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History :: 1912 :: The Sinking of the Titanic Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY
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Derived From: Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN (Retired), History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, Bureau of Ships and Office of Naval History, Chatper 12 (1963) (Govt Work: public domain)

The Wireless Act of 1912 - Sinking of the Titanic

"CQD MGY position 41.44 N. 50.24 W"
"Just prior to the convening of the 62nd Congress occurred one of several incidents pointing out the inadequacy of the Radio Ship Act of 1910. At 0345, 23 November, 1911, the steamer Prinz Joachim, bound from New York to Jamaica, struck a reef near Atwood's Key, the most easterly of the Bahama group. Radio calls brought early responses from six shore stations, including one at New York, 1,100 miles distant, but not a single ship answered. When the passengers discovered that a large number of ships carried but one radio operator, who normally slept between the hours of 0130 and 0600, they were indignant. They voiced the opinion that such a situation required change and that each ship should be forced to carry several operators, standing round-the-clock watches. A ship was contacted about 0900, about 80 miles away, but it refused to lend assistance. It was not until after 1400 that the Ward liner Virginia answered and approached to rescue those on board. [Howeth Chap 12

"The Honorable William Jennings Bryan was one of the rescued passengers. He was extremely influential with the members of the 62nd Congress, and in the following spring he did much to speed the drafting of a bill of amendment to the Radio Ship Act of 1910. This, and several other bills pertaining to necessary Federal regulation of radio communications, were being studied by Congress when occurred one of the greatest peacetime disasters in maritime history. [Howeth Chap 12]

Derived From: Radio Pioneers & Core Technologies, FCC History: The "unsinkable" Titanic was equipped with a state-of-the-art Marconi radio system: a rotary spark transmitter, powered by a 5 kilowatt alternator that fed off the ship's lighting circuit, a four wire antenna hoisted 250 feet in the air between the ship's masts, and even a battery powered emergency transmitter. There was a guaranteed transmission range of 250 miles, but at night transmissions could go up to 2000 miles. The two radio operators expected to spend all their time sending and receiving personal communications from the wealthy passengers. And, in fact, from the April 12 sailing until the ship hit the iceberg just past midnight on April 15 they sent 250 such messages.

"In the early hours of April 15, 1912, the White Star liner Titanic, then on her maiden voyage, struck an iceberg and sank. The world was stunned at the sudden and tragic end of the newest, largest, most luxurious, and "unsinkable" 46,000-ton, $12 million masterpiece of shipbuilding. The most astounding part of the calamity was that on a clear, calm, beautiful, starlit night, with scarcely a ripple on the surface of the sea, and with nearly 3 hours in which to abandon ship under ideal conditions, over 1,517 human beings, men, women, and children, including a long list of prominent figures in the arts, public life, and business world, met death in the icy waters over the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic. Tragically, there were ships within range of the Titanic that did not know of her plight because they either were not equipped with radio or employed a single operator. The 6,000-ton Leyland liner California had stopped to await daylight before steaming through a field of drifting ice, and was not more than 20 miles from the disaster scene. Its operator, a 20-year-old, $20-a-month radioman, had tried to inform the Titanic's operator of the situation, but had received a curt, "Shut up, I'm busy with Cape Race." [See US Marconi Museum Titanic (stating that the radio operator on the Titanic was complaining that the radio operator on the California was causing interference - as no two radios could operate at the same time in close proximitiy)]

2300 Hrs, R.M.S. Californian to R.M.S. Titanic:
"Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice".

2310 Hrs, R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Californian:
Shut up, shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race. You are jamming me.

2315 Hrs, R.M.S. Titanic to Cape Race, Newfoundland:
"Sorry, please repeat. Jammed".

Stephanie L. Barczewski in his book Titanic: A Night Remembered, comments on this exchange between the California and the Titanic:

His tone sounds rude, but such messages were common among wireless operators at the time. There was no regulation of the airwaves, and rival companies frequently tried to jam each other's transmissions. It was common for one operator to tell another 'QRT' ("Keep quiet, I'm busy") or, more bluntly, 'GTH OM QRT' ("Go to Hell, Old Man, Keep quiet, I'm busy".

