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Titanic, Wireless Communications, and the Popular Delusions of Mass Media

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Titanic, Wireless Communications, and the Popular Delusions of Mass Media

When wireless operator David Sarnoff confirmed that Titanic had sunk and taken 1,500 people with it on 15 April 1912, the news shocked tens of millions of Americans who thought trans-oceanic travel was safe. After all, they had seen, read and heard about the power and wonders of wireless telegraphy on the high seas in fiction and fact for five years. Through that era’s mass media—magazines, newspapers, theatres, movies, amusement parks and books—members of the public assumed that the ability to transmit messages electrically through the mysterious ether surrounding the earth brought with it reliable maritime communications. The sheer power of wireless telegraphy also implied a system and the regulation that we associate with systems; after all, what government would not want to assert control over such a powerful technology, in peace as well as war?

A number of people were responsible for these illusions without knowing it. First, we can credit all the inventors, engineers, scientists, reporters and editors who gave inhabitants of the first decade of the twentieth century a justifiable sense of technological optimism. As a period of revolutionary innovations, the 1900s resembled the years since 2000. In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi began demonstrating and marketing his wireless telegraphy system in the United States, adding to confidence that improved electrical communications would bring world peace. The Wright Brothers flew their airplanes in private and then in public, crowning the human triumph of motor-powered transportation on land, sea and air. Henry Ford initiated assembly-line mass production of his Model T automobile, while larger and faster steamships traversed the Atlantic and other oceans. Marie and Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize for their work in the new field of radioactivity, fueling a popular fascination with the science and technology of radiation. Alan Campbell Swinton outlined the basic structure and technology of electronic television. All of these technologies drew on electricity, for which eight percent of American households were wired in 1907.

More specifically, 1906 represented an annus mirabilis for radio. That fall, Greenleaf Pickard received a patent on his “means for receiving intelligent communication by electric waves” with a silicon point-contact detector. Two weeks later, Henry Dunwoody received a similar patent for a detector using carborundum, or silicon carbide. At the same time, Lee De Forest introduced his improvement of John Fleming’s thermionic diode to professional and lay audiences in the New York section of the AIEE and Scientific American, and began working on his three-electrode audion, or electron tube amplifier. These inventions inspired hundreds and then thousands of future engineers to take up the new field of amateur radio in the years that followed.

Hugo Gernsback has received considerable attention for his roles in publicizing and imagining the uses of radio and other electric technologies by radio amateurs and professionals from the 1900s to the 1940s, through his endless array of hobbyist magazines, full of breathless articles and useful advertisements. But these don’t explain how the vast majority of the American population experienced or understood the new technology and applications of wireless communications. After all, Gernsback claimed that 400,000 people were participating in wireless in some form in 1912, but that left about 92 million Americans who were not. What did they know about radio, especially in its maritime uses, and how did they know it?

The answer begins with the S.S. Hamburg of the Hamburg American Line. A flagship of the world’s leading steamship company, Hamburg regularly transported over 1,500 passengers and crew on its Atlantic route. In 1906, the company installed onboard a Marconi transmitter, enabling continuous contact with shore stations as well as ships. Not only could passengers stay in touch with landlocked friends or family, but Hamburg’s crew began publishing a newspaper at the end of October. It provided news, fiction and advertisements for European and New York products and services.

The coincidence of these technical and commercial activities ignited media offerings on wireless to a largely ignorant public. In March of the following year, the New York Times reported on Lee De Forest’s installation of a wireless telephone receiver and transmitter on the top of the Times Building and the Telharmonic Tower. The reportage was matter-of-fact if not cynical on the prospective applications, the most important of which was De Forest’s, which featured in the subtitle and the conclusion: “In the future . . . a man sitting in Bridgeport [CT] at the telephone . . . can talk to his wife as she sails for Europe, even after she is out of sight of land.”

That same month, Stella Miller Neal turned the shipboard wireless link to her own devices in the first fiction about maritime wireless. Her story in The New England Magazine, “Elopement by Wireless,” told how Phoebe North circumvented her grandfather’s plans for her marriage by using a nearby, three-year-old wireless station to marry her shipboard lover. Other writers who earned their living filling the endless demand for fiction in national magazines—the broadcast media of their day—soon capitalized on the possibilities that the latest technology offered for traditional story themes. Between July and December 1907, Edwin Balmer published in the popular Saturday Evening Post not one but three stories—over five issues—that featured wireless telegraphy in maritime situations. Balmer, a professional writer based in Chicago, was not a romantic or a science fiction writer, but he imagined contemporary applications of technologies in the first stages of commercialization (science fiction came later when he co-wrote When Worlds Collide with Philip Wylie). Nor did he worry much about the realism of wireless practice: his operators have no difficulties in sending and receiving lengthy, detailed messages in Morse code that expand on the seriousness of a situation. Balmer’s tales involved assured, wealthy, young men and educated women using radios to find and arrest a well-spoken bandit on the North Atlantic route; rescue their sinking craft in the middle of the South Pacific; and preserve the nation’s interests in Venezuela by deceiving a German fleet with the wireless traffic of an imaginary American one.

Balmer was not alone in putting wireless to work for the sake of melodrama. Two other writers composed romances on the high seas for two other leading magazines, Cosmopolitan and Munsey’s Magazine in 1907-8. Balmer’s fusion of high technology with dramatic themes, however, struck nerves and gold as his crime story, “By Wireless,” became the 10-minute movie Caught by Wireless a year later, starring D. W. Griffith; it presaged the trans-Atlantic capture of murderer Hawley Crippen in 1910. “From the Reef: What the Wireless Told” highlighted the power of a spark transmitter to relay messages to and from a sinking ship, and an electrician suggested to Balmer that he turn that part of the story into a one-act scene for vaudeville production. The pair copyrighted the sketch early in 1908, but discovered that vaudeville could not afford the electrical stagecraft necessary to replicate the transmitter.

