Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications

As the first form of wireless technology, the spark-gap telegraph enabled long distance communication and changed the way people around the world connected. In the early 1900s, the spark-gap telegraph was mainly used on maritime vessels, including the famous Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic. However, the success of these instruments relied on the capability of the operator. On its maiden voyage in 1912, Titanic’s young senior wireless officer, John George Phillips, would ultimately play a hand in the ship’s untimely demise.

Diagram of a spark gap telegraph.

The wireless telegraphy era lasted about three decades from 1887 to the end of World War I. During this period, the spark-gap telegraph was a popular model, enabling long distance communication by way of generating a series of brief radio pulses called damped waves. These telegraphs were unable to produce continuous waves that were later used to carry sound, thus requiring the use of encrypted text in the form of “dots” and “dashes,” or Morse code. The dots and dashes were used in specific combinations to form words and phrases fashioned by the operator.

Each pulse of the spark-gap telegraph is produced when a trained operator pushes down on a telegraph key, a bar with a knob on top and a switch underneath, that is connected to the telegraph via conductor wires. When the bar is pressed down, it creates spring tension that in turn produces a closed electric circuit. An electric pulse then travels down the conductor wire to the spark gap, a break between two conductor cables.

The two conductor ends that form each side of the gap are ball shaped. The balls are hollow inside and contain ionized air that enables the electric current to jump from one conductor to the other, producing a spark in the process. It is the spark that gives the electric current power to radiate from an antenna that then transmits the signal.

When the spark-gap telegraph was first introduced, it was primarily used on maritime vessels to exchange simple messages such as weather and terrain warnings, distress signals and ship coordinates. Telegraph operators were often trained for many years before securing a job on one of these ships.

One of these operators was John George Phillips, an Englishman from Farncombe, Surrey, born into a family of weavers. Phillips was just 15 years old when he left school and started working at his local post office where he was introduced to telegraphy. Four years later, Phillips pursued telegraphy as a profession and sought further study at the Marconi Company in 1906.

Portrait of John George Phillips

The Marconi Company, founded in 1897 by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, was a pioneer of wireless long-distance communications. It was the largest and most prominent communications business of the time in both the United Kingdom and the United States, where its factories were located.

Once his training was complete, Phillips moved on from the Marconi Company and began his career as a wireless officer aboard maritime vessels. His first position as a fully capable wireless officer was on the White Star Line ship Teutonic, and he would later serve on some of White Star Line’s other vessels such as Campania, Corsican, Lusitania and Mauritania.

Titanic, photo courtesy of Britannica.

Finally, in 1912, Phillips was given the position of senior wireless officer aboard the White Star Line’s Titanic, or the “unsinkable ship” as she had come to be called due to her unprecedented size for the time (882.5 ft or 169M). Unbeknownst to Phillips and the rest of Titanic’s crew and passengers, her maiden voyage would also be her last.

Titanic set sail on April 10, 1912, one day before Phillips’s 25th birthday. On the morning of April 15, the telegraph suffered a failure and did not resume functioning until later that evening. Due to the malfunction, Phillips had a backlog of passengers’ personal messages that he needed to transmit to a land-based station in Cape Race, Newfoundland.

As senior wireless officer, Phillips was not only responsible for sending personal messages, but also for informing the bridge of navigational information received from other ships. Over the course of the evening, numerous vessels radioed Titanic informing Phillips of icebergs. Mesaba, a nearby ship, informed Phillips of an ice field located directly in Titanic’s path and waited for confirmation that Phillips had relayed the message to the bridge, but never heard back from him. When the S.S. Californian contacted Phillips and informed him that their ship was stopped and caught in an ice field, Phillips radioed back and said “working Cape Race, keep out,” ignoring the advice completely.

Tragically, Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m., an event that would damn her to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Phillips had failed to alert the bridge of the approaching ice field, and the result was deadly. Despite the panic that ensued, Phillips was seen to be doing his utmost to contact nearby ships for assistance after Captain Andrew Smith instructed him to send out a distress signal.

Phillips and his junior wireless office Harold Bride, worked until the last possible moment when, at 2 a.m., Captain Smith dismissed them from duty. Luckily, RMS Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Rostron, received Titanic’s distress signals, but the survivors would have to wait three hours for the ship to arrive.

Phillips and Bride were last seen boarding an overturned lifeboat with a handful of other men. After jumping into the water to board the raft, the men had to balance precariously to keep it from capsizing. Unfortunately, with wet clothes and sub-zero temperatures, Phillips died from exposure before the Carpathian arrived. His ending was tragic, just as the ship’s he unknowingly led to disaster, but his legacy and heroic efforts to save the passengers until the Titanic’s last moments will never be forgotten.