The Wireless Telegraph and the Titanic

Today, the 15th of April 2022, marks the 110th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic.

In 2013, I gave a Pecha Kucha talk in the Titanic museum after the CSIT security conference on the role of the wireless telegraph during the disaster. It’s both a good and bad story – it highlights the many (many!) failings, but it also demonstrated the benefits of wireless communications during a disaster.

Just to give you a flavour of the multitude of things that went wrong or contributed to the sinking – the locker in the crows nest that held the binoculars was locked and inaccessible due to an officer leaving the ship in Southampton on the 9th of April and taking the key with him. This was seen as a contributing factor to the disaster.

I’ve posted the script with the images from the talk below (with some small additions).

The Role of the Wireless Telegraph During the Titanic Disaster – David Rogers Pecha Kucha talk

This is the last picture taken of the Titanic as it left Queenstown. The priest who took it could have stayed on board, but after seeking permission his superior sent him a telegram ordering him to “GET OFF THAT SHIP”. He spent the rest of his life telling people “it was the only time holy obedience ever saved a man’s life”.

Marconi and the telegraph

This is Guglielmo Marconi. He made the first transatlantic transmission and commercialised a lot of his work heavily. His company provided the telegraph aboard Titanic.

Marconi was due to travel on the Titanic but instead travelled earlier on the Lusitania, another yet to be infamous ship.

Wireless operators

These two gentlemen were Titanic’s telegraph operators. John “Jack” Phillips, 25, known as sparks because he could send morse so fast, and Harold Bride, his junior who was just 22.

Messages would include getting the news, passenger’s personal messages and information from other ships such as ice reports, fog and reports of derelicts.

Marconi rooms

This is the only known picture of the ‘Marconi room’, the radio room onboard the Titanic.

The wireless equipment of the Titanic was the most powerful of any merchant vessel. Communication range was up to 400 miles and at night range often increased to 2000 miles.

Titanic’s wireless…

Here you can see Titanic’s wireless antenna, running from bow to stern, with a section in the middle.

The radio room was some 40ft away from the bridge down a corridor and despite being connected to 50 telephone lines there was no phone line to the bridge.

Additional note here: the plan below (I took the photo in the Titanic museum in Belfast) shows where the Marconi room was in relation to the bridge:

Ice Warnings

Titanic had a number of radio warnings about ice. Only one warning was put on the officers’ notice board, but none of them were taken up to the Bridge to Captain Smith. Shortly after the last warning the Titanic struck an iceberg at full speed.

These pictures are thought to be the actual iceberg that Titanic hit, taken the day after streaked with red paint.

The Californian

The SS Californian was very close to Titanic and sent that last warning, saying they were surrounded by ice. But on the Titanic, Phillips was busy with a backlog of passenger messages to Newfoundland and told the Californian to “keep out and shut up” because his wireless reception was being drowned out by the strong transmission of the closer ship.


It was over half an hour after they’d hit the ice berg before Captain Smith ordered the sending of the distress call. At 12.20pm the first SOS was sent from the Titanic.

After the first CQD (the old type of distress call), Bride said to Phillips: “Send S.O.S. !  It’s the new call and it may be your last chance to send it”.

Californian continued…

The Californian’s only wireless operator had turned off his set and went to bed about 15 minutes before Titanic struck the ice berg. The two ships were only 6 miles apart. Crew on the Californian apparently saw lights and rockets but assumed there was a party. At 5am their wireless operator was woken up and only then did they learn the fate of the Titanic.

Wireless response

SOS had no specific meaning other than that it was easy to tap out and understand. However, many different meanings were attached e.g. ‘save our souls’, ‘send out succor’ etc.

As you can see here, a number of different ships responded to Titanic’s strong SOS.

Hostile messages

A lot of ships were sending messages to the Titanic. Not all of these were helpful! The first message here is from the German ship the Frankfurt whose wireless operator worked for Marconi’s fierce competitor, Telefunken. You can see the strong response from the Titanic, just a few minutes before it actually sunk. At the time not even emergency messages were shared with the competition!


Apparently the SOS sent by the Titanic was also picked up by a radio ham in Wales. He reported it to the local police who predictably didn’t believe him!

The sheer quantity of non-critical messages was huge. Marconi would make a lot of money from passengers sending messages during the voyage and they didn’t come cheap!

Leaving the Titanic

About 2:20a.m, the last SOS message was sent from Titanic. “We are sinking fast”. Bride and Phillips were told to leave by Captain Smith. They had 3 minutes before the ship sunk.

Bride made it onto an upturned lifeboat which was washed out to sea as the bow of Titanic went under. It is not clear what then happened to Phillips.


At this point, the ship apparently broke apart at about the aft Grand staircase (about where we’re standing) [additional note: there is a replica of the grand staircase in the museum]. Out of 2223 passengers, over 1500 died. With too few lifeboats and a cancelled drill the day before, it was a mess. Lifeboat One had a capacity of 40 but only had 12 people in.


The RMS Carpathia was the only boat to pick up survivors arriving at, two hours after Titanic had sunk. Harold Bride was seriously injured but helped the wireless operator of the Carpathia send out messages. There was some difficulty sending survivor lists because of clogs in traffic and the sheer length.

Arrival in New York

Carpathia arrived in New York on the 18th of April, three days after the sinking. Here Harold Bride is helped off the ship, with one foot partially crushed and suffering from severe frostbite. The wireless operators were heroes.

Sale of the story

Marconi was a very PR savvy man. He arranged for Harold Bride to have an exclusive interview with the New York Times for which Bride was paid $500. It could be seen as damage limitation however it is true that everyone would have died if it wasn’t for the wireless telegraph. This is Bride putting Philips’ lifebelt on.

Reporting the sinking

Reporters offered to pay vast sums for the stories of the sinking and of the famous people onboard, whilst Carpathia was still at sea. Telegraphs to the ship offered at least five hundred dollars a column, with one offering an unlimited quantity, however many of these messages just didn’t get through due to higher priority traffic.

Cyber Titanic

I’ve shown a number of failings here. Cyber themes today would include issues of incident handling, standardisation, new technology, drills, internationally understood procedures, warning escalation and the pain of media involvement, however I wonder what a “Cyber Titanic” would look like and what would it be?
Thanks for listening.

Some additional thoughts

I really recommend visiting the Titanic Museum in Belfast, it is really well done and incredibly interesting both for learning about the tragic events of the 14/15th of April 1912 and also the social and engineering history behind Titanic and its passengers. They also have a section on the telegraph messages that night too.

I also highly recommend visiting the Titanic Exhibition in Las Vegas at the Luxor. I couldn’t take any pictures inside the exhibition, but it is really something else – a lot of recovered artefacts including a huge part of the side of the ship give a real insight into what it was like, again well worth a visit if you’re in Vegas.

Last, but definitely not least is the book ‘Titanic Calling: Wireless Communications During the Great Disaster‘, edited by Michael Hughes and Katherine Bosworth, and published by the Bodleian Library in Oxford which is where the Marconi archive lives. This was published to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster and is an incredible insight into all of the communications between the different ships.

Here’s my tea cup from dinner at the Titanic Museum in Belfast.