At this point, the entrepreneur behind Luna Park on Coney Island bought in. The son of an iron works manager, Frederic Thompson was the multimedia genius of his generation. His inspiration for a career in technological fantasy came from a year at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Deeply impressed by the effect of overwhelming electric lighting on a population still accustomed to gas and oil lamps, Thompson went on to develop theme park exhibits at other expos, most notably Buffalo’s in 1901. There his “Trip to the Moon” saved the event from bankruptcy and quite possibly inspired Georges Méliès’s movie, inasmuch as Thompson imported the midgets inhabiting his lunar set from Paris. In New York, Thompson drew on the new subway line and plenty of Brooklyn Edison’s electricity to create Coney Island’s electrified phantasmagoria, Luna Park. Seven to ten million largely middle-class visitors descended upon the boardwalks and shows every summer from 1903 to bask in the light of 250,000 multicolored bulbs illuminating Thompson’s unique pastiche of eastern and western architectural styles. They took in shows recreating a tenement fire and “The Fall of Port Arthur,” and in the summer of 1908, a ship rescue in “Via Wireless.”

It proved highly successful, aided perhaps by the actual use of wireless to rescue travelers on a burning transport off City Island in New York Harbor in March. Thompson then commissioned two playwrights to turn it into a four-act drama that also incorporated his theatrical interests in a steel mill, large-caliber naval cannon, and a love triangle. Via Wireless opened at the 1,000-seat Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street in November; a spark transmitter in the lobby relayed presidential election results to the crowd in the lobby. Critics agreed that the plot made little sense, but they all praised the drama generated by the operator’s monologue as he spoke out the messages he tapped and received on the blue sparking transmitter on a pitching, storm-tossed ship. Almost as good, according to Electrical Review and Western Electrician, were the special effects showing the steel mill at night, in an homage to Thompson’s father.

It played 88 shows, right up to the day in January 1909 that S.S. Florida rammed R.M.S. Republic in a fog off Nantucket Island. Republic’s wireless operator, Jack Binns, contacted several stations, and the Baltic rescued 750 passengers and crew from a ship that one observer thought “unsinkable.” The modest Binns became a reluctant celebrity, celebrated by newspapers large and small across the country and feted with a tickertape parade in New York City. Music publishers offered songs about him and the safety of wireless, and Vitagraph Pictures recreated the story less than a month later as C.Q.D.; or, Saved by Wireless: a True Story of the Wreck of the Republic. By late February, models of the ships were colliding in a steamy tank so realistically that many who saw the collision on nickelodeon screens wondered how it was possible. After an embarrassing fete arranged by Thompson at the Hippodrome, the world’s largest theatre, the reluctant Binns spent most of the year touring with the Via Wireless roadshow, pushed by his employer Guglielmo Marconi, who needed more business, and pulled by Thompson, who offered far more than Binn's $12 a week salary. It played every major city in the country; President William Taft attended the play in Washington, D.C. Three years later Taft would send repeated, and unanswered, wireless messages to Carpathia to learn more about the fate of his aide de camp, Archibald Butt, on Titanic.

Saved by Wireless returned to Luna Park in 1910 without Binns, and continued on to London and the British Empire. Meanwhile, Thompson turned the play into a syndicated newspaper series for cities not big enough to attract the show. Balmer also profited, turning one of his other stories into a novel in 1911, and expanding the third into a novella for The Popular Magazine. Another writer made the first comedy out of radio romance, in the three-act play, “Won by Wireless,” in 1909, and on 15 April 1912, the Library of Congress registered the copyright for Henry MacRae’s two-reel comedy, Rescued by Wireless. It took two years to actually debut.

The commingling of real-life stories and fantasies in the minds of editors, producers, publishers, politicians and consumers reminds us that the separation of news and entertainment is rarely clean. Joined serendipitously, if not by financial interest, the participants in this conflation used radio in tales to promote and assume the safety of ships in distress, despite widely reported failures of wireless technology in other applications, and ignorance of actual practices at sea. None of this diminished the allure of the mysterious technology offering action at a distance. By confounding truth and fiction about the reality of wireless technology, however, Americans set themselves up for shock and suffering from unrealistic assumptions and expectations about working systems, safety regulations, human nature, and the prospects for happy endings.

Indeed, the sinking of Republic forced a reluctant Republican Congress to pass the Wireless Ship Act in 1910, requiring shipping interests to pay for shipboard wireless stations and contract operators. It also aligned the U.S. with the second International Wireless Telegraph Convention of 1906 by mandating that all ships respond to others’ messages; assign priority to SOS distress calls; and provide for unlicensed but “skilled” operators.

Titanic made it apparent that this regulation was insufficient for public safety. Three days after Carpathia arrived in New York City with the survivors, President Taft called on all maritime nations to organize the safety systems and procedures for ocean-going ships. The result was further international regulation and domestic legislation that summer. Since then, efforts to increase wireless reliability have resulted in more complex, satellite-based, distress-call systems that alternately exclude radio operators and assign more responsibility to ships’ captains. As Costa Concordia’s accident last January demonstrates, however, regulation and higher technology will never fully exclude the frailties of the human factor.

Further reading

Corn, Joseph J., ed. Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology, and the American Future (1986).

Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (1987).

Lovelace, Virginia. Jack Binns ~ Wireless Hero (www.jackbinns.org/home).

Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (1993).

Rasenberger, Jim. America, 1908 (2007).

Register, Woody. The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements (2001).

White, Thomas H., ed. United States Early Radio History, Section 5 (http://earlyradiohistory.us/sec005.htm).