Amateur Radio News

Federal Ruling Allows Retrieval of Marconi Company Radio from Titanic despite NOAA Objection

The untimely demise of the RMS Titanic is a historical narrative submerged in seemingly glamorous myth and legend that sharply contrasts with the reality of over 1,500 lives lost on a fateful night in 1912. The cultural impact, however, is difficult to deny. With that in mind, federal judge Rebecca Beach Smith recently ruled in favor of salvage firm RMS Titanic Inc.’s request to retrieve the Marconi wireless telegraph machine from the undersea wreckage.

According to Smith, the telegraph’s recovery “will contribute to the legacy left by the indelible loss of the Titanic, those who survived, and those who gave their lives in the sinking.” However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that represents the public’s interest in the shipwreck site vehemently opposes the mission, arguing that the telegraph, believed to be located in a deck house near the grand staircase, is likely surrounded “by the mortal remains of more than 1,500 people.” This area represents a portion of the two pieces of the ship’s hull considered for many years to be a memorial site that is best left undisturbed.

RMS Titanic Inc. insists their mission will be completed with as little disturbance as possible and plans to use an unmanned submersible to slip through a skylight or cut through the corroded roof for radio retrieval. A suction dredge would remove silt, and manipulator arms would cut electrical cords, according to the company’s 60-page plan proposal. If successful, amidst a bevy of lawsuits already in progress, RMS Titanic Inc. plans to exhibit the Titanic’s telegraph alongside stories of the Marconi Men who tapped out Morse code distress signals to nearby ships until the very end, and perished with the vessel.

These Morse code messages are the only real-time record of the attempted rescue of the passengers and crew aboard the Titanic. Wireless systems were still novel technology at the time, and only the most prestigious ships had Marconi systems onboard. First-class passengers used the wireless technology to communicate short messages to friends, while crew used it to relay news and safety information to other vessels—including the multiple warnings to the Titanic of icebergs ahead.

With only enough lifeboats available for half the people onboard the Titanic and poor organization that further limited the lives saved, the two Marconi Men on the Titanic sent out CQD distress signals, the precursor to the more commonly recognized SOS, to attempt to limit the amount of lives lost. BBC News shares some of the final communications from Marconi Man Jack Phillips. “This is Titanic. CQD. Engine room flooded.” He continued, “We are putting passengers off in small boats. Women and children in boats. Cannot last much longer. Losing power.” And finally, “Come quick. Engine room nearly full.”

Jack Phillips, like so many others, perished as the Titanic sank, but his calm in the midst of chaos lives on in the recollections of Harold Bride, a junior wireless operator who survived on an upturned lifeboat and later sold his story to the New York Times. “I will never live to forget the work of Phillips during the last awful 15 minutes,” recounted Bride. “I suddenly felt great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about.”

It is reverence and respect that drive the mission to retrieve the radio, considered by some to be a historical artifact of great significance, and reverence again for the sanctity of the underwater remains that has the NOAA up in arms. Reverence for lives inexplicably lost—but in no danger of being forgotten.

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