Following this rebuff, and after having been on duty 16 hours, the radio operator of the California continued to listen for a few minutes longer, and then secured his equipment. Had he remained on duty, he should have heard the distress signal and the California could have cautiously covered the distance in time to be of invaluable assistance.

0015 Hrs, R.M.S. Titanic to Any Ship:
"CQD MGY 41.44 N  50.24 W" [G3YRC] [CQD = distress call before SOS, MGY = Titanic)

Other ships received the Titanic's distress signals. The first to answer was the German SS Frankfort , 153 miles to the southwest, and the slow-speed Carpathia, 58 miles away, whose operator happened to be on watch, long after his time was up, because he was interested in picking up some news from Cape Cod. The Carpathia, under forced draft, hurried to the rescue of 712 of the survivors. Few pages of history record a more gallant effort than that of the Carpathia's captain, Arthur Rostron. His amazingly complete preparations and his accomplishment were later praised by the U.S. Senate Investigating Committee as a "marvel" of foresight and masterly organization. The radio operator of Mount Temple, 50 miles distant, was preparing to secure his equipment when he picked up the frantic message. She immediately proceeded to assist, but when within approximately 14 miles of the sinking vessel she was stopped by the same icefield that had stopped the California. The Baltic and the Russian SS Birma, also converging on the ice-littered area, were forced to await daylight. [Howeth Chap 12] [Brett] [Barczewski]

Titanic Memorial Washington D.C. Near FCC Titanic Memorial

The radio operators on the Titanic would continue transmitting for two hours, until the generators gave out. There are some excellent transcriptions of the radio traffic. [G3YRC] One message transmitted would use "SOS", making the Titanic the first ship to use it as a distress call.

Derived From: Radio Pioneers & Core Technologies, FCC History: "During the two hours from the first distress call until the radio operators abandoned the radio room they sent 30-35 messages, which were heard as far away as Italy; but not by a ship four miles away, because the radio operator was off duty."

"The disaster served to point, with terrible directness, to the absolute necessity of regulating the use of radio. Great as was the loss of life, without radio there might not have been a single survivor. A few more hours, the roughening sea and increasing cold would certainly have decreased the list of survivors. The succeeding 24 hours demonstrated only too clearly that lacking rigorous regulation radio was far less effective than it might have been. The Carpathia and the shore stations experienced difficulty maintaining communications because of the constant interference from chattering operators. [Howeth Chap 12]

"Following the Titanic disaster the Wireless Act of 1912 amending the Radio Ship Act of 1910 was quickly passed and became Public Law 238 of 23 July 1912. This amendment to Public Law 262 of 24 June 1910 included shipping on the Great Lakes; required auxiliary power supply,independent of the vessel's main electric powerplant, capable of enabling radio apparatus to be operated continuously for at least 4 hours at a minimum range of 100 miles, day or night; and, made it compulsory for ships to carry two or more persons skilled in the use of such apparatus. [Howeth Chap 12] See also [Rescue at Sea (restricting the power and frequency usage of amateur radio which had been accused of causing interference)] [Solar Navigator (recounting Senator William Alden Smith's examination of Marconi during subsequent Congressional hearings, and calling for new radio regulation)] The Radio Act of 1912 also made room for licensed commercial radio operators. [Hazlett p 135 (licensing was to the full broadcast spectrum and was non exclusive; no fee was collected by the regulatory body, the Dept of Commerce)] [See also Brito ] [Titanic Universe]


"Lt. Comdr. David W. Todd, USN, became the Head of the Radio Division, Bureau of Steam Engineering, in 1910, and shortly thereafter became the spokesman for the Government departments in their struggle to obtain regulation. He was not unaware of the change in congressional attitude. In the period preceding the convening of the new Congress, he and his associates were active in pushing regulatory legislation. In a paper entitled, "The Navy's Coast Signal Service," delivered before the American Society of Naval Engineers, 14 November 1911, he clearly stated the Government's position relative to the control of radio. This paper is quoted in part: [Howeth Chap 12]

