"Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice".
April 13, 2012 8:19 PM   Subscribe

One hundred years ago, a network of Marconi wireless operators documented history's most famous shipwreck. Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, the RMS Titanic's radio officers, were usually tasked with sending personal communications for first-class passengers. But on April 14, 1912, they turned their tapping fingers to the CQD distress signal (and, later in the evening, the relatively new SOS call), using the distinctive slang of their fellow operators to report the wreck, call for help, and indulge in a bit of gallows humor.

BBC News recreates the night's events, complete with telegraphic slang, in a unique speech synthesis style developed by audio artist Susanne Weber. Listen here. (Previously)
posted by mynameisluka (43 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just read a great New Yorker piece about fascination with the Titanic. It talked about how the early "wireless boys" were the "internet geeks" of their day - young, using new technology and new lingo, having to explain to other people how to use this new, immediate, realtime technology to do meaningful things. Seemed like a very apt comparison.
posted by Miko at 8:33 PM on April 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Miko, do you have the link to that?
posted by michaelh at 8:36 PM on April 13, 2012


A terribly intriguing post, old man.
posted by Samizdata at 8:36 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


fascinating. Thanks so much
posted by mattoxic at 8:39 PM on April 13, 2012


I'd love to read that too, Miko. Your description of it reminds me of an awesome article about proto LOLspeak among telegraph operators in the 1890s, which I totally should have included in this post!
posted by mynameisluka at 8:41 PM on April 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


New Yorker article here.
posted by scody at 8:46 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


BBC should have gone all the way and made it an xtranormal animation.
posted by ShutterBun at 8:47 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


the early "wireless boys" were the "internet geeks" of their day

>> SOS SOS THIS IS PETS.COM AND WE'RE SINKING.
>> MESSAGE RECEIVED. THIS IS KOZMO.COM. WE CAN'T HELP YOU. WE KNOW GO.COM AND WEBVAN ARE NEARBY. NOT SURE IF THEY CAN HELP.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:00 PM on April 13, 2012 [24 favorites]


Surely you mean Goto.com, no?
posted by ShutterBun at 9:10 PM on April 13, 2012


So many internet vessels went under, it's hard to remember them all.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:13 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope you don't mind me adding that just a couple of years before the Titanic, the first really successful use of CQD from a ship was by one Jack "CQD" Binns in January 1909. The White Star Line ship Republic struck the Florida in thick fog off the coast of Massachusetts, and though the Republic began to sink, the Florida was less damaged and kept going. Jack managed to not only contact Florida and have it turn around to help, he also got two others ships to also come to the rescue. Apart from those who died in the collision, no other lives were lost. (Interestingly, one of the ships that responded to the Republic's call was a fellow White Star Line ship the Baltic, which also telegraphed the Titanic to warn about ice on the afternoon before it struck an iceberg.)

Jack was lauded for his role in saving so many lives, and became a huge celebrity. Being a White Star Line telegraphist, his fame meant that he was originally tapped for the top job aboard the Titanic. However, he was later quietly shuffled away as management didn't want him aboard due to his association with a sinking ship...

(Jack is a distant cousin of mine, hence the interest. Although he's sadly forgotten nowadays.)
posted by Jehan at 9:13 PM on April 13, 2012 [51 favorites]


Jack Binns, hero.
posted by ShutterBun at 9:19 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ice warnings interspersed with cute messages from rich folk aboard. Cute.

CQD, THIS IS TITANIC
CQD, THIS IS TITANIC
CQD, THIS IS TITANIC
CQD, THIS IS TITANIC

holy balls this is terrifying
posted by BungaDunga at 9:28 PM on April 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


"Wl hrs a fu" = "well, here's a 'fuck you'"?
posted by notsnot at 9:32 PM on April 13, 2012


holy balls this is terrifying

Totally agree. Considering the constraints & limitations of the presentation method, it was powerfully dramatic, especially during the urgent sections, with so many overlapping messages.
posted by ShutterBun at 9:33 PM on April 13, 2012


I had to stop listening. It was just too chilling and depressing. The CQD over and over again...

Thanks for telling us about Jack Binns, Jehan. That's a really interesting read.
posted by rednikki at 9:34 PM on April 13, 2012


Surely you mean Goto.com, no?

