The Sur­pris­ingly Dra­matic His­tory of the Early Marine Ra­dio

Passage Maker - - Gear Products - BY CE­CILIA KIELY


A few years af­ter the start of the cen­tury, an ex­cit­ing new com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy is in­vented and rapidly adopted, con­nect­ing peo­ple around the globe and cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for news to be shared as it’s hap­pen­ing. Not un­til nearly a decade later does this tech­nol­ogy come un­der real scru­tiny when a ma­jor event in­cites in­ter­na­tional con­tro­versy. Politi­cians de­mand an­swers from the com­pany’s founder, and his tes­ti­mony sparks pub­lic de­bate: To what ex­tent should cor­po­ra­tions be held re­spon­si­ble for the use— or mis­use—of their tech­nol­ogy? When should a pri­vate tech­nol­ogy com­pany be reg­u­lated by the gov­ern­ment? And should the pub­lic good be pri­or­i­tized over a com­pany’s bot­tom line?

And at the cen­ter of this swirling con­tro­versy is one man, a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure more widely known for the com­pany he built (and the mo­nop­oly he cre­ated) than for his role in in­vent­ing the tech­nol­ogy it­self.

It’s not Mark Zucker­berg; it’s Mar­coni. Guglielmo Mar­coni, the in­ven­tor of the wire­less tele­graph. The year is 1912 and the R.M.S. Ti­tanic has just sunk. De­spite the ship be­ing out­fit­ted with Mar­coni’s new wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy, dis­as­ter was not averted. In the lit­eral wake of the tragedy, many ques­tions are still unan­swered: Why were the ice­berg warn­ings sent by other ves­sels in the vicin­ity not heeded? And why did it take so long for other ships to re­spond to the Ti­tanic’s dis­tress call?

At a time when so­cial me­dia giants like Face­book are be­ing questioned about their own self-reg­u­la­tion, it’s in­ter­est­ing to look at a strange his­tor­i­cal par­al­lel of when an­other tech­nol­ogy in­vented as a means of per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion ended up at the cen­ter of a de­bate about much larger is­sues. Though pre­vi­ous in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences had at­tempted to stan­dard­ize these new meth­ods of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the sink­ing of Ti­tanic gave these calls gravity and ur­gency—and re­sulted in the first real set of in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions. More than a cen­tury later, these ever-evolv­ing pro­to­cols for marine safety still rely in large part on the ra­dio tech­nol­ogy that evolved from Mar­coni’s in­ven­tion of the wire­less tele­graph: the old-fash­ioned, re­li­able VHF marine ra­diotele­phone.


The word “tele­graph” likely con­jures up a black-and-white im­age of some­one us­ing what is ac­tu­ally just one type of teleg­ra­phy,

the elec­tric tele­graph. This sys­tem was de­vel­oped in the late 1830s and 40s by mul­ti­ple in­ven­tors, most notably Sa­muel Morse, who also de­vel­oped the sys­tem of dots and dashes that would be pri­mar­ily used to send these mes­sages as a se­ries of elec­tric im­pulses over a wire. But be­fore Morse Code and the elec­tric tele­graph, ships re­lied on com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is con­sid­ered a type of teleg­ra­phy as well. These “op­ti­cal tele­graphs,” known more com­monly as sem­a­phores, were used to com­mu­ni­cate with other ships and those on shore us­ing a se­ries of dots in a grid or flags held in spe­cific po­si­tions. These mes­sages, of course, could only be re­layed when par­ties were within sight of one an­other.

While at­tempts to lay ca­bles across the At­lantic be­gan as early as 1858, these elec­tric tele­graph lines were not re­li­able un­til around 1866. But soon the tele­graph be­came an in­te­gral part of the ship­ping in­dus­try—and de­creased the in­de­pen­dence of cap­tains, who could now re­ceive in­struc­tions in the mid­dle of their voy­age and even be redirected to new mar­kets if the ship’s owner found a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity. But this still only af­fected ships when they were in port. Since this telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion re­lied on wires, it did not al­low for ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And that’s where Mar­coni saw a huge op­por­tu­nity to make money— there was no com­pe­ti­tion for this market.

