Titanic‘s wireless operators ignored ice warnings
One of the great ironies about the sinking of the Titanic is that—precisely to avoid the kind of disaster that happened—it had been equipped with the most state-of-the-art, hi-tech Marconi wireless machines. Anyone familiar with the story will know these had a practical function: sending and receiving information between ships about hazards and obstacles. But they served other lesser-known purposes: receiving news bulletins and sending personal correspondences—think early 20th century tweets—from first-class passengers to friends and family at home. “Hello boy. Dining with you tonight in spirit. Heart with you always. Best love, girl” read one; “Fine voyage. Fine ship”, quite ironically, read another.
Wireless operators had in their best interests to forward as many of these messages as they could. This is mainly because it paid well, a decent supplement to their already reasonable incomes. But as anyone who’s ever held down two jobs simultaneously will tell you, with an increase in the quantity of your workload comes a loss in quality. And in committing their time to relay the messages of rich passengers while failing to pass on messages about the ice field Titanic was entering to Captain Edward Smith, Titanic’s wireless operators neglected their main duty to the safety of the passengers.
Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, received lots of ice warnings of icebergs (“bergs, growlers and field ice”, as they were known). One of these, from the steamer Mesaba, came in less than two hours before the collision and reported: “much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs also field ice [sic]”. But Jack Phillips—by this stage alone on duty as his partner had gone to bed, didn’t relay it to the bridge. In fact, he responded to the next notification he received (from the nearest ship to the Titanic, the SS Californian) responding: “Shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race”—code for the wireless postal service.
This has led some to blame Jack Phillips, who was initially held up as a hero for staying in the wireless room sending of SOSs until the end. In fact, there’s another anecdote to mar his reputation: that, when a panicked passenger broke into the room to steal a lifejacket, Phillips knocked him out, most probably signing his death sentence. It could have been simply a Darwinian reaction. But if Phillips had no intention of escaping, it does beg the question: why rob someone else of the opportunity? Regardless, it seriously undermines the hagiographic tone of a contemporary poem written about Jack Phillips by Edwin Drew, which begins with the line: “He saved others.”