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Nervous System: A Night to Remember

David Kalat

April 4, 2024

The seeds of what would become the FCC had been planted in the waning hours of April 14, 1912, when the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. Senators were disquieted to learn just how closely modern telecommunications technology had come to averting the disaster—if only it had actually been used properly.

On October 9, 1913, the SS Volturno was traveling the mid-Atlantic en route to New York City, carrying immigrants hoping for a new life—and a highly combustible cargo in its hold. As heavy seas and punishing winds buffeted the ship, that cargo exploded, engulfing the ship in flames.

In the many years since the ship sank, the Volturno has not been made into a James Cameron blockbuster, has not entered the lexicon as a byword for epic disaster, and indeed now is almost entirely forgotten. This is in no small part thanks to the fact that, just months before the Volturno’s fateful voyage, the United States had taken action to regulate its telecommunications industry.

The Radio Act of 1912 would ultimately give rise to the Federal Radio Commission in 1927. A later update in 1934 consolidated regulation of radio, telephone, and telegraph into one act and established the Federal Communications Commission (FFC) to oversee those regulations.

The seeds of what would become the FCC had been planted in the waning hours of the night of April 14, 1912, when the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. By the following morning, over 1,500 lives had been lost and countless others irrevocably altered. In the days that followed, the US Senate held hearings to identify the causes of the tragedy. There was plenty of blame to go around, but one unnerving theme kept surfacing. Senators were disquieted to learn just how closely modern telecommunications technology had come to averting or mitigating the disaster—if only that technology had actually been used properly.

For example, there was the inspiring story of Harold Cottam, the radio operator on the RMS Carpathia. Cottam had received the distress signal broadcast by the Titanic’s radio operator, Jack Phillips, and convinced his skeptical crewmates to investigate the “CQD” (the operative distress signal for the Marconi wireless system used by the respective vessels). The Carpathia was the first ship to respond and, in so doing, saved hundreds of lives.

As heroic as this sounds, Cottam had missed the Titanic’s earlier CQD broadcasts because he was not at his station. This was not dereliction of duty on Cottam’s part. His shift had ended, and so the radio station was switched off for the night. It was purely a fluke that Cottam decided, while getting ready for bed, to switch back on in hopes of helping the Titanic process the backlog of personal messages for its passengers.

Before the Titanic crashed, another nearby vessel had noticed the ice formations. The Amerika, a German steamship, attempted to warn the US Navy Hydrographic Office of the icebergs, but the Amerika’s Marconi transmitter was not powerful enough to reach Washington, DC. As an alternative, the Amerika sent its warnings to a Hydrographic Office in Cape Race, Newfoundland. The Cape Race radio operator was busy transmitting personal telegrams and stock updates to the Titanic. The Amerika’s warning was placed in the queue, behind the personal messages, but never left Cape Race.

Even earlier in the evening, the SS Californian had encountered the icebergs and been forced to stop to avoid disaster. The captain ordered his radio operator, Cyril Evans, to relay a warning to the nearby Titanic, some twenty miles away. When Evans attempted to do so, the Titanic’s Jack Phillips was upset at being interrupted while busy with so many personal messages. He told Evans to leave him alone. Evans complied, turned off his radio, and went to bed. Hours later, Evans was awoken with the rest of the Californian’s crew by the sight of Titanic’s distress rockets.

In other words, the Titanic sank in the vicinity of at least three vessels capable of bringing aid, yet both the advance warnings about the icy conditions that preceded the disaster and the ship’s post-collision distress calls were variously misdirected, unanswered, or blocked.

Just two years earlier, congressional legislators had taken action intended to prevent this very scenario. The Wireless Ship Act of 1910 mandated the presence of radio equipment and qualified operators on every passenger steamer. But that law did not mandate when those operators would be at their posts and took no position to challenge the monopoly established by Guglielmo Marconi.

Marconi’s wireless technology used electrical sparks to generate radio waves. The spark-gap transmitter could only broadcast on/off bursts, however, and therefore operated similar to a telegraph. It was an inefficient use of the airwaves, prone to interference, and had limited distance.

Technological improvements on Marconi’s ideas had been developed by various other inventors, such as Reginald Fessenden. The new approach to radio encoded signals into the radio waves themselves, rather than using the waves as telegraph-style bursts. This idea broadcast farther, used less power, allowed for multiple simultaneous users on different frequency bands, and used radio waves to carry more complex information, such as the sound of voices or music. This new technology, however, was all but choked at the source by Marconi’s enforcement of his patents.

During the Senate hearings, one senator asked Cyril Evans whether the Marconi wireless systems used on the Titanic and other ships could receive more than one message at a time. The answer was simply, “No.” With that, Marconi’s stranglehold weakened.

Within four months, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912. Among its provisions were requirements that certified radio operators maintain continuous shipboard monitoring, with regular periods set aside to listen for emergency signals, and that a single standard distress signal (“SOS”) be adopted across all systems. The act also required Marconi’s radios to be interoperable with the newer technologies.

When the Volturno caught fire in October 1913, its radio operator sent out the now-standard “SOS” signal. In all, twelve ships responded, ten of which were directly involved in rescue operations. Although the ship’s manifest was destroyed in the fire, and only conflicting reports remain, it is estimated that almost 80 percent of the passengers and crew were saved—a stark contrast to the 68 percent of Titanic passengers and crew who lost their lives.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.

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