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by Edward de Groot

CQD MGY were the letters of distress flashed from Titanic late on the night of April 14, 1912. But they were not sent in that order, they were not broadcast with ease, they were barely heard by others and, in the most potentially helpful radio shack, they were not even received at all. Yet only a very small part of all those failures can be blamed on the infancy of radio.

The letters MGY were Titanic's call sign, a registration of radio operation, like the license plates on a car. It meant simply that MGY was Titanic. If over the ether in the spring of 1912, you heard the letters MGY in Morse code, it was about Titanic, from Titanic or to Titanic. Every ship in the world with radio equipment had a specific call sign and every ship today still has one. Today the call sign is prefixed with letters of the country of registration. For England this is G but in 1912, country prefixes did not exist.

CQD was the customary distress signal until the well-known SOS got popular after the Titanic tragedy . CQD was an adaptation of the general call for attention—CQ with an added D for Danger. CQ derives from the official international postal language, French, Sécurité, (safety or, as intended here, pay attention) and not, as many still believe, "seek you". Sécurité is still a call for attention in official radio communications, used either verbally or in Morse by both professionals and ham radio operators.

Although it has often been said that SOS is much easier in Morse to recognize for both radio telegraphists and hams alike, this is untrue. First of all, SOS does not really exist at all (nor does it mean “save our souls” or “save or ship”). It is not a signal of three letters, it is a signal of nine bits or peeps, three short, three long, three short. But there is no space of separation between the short and long beeps, making it a very unusual signal, seldom heard and easily missed when first transmitted. Telegraphy protocol therefore required that it always be sent at least three times in a row.

CQD, however, is very easy to pick up. The letters CQ are heard in Morse 24 hours a day over the entire globe, just as true today as it was in 1912. There is, unfortunately, a problem. Titanic did not just transmit CQD MGY. Young Phillips, Titanic's senior Marconi operator (though only 25 years old, as was his second operator Bride) broadcast the distress signal in full and correctly. He tapped out CQD DE MGY CQD DE MGY CQD DE MGY followed by the position of the ship. The “DE” in this signal also derives from the French official international postal language and simply means “from.”

The DE, however, is also used in the general call for attention CQ. If an operator were to tap out a general call, he or she would tap three times CQ DE followed by the call sign. More often than not, the operators tapped so fast that the CQ and the DE came out as CQDE which could be confused for CQD; all the more so because the E is only one small dot. To prevent this confusion, SOS, or more correctly the signal …---… was first introduced around 1909.

Before Phillips could send the distress signal, he had to adjust his complicated, bulky and noisy set. Titanic was equipped with the largest Marconi transmitting set available, a five kilowatt set, and several receiving apparati. The whole contraption occupied two rooms the size of staterooms in the middle of the officers’ quarters atop Titanic’s boat deck. For the two operators, Phillips and Bride, there was a small adjacent room with two bunks, one above the other. Their minuscule quarters were situated between the two rooms housing the Marconi equipment, a cabin so inadequate that there was not even room for their personal belongings packed in trunks. On the earlier-commissioned sister-ship Olympic, the wireless rooms were situated on the side of the officers quarters; but that location had proved too noisy, deluged by exterior sounds. Hence, on Titanic, the rooms were installed in the middle of the officers quarters and were much quieter.

At the moment Phillips was told to prepare for transmission of an emergency call, he was transmitting private telegrams from Titanic passengers to Cape Race, Newfoundland. To send a distress call, he had to change the frequency of his transmitter to 500 kC or, as it was called then, a wave length of 600 meters, or 1800 feet. (Today, it is still the frequency for Morse distress signals.)

Transmitters in 1912 were more bulky machines than sets with electronic components as we know them today. Phillips had to move handles and levers the size of boots, knobs as large as saucers and adjust boxes with coils that looked like cabinets.

The transmitter room was known, ironically, as ‘the silent room;’ ‘pandemonium room’ might have been more apropos. An electro motor and generator thundered away. The high tension transformer hummed sharply and, every time the Morse key tapped a dot or dash, rotary sparks cracked brusquely at the end of the generator. In fact, the room had been heavily insulated with cork to keep noise inside.

That Phillips could send the distress call was extremely lucky in the first place. The transmitter had broken down the night previous and it had taken Phillips and Bride nearly six hours to repair it. The problem had been fairly simple but troublesome to locate. Due to the intense vibration of the electro engine and generator, a high tension lead carrying over 20,000 volts had rubbed off its insulation against an iron bolt holding the woodwork and a metal frame together. Once that lead had been inadvertently earthed, no proper spark erupted from the rotary spark unit. And that spark was crucial to obtaining a high frequency or transmittable signal to the ship’s aerial.

In a later interview with The New York Times, Bride, still exhausted from his ordeal, explained that “the secondary of the high voltage transformer” got earthed and that he and Phillips had to work six hours to fix the problem. The Times reporter had no idea what Bride was talking about and wrote the secondary "the secretary.” As a result, Titanic buffs all over the world still refer to the problem of “the secretary of the transmitter” being at fault.