Even af­ter Mar­coni de­vel­oped the tech­nol­ogy and proved it worked, he en­coun­tered what was in some ways a larger prob­lem: He couldn’t charge for pri­vate tele­grams. The British Post Of­fice had a mo­nop­oly on tele­grams, so Mar­coni could not make any money charg­ing for the mes­sages he was send­ing over his new wire­less tele­graph sys­tem. But there was no law pre­vent­ing him from sell­ing the wire­less ser­vice it­self. So in­stead of charg­ing per mes­sage, he rented out teams of wire­less ra­dio op­er­a­tors who in­stalled and ran the pro­pri­etary equip­ment. With an of­fi­cial “noin­t­er­com­mu­ni­ca­tions” pol­icy, these ra­dio op­er­a­tors would only re­ceive and/or re­lay mes­sages from other Mar­coni ra­dio teams— ex­cept, of course, in the case of emer­gency.


On the night of the sink­ing, the chief ra­dio op­er­a­tor aboard Ti­tanic, Jack Phillips, was work­ing through a back­log of mes­sages—mes­sages that in­cluded mul­ti­ple warn­ings of ice­bergs. In his book, Ti­tanic Le­gacy: Dis­as­ter as Me­dia Event and Myth, Paul Heyer pro­vides this some­what gen­er­ous read­ing of why Phillips missed these early warn­ings, not­ing, “Per­haps he for­got the pri­or­ity due nav­i­ga­tional mes­sages.” And this may seem ridicu­lous. Af­ter all, wasn’t his job to re­ceive and re­lay these types of im­por­tant mes­sages to the ship’s bridge? But this was a brand-new tech­nol­ogy and ra­dio op­er­a­tors filled a much dif­fer­ent role back then.

Ti­tanic’s op­er­a­tors were ex­pe­ri­enced wire­less op­er­a­tors but quite young: Phillips was only 25, and the ju­nior op­er­a­tor, Harold Bride, only 22. They were not part of Ti­tanic’s crew—in­stead they were in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors, em­ploy­ees of Mar­coni Marine, and were mostly seg­re­gated from the ship’s crew. They had their own sleep­ing quar­ters in the equip­ment room, and the two men didn’t eat or in­ter­act with the crew mem­bers or have any re­la­tion­ship with the of­fi­cers.

In many ways, these ra­dio op­er­a­tors hired out by Mar­coni Marine—teams of young men with very spe­cial­ized knowl­edge of a new tech­nol­ogy not well un­der­stood by their su­per­vi­sors— were more sim­i­lar to IT ser­vice sub­con­trac­tors than to mod­ern ra­dio of­fi­cers trained in sea­man­ship as well as com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy. So it was un­likely that ra­dio op­er­a­tors like Phillips and Bride would nat­u­rally pri­or­i­tize nav­i­ga­tion-re­lated mes­sages, and there was no stan­dard pro­to­col around han­dling their trans­mis­sion.

Most of the mes­sages they re­ceived were per­sonal transmissions. Luxury steamships hired ra­dio op­er­a­tors to re­lay per­sonal and busi­ness mes­sages for their wealthy pas­sen­gers. On these ships, the news was trans­mit­ted from shore and printed up for the pas­sen­gers each morn­ing. (They were the orig­i­nal “in-flight” mag­a­zines—with more up-to-date con­tent!) These mes­sages were es­sen­tial to the busi­ness model, cre­at­ing an in­her­ent ten­sion be­tween profit and pub­lic safety.

The other ma­jor is­sue that sur­faced as Ti­tanic sank was around the ac­tual dis­tress call. At the time there was no of­fi­cial in­ter­na­tional dis­tress call, though a con­fer­ence in Ger­many in 1906 had at­tempted to stan­dard­ize one. The British had been us­ing “CQD,” which was the gen­eral call (“CQ”) plus “D” for “dan­ger.” The Ger­mans sug­gested “SOS,” as its dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot pat­tern was easy to trans­mit and re­ceive un­mis­tak­ably, and many con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean ships be­gan to use that dis­tress sig­nal. But Mar­coni Marine con­tin­ued to use CQD. Phillips made his ini­tial at­tempts to contact ships in the area us­ing the CQD call, and only later did he try an SOS.

Many fac­tors con­trib­uted to the tragedy, but it was clear that reg­u­lat­ing marine com­mu­ni­ca­tion and stan­dard­iz­ing safety pro­to­cols could not wait. In re­sponse to the dis­as­ter, the first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) con­ven­tion was held in 1913.


Mar­coni’s wire­less ra­dioteleg­ra­phy (as it was orig­i­nally called since the sig­nal “ra­di­ated” in all di­rec­tions un­like the pointto-point sig­nal of the elec­tric tele­graph) was the pre­cur­sor to marine VHF ra­diotele­phone com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But the adop­tion of the VHF lacked the drama of the early days of the wire­less tele­graph. While the ra­diotele­phone trans­mit­ted voice in­stead of Morse Code, it was in many ways just an ex­ten­sion of ex­ist­ing

ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore com­mu­ni­ca­tions for which pro­to­cols and in­ter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions al­ready ex­isted.

