HAM Radio 101

Wireless History: Jack Phillips, Heroism and Missteps Clash Aboard the “Unsinkable” Steamship

Jack Phillips, Titanic senior wireless operator, turned 25 on April 11, 1912—one day after the Titanic sailed out of Southampton harbor. He is primarily remembered for his nonstop efforts to alert nearby vessels of the ship’s sinking using its Marconi radio (see the Titanic’s radio room recreated here) which, undoubtedly, saved hundreds of lives—although, sadly, not his own.

But Phillips was also very overworked. He received not one, but two wireless messages from other vessels warning the Titanic of the threat of icebergs in the waters ahead but failed to pass them on to the bridge. Instead, he remained focused on handling passenger messages to family and friends—an overwhelming, time consuming, and, arguably, less significant task than warning higher-ups of impending dangers.

However, it was Phillips and Harold Bride, junior wireless operator, who against strict orders took the initiative to repair the Titanic’s wireless equipment just one day before catastrophe hit. Aware of an issue with a component of the wireless system that was causing a decrease in power output, Phillips and Bride decided to attempt a fix—an action forbidden for wireless operators according to the Marconi Manual and one meant only for the Marconi engineers back at port.

Regardless, the young Phillips and Bride decided to break the rules and subsequently saved many lives. Phillips worked through his allotted sleep time with Bride to “troubleshoot” the issue and after hours of work remedied the problem on the afternoon of April 14, only hours before iceberg and steamship would collide. The fix allowed later communication to the Carpathia—the closest vessel to the Titanic—and a life-saving rescue for hundreds of waterborne passengers.

Also, check out this OnAllBands article on Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam, whose fortuitous transmission to Phillips and subsequent persistence in alerting the Carpathia’s captain about the Titanic’s situation led to many lives being saved.

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