Bride, however, in his full report to the Marconi Company, explained in detail how he and Phillips had struggled with the transmitter parts and the transformer's secondary.

The distress signals that Phillips transmitted were received by numerous ships and by the nearest shore station at Cape Race. From Cape Race, news that Titanic was in trouble was quickly broadcasted by land-line telegraphy and telephone to the east coast of the United States. Before Titanic had sunk, messages had reached the newsrooms of the major New York newspapers and reporters were rousing local White Star officials out of bed.

The first response to Phillips came from the German ship Frankfort. Communication between Titanic and Frankfort was initially clear and loud but then, almost immediately, turned sour and Phillips brushed Frankfort ruthlessly off. There were two reasons for his unsociable behavior. The rivalry between firms providing steamship wireless equipment was sharp and ships with sets from different companies did not communicate with one another under normal circumstances. The rivalry stretched as far as the radio shacks. Operators cursed each other, jammed transmissions and fought out their frustrations in dockside bars. Regardless that Phillips was dealing with a matter of extreme urgency, he believed Frankfort boasted German Telefunken or Siemens equipment; as a result, he preferred not to struggle through language barriers with a foreign ship which might well be rigged with competing equipment.

The second reason, frequently overlooked, is that Phillips, as did everyone else on board, including Captain Smith, believed immediately following the collision that Titanic would remain afloat for hours andmight not even sink at all. For Phillips, at the time, there seemed no need to communicate with an unpromising candidate. The full communication log of Titanic and other ships involved is available for those who would like to study it. The pattern of the messages is that for most of the time, right up to half an hour before the sinking, the communications concentrated on getting passengers transferred to other ships so that Titanic could be temporarily fixed and towed to safety.

The division of chores in Titanic’s wireless room was simple: Phillips did the sending and receiving while Bride ran errands between the wireless room and Captain Smith. That gave Bride several opportunities to observe firsthand the situation out on the boat deck. But it was not until the very end that he informed Phillips that the circumstances outside seemed desperate and that they had better run for it. By that time, Captain Smith had already personally relieved the two men of their duties.

Transmitting messages was (and is) technically easier then receiving them. Titanic had therefore several receiving instruments. The most important was the receiver with the Fleming detector, a lamp or tube that worked as a diode or electrical valve in which a high frequency signal was broken up and an audible signal sent to the operator's headphones. A second receiver was the so-called Multiple Tuner with a magnetic detector. The instrument was inferior and more complex to handle than the receiver with the Fleming detector but remained much in use by Marconi-equipped ships and shore stations. A third receiver worked with a crystal detector and was rather similar to the receiver with the Fleming detector.

All three had no active or amplifying components and worked on the principle equal to that of the old fashioned crystal receiver, though professionally built and with high quality components. They worked well and reliably but delivered very weak audible signals. The magnetic detector even had a constant crackling interference similar to that over a bad telephone connection. It made receiving extremely difficult and operators had to keep their earphones so tightly clamped to their ears that it caused many to develop cauliflower ears in the long run. The men also used towels to wrap around their headphones and heads to keep ambient sounds out.

Of the three receivers, the magnetic detector had the disadvantage that it needed the winding of a clockwork motor to move a braided iron wire through the detecting coils and past strong horseshoe magnets. If the iron wire did not move, nothing was heard in the headphones.

Nearby Californian was equipped with just such a magnetic detector. The vessel’s sole wireless operator had signed off for the night. When his friend, third officer Groves, came in to surf the ether, the clockwork mechanism was either switched off or had run down. Groves did not know how to wind it up. So he heard nothing and gave up. Later, he learned that at the time he had tried to get the set working, MGY was sending frantic distress calls. It bothered him for the rest of his life that he had not been more adamant in persuading his expert shipmate to tell him how to activate the magnetic detector.

The wireless room of Titanic was revisited some 85 years after it had last been seen by human eyes. A remotely-operated robot peeked inside. Seen was little more then a lot of brownish, dirty relics and a few surviving fragments of equipment. One was identified as “some sort of junction block;” it was, in fact, a very important piece of equipment. Clearly visible was the skeleton jigger of the set, an adjustable transformer that tuned the impedance of the transmitter with the impedance of the ship’s aerial. It needed adjustment every time an operator chose a different wave length to transmit. Without that jigger, we might still be wondering "Whatever happened to Titanic?"

Titanic never ever incorporated a secret, in spite of what TV people and over-anxious amateur historians would like their audiences to believe. Rather, it was the work of dedicated Marconi operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride that gave Titanic's ship's company at least a chance of survival and the world to learn some of the details of what really happened that cold April night the great ship went down. (© Edward de Groot) (Mr de Groot is an esteemed Dutch maritime expert who wrote 75 Years Titanic. In 1993, he edited the late Leslie Reade’s monumental The Ship That Stood Still. As an accomplished ham radio operator, he brings to the subject of early wireless not only historical accuracy but the technological insight of a wireless expert as well. Your Editor is surely not alone amongst Titanic buffs who has seen the photographs accompanying this article without really knowing what he was looking at. Thank you, Edward de Groot.)


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