 1998 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: September 6, 1998 as part of A Positive Light