Monday, April 16, 2012

Remembering the Titanic disaster was made worse by bad communications

As the world remembers the Titanic disaster's 100years ago today I would like to take this blog entry to remind people that the disaster was made worse by bad communications technology, flooded bandwidth, and new protocols.

As Bill Kovarik writes in his article Radio and the Titanic

Problems with the radio played a major role in the Titanic disaster of April 14, 1912, when the British passenger liner sank after hitting an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic.
 These problems delayed and complicated the rescue, contributing to the deaths of 1,514 passengers and crew, and very nearly sealing the fates of those who managed to survive. 
Although its owners boasted that the Titanic was the most modern ship of its day,  the Marconi radio system that had been installed in the weeks before the disaster was already obsolete. 
So the first problem seems that the system in use was not the best available and had some known technical issues. This kind of thing happens when radically new technologies come out and bandwidth problems.

Bandwidth problems you may ask, yes bandwidth.

It seems that "After sending personal messages from the Titanic, the operators were taking down personal messages, along with  news and stock reports for the passengers to read the next morning."  Thus they were unable to receive the warning
About fifteen minutes before the Titanic hit the iceberg,  Cyril F. Evans, a wireless operator on the Californian, which was about 20 miles away, attempted to contact the Titanic to tell them they were surrounded by dangerous icebergs.
As Bill Kovarik explains: (emphasis is mine)
Technically, the problem with the Titanic’s radio telegraph system was that Marconi’s “spark” system soaked up virtually all of the frequency bandwidth and created interference for all other ships within signaling distance. As many engineers were realizing at the time, it was far better to use continuous wave radio transmitters (where signals were carried inside the wave) instead of the Marconi intermittent spark transmissions (where wide-spectrum interruptions in the wave were the signal).
Changing protocols
The other part of the problem was that Captain Stanley Lord, the captain of the Californian stood accused of ignoring Titanic’s distress calls after the huge ship sank on April 15, 1912 while Sir Arthur Rostron, the captain of the Carpathia, rescued more than 700 people from the Atlantic on the night the Titanic went down.

Listen to the RMS Titanic "SOS" on YouTube  

Now if you look at the time that the sinking occurred, there was a change in the work in message content as well as the technology mentioned above. 

As Neal McEwen explains in his article  "'SOS,' 'CQD' and the History of Maritime Distress Calls"
misinformation surrounds the origin and use of maritime distress calls. The general populace believes that "SOS" signifies "Save Our Ship." Casual students of radio history are aware that "CQD" preceded the use of "SOS." 
In 1904, the Marconi company (suggested) the use of "CQD" for a distress signal.  It was established on February 1 of that year by Marconi Company's circular No. 57.  Although generally accepted to mean, "Come Quick Danger," that is not the case. It is a general call, "CQ," followed by "D," meaning distress. A strict interpretation would be "All stations, Distress."  In the U.S. Senate hearings following the Titanic disaster, interrogator Senator William Smith asked Harold Bride, the surviving wireless operator,  "Is CQD in itself composed of the first letter of three words, or merely a code?"  Bride responded, "Merely a code call sir."  Marconi also testified, "It [CQD] is a conventional signal which was introduced originally by my company to express a state of danger or peril of a ship that sends it."
 While 2 years later 
At the second Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conference of 1906, the subject of a distress signal was again addressed. The distress signal chosen was "SOS." 
Although the use of "SOS" was officially ratified in 1908, the use of "CQD" lingered for several more years, especially in British service where it originated. It is well documented in personal accounts of Harold Bride, second Radio Officer, and in the logs of the SS Carpathia, that the Titanic first used "CQD" to call for help. When Captain Smith gave the order to radio for help, first radio officer Jack Phillips sent "CQD" six times followed by the Titanic call letters, "MGY." Later, at Brides suggestion, Phillips interspersed his calls with "SOS.".
In SOS to the Rescue, 1935, author Baarslag notes, "Although adopted intentionally in 1908, it [SOS] had not completely displaced the older "CQD" in the British operators' affections."   Marconi in his U.S. Senate testimony on the Titanic disaster said, "I should state that the international signal [SOS] is really less known that the Marconi Co.'s [CQD] signal."  (It is interesting to observe that Marconi was waiting in New York to return home to England on the Titanic.) 
Thus you have a case where the wrong code was sent out, due to a protocol (in this case human) error. Meaning that the message went out 6 times before the right code was sent out, causing a long delay in getting help.

Now there is a call that it is Time to forgive the man who ‘ignored’ Titanic SOS as "It has ... been proved that any action by Captain Lord would not have led to a different outcome to the tragedy, as Californian would have arrived well after Titanic had sunk."

Given the details I have seen, I think that Captain Lord was used as a scapegoat when there was a need to hand someone out for the loss, even though the Captain Lord had sent ice warnings 
"The Titanic was going full speed ahead, despite being warned about the ice, and the captain was encouraged to do so to make it the fastest crossing of the Atlantic."
It is time to stop blaming  Captain Lord for the sinking, when the Titanic was already hit after not getting the warnings.