15 April 2012

The value of Early Adoption

Over 1500 people died when the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. But it might have been much worse. Had this event occurred just a dozen years earlier, it is likely that the first news of the ship sinking would have come when the Titanic would have failed to arrive in New York. Later, other ships might have come across a few lifeboats floating with the frozen remains of passengers.

When the Titanic stopped transmitting, reporters had to make decisions based
on telegraphic rumors.
The New York Sun guessed wrong, The New York Times,
perhaps with future NBC boss David Sarnoff's help, guessed correctly.
But, despite all of its other safety failings, the White Star Line was an aggressive early adopter of new communications technology, the Marconi Wireless. Rare among ships of the era, White Star liners maintained 24 hour radio watches. Most ships maintained radio operations for just 12 hours, with gaps any time the operator needed to be away from his post. A key question of the Titanic tragedy turns on the actions of the Captain and the wireless operator aboard the S.S. Californian. While surely chief Titanic operator Jack Phillips bears blame for the communications break between these two ships, no one on the Californian considered switching on their set to discover what was happening just a few miles away.

Carpathia arrives in New York Harbor on 18 April 1912
The Carpathia had maintained a news blackout from the morning
of April 15th, until it had docked at a Hudson River Pier.

Now, let us consider the Titanic and its Wireless Operations. Most of that transmitted by Phillips and Harold Bride was the kind of nonsense for which, today, Twitter is oft attacked. Wealthy passengers sent expensive (12s. 6d for ten words and 9d. for each additional word - a shilling was 1/20 of a pound sterling, 240 pennies ("d") made up a pound - 480 halfpennies) - yes, almost $60 or £36 in today's money for ten words - messages to friends on land or on other ships. Over 250 private messages in the just 36 hours between leaving Southampton, England and the collision with the iceberg. They ranged from arrangements for a private railway car to the simple, mundane, "wish you were here." There is no doubt that the distractions of these private messages interfered with the safety functions of this new technology.

Chief Wireless Operator Jack Phillips lets the vital ice message fall through
the cracks in this scene from the 1958 film
A Night to Remember, based on the
deeply research Walter Lord book of the same name. The Morse Coding is
so good in this film that listening, you can understand it all.

The actual Titanic wireless room,
in a passenger photo
But the critical issue that cold April night was not Jack Phillips distractions, it was that few other ship lines had adopted this new technology fully. Not just the nearby Californian shut off its wireless at night, so did the Cunard liner Carpathia, which only heard the distress call when it did because operator Harold Cottam could not sleep. Ships all around the North Atlantic failed to hear the CQD and then SOS distress calls because the Titanic had the misfortune to founder after 11:00 pm, when the lone Marconi operators on most ships had gone to bed.

Unimportant? A new toy? A new gadget? Useful, but not worth spending enough money for a 24-hour two-man watch? Whatever. The wireless was not seen as valuable enough by most. It was dismissed - despite the almost 70 year history of the telegraph, and that dismissal - for the owners of the Californian especially - cost 1,500 lives.

New technologies can seem odd, strange, somewhat worthless. The operators used quirky codes and phrases, even in crisis, [12.20 a.m.  15 April 1912  R.M.S. Titanic to R.M.S. Carpathia: “Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W.” "Old Man" was the greeting of the day, included even here. Many other odd abbreviations were in use, making the signals incomprehensible to many. If this sounds familiar...

Among the Titanic's many fable-like cautionary tales, perhaps this is one more. Sometimes early adoption, commitment to new technologies, can make all the difference in the world.

- Ira Socol

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