How Marconi's Wireless Tech Helped Save Titanic Passengers
CREDIT: Karl Tate | TechMediaNetwork
A few days after the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, a cheering crowd gathered in New York City to hail the man credited as the savior of the ship's survivors. That man, Guglielmo Marconi, was already known worldwide as the celebrity inventor whose wireless technology was able to send messages across entire oceans.
Marconi didn't invent the idea of wireless technology or figure everything out by himself. But he earned his "father of radio" title by making the first commercially successful technology that could send wireless telegrams across hundreds of miles between coastal stations and ships such as the Titanic. Two of his Marconi Company operators working in the Titanic's radio room — known as a Marconi Wireless room — sent out distress signals soon after the ship's fateful collision with an iceberg.
"You can find newspaper cartoons where Marconi is portrayed as Poseidon lifting lifeboats out of the water," said Aaron Toscano, assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of "Marconi's Wireless and the Rhetoric of a New Technology" (Springer, 2012). "One thing newspaper articles said was that Marconi saved these people — they would have frozen to death if it wasn't for the wireless [messages] getting hold of another ship to come."
The crowd of both men and women gathered at the New York Electrical Society on April 18, 1912, began cheering and applauding as soon as Marconi appeared in the large auditorium, according to a New York Times article on the event. People cheered again when the chairman of the lecture board read a congratulatory telegram to Marconi that praised "the splendid work your system has done in saving human life in disasters on the sea"— a message from fellow inventor Thomas Edison.
The man behind the technology
It represented a stirring moment in Marconi's life. The inventor had himself narrowly escaped disaster when he had been invited to sail on the Titanic's maiden voyage, but ended up heading to New York City earlier on the Lusitania. His wife and children had intended to follow by sailing on the Titanic, but held off by chance when one child fell sick.
As the son of a wealthy family (his Irish mother's fortune came from the Jameson Irish Whiskey company), Marconi had become obsessed with wireless technology early on through reading about the work of scientists such as Heinrich Hertz. He eventually dropped out of college and received his family's financial backing to continue his own lab work.
"Marconi is really the great assembler," Toscano told InnovationNewsDaily. "His genius was not as a sole inventor, but he saw the commercial potential and pursued it."
The inventor's secret to success came from building up the idea of wireless in the public imagination long before he had a commercially viable technology, Toscano explained. Marconi attracted newspaper attention during demonstrations leading up to his biggest event — sending a wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean from an English power station to a kite-based antenna at St. John's in Newfoundland, Canada on Dec. 12, 1901.
That demonstration cemented Marconi's international fame. He went on to win a Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Karl Braun in 1909 and establish his Marconi Company as the provider of wireless telegraph services to shipping companies such as the Titanic's White Star Lines. His business branding was unparalleled for his time — wireless telegrams were known as "Marconigrams."
The magic of wireless
Wireless technology represented the cutting edge of modern science and innovation for its time — something with infinite possibilities for the future, Toscano said. Marconi also talked up futuristic ideas of playing two people on different boats playing chess, or receiving daily newspapers wirelessly and printing them out on the spot.
The wireless system didn't work perfectly on the night the Titanic sank, according to Discovery News. The ship closest to the Titanic, the Californian, never helped out because its radio operator went to sleep after being told by the Titanic's senior radio operator to "shut up" during a flurry of transmissions on the crowded wireless channel.
(One of the Titanic's Marconi Wireless operators, Harold Bride, survived the sinking. The senior operator, Jack Phillips, died in the freezing water.)
But people wanted good news when they gathered at the New York Electrical Society just days after the Titanic's tragedy — and they still believed in the wondrous power of wireless technology to change the world. Frank Sprague, a U.S. inventor who worked on electric motors and railways, stood up to give praise that left Marconi visibly moved and encouraged more cheering from the crowd.
"When tomorrow night, some 700 or 800 persons land in New York," Sprague told Marconi, "they can look to you as their savior."
This is part of an InnovationNewsDaily series about the compelling aspects of various inventors' lives, personalities and inventions and the role they played in Hollywood, pop culture and the progress of society in general. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.