FAQs
(Signals)


What was Titanic's callsign?

R.M.S. Titanic was originally assigned wireless call letters MUC in January 1912 by British Marconi Marine, but this was changed to MGY soon thereafter when it was discovered that MUC had already been assigned to another ship by American Marconi Marine.

For visual recognition, Titanic was assigned the signal letters HVMP (Olympic's was HSRP) by the General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen, which was spelled out vertically in a hoist of four international signal flags flying from the forward halyards, when necessary.

What was the output of Titanic's Marconi wireless telegraph transmitter?

The alternator delivered 300-volt, 60-cycle A.C. current to the transformer, which stepped the current up to 5 kilovolt-ampéres at 10,000 volts (when arranged in parallel to transmit the long wave) to charge the condensers.

What do CQD and SOS mean? Was Titanic the first ship to use the SOS signal?

CQD was standardised as a maritime distress call by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company in 1904. CQ had been used by British landline operators as a general call-up ("All stations attend") for quite some time, so most telegraph operators were familiar with it. However, Guglielmo Marconi felt that it did not convey the proper sense of emergency, so he appended the letter D to the call and required all Marconi-equipped stations (which included most ships and shore stations of the period) to use CQD as a standardised distress signal. It has since been claimed that CQD stands for "Come Quickly, Danger/Dammit", but it really was meant only to convey "All stations attend: Distress".

-.-. --.- -.. -.-. --.- -.. -.-. --.- -.. -.-. --.- -.. -.-. --.- -.. -.-. --.- -.. -.. . -- --. -.-- -- --. -.-- -- --. -.-- -- --. -.-- -- --. -.-- -- --. -.--

SOS, on the other hand, does not stand for anything at all, especially not "Save Our Souls/Ship". The signal was selected by the second International Radio Telegraphic Convention of 1906 as an international standard. During the convention, the Germans had suggested the use of their general inquiry signal of SOE, but it was argued that the final 'E', being only a dot in Morse code, might be lost if not received properly. The delegates, therefore, decided upon SOS, based solely on its distinctive pattern of easily recognisable sounds (dit-dit-dit, dah-dah-dah, dit-dit-dit).

Titanic was not the first ship to use the SOS call, as is popularly believed. She was, however, one of the first British vessels to use the signal. Even though SOS was ratified as an international standard in 1908, British operators were loathe to abandon the traditional CQD for a signal that was essentially a variation of a German proposal. The first recorded use of SOS by an American vessel, the S.S. Arapahoe, occurred in 1909 and there were two or three further incidents where the signal was used between that time and April 1912.

Despite some claims, there was no confusion among the receiving ships caused by Titanic's mixed use of CQD and SOS. What confusion there was stemmed from a lack of appreciation for the severity of Titanic's situation.

Why weren't all ice warning messages received by Titanic's wireless operators delivered to the Bridge?

Popular history tells us that two messages that didn't make it to the Bridge the night of 14 April, one from M.V. Mesaba (callsign MMU) at 2150 (all times given in Titanicship time) and one from S.S. Californian (MWL) at around 2300. Both have been considered significant because they gave (or in Californian's case, would have given) the precise location of the ice field in Titanic's path. It has often been asserted that the Mesaba telegram was shunted aside by Marconi operator Phillips as he worked the heavy traffic with Cape Race (MCE), but what is not as well known is that the operator on Mesaba failed to include the prefix MSG, which stood for Masters' Service Gram, that required Phillips to return an personal acknowledgement receipt from the Captain. The field in the report used for the MSG prefix was instead filled with the words, "Ice Report". In addition, history doesn't record exactly what became of that message, so historians have somehow arrived at the assumption that Phillips never delivered the message. Since all of those who would have been involved with the handling of the message — Phillips, First Officer Murdoch (the oncoming deck officer), Sixth Officer Moody and Captain Smith — died in the disaster, and the message did not require the Master's acknowledgment, it cannot be stated with any certainty what happened to the message after Mesaba transmitted it to Titanic.

When the Californian's Master, Stanley Lord, learned that Titanic was in the vicinity, he instructed his Marconi operator, Cyril Evans, to warn Titanic that his ship was stopped in the ice. Unfortunately, Evans didn't listen to the exchange of signals between Titanic and Cape Race before he transmitted and his stronger signal stepped on the fainter acknowledgement signals from Cape Race. Phillips, who was listening closely to read the faint signals, almost had his ears blasted off by the stronger signal from the Californian. Since the content of Evans' message was informal, Phillips abruptly cut him off with "D - D - D," which means "Shut up!". Had Evans instead submitted a formal report with the MSG prefix, Phillips might still have been irritated but would have, by virtue of regulation, dutifully copied the message and delivered it to the Bridge.

Before the Titanic disaster, the primary role of wireless operators contracted to the steamship lines was to process the passengers' personal messages (for Titanic, the wireless code word to designate such traffic was ADVISELUM). There were no set procedures for message prioritisation at that time, except for those messages preceded by the MSG code (or a distress call). If, then, the operators were busy with paying passengers' traffic, a message without the MSG prefix would be pinned for routine delivery. Because of lessons learned from the Titanic disaster, the regulations were changed after the disaster to require (among other things) all messages regarding ship navigation to be given immediate priority over other traffic. In addition, both of Titanic's sister ships were backfit with a pneumatic conveyor tube that ran directly from the Marconi Room to the Bridge, in order to expedite the passing of emergent warnings.

Did the Mesaba message represent the first true warning that Titanic's crew would have of the ice region in the ship's path?

