The History Of Amateur Radio

This portion of my website was prepared with the help of Bill Continelli, W2XOY. Bill has prepared several articles in a series he calls "The Wayback Machine", in the hope to expand the knowledge of fellow hams, about Amateur Radio's unique and unchallenged history.

THE WAYBACK MACHINE #2    by Bill Continelli, W2XOY

Monday, April 15, 1912, 12:30 AM. The Wayback Machine is over the North Atlantic, at 41 degrees 46' North, and 50 degrees 14' West. Down below is a majestic ship, the largest and most luxurious ship in the world, on its maiden voyage. In the wireless room is a 5kw Marconi station, and before it sit two tired operators, who make $20 per month, not as employees of the shipping line, but rather as employees of the Marconi Company. The in basket is still full of messages, everything from personal telegrams to stock market quotations. They are so busy working Cape Race, Newfoundland, that they didn't even notice the slight grinding jar 30 minutes earlier. As the two wireless operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, passed the routine traffic, the Captain came in, said the ship had struck an iceberg, and told them to send a distress call at once. The blue spark jumped across the gap as Phillips sent "CQD" (come quick danger). "Send S.O.S." Bride said, "It's the new call and it may be your last chance to send it".
Thus began the moment in history that changed radio. Two hours later, Jack Phillips and over 1500 others were dead, the "Titanic" lay at the bottom of the ocean, and 713 survivors huddled in half filled lifeboats waiting to be rescued. The tragic errors in the story of the "Titanic" pointed out the need of wireless regulation.

The first ship to answer the distress call was the German Liner, the "Frankfurt". While the "Frankfurt" wireless operator was informing his captain, the "Carpathia" and Cape Race chimed in. When the "Frankfurt" operator came back to get more information, Phillips tapped back "SHUT UP, SHUT UP, YOU FOOL. STAND BY AND KEEP OUT". While this would seem bizarre by our standards, it made perfect sense to the operators of 1912. The "Titanic", "Carpathia", and Cape Race were equipped with Marconi operators and stations, while the "Frankfurt" utilized the services of Marconi's German competitor, Telefunken. This commercial war was extended down to the individual operators. No routine traffic would EVER pass from a Marconi station to a rival, and, even in an emergency, if Marconi stations were available, the others would be shut out.

The wireless controversy would continue after the "Carpathia" picked up the survivors. A wireless message was received, allegedly from the "Carpathia", which said "ALL PASSENGERS OF LINER "TITANIC" SAFELY TRANSFERRED TO THIS SHIP AND "S.S. PARISIAN". SEA CALM. "TITANIC" BEING TOWED BY ALLEN LINER "VIRGINIAN" TO PORT". Other wireless messages appeared, also stating that ALL passengers were safe, and the ship was being towed in. There was just one problem--these messages were not coming from the "Carpathia". For one thing, her wireless had a maximum range of 150 miles. For another, the "Carpathia" wireless operator had made only a few transmissions to the "Olympic" (sister ship of the "Titanic" and another Marconi operation), in which he tapped out the list of survivors, some coded messages from Bruce Ismay, President of White Star Lines, then shut down his station. So complete was the radio silence from the "Carpathia", that they refused to answer the calls from Navy cruisers sent to the scene by President Taft. The White Star Line, owners of the "Titanic", were still insisting that everyone was safe and the ship had not sunk. But even as they made these claims, they had all the horrific details from the "Olympic". And so would the rest of the world, thanks to a 21 year old operator named David Sarnoff, who managed to detect the faint signals of the "Olympic", and broke the story. Faced with the truth, and hounded by thousands of reporters and outraged relatives of passengers, the White Star Liner officials finally broke down and revealed all.

Meanwhile, the "Carpathia" steamed towards New York City. When she passed within range of shore stations, there were "frenzied attempts by amateur wireless operators which formed a hissing mixture from which scarcely a complete sentence was intelligible". It didn't matter, because the radio silence continued.

At the Port of New York, the "Carpathia" was met by Senator William A. Smith of Michigan, a no nonsense Populist who was the Chairman of the committee investigating the shipwreck. He immediately slapped subpoenas on everyone possible, including Harold Bride and Harold Cottam, wireless operator on the "Carpathia". Marconi himself, who was in the U.S. at the time, (and had planned on taking the "Titanic" back to England), was also summoned to appear.

The hearings revealed the information given above, plus the disturbing fact that the "Californian" was just 10 miles from the "Titanic". Not only did the "Californian" not have a full time wireless operation, but the ship's captain ignored the eight distress rockets sent up by the "Titanic". As to the origin of the false messages concerning the saving of the ship and passengers, no answer was ever found. However, Senator Smith sarcastically noted that, in the interim, the "Titanic" was quickly reinsured, and stock in the Marconi Company jumped from $55 to $225 per share. The Senator DID find out the cause of the "Carpathia" radio silence--it was Marconi himself. He had sent wireless messages to Bride and Cottam stating "MARCONI COMPANY TAKING GOOD CARE OF YOU-KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT-HOLD YOUR STORY-YOU WILL GET BIG MONEY-NOW CLEAR". It turned out that Marconi had an agreement with the New York Times for an exclusive story. Thus, essential information for desperate relatives and official inquiries from the President of the United States
took a back seat to Marconi's interest.

When Marconi got on the stand, Senator Smith pounced on him with astonishing vehemence. Marconi had been lionized by the nation, and now the Senator was treating him like any other entrepreneur who put profit above the public. Senator Smith was warned that his attack on a man as popular as Marconi was political suicide, but he didn't care. In his obsession with his belief that the unregulated wireless spectrum was partly to blame in the "Titanic" disaster, he painted Marconi as a man willing to subordinate the public good to his goal of a complete wireless equipment AND spectrum monopoly. Senator Smith used the "Titanic" hearings to condemn the laissez-faire status of the wireless, and appeal for the international regulation of radio.

On May 18, 1912, Senator Smith introduced a bill in the Senate. Among its provisions: 1) ships carrying 50 passengers or more must have a wireless set with a minimum range of 100 miles; 2) wireless sets must have an auxiliary power supply which can operate until the wireless room itself was under water or otherwise destroyed; and 3) two or more operators provide continuous service day and night. In response to the interference generated over the years, and especially when the "Carpathia" was within range, a provision was added that "private stations could not use wavelengths in excess of 200 meters, except by special permission". To avoid "ownership" of the spectrum by the Marconi Company, licenses would now be required, issued by the Secretary of Commerce. Each Government, Marine, or Commercial station would be authorized a specific wavelength, power level, and hours of operation.

The initial legislation had considered the elimination of all private, non commercial (i.e. amateur) stations, but Congress realized that would be difficult and expensive to enforce. Therefore, since it was a "well known fact" that long wavelengths were the best, and anything below 250 meters was useless, except for local communication, it was decided to compromise and give the amateurs 200 meters, where they could work 25 miles maximum and would die out of their own accord in a few years.

How the amateurs coped with 200 meters will be our focus next month. Hope you'll join us for another trip on the Wayback Machine.

Copyright 1996, 2001, 2005 by William Continelli, W2XOY

All rights reserved.

These columns were originally written for the Schenectady Museum Amateur Radio Club.