Titans of Technology - PassageMaker
The Surprisingly Dramatic History of the Early Marine Radio
Guglielmo, Marchese Marconi

Guglielmo, Marchese Marconi

Here’s the setup. 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.

Electrical engineer/inventor Guglielmo Marconi with the spark-gap transmitter (right) and coherer receiver (left) he used in some of his first long-distance radiotelegraphy transmissions in the 1890s.

Electrical engineer/inventor Guglielmo Marconi with the spark-gap transmitter (right) and coherer receiver (left) he used in some of his first long-distance radiotelegraphy transmissions in the 1890s.

The Original Wireless Technology

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 “no-intercommunications” policy, these radio operators would only receive and/or relay messages from other Marconi radio teams—except, of course, in the case of emergency.

The Titanic

titanic postcard

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.

Titanic at the docks of Southampton.

Titanic at the docks of Southampton.

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.

Radiotelegraph to Radiotelephone

Marconi’s wireless radiotelegraphy (as it was originally called since the signal “radiated” in all directions unlike the point-to-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.

Very High Frequency, Very Low Cost

While offshore cruisers rely on specialized equipment like single-sideband (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.

History Repeats. I Repeat, History Repeats.

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. 

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