There is no law, nor order and with an increase of the number of commercial shore stations conditions will be chaotic. Any wireless company, any individual, can put up a station anywhere, of whatever power or range it or he may please. Any wave length may be used, any kind of transmitter. There is no restriction as to hours of working. The time signals sent out by naval stations, the information concerning wrecks, derelicts, ice, aids to navigation displaced, storm warnings, all are subject to interruption, by neighboring stations, and the mariner may listen for them in vain. Vessels in distress may not be able to make known the fact or extent of their plight or their positions, on account of press dispatches being relayed along the coast, or a long invoice of goods being repeated by wireless, for advertising purposes, between cities separated by a twenty-five-cent telegraph rate. The government station, most useful to shipping of all kinds, may be seriously handicapped by malicious interference. Not only are land stations troublesome to each other, but ship stations are poorly managed. Ships in harbor use their sets for needless work with a station sometimes less than a mile away. They send position reports too frequently. The operators engage in personal chatter.

"Todd advocated a law licensing all stations by the Department of Commerce and Labor and under regulations to be framed by it. The proposed law included the following: The hours of operation of a station; the power to be used, depending on the business for which the station is licensed; the frequencies authorized; the type and degree of efficiency of the apparatus; a prohibition against ships using their sets within certain limits when making or leaving port, except in emergencies; a prohibition against shore stations using radio between points covered by landwires; and a requirement that all coastwise stations be opened to international traffic under the rules established by the Berlin Convention. Commenting upon the last item, he pointed out that various nations had sent representatives to the Berlin Conference, where plans had been developed for international wireless communications between ship and shore. These plans included arrangements for satisfactory radio communications between vessels, for the use of radio in succoring vessels in distress, and provided the means whereby any individual on radio-equipped vessels could send a message via a coast station of any country and prepay charges on board. He stated thatwhile the United States was well represented at the Conference, was given ample opportunity to express its views, and was largely responsible for the framing of the Convention, the results had been fruitless for this country. The commercial firms had been powerful enough to block its ratification by the Senate, and the United States had become an international outcast insofar as radio operations were concerned. He stated that: [Howeth Chap 12]

If a foreign ship or station accepts a message from an American ship it is through courtesy only. One of the greatest nations of the world, with thousands of miles of sea coasts, with outlying island possessions, one whose stations will always be a factor in facilitating and guarding the safety of the world's commerce, is without standing. Foreign vessels on our coast get no response to their calls, or are told that a certain station takes messages from certain ships only, or in the case of a naval station, that any message will be forwarded 'Collect' only. This cannot go on.

"Continuing, Todd suggested that it would be better if the Navy provided all shore stations for commercial radio communications with ships and stated that a chain of stations under a single control would result in a minimum of interference and provide a maximum of satisfactory communications with ships at sea, which he saw as the true field for radio. For military purposes and for certain oversea work, radio communications between shore stations was feasible and necessary, but he believed all relaying of messages between points adequately connected by landwire should be reduced to a minimum and that this should be required by law. He considered that any radio concern proposing to operate overland, in competition with the telephone and telegraph companies, was either extremely optimistic or was not acting in good faith. While another international convention was close at hand at which the United States would probably be as well represented as in the past, he opined that the arguments of the commercial companies would prevail and color our position since our Government, as a whole, had not yet realized the importance, the tremendous possibilities, and the astonishing growth of the new medium during the past decade. [Howeth Chap 12]


"The ratification of the Berlin Convention necessitated the enactment of legislation to insure the carrying out of its accepted provisions. In anticipation of this ratification, the Bourne bill had been introduced in the House and, at about the same time, two measures, S3620 and S5630, were introduced in the Senate. After studying the two Senate proposals and conducting hearings, open to all concerned, a subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce considered that both bestowed undesirable powers upon the executive departments of the Government and gave too-great privileges to military and naval stations, while failing to define accurately the limitations and conditions under which commercial enterprises could be conducted. At the subcommittee's direction, S5334, a substitute bill, was drafted by the Government departments and introduced on their behalf. [Howeth Chap 12]

