The Titanic’s radio had been down and there was a backlog of messages from Cape Cod – “See you soon,” “Pick you up in New York” – waiting to be delivered. While radio operators in nearby ships took off their headphones and went to bed late on April 14, 1912, a Marconi employee on one of those vessels, the Carpathia, sent a message to the “unsinkable ship” reminding them of the growing pile of correspondence. “They replied, ‘We struck a berg, save us,’” said Barbara Dougan, educational coordinator at Cape Cod National Seashore. “It was a lucky fluke.”
The Titanic’s radio had been down and there was a backlog of messages from Cape Cod – “See you soon,” “Pick you up in New York” – waiting to be delivered. While radio operators in nearby ships took off their headphones and went to bed late on April 14, 1912, a Marconi employee on one of those vessels, the Carpathia, sent a message to the “unsinkable ship” reminding them of the growing pile of correspondence.
“They replied, ‘We struck a berg, save us,’” said Barbara Dougan, educational coordinator at Cape Cod National Seashore. “It was a lucky fluke.”
The “Marconi man,” Harold Cottam, immediately told the captain, and at 12:30 a.m. on April 15, the Carpathia, 60 miles away from the Titanic and farther away than other ships, raced to the scene of one of the most famous tragedies of all time.
Cottam and a young operator in the Nantucket Station, Matt Tierney, were able to help save more than 700 on the new ship that left April 10 from Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the Seashore, as well as the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, are hosting myriad activities through the anniversary weekend.
The center will be open all night to showcase how Marconi operators sent and received messages, such as the CQD, the distress call that went out from the Titanic. Frank Messina, vice president of the center, said not only will folks be able to learn how Morse code messages were sent and received, they will be able to see ham radio operators in action and use various interactive displays.
The center, an educational museum located in the old operations building of the historic station, also provides historical information about Guglielmo Marconi himself, the so-called father of wireless.
Marconi, who received a Nobel Prize just a few years before the Titanic made its fateful journey, decided not to get aboard the ship by a quirk of fate.
Dougan said Marconi was initially vilified because his invention couldn’t prevent the loss of more than 1,500 lives (the ship carried 2,224 passengers), but the sentiment quickly changed when people realized how many lives were saved because of the technology.
The unnecessary loss of life in the Titanic disaster prompted a complete overhaul in the way wireless was used at sea.
“The Titanic event changed radio’s use entirely,” said Dougan, adding that until then the medium was simply for entertainment, news, or sending personal messages.
After the tragedy, 24-hour wireless operators were required on ships and international emergency protocols were drawn up.
To honor those who lost their lives, the Seashore is having a wreath-laying ceremony Saturday, April 14, at 2 p.m.
“We are calling everyone together with a spark gap similar to (the one on the Titanic) and we will redo the actual CQD, which was the traditional distress call,” Dougan said, explaining that CQ is “calling anybody” and D is “distress.”
“All around the world, wreaths are being laid,” she said, adding that at 5:45 a.m. on April 15 a surfer will paddle a wreath out beyond the breakers at Marconi Beach, and people are invited to observe that memorial as well.
After the ceremony next Saturday, Seashore Superintendent George Price will speak about the preservation of the former Wellfleet station site, little of which remains. Marconi moved the station to Chatham in 1914, because the old site was eroding into the sea.
Mark Wilkins, former director of Chatham Historical Society, will also be on hand to talk about all the reasons, mechanical and cultural, why the Titanic was destined to go down in history.
From the ignored warnings about the ice in the Titanic’s path to how operators cut the engines and lost the ability to steer, the cruise was riddled with “screw-ups,” said Messina.
“No lives had to be lost,” he said. “It took two hours for the ship to sink.”
Wilkins will also speak at the Chatham Community Center next Friday where he will follow a documentary made by local talents Ed Fouhy, formally of NBC, and filmmaker Chris Seufert.
At the heart of the film is Matt Tierney, who was at the Nantucket station and heard the SOS messages from the wireless operators on the Titanic. The operators were Marconi employees who continuously tapped out calls for help for hours until water filled the room. Tierney, who later worked at the Chatham Marconi station, living with his family at one of the homes on the campus for decades, became a “pillar” of the community, said Fouhy.
“He never sought glory … he just did his job,” said Fouhy. “An ordinary man who had an extraordinary experience.”
Some of the messages Tierney received are marked with his initials and will be on display at the museum. One of the messages was from a wildly popular actress at the time, Dorothy Winifred Gibson, who sent word to her producer, who she later married, that she was safe.
“I couldn’t believe what a treasure trove there was,” said Fouhy. “It is such a great story. I couldn’t resist.”