Titanic was high-tech marvel of its time

Wireless operations played critical role on the night of the tragic sinking

When the RMS Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, on April 10, 1912, she was considered the ultimate passenger liner -- unparalleled in luxury, size and technology.

Last Titanic photo
This is thought to be the last known image of the Titanic as it set sail for New York. The photo was one of eight pictures auctioned by Christie's in London in 2003. (Image: Reuters)

The legendary British ocean liner that struck an iceberg and sank hours later in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, clearly wouldn't be considered a high-tech vessel today. But when the ship set sail with 2,228 passengers and crew members amid great fanfare on an April afternoon 100 years ago, the Titanic was a marvel of state-of-the-art technology that captured the world's interest.

"At the time, it was the most advanced ship," said Joseph Vadus, IEEE Life Fellow and the leader of the team that discovered the Titanic in 1985. "The crew had a lot of confidence in their ship and the technology that it had. They were bragging on how good this ship was. Trouble was unthinkable. There were people on board who were experts at different technical problems -- engineers, electricians, plumbers -- and they did their best, but their best was not enough."

The Titanic, for instance, had an electrical control panel that was 30 to 40 feet long. The panel controlled all of the fans, generators and lighting on the ship. It also controlled the condensers that turned steam back into water, along with the few machines that took salt out of ocean water to make it drinkable.

"Their electrical control panel, to us, would seem enormous, complicated and wasteful," said Tim Trower, a self-styled maritime historian who focuses his research on the Titanic. "It would be pretty primitive today. A simple desktop computer would handle everything that was down on this massive control panel."

The Titanic also had a master-and-slave setup for all of the clocks onboard. The central clock was on the bridge, and as the captain adjusted the time on that one clock, all the clocks on the ship would register the change as the ship sailed through different time zones.

There also were four elevators on the Titanic, which was fairly new technology on a ship. A few first-class cabins also had telephones, although the phone could not make ship-to-shore calls.

The crowning technical glory on the Titanic was the advanced wireless communications setup for Morse Code, which was considered the most powerful setup in use at the time.

The main transmitter was housed in what was dubbed the Marconi Room, named after Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who was known as the father of long-distance radio transmissions. The transmitter's antenna was strung between the ship's masts, some 250 feet above the ocean's surface.

Most ships of the day could transmit messages a distance of 100 to 150 miles during the day, according to Trower, a contributor to the Titanic Commutator, the Titanic Historical Society's magazine. However, the Titanic's wireless system was capable of transmitting messages for 500 miles during the day and 2,000 miles at night.

"They had the very best, the very latest in wireless equipment," Trower said. "There were only two wireless operators onboard, both young men. They were the computer geeks of the day. These guys ate, slept and breathed wireless. Think of computer nerds sitting in the basement in their underwear surfing the Internet. These were those kinds of guys. They were good at what they did, but it was still slow."

Marconi message on the Titanic
A Marconi wireless message telling of the Titanic's distress call is displayed at Bonham's auction house in New York. (Image: Reuters/Keith Bedford)
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