"The Government interests supported the substitute measure. Todd was ably assisted by Dr. L. W. Austin, head of the U.S. Naval Radio Laboratory; Mr. E. T. Chamberlain, Commissioner of Navigation, Department of Commerce and Labor; and Maj. S. O. Squier, Signal Corps, USA. The opposition was comprised of the Marconi Wireless Telegraphy Co. of America, the National Electric Signaling Co., and the United Fruit Co., all of which filed briefs of objections and had representatives present at the hearing. Mr. Richard Pfund, manager of the Telefunken Wireless Telegraph Co., did not appear, but addressed a letter to Senator Bourne, the subcommittee chairman, recommending passage with some minor changes. Mr. Charles H. Stewart, representing the Wireless Association of Pennsylvania, the only amateur organization having representatives present, filed a brief recommending minor changes and stating that they preferred legislation along the lines which had been envisioned by the commission plan of the Roberts bill. He pledged his organization's support of any legislation which would bring about the proper observance of necessary controls. [Howeth Chap 12]

"The hearing was conducted under amiable conditions, with the subcommittee exercising considerable patience in an endeavor to obtain all points of view in order to amend the bill in the best interests of the people of the United States. The viewpoints of the opposing factions, as submitted by their briefs, were not materially different from those presented at hearings in previous proposed legislation. However, in the oral testimony there was more an air of understanding and willingness to compromise on the part of all witnesses. [Howeth Chap 12]

"The changes made in S5334, before it was enacted into Public Law 264, 62nd Congress, were relatively minor in most aspects. The new law required the licensing of commercial and amateur stations and operators and included a provision for the collectors of customs of ports to issue temporary licenses to operators sailing on vessels as reliefs for regularly assigned but unavailable operators. The proposed bill had required that only naval and military stations receive distress signals, but the law, as passed, made no distinction. Changes were made to the regulations as originally contained in the measure, some which were considered desirable by the commercial interests and which were acquiesced to by the Government departments, such as a requirement for secrecy of context of messages; the reservation of the first 15 rather than the first 30 minutes for Government traffic in locales where interference made time division a necessity; the elimination of the Government silence signal; the addition of a mandatory requirement that all stations give absolute priority to distress signals and traffic; the limitation of amateur usage to the band above 1500 kc. instead of 1,000 kc.; the requirement that a ship station would normally communicate with the nearest shore station; and the establishment of more stringent penalties for violations. Commercial interests had endeavored to restrict the Government to a band between 333 and 500 kc. in lieu of the proposed 300 to 500 kc. band, but they were not successful. Naval stations were authorized, insofar as consistent with the transaction of Government business and wherever necessary because of the lack of a commercial station within 100 miles, to handle commercial messages, collecting tolls thereon, and depositing such funds with the U.S. Treasury Department as "miscellaneous receipts." [Howeth Chap 12]

"The Titanic disaster has often been given as the compelling reason behind the enactment of this legislation. This is not correct. The subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee had completed its masterful work of bringing the opposing views into proper focus and the bill had been reported out prior to the disaster. It did, however, awaken congressional eyes to its wisdom and necessity and insured its final enactment. [Howeth Chap 12]

"In closing this narrative of the decade-long effort, to establish a semblance of circuit discipline, no better tribute can be paid the final action than to quote a statement made a few months later by Mr. John Bottomley, who had represented the Marconi interests at the hearing: While it is true that the laws enacted are not ideal and that more deliberate action would undoubtedly have produced a better result, it must be admitted that the lanes of the ocean have been rendered safer. . .[Howeth Chap 12]


"The Third International Radio Telegraphic Conference convened in London on 4 June 1912. The American delegation was headed by Admiral Edwards, who had so ably supported the ratification of the Berlin Convention. Another United States delegate was Todd, who had been the Government spokesman at the hearings resulting in the enactment of Public Law 264. He had been relieved as Head of the Radio Division of the Bureau of Steam Engineering in order that he could devote full time to this duty and to additional duty as personal aid to Admiral Edwards. Other members of the delegation were Dr. Louis Austin, head of the U.S. Naval Radio Laboratory; Majs. George O. Squier, Edward Russel, and Charles Saltzman, Signal Corps, USA; Mr. John I. Waterbury, who had attended the previous conferences; Dr. Arthur G. Webster, professor of physics, Clark University; Mr. John Hays Hammond, Jr., who, within a few years, would become famous for his successful application of the radio control of objects; Mr. William D. Terrell, Chief Radio Inspector, Department of Commerce and Labor; and Prof. Willis L. Moore, Chief of the Weather Bureau, Department of Agriculture. These delegates were all extremely well qualified to represent the United States in this Conference and had been selected with extreme care in order that this country might maintain the prestige which the delegates had established for it at the Berlin Conference, some of which had been lost in the long delay in ratification. [Howeth Chap 12]

