Photograph by Roger Viollet, Getty
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RMS Titanic was outfitted with wireless technology that allowed passengers to send messages while at sea.

Photograph by Roger Viollet, Getty
HistoryExplainer

Why Titanic’s first call for help wasn’t an SOS signal

The wireless technology that saved hundreds from the shipwreck was in its infancy, and competing distress signals didn’t help.

When RMS Titanic set sail in 1912, it was blessed and cursed with the latest in communication technology—the wireless telegraph. In the last hours after Titanic hit an iceberg, radio messages sent from the storied sinking ship summoned a rescue vessel that saved hundreds of people, but also sowed confusion with competing distress calls and signal interference. More than 1,500 people died that fateful night.

Now, a recent court ruling may pave the way to the recovery of Titanic’s telegraph, designed by Guglielmo Marconi, a telecommunications pioneer and 1909 Nobel Prize winner in physics who invented the first device to facilitate wireless communications using radio waves.

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Initially developed in the late 1800s, the Marconi telegraph used long radio wavelengths that didn’t travel very far and were susceptible to interference. Around the same time, other radio inventors were developing more efficient ways to broadcast voices and transmit continuous wireless broadcasts on shorter wavelengths. Marconi, however, had a commercial monopoly on his wireless telegraph, cornering a luxury market for non-essential communications at sea that included Titanic.

Despite the limitations of the Marconi telegraph—and the fact that it wasn’t intended to be used as an emergency device—Titanic was outfitted with a radio room and a Marconi-leased telegraph machine. Two young Marconi-employed operators, chief telegraphist Jack Phillips and his assistant Harold Bride, sent Morse code “Marconigrams" on behalf of Titanic’s well-heeled customers 24 hours a day during its maiden voyage in April 1912.

Both Marconi’s technology monopoly and the torrent of personal messages conveyed through Titanic’s telegraph proved fatal on that April night. Phillips was so overwhelmed by a queue of incoming and outgoing guest telegrams —one Titanic passenger wanted to “notify all interested” about an upcoming poker game in Los Angeles—that he didn’t pass on messages about the ice threatening Titanic’s ocean environs. When a nearby vessel, SS Californian, telegraphed that it was already surrounded by ice, Phillips testily responded “Shut up! I am busy.”

Once Titanic hit the iceberg, Phillips tone shifted and he used the Marconi distress signal: “CQD.”

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A component of the Marconi telegraph aboard the RMS Carpathia, which rescued Titanic's survivors.

Maritime vessels had already been calling for help using wireless since 1899, but international wireless operators had not yet come up with a standardized distress call. In 1904, Marconi operators adopted a general call sign commonly used by British telegraphers: CQ (“seek you”), plus D for “distress or danger.”

But by 1912 when Titanic sailed, there was another, competing distress signal on the scene: “SOS.” There’s a common misnomer that the distress call is short for “Save Our Ship” or “Save Our Souls,” but the letters didn’t stand for anything—it was an adaptation of an existing German radio call. The signal consisted of three dots, three dashes, and another three dots—simple to tap out in Morse code during an emergency and easy to understand, even in poor conditions.

An international group including the United Kingdom had ratified SOS as the official international distress signal four years earlier in 1908, but British and Marconi telegraph operators took their time adopting the new signal. (The United States, which resisted early international radio regulation, did not initially sign on to the SOS agreement.)

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Rescuers from Carpathia help Titanic's radio operator Harold Bride disembark in April 1912.

Titanic’s first calls for help used CQD—and Bride was relaxed enough to joke that perhaps Phillips should try SOS as well. “It’s the new call,” he said, “and it may be your last chance to send it.” But the ship’s plight was no laughing matter. When one of the first ships to receive Titanic’s distress call, SS Frankfurt, responded late to Titanic’s CQD call, Marconi assistant Bride was tense enough to call the Frankurt’s operator a “fool.”

Bride’s anger may have been fueled in part by fear, in part by business competition. Frankfurt’s telegraph operator worked for German telecommunications company Telefunken. Historians have documented a longstanding rivalry between Marconi and Telefunken. Marconi fought tooth and nail to shut out the German company from the maritime market, and his operators were discouraged or even forbidden to trade telegraph messages with competitors.

As Titanic sank, telegraph operators Bride and Phillips began to switch between SOS and CQD, but their distress calls for help were sloppily relayed or downplayed by other operators. Phillips and Bride could only send or receive one message at a time, and their line was repeatedly tied up with the confusion of other operators and irrelevant questions, like an inquiry as to whether the Titanic was headed toward a ship that was 500 miles away.

Meanwhile, the closest ship, Californian, didn’t receive Titanic’s distress calls at all. Its wireless operator had switched off his receiver and gone to bed after Phillips told him to shut up.

Amateur radio operators also interfered with messages, making it difficult for Titanic to communicate.

Phillips went down with Titanic, calmly sending distress signals in his last moments. The tragedy led Marconi to bitterly regret his monopolistic decision to push longwave radio communication for maritime use. “Now I have realized my mistake,” he said in a 1927 speech.

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Titanic telegraph operator Jack Phillips transmitted pleas for help until the ship lost power and sank. He died in the tragedy and his body was never recovered.

Bride and Marconi minimized the rivalry between wireless competitors in testimony before a 1912 Congressional inquiry into the Titanic disaster. The Senate concluded that wireless communications at sea should be operational 24 hours a day, and called for regulation of the American radio industry that resulted in the Radio Act of 1912. The law restricted amateur use of long-wave frequencies and included a provision through which the U.S. adopted SOS as its standard distress call. SOS remained the international distress call until 1999, when large ships stopped using Morse code in favor of the satellite-based Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

After his congressional testimony, Marconi, the Nobel winner whose device was involved in the fateful disaster, laid a wreath at a memorial for Titanic telegraph operator Jack Philips.