The Marconi Operators

The Titanic’s Marconi operators were something of a special case as far as being part of the crew.  This was due in part to the fact that the Titanic‘s wireless operators did not actually work for the White Star Line.  Rather they were employees of British Marconi Marine, which leased their services–and the wireless equipment they operated–to White Star.  Though the two wireless operators aboard the Titanic had signed the ship’s articles and took orders from the ship’s officers, they were in a sort of neither fish-nor-fowl status, for there were no hard and fast regulations that addressed their position in the ship’s chain of command, nor were there many established procedures for handling messages addressed to the Titanic or simply picked up by her operators.

The senior operator was John Phillips, usually called Jack, a  serious young man from the little village of Farncombe, near Godalming in Surrey.  He had just turned twenty-five on April 11, 1912, and had been with British Marconi for six years.  Phillips graduated at the top of his class at the Marconi training school in Liverpool, and subsequently worked on the Teutonic, Lusitania, Mauretania, Campania, and Oceanic.  In addition, he spent three years at the high-powered transmitting station at Cliffden in Ireland.  Like many young men who become involved with emerging technologies, Phillips was enthralled by wireless, quite knowledgeable about the theory behind it, and adept at turning a practical hand to getting the best performance out of his sometimes temperamental equipment.

His assistant, the junior operator, was only twenty-two.  Harold Bride hailed from Bromley in Kent, and had only been with Marconi about eighteen months, his first assignment being the Haverford in the summer of 1911, followed by short stints on the Lusitania, the Lafranc, and the Anselm.

Both Phillips and Bride had learned a great deal more at the Marconi school in Liverpool (the students there called it the Tin Tabernacle) than simply the dot-dash rudiments of Morse.  Courses in electricity, magnetism, radio-wave propagation, troubleshooting of equipment, and the new regulations, such that they were, of the Radiotelegraphy Convention were all included.  An enduring complaint about wireless of that era was the deliberate interference often caused by operators of one company with the signals of another.  While such incidents did happen, they were the exception rather than the rule, since such interference could work both ways.  (The worst offenders were the German Telefunken operators.) The Radiotelegraphy Convention was very clear about how wireless operators were supposed to conduct themselves, and quite explicit about certain types of transmissions.  One type of message that was absolutely forbidden to be interfered with was a distress call.

The courses in radio wave propagation explained to the operators the effect of the ionosphere on wireless transmission and why both transmission and reception were clearer and longer ranged at night than during the  day.  Of course, this benefit in range and clarity meant that the majority of the wireless operator’s work was done during hours when most of the rest of a ship’s crew would be asleep.  There was no requirement for a 24-hour wireless watch to be maintained by any ships, so the wireless operators usually worked a schedule set for them by the ship’s captain.  On the Titanic, this meant that Phillips and Bride alternated shifts, twelve hours on, twelve off, seven days a week.  Smaller vessels with only one operator usually had a fifteen- to eighteen-hour shift.  The work was not difficult in the conventional sense, but the long hours of enforced immobility and intense concentration as the operator sat at his table, key at hand, headphones on, listening for what often were little more  than whispers of sound,were exhausting.  The pay did little to compensate for this:  Phillips, for example, as senior operator, only made £8 ($30) a month, Bride only £5 ($20).

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