"Twenty-nine nations and eight dominions and colonies, all with voting powers, were represented at this Conference. With the exception of Mexico, all the nations which had subscribed to the Berlin Convention were represented. The 1903 Conference had been attended by 9 nations and the 1906 Conference by 27. [Howeth Chap 12]

"Since the Conference was called to revise a convention framed to promote the efficient use of radio for commercial uses, most of the delegations were made up of officials and experts of the various post and telegraph departments. Because of the great importance of the art as an instrument of war, the military element composed about one-third of the delegates. About one-sixth were technical personnel of special attainments in scientific fields. To watch matters concerned with national policies, some delegations had diplomatic officials of high standing. [Howeth Chap 12]

"Over 200 propositions were submitted by the various delegations, many of which were duplicates or represented different expressions of the same fundamental problems. The excellent work of the Berlin Conference made it unnecessary to amend radically the existing convention. Although it was thoroughly revised to bring it up to date, the additions were of more importance than the changes. [Howeth Chap 12]

"The American contingent took an advanced view of the possibilities of increasing the number of circuits in a given area by a requirement for sharp tuning. Other nations were not ready to accept this view because of the lack of transmitting equipment capable of being adjusted to transmit over a narrow band. [Howeth Chap 12]

"Following so close after the Titanic disaster, the Conference gave great attention to regulation pertaining to safety at sea. The following new regulations were added to this Convention:

The maintenance of a continuous radio watch by certain ships;

Specified periods of compulsory 'listening-in" by ships not required to maintain constant watch;

A compulsory requirement for vessels to be fitted with auxilliary apparatus capable of working six hours, independent of the ship's boiler supply.

A compulsory requirement for cessation of transmission during the "listening-in" periods.

A compulsory requirement that radio operators and apparatus be directly under the authority of the captain; and

A requirement that all radio transmissions in the vicinity of a ship in distress be under the control of that ship.

"All of these items, with the exception of the one requiring "listening in" periods for ships not maintaining a continuous watch, were tabled by the U.S. delegation. [Howeth Chap 12]

"The Convention added a requirement for priority transmission of weather and time signals to ships upon request and, additionally, required that other ships in the area refrain from transmitting during these transmissions. Another addition included the assignment of the first letters of the present call system to the various adhering nations. [Howeth Chap 12]

"While the London Conference did not regard itself competent to go beyond recommending the compulsory equipping of ships and the erection of additional coast stations, it did unanimously adopt the following resolution: [Howeth Chap 12]

The International Radio-Telegraphic Conference having examined the measures to be taken with the view of preventing disasters at sea and of rendering assistance in such cases, expresses the opinion that, in the general interests of navigation, there should be imposed on certain classes of ships the obligation to carry a radio-telegraphic installation.

As the Conference had no power to impose this obligation, it expresses the wish that the measures necessary to this end should be instituted by the Governments.

The Conference finds it important, moreover, to ensure, as far as possible, uniformity in the arrangements to be adopted in the various countries to impose this obligation, and suggests to the Governments the desirability of an agreement between themselves with a view to the adoption of a uniform base for legislation.  

"Immediately prior to the close of the Conference on July 1912, in compliance with instructions from the U.S. State Department, and in consideration of the expressed desires of several of the delegations, an invitation was extended to hold the next conference at Washington. This invitation was greeted with acclamation. It was first suggested that the date be fixed for 1915, the year of the official opening of the Panama Canal, but the conferees considered that a minimum of 5 years should elapse between conferences. [Howeth Chap 12]


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