Nah, they became Overture and then got bought by Yahoo!. Go.com was -- if I remember correctly -- Disney's search portal.
posted by davejay at 9:41 PM on April 13, 2012


Go.com was -- if I remember correctly -- Disney's search portal.

Yeah, that's right. It was a hugely funded enterprise (too big to fail!) that now exists in domain name only.

This is not a derail of the Titanic thread. One cannot derail a shipwreck thread, only a train wreck thread.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:51 PM on April 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


That New Yorker piece Miko mentioned is fascinating. I've wondered why the cultural fascination with Titantic exists, and the article beautifully addresses that question.
posted by angrycat at 10:28 PM on April 13, 2012


It was a hugely funded enterprise (too big to fail!) that now exists in domain name only.

I feel like a grinch pointing out that it's still there, powered by Yahoo! Search. Also, it's the TLD for ABC News, ESPN, and a bunch of other ABC/Disney family sites. There's even an Oscars portal of sorts -- with 2012 content.
posted by dhartung at 10:29 PM on April 13, 2012


The New Yorker isn't the origin of the Internet geek / wireless boy connection. In the early to mid-90s, my prof did a full lecture on that subject. He later became a consultant to James Cameron. He later wrote Titanic Legacy on the media surrounding the Titanic. It was fascinating. From what I understand, he pioneered a lot of these concepts, such as the role of wireless boys and their similarity to people using the Internet.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:55 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's also the 1998 book "The Victorian Internet".
posted by hades at 11:04 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Interesting, I just sort of assumed that CQD was an acronym in English. Nope.

Land telegraphs had traditionally used "CQ" ("sécu," from the French word sécurite or secours) to identify alert or precautionary messages of interest to all stations along a telegraph line, and CQ had also been adopted as a "general call" for maritime radio use. However, in landline usage there was no general emergency signal, so the Marconi company added a "D" ("distress") to CQ in order to create its distress call.
posted by dubold at 1:54 AM on April 14, 2012


The New Yorker article is very evocative. Any more information on just why the Californian stood off?
posted by arcticseal at 3:34 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


dubold: French remains the language used in distress calls: Mayday (m'aider - come help me - but only in use since 1923 and hence post-Titanic), Securité -(safety) - important information follows - , Pan-Pan (grave and imminent danger - from "panne" meaning breakdown.
posted by rongorongo at 3:58 AM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


The story of the Marconi operators and the Titanic was appropriated and revised by David Sarnoff, who was the general manager of the Marconi station in NYC at the time of the disaster, to boost his own reputation and launch him to ultimately become the head of RCA and the founder of NBC. For years, the Sarnoff version, which featured him personally sitting at the key at the Wanamaker station relaying news and the names of the lost, was accepted as definitive, but is now almost totally discredited.
posted by briank at 5:59 AM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


CQ is now tamed down to pretty much "Hello". We still use the french 'de' for 'from'. OM is used for someone whose name you don't know.
posted by scruss at 6:07 AM on April 14, 2012


Not hello. "CQ" means "Looking to make contact", ie CQ CQ CQ DE KA1ZZZ
posted by dunkadunc at 7:08 AM on April 14, 2012


Also, you know how in movies or comic books, how they show morse code operators using their keys with just the tip of their finger? Dead wrong. If you want to get good control of your key and send at a decent speed, you grip your key with your right thumb, index and middle fingers. Any group of ham radio operators would laugh you out of the room.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:11 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks scody - sorry I didn't provide the link myself, I was being hasty! The author didn't claim to have come up with the internet connection independently - he is synthesizing a lot of writing on the topic. It was well done, I thought, and made me want to read more. I just hadn't encountered the idea before and I liked it. I was also just reading something about the revolution represented by telegraphy during the Civil War - the first war Americans could 'watch' unfolding in near-real time, where before that maximum the rate of travel for news information was limited to the topmost speed of horses and sailboats. It must have seemed pretty startlingly magical.

As to why the Californian stood off, I thought the article was so moving when it talked about how the Titanic is only partially a story of hubris - it's also a story of human beings' "obtuse stupidity" or something like that. So sad to acknowledge that will probably always be with us.
posted by Miko at 8:24 AM on April 14, 2012


"Wl hrs a fu" = "well, here's a 'fuck you'"?

