Titanic's Engine-Order Telegraphs

Text and diagrams © 2005, Bill Sauder
Artifact images © 2005, RMS Titanic, Inc.
Computer-generated imagery © 2005, Parks Stephenson


Oddly, there is no solid documentation as to the function or placement of telegraphs on either the Olympic or Titanic from period sources. The matter has caused considerable debate in the past but discussions have been limited. Without authoritative plans or commentary from the legal inquiries that followed the disaster, primary source material on the subject was almost non-existent. In addition, the telegraphs themselves were beyond reach at the bottom of the Atlantic.

With the recovery of artifacts from the wreck site, the situation has changed. The courts have assigned the right to recover artifacts to RMS Titanic, Inc., which has periodically mounted expeditions to the wreck for that purpose. The author was invited to accompany RMST on their 2000 mission to the Titanic wreck in order to provide on-site identification of newly retrieved artifacts. A continuing relationship evolved between the author and RMST, permitting the inspection of various telegraphs in the collection at the wreck site upon recovery, at the conservation lab, and while on display at various museums.

Based in large part on this physical inspection, this article hopes to establish the function of the various telegraphs in use on the Titanic, their operation, and document the details of construction.

Historical Development

Ship’s telegraphs are devices used to send written orders from a command station, usually the captain’s bridge, to some remote part of the vessel where the mechanics of the order are carried out – typically in the engine room or docking machinery at the stern.

Communication between the bridge and engine room has posed a problem from the earliest days of steam. Many Victorian ships used a trip-gong in the engine room to transmit coded messages: One gong stroke would indicate “Stop,” two stokes for “Slow Ahead,” three for “Full Ahead,” etc.

Although fitted with a standard pulley telegraph, the steam ferry Berkeley is fitted with a gong telegraph for emergency use in case the main system breaks down.

From the author's collection

Although the gong telegraph was simple to build and operate, it had several serious drawbacks:

  1. The engine-movement orders were coded. If the engineer mis-counted the gong strokes, the ship could easily go in the wrong direction.
  2. On some units, there was no provision to acknowledge and confirm the order. Bridge officers had to wait until there was an obvious change in the ship’s headway before it was apparent that the order was understood and being carried out.
  3. Because the signal was transient, engine room staff had to remember for long periods and pass along verbally what speed order had come down.

As the century drew to a close, a better type of telegraph incorporating written commands and a reply feature was adopted. This “Pulley System Telegraph” proved to be a comparatively cheap and serviceable arrangement even when the system was superseded by more sophisticated mechanical devices. The pulley telegraph remained in widespread use on a variety of merchant ships until it was finally pushed out by all-electric telegraphs in the 1950s.

Pulley System Telegraph

At the minimum, the pulley telegraph consisted of two identical dials, one dial situated in the command station (the captain’s bridge, for example) and the second at the receiving station (such as the engine room).

Each dial was identical, being divided into pie-shaped wedges, each wedge containing a different order. At the edge of the dial was an order transmission lever. The lever was in turn mounted on a shaft fitted with a pulley inside the body of the telegraph itself. Around the pulley was a cable of some type, connected to the remote unit.

When an order was issued, the lever on the transmitting unit turned to align with the desired order. Inside the body of the telegraph, the lever turned a pulley that pulled the steel wire. At the other end of the wire was an identical pulley, but at the receiving unit, the pulley was instead attached to an arrow, which rotated to indicate the order sent from the bridge.

As the order arrow moved, an alarm bell rang to call attention to the new order. To show the order had been understood and was being carried out, the crew member at the remote station moved his handle and by a reverse linkage of pulleys and wire, the reply arrow on the bridge moved so that the levers and handles on all units pointed to the same order.

Left: This engine-room telegraph shows an ordinary bulkhead-mounted pulley telegraph with exposed cables and chains. (1898 steam ferry Berkeley)


Right: Guide Pulley: Chains are inserted into the wire runs for durability at locations where the leads change directions. (Berkeley)

From the author's collection

A four-sheaf pulley recovered from the wreck of the Titanic.

Image courtesy of RMS Titanic, Inc.

Telegraph Operation

Although most readers are familiar with the operation of ship’s telegraphs, a quick review might be helpful. Most of us have picked up impressions from motion pictures that typically suffer from one or several overlapping flaws:

  1. The action usually depicts emergency engine reversals because of plot demands, even though in real life this occurs in only one-in-ten-thousand telegraph orders.
  2. Plot and casting considerations usually require the star to run breathlessly and fling the handles over himself (think “Capt. Kirk”). In fact, whenever need for use is anticipated, there is always a rating (crew member) attached to the telegraphs to operate as directed.
  3. Competent technical advice may either be unavailable, overruled, or lost in the movie-machine pecking order. This makes relying on any detail of outfit or operation problematic.

One film that did an outstanding job was the 20th Century production The Sand Pebbles. Set on board an American gun boat in 1926 China, the original novel was written by a U.S. Navy engineer, and the story is told from his point of view. To see a sequence from the movie that demonstrates the proper use of the pulley system telegraph, click on this LINK (opens new window).

No operating manual or circular instruction letter exists explaining how White Star expected its officers to handle the telegraphs provided on the company’s ships. In fact, meaningful references on the operation of ship’s telegraphs are fairly hard to come by as a body of “common knowledge” that is now almost extinct.

The following are excerpts from a very informative little book written for British merchantman officers in the early 1920’s. Although ten years later than Titanic, it is still instructive since pulley telegraphs had not changed much since the 1800’s.

From “Daily Steamship Duties – Points to Remember in Every-Day Life on a Steamer”
by Capt W. F. Pollard, D.SO. R.D., R.N.R. Published by James Brown and Son, Glasgow, 1924. pp 11-12

Now points on working the telegraphs.

The wires from the bridge to the engine room often go over many leads and have right-angled turns. The leverage for working these wires from the two ends is considerable, so do not go like a bull at a gate and bring the handle from full ahead to full astern as quickly as you can for a few turns just to tell them down below to “Stand By.”

At all times work the telegraph as easily as possible, and so lessen the chance of it carrying away.

If you are stopