HAM Radio 101

Harold Cottam: The Wireless Operator Turned Hero Who Helped Save Lives on the Sinking Titanic

A happenstance hero of sorts, Harold Cottam is the radio operator who on a whim made contact with Jack Phillips, senior wireless operator aboard the Titanic, not knowing the ship was in distress on April 15, 1912.

It was well past midnight when Cottam, with his nightly duties complete, used the transmitter on his ship, the RMS Carpathia, to take down general news from Marconi’s Cape Cod wireless system before turning in for the night. He had heard that the Titanic’s telegraphist was overworked so, as an act of kindness, he also took down a batch of messages intended for the Titanic and contacted the infamous ship to relay the collected information.

The decision would turn into one of karmic magnitude that would save 705 lives.  

The Titanic, already in distress, quickly replied to Cottam’s message in Morse code saying, “We have struck ice, come at once.” In an interview with the BBC in 1956, Cottam admits his initial response was incredulity. “I said, ‘Was it serious?’ and Phillips said ‘Yes, it’s a CQD old man. Here’s the position, report it, and get here as soon as you can.’”

Wasting no time, Cottam rushed to the bridge to speak to the senior officer on watch but was met with skepticism and a lack of hustle. Not giving up, he headed to the captain’s quarters.

“So, I rushed down the ladder and knocked on the captain’s cabin, and as I saw a light, I rushed in,” Cottam recalled.

The captain, newly awake and not happy about it, sputtered, “Who the hell?” Cottam replied, “Well, the Titanic’s struck ice, sir, and she’s in distress. I’ve got the position here.”

As Cottam recounted, the captain responded with urgency: “‘Well, give it to me,’ and he put on a dressing gown and went.”

While they were still four hours away from the struggling ship, crew aboard the Carpathia took measures to increase transit speed and used the time to prepare food, blankets, and medical supplies. According to an article in the New York Times on April 19, 1912, Cottam said the Carpathia reached the Titanic just before dawn.

“All this time we were hearing the Titanic sending her wireless out over the sea in a last call for help. First, ‘We are sinking fast,’ was one which I picked up being sent to the RMS Olympic.” And the last message, from operator Jack Phillips who went down with the ship, “Come quick, our engine room is flooded up to the boilers,” Cottam recalled. Cottam described seeing wood and debris in the water but no bodies.

The Carpathia took aboard 705 passengers, mostly women and children, searched the water for survivors for three additional hours, and then traveled to New York with the survivors. Additional ships were located at a greater distance from the Titanic and would not arrive until hours later. Had Cottam not attempted his contact, a simple act done out of kindness, the 705 passengers the Carpathia rescued would also have perished, joining the 1,500 others who failed to make it to safety.

The fateful night also proved significant for the trajectory of amateur radio. Initial distress signals from the Titanic were received in Newfoundland but were obscured by radio noise from amateur operators on the East Coast of the United States, delaying a prompt response and action. As a result, the Radio Act of 1912 was created to allocate set frequencies for radio communication that prioritized emergency communication so crises communications would be able to go through the airspace without competing with other operators.

Cottam, an exceedingly humble man who shied away from fame and fortune, passed away in 1984 at the age of 93. His great-granddaughter, less humble in regard to his accomplishments, established a plaque to commemorate him in 2013 (watch the unveiling ceremony here).

According to Cottam’s great-granddaughter, “He never spoke about the Titanic. He didn’t want fame and fortune. That was the man he was. But if he hadn’t done what he did, more people would have died.”

She admonishes his humility with a laugh, stressing the importance of his actions and the importance of commemorating his contributions. “It’s nice that something is finally happening and he’s got some recognition—whether he likes it or not!”

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