Nope, that means, "Well, here are a few messages I need to transmit to you." Basically a way of saying "It's been nice to chat with you; now let's get down to business."
posted by jocelmeow at 8:33 AM on April 14, 2012


... where before that maximum the rate of travel for news information was limited to the topmost speed of horses and sailboats. It must have seemed pretty startlingly magical.

Interestingly enough, James Gleick touches on this in The Information, which I'm about halfway through. The talking drums of Africa could pass complicated messages over hundreds of miles in a matter of hours. Nothing in Europe got close until the invention of the electric telegraph.
posted by jquinby at 8:37 AM on April 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Cool, I stand corrected, jquinby. Been wanting to read that book for a while.
posted by Miko at 8:51 AM on April 14, 2012


"M.I.R.P.D.A.N.I.O." is the acronym I learned in association with sending a Mayday signal:M for "Mayday" (*3) I for Identification (vessel name), R for Repeat (the first part again), then P for Position, D for the nature of the Distress, A for assistance required, I for any other Information and O for Over. The procedure then demands that only the vessel in distress and those directly helping it may transmit on the channel under the mayday status has been cleared. Susanne Weber's reconstruction and translation from Morse to speech really helps show how a procedure like this might have bought time and clarified communication. The Titanic struck the iceberg at 23.40 and had sunk by 02:20 the next morning after 2 hours 40 minutes. The Carpathia arrived on scene just 90 minutes after the sinking - this despite being given a location, in the radio transmissions, which was out by 13.5 nautical miles.
posted by rongorongo at 9:22 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoa! be warned the bbc recreation just cuts abruptly into the news halfway through.
Otherwise chilling and compelling. Like listening to tweets from the ship. Oh the power of radio!
posted by looeee at 11:44 AM on April 14, 2012


This is amazing, chilling audio drama. Giving each ship its own voice gives them character. The pacing is brilliant (with the exception of the newsbrea), the effects subtle, and the overall concept just well done.

And the best part is that I could not imagine the messages read by actual people. The speech synth really makes the piece. The mechanical cadence of the artificial voices emphasizes the mechanical rhythm of the Morse code, and that slight touch of artificial emotion could not be easily replicated organically. This is fantastic.
posted by Spatch at 12:18 PM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


> ... you grip your key with your right thumb, index and middle fingers

Hardly anyone uses a straight key any more. It's all keyers and paddles now.

It was sad to hear the Titanic try to shush incoming warnings, as it had so many of these (paying) society messages to send. If it had listened ...
posted by scruss at 1:15 PM on April 14, 2012


The sinking of the ship on @TitanicRealTime's Twitter feed
posted by iamkimiam at 5:19 PM on April 14, 2012


What a coincidence! I had Welsh Ham for supper!
posted by February28 at 6:26 PM on April 14, 2012


"Safe, Bert."

Bert went on to become a successful bar security consultant.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:30 PM on April 14, 2012


"Safe, Bert."

Ernie must have been relieved to get that message.

This is a wonderfully informative post. I am unable to listen to the BBC recording just now, but the info on the Marconi wireless operators and the NY story Miko/scody provided were both well-written and evocative pieces.

These young men, in their early twenties, showed such bravery! Panic and fear could make us all do things we are less than proud of. You would expect these new, young crew members to be the first to break under pressure. After all, the experienced shipmen would have more training in safety procedures (such as they were at the time).

I can't help but compare the actions of these crewmen of the Titanic a hundred years ago with those of the captain in the recent Italian cruise ship tragedy. They stayed at their post even knowing the chance of any aid arriving in time was slim, even after being released from their duties. The captain last year not only abandoned his ship before many of his crew had even been dismissed, he also refused to give aid to passengers in need while it was easily in his power to do so.
posted by misha at 7:37 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


CQ CQ this is w9gfo do you copy?
posted by ikahime at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2012


I feel like a grinch pointing out that it's still there, powered by Yahoo! Search. Also, it's the TLD for ABC News, ESPN, and a bunch of other ABC/Disney family sites. There's even an Oscars portal of sorts -- with 2012 content.

Counter-grinch: "go" is the second-level domain. ".com" is the top level domain (TLD.)
posted by michaelh at 11:52 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


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