Titanic was high-tech marvel of its time

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

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However, many people say the chief wireless operator and the wireless system, or at least how it was used, were part of a string of problems that led to the ship's tragic sinking.

According to both Vadus and Trower, passengers were so excited about their cross-sea excursion and the opportunity to send wireless messages to friends and family at home that they overwhelmed the wireless operators and the machine with personal messages. The wireless operators, inundated with messages to send, became overworked and tired.

That was going to be a critical mistake.

Around 11:30 p.m. on April 14, an operator on the SS Californian, a British steamship sailing not far from the Titanic, messaged the Titanic, warning the captain that there was ice ahead. Stressed and fatigued, Jack Phillips, the Titanic's on-duty wireless operator, angrily shot back the message, "Shut up, Shut up, I'm working Cape Race."

Phillips meant that he was busy relaying messages to a wireless station in Cape Race, Newfoundland, about 800 miles away.

The Californian didn't respond to the Titanic's distress signals because its wireless operator had gone to bed after being rebuffed about his iceberg warning.

About 10 minutes later, the Titanic's lookout spotted an iceberg 500 yards away and called out an alarm. The Titanic struck the iceberg, ripping openings in the hull along the starboard side near the bow.

Around 12:30 a.m. on April 15, less than an hour after the ship hit the iceberg, the Titanic began to sink.

The forward part of the ship's deck started to go underwater at 2:05 a.m., according to Trower. Both the bridge and the wireless room were located on the upper part of that section of the ship. The bridge went under shortly thereafter.

As the ship's bow went under, the stern rose into the air.

According to Trower, Phillips, the wireless operator, is believed to have stayed in the Marconi room, sending out distress messages as late as 2:17 a.m. when water was rushing in. Harold Bride, the second wireless operator and a survivor, later reported that he entered the wireless room and found a man trying to steal the life jacket off Phillips' back. Phillips was so engrossed in sending out distress calls that he hadn't even noticed.

The ship sank at 2:20 a.m., and Phillips was among those who perished.

Reports vary, but it's widely believed that 705 people survived the tragedy and 1,517 died. The survivors, in lifeboats, were later picked up by the RMS Carpathia.

If the Titanic had been equipped with sonar and radar technology, the tragedy would likely have not occurred. However, sonar was still in the experimental stage in 1912, and the development of radar was still more than 20 years in the future.

"Using only lookouts, there wasn't time enough to veer the ship away from the iceberg," Vadus said. "Today, they have sonar that could detect an iceberg under water, and most of the icebergs are under water. And radar could have detected it more than 100 miles away. To avoid hitting it, they would have needed to detect it a mile or two away. That would have been good. They might have been able to successfully veer away from it."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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