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.