When RMS Titanic On April 14, 1912, an iceberg struck, crew members sent numerous distress signals to other nearby ships using what was then a relatively new technology: a Marconi wireless telegraph system. More than 1,500 passengers and crew were killed when the ship sank a few hours later. Now, in what will likely be a controversial decision, a federal judge has approved a salvage operation to retrieve the telegraph from the deteriorating wreckage, The Boston Globe reported.
Lawyers of the company RMS Titanic Inc. — which holds more than 5,000 artifacts recovered from the wreckage — filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, arguing that the wireless telegraph should be salvaged because the remains of the ship are likely sometime in the next few years, making “the most famous radio in the world” inaccessible. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith agreed with her ruling, noting that saving the telegraph “will add to the legacy left by the indelible loss of the Titanicthose who survived and those who gave their lives in the sinking.”
However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) strongly opposes the salvage mission. The agency says in court documents that the telegraph should be left undisturbed, as it is believed to be surrounded “by the remains of more than 1,500 people”. Judge Smith refuted in her decision that the proposed expedition meets international requirements: for example, it is justified on scientific and cultural grounds and has taken into account any damage to the wreck.
Titanic is by far the most famous historic shipwreck, even before James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. Something about the tragedy holds an enduring fascination in the popular imagination. The ship embarked on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, with much fanfare. Cameron’s film recreated in impressive detail many of the ship’s luxurious features, including the grand staircase, opulent dining room and gymnasium.
There was also a wireless telegraph system on board, courtesy of the Marconi International Marine Communication Company, which could transmit radio signals over a radius of 563 kilometers. While it was primarily intended to send so-called “marconigrams” to the ship’s wealthiest first-class passengers, operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride also handled all messages from other ships, especially weather reports and ice warnings.
Radio telegraphy was still a novelty at the time, although the very first rudimentary telegraph dates back to 1837. Then British physicists William F. Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed a simple electrical switch with a pair of contact wires, controlled by a metal key. By pressing up and down on the key, the electrical circuit is connected or disconnected, and the signal is sent as a series of electrical pulses, according to a predetermined code.
Within two years, their system was used to send messages between local train stations as much as 18 miles (29 kilometers) apart. (British police relied on the telegraph to arrest fugitive murderer John Tawell in 1845.) The Cooke-Wheatstone approach was eventually replaced by the telegraph system created by American inventor Samuel Morse, who also invented the Morse code.
But the Morse telegraph still needed cables to function. The discovery of radio waves — first predicted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 and generated experimentally by Heinrich Hertz in 1887 — opened a whole new era for the telegraph. The Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi was one of the most notable pioneers, developing practical radio transmitters (initially simple spark gap transmitters) and receivers in 1894-1895.
Marconi continued to improve his devices, reaching ever greater distances and eventually moving to England to continue his work when it failed to attract attention and money from the Italian government. Marconi successfully sent the first wireless telegraphic signals across the Atlantic in 1901.
That brings us back to Titanic, which reached its demise just four days after crossing the Atlantic, about 600 kilometers south of Newfoundland. (In a strange historical twist, Marconi was offered free passage) Titanic‘s first trip, but chose to travel on the Lusitania a few days earlier.) Phillips and Bride had been getting ice warnings from other ships all day, starting at 9:00 a.m. with reports of “mountains and growls.” Captain Edward Smith changed course a little further south in response, but he did not slow down.
By late afternoon, the SS Californian had sent reports of “a lot of heavy pack ice and a lot of large icebergs.” Unfortunately, Captain Smith never received those subsequent messages, apparently because an overworked Phillips was frantically trying to catch up on passenger radio charts following an equipment failure the day before. In fact, Phillips’ response to the Californian‘s final warning was a frustrated, “Shut up! Shut up! I’m working Cape Race!” (referring to the relay station at Cape Race, Newfoundland). The CalifornianThe radio operator then shut down the system for the night and retired to the rooms.
At 11:40 PM ship time on April 14, Titanic hit that infamous iceberg and began to soak up water, flooding five of its 16 watertight compartments, sealing its fate. As the ship’s lower compartments filled with water and the crew rushed to evacuate as many passengers as possible to the limited number of lifeboats before the ship sank, the telegraph operator sent out a series of increasingly frenetic Morse code messages, including what has become ” the world’s most famous distress signal: dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot (SOS). Only about 710 of those on board survived the sinking.
Titanic remained undiscovered at the bottom of the Atlantic until an expedition led by Jean-Louis Michel and Robert Ballard reached the wreckage on September 1, 1985. a mile apart. The bow was found to be surprisingly intact, while the stern showed severe structural damage, probably flattened from impact as it hit the ocean floor. There is a debris field covering an area of 5 by 3 miles, full of furniture fragments, dishes, shoes and boots and other personal items.
Many thousands of surviving artifacts have been salvaged by various groups over the years and have subsequently been incorporated into itinerant expeditions. But this practice is not without controversy, particularly regarding the salvage operations of RMS Titanic Inc. There are those who want to recover and preserve as many artifacts as possible for posterity (“conservationists”), while a rival group, including Ballard, consider any disturbance to the wreckage a disrespectful offense (“protectionists”).
The conservationists have won in recent years, despite the fact that RMS Titanic Inc. apparently destroyed the ship’s crow’s nest when it was retrieved Titanicthe bell. But the wreck is seriously deteriorating, and not just from accidental damage from salvage operations. (Last year, a two-person submarine crashed into the wreckage.) The decline is also due to iron-eating bacteria feeding on the hull. So there is a sense of urgency for driving salvage efforts.
This latest statement will no doubt spark more controversy, as the expedition’s plans call for the “surgical” removal of the telegraph from the hull, at the risk of further damage. (The telegraph is believed to be in a deckhouse near the grand staircase.) According to an Associated Press report, the company’s 60-page plan calls for an unmanned submarine to pass through a skylight. . If that doesn’t work, the expedition would cut through the roof, which is already heavily corroded. Then a “suction sucker” will remove all the loose sludge and the arms of the sub will cut all the electrical cords.
The team is scheduled to launch in August this year and plans to take the opportunity to evaluate how well the wreck is holding up, paying particular attention to that part of the wreck where the Marconi Telegraph is located, said oceanographer and Titanic expert David Gallo. Gallo is now retired from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and is a consultant to RMS Titanic Inc.
“Previously, entering the hull of Titaniccutting into the fuselage or removing objects from the fuselage are strictly prohibited,” Gallo told The Boston Globe. “If we agree that the telegraph is in danger of being lost forever, and if we agree that the telegraph can be surgically removed without undue damage to the Titanicwe’ll be willing to do that.”