Judging from Second Officer Lightoller's testimony in London, clearly not. At around 12.45 on 14 April, Captain Smith brought the Caronia's ice report on the bridge during Lightoller's watch. Lightoller made a mental note of the longitudes in the report — 49°W to 51°W — and passed the same information to First Officer Murdoch when the latter came up from his lunch.

Throughout that Sunday, ice reports were received by Titanic — and acknowledged by her Master — that together described a large region of ice along Titanic's projected track that extended westward from the 49th meridian. In the diagram at right, the ice positions reported by mesages acknowledged by Captain Smith are indicated by the tan-shaded area. The spot where Titanic would later encounter an iceberg lies well within that area.

After Lightoller had had his dinner later that evening (around 19.35), he calculated that Titanic would cross the 49th meridian at around 21.30 and then be in the region of reported ice. When Murdoch relieved Lightoller at 22.00, Lightoller told him that the ship was already in the previously-reported region of ice.

Phillips received the ice report from Mesaba at around 21.50. Mesaba's observed region of ice was from 49°W to 50°30'W. Titanic had already crossed 49°W on her westerly heading by that time, by Lightoller's estimation. Because the ice set from north to south, Titanic's deck officers were concerned only with the meridians that formed the eastern and western boundaries of the reported ice, and primarily with the eastern boundary, which would define where Titanic might be expected to first encounter the reported ice. In effect, the Mesaba message was redundant...the key information in that report was that the easternmost boundary of the ice was along the 49th meridian, and Titanic's Master and deck officers had that very information approximately 9 hours earlier. By time of the Mesaba message's receipt, Smith, Lightoller, and possibly Murdoch had already acted on the information.

It must also be remembered that it was considered to be normal practice at that time to steam full ahead through reported ice regions when conditions were clear and no ice was visible along the ship's projected track. Smith and his officers knew enough of what lay ahead on Titanic's track to take appropriate measures. Regardless of the speculation about whether or not the Mesaba's message was delivered to the bridge, there was nothing in the message that would have given cause to deviate from the decisions already made.

What normal steaming lights did Titanic display at night?

Olympic and Titanic were originally equipped to show two running lights (port and starboard), a single masthead light and a stern light under normal steaming conditions. The common assumption, highlighted during the examination of the officers from the Californian and subsequently reinforced by many artists' depictions, is that Titanic carried and displayed range lights. The International Rules defined range lights as being two bright white masthead lights, the aft one mounted at least 15 feet higher than the forward one, in order to allow the observer to determine the direction in which the vessel was headed. However, the Rules of that period specifically stated that while the foremast lamp was mandatory, the display of range lights was optional. While an electric lamp and a steel ladder to allow for servicing of the lamp are clearly shown on the foremast in the original builders' plans for Olympic and Titanic, there are no similar arrangements on the mainmast. It is possible that the flickering lamp observed by at least one survivor (Miss Shutes, possibly also Steward Hayland) was in actuality one of the two docking lamps mounted farther down the mainmast.

Did Captain Smith fly a personal flag from Titanic, as befitted his position as Commodore of the White Star Line?

Actually, Captain Smith didn't formally hold the title of "Commodore of the White Star Line Fleet." He was most assuredly the senior Captain in the Line by the time he took command of the Oceanic in 1904, but White Star had suspended the title of Commodore in 1882 after Commodore Hamilton Perry resigned. The title and flag were revived in 1922 on the occasion of the commissioning of the new R.M.S. Majestic. In his 1925 memoirs, Sir Bertram Hayes recounts:

"The rank [Commodore of the White Star Line Fleet] had been in vogue in the earlier days of the Line, but had been abolished some years before...1889, for the reason, so the story went...that the then holder of it considered that it entitled him not only to run his ship in the way that suited him, but also to tell the directors and managers how they ought to conduct their business. In other words, suffered from 'swelled head.' For this reason I felt it was only after much consideration they had decided to revive it...[which] showed that they did not think I would be likely to offend in the way my predecessor had."

The personal flag that Commodore Hayes broke out on the foremast of Majestic was a White Star Line house flag, bordered in white. The Commodore's sleeve rank insignia consisted of a single wide gold stripe, instead of a Captain's four executive curl stripes. Because the rank of Commodore did not exist during his tenure, Captain Smith was not entitled to these privileges. He was, however, referred to as "Commodore" informally, in deference to his seniority. The numerous references of the period to "Commodore Smith" have led to confusion among Titanic historians. Captain Smith was entitled to fly the Blue Ensign from the stern of whatever merchant ship he commanded, thanks to his rank as Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve.

What flags were flown by Titanic?

Aside from the specialty flags flown by the ship while in or departing port, Titanic flew the country of ultimate destination's flag (the 46-star flag of the United States) on the foremast, the White Star Line house flag (the "Red Burgee") on the mainmast, and the Blue Ensign on the after flagstaff. These flags were flown whenever land was, or soon to be, in sight. Some have speculated that Titanic flew the French tri-colour when departing Southampton, but photographs clearly show the Stars and Stripes hanging from the foremast. All flags were lowered at night. During the open-ocean transit, however, the flags flying from the masts were not raised...only the Blue Ensign flew from the stern. This saved wear and tear on the large flags on the mast, and simplified the crew's duties.

What flag was flown on the jackstaff forward?

In a photograph depicting Titanic in holiday routine (full dress flags), a Union Jack surrounded by a white border of "one-fifth the breadth of the Jack" can clearly be seen flying from the jackstaff. This flag was called the Pilot Jack, and was first described in the Code of Signals of 1832. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 confirmed the meaning of the jack: "To be hoisted at the fore by all British Vessels requiring a Pilot." In addition to its official definition, the Pilot Jack was flown by merchant vessels as a National Colour at the fore during Full Dress Ship.


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