Start­ing in the mid-1950s “very high fre­quency” be­gan to be used for spo­ken com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and the voice qual­ity was nearly as good as phone calls on land at the time. How­ever, these ra­dio broad­casts could only reach up to 25 nau­ti­cal miles, depend­ing on an­tenna height. Wire­less tele­graphs had ranges in the hun­dreds of miles in the day­time and up to over 2,000 miles at night. So use of VHF sys­tems be­gan slowly.

But busi­ness al­ways drives tech­nol­ogy adop­tion, and once port au­thor­i­ties, ship­ping ad­min­is­tra­tions, and pi­lots started mak­ing VHF ra­diotele­phones a requirement for their ships, use took off for recre­ational boaters as well. And in 1959, use of VHF com­mu­ni­ca­tion was so wide­spread that in­ter­na­tional mar­itime agree­ments were up­dated to in­clude the tech­nol­ogy.


While off­shore cruis­ers rely on spe­cial­ized equip­ment like sin­gleside­band (SSB) radios, satel­lite phones, and an ever-ex­pand­ing ar­ray of marine com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy for when they are out of VHF broad­cast range, the marine VHF ra­dio re­mains an es­sen­tial piece of safety equip­ment for the vast ma­jor­ity of boat own­ers. In its rec­om­men­da­tions for boaters the U.S. Coast Guard web­site puts it quite sim­ply: “Be­fore you pur­chase any­thing else, make sure you have a VHF marine ra­dio. A VHF marine ra­dio is the sin­gle most im­por­tant ra­dio sys­tem you should buy. It is prob­a­bly also the most in­ex­pen­sive.”

For near-shore res­cues and dis­tress calls, you can’t beat a VHF ra­dio—es­pe­cially with the dig­i­tal se­lec­tive call­ing (DSC) fea­ture that al­lows marine radios to au­to­mat­i­cally send dis­tress sig­nals. Whether man­ual or au­to­matic, a VHF dis­tress call is a broad­cast to all ves­sels in the area. Even if you have cell ser­vice (and your phone has mirac­u­lously man­aged to stay dry dur­ing your on­board emer­gency), a di­rect phone call to emer­gency ser­vices does not let nearby ves­sels know you’re in dis­tress. Es­pe­cially in pop­u­lar cruis­ing or fish­ing grounds, these other boats will likely arrive on the scene first.


For many years, ac­cess to VHF ra­dio put recre­ational boaters ahead of the tech­nol­ogy curve. Be­fore you could call a friend from your car to dis­cuss where to meet up, you could hail other ves­sels and ar­range a ren­dezvous. The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice was pro­vid­ing cruis­ers with up-to-date re­ports on weather con­di­tions long be­fore smart­phone apps made this in­for­ma­tion widely avail­able. And from the be­gin­ning, pro­to­col was es­tab­lished to make sure that dis­tress calls and safety bul­letins could cut through the chat­ter.

But while VHF eti­quette and safety pro­ce­dures evolved out of ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions govern­ing marine com­mu­ni­ca­tion, no such prece­dent ex­isted when Mar­coni first gave ships the abil­ity to send and re­ceive mes­sages at sea. It took a mon­u­men­tal in­ter­na­tional event to bring at­ten­tion to the lack of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity around the new sys­tems.

Mar­coni’s wire­less tech­nol­ogy may seem far re­moved from what we mean by wire­less tech­nol­ogy to­day. But short­hand used by wire­less tele­graph op­er­a­tors (GTH OM QRT = “Go to hell old man, I’m busy”) would not seem out of place in early in­ter­net cha­t­rooms (IMHO). And like the in­ter­net, wire­less teleg­ra­phy was a tech­nol­ogy pi­o­neered by a small group of (mostly) young and (nearly all) men who changed the way the world com­mu­ni­cated. While it of­ten seems that each new tech­nol­ogy that comes on the market forces us to chart a brand-new course, we could be bet­ter about find­ing his­tor­i­cal way­points to guide us.

If you’re in­ter­ested in more anal­y­sis of the events sur­round­ing the Ti­tanic dis­as­ter, check out Ti­tanic Le­gacy: Dis­as­ter as Me­dia Event and Myth by Paul Heyer (Praeger Pub­lish­ers, 1995).

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