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Browser wars of the wireless telegraphy age
From TBTF for 1999-03-01



Paul Harden <pharden at aoc dot nrao dot edu>, an amateur radio operator, wrote the following account of the ways in which the Titanic's tragedy was compounded by commercial infighting between two rival providers of radio telegraphy services. The analogy with the recent browser wars is intriguing, and we can only hope that in this instance interoperability standards will win out without loss of life. Thanks to stig <stig at hackvan dot com> for forwarding this little-known tale.

Years ago when I was in the sub service, I read the book Titanic that was published in the early 1930's as all the law suits and court actions were wrapping up. It included gobs of testimony from the surviving crew, including the young radioman. It seems the contemporary stories have omitted some pertinent facts, of interest to us "radiomen" anyway.

In those days, the radiomen were not ships crew, but employees of the radio company they hired and subscribed to. There were two major companies that provided the equipment and operators: The Marconi Company in New York City and Telefunken in Germany. The Titanic was subscribed to Marconi. Shortly before the Titanic set to sea, there was a big flap about exchanging weather and iceberg information between ships, that is, between these two different companies. So Marconi Company issued an edict that any operator who "talked" to a Telefunken ship would be immediately relieved of duty upon his return. Telefunken, in turn, issued the same order to their operators. Therefore, at the time of the Titanic, Marconi operators did not talk to Telefunken operators and vice versa for fear of losing their jobs. This is why the Titanic SOS's went unanswered by the California, a Telefunken ship, which we know now was adrift for the night only miles away. The Carpathia was a Marconi ship, and at midnight when the operator checked his gear following some repairs, heard the SOS and was able to respond, even though they were some distance away.

The Titanic's own transmitters were down earlier in the evening, and they were restored about 10pm. The onboard ship's owner, Ismay, had ordered the radioman to send all passenger traffic before they retired for the evening, collecting weather reports, etc. According to the radioman's testimony in this book, it was because Ismay wanted all the passenger messages to be sent, as it was a novelty (The Titanic was the first passenger ship built with a radioroom, not added on later), and it would prove how fast the Titanic's Altantic passage truly was. He saw it as advertising. So the huge backlog of passenger messages to family back home took priority, and prevented them from copying the iceberg alerts until late at night. When they did get the iceberg traffic, indicating nearby icebergs, it was given to the Officer of the Deck, who decided not to wake the Captain because it was late, even though against the Captain's standing orders. So he doubled the lookouts instead. 45 minutes later ... well, that part of the story you have no doubt heard by now!

Also in those days, there were no requirements for ships to keep a radio watch. They could work whatever hours they wished, because afterall, they were not ships crew, but employees of Marconi or Telefunken. This is why most ships had their radio gear turned off when the Titanic struck the iceberg around midnight. There were also no public broadcasts of weather information ... you had to get it (that is, pay for it) from either Marconi or Telefunken. All of these things, and other factors, is what led to much of what we know of communications today. The Coast Guard and Navy stations that broadcast weather information in (formerly) CW [i.e., Morse code — ed.], voice, digital, and WeFAX was all setup by congress as a perpetual public service as a direct result of the Titanic. Establishing SOS protocols and emergency calling and watch frequencies, manned 24 hours a day, is a result of the Titanic. And Dept. of Commerce rules (later the FCC) that allow anyone to use a radio (licensed or not) in an emergency, and making it illegal not to answer an SOS, are all fallout from the Titanic and the Marconi/Telefunken battles. And making radiomen a part of ships crew made them accountable to the Captain of the ship, not someone thousands of miles away.

I remember the author of this book said of the Titanic, it was an example of what happens when everything that can go wrong does! And so many of the lessons learned are still employed today and engrained into the format we still use in a simple CW QSO [contact by Morse code — ed.]... namely, who are you? and who am I? now required to be sent first thing.

BTW, I haven't seen the movie yet, so don't the spoil the ending for me :-)

Just a little history lesson as I remember it, because I think hams and CW ops are all aware we're the product of some long traditions.

73, Paul NA5N


[ TBTF for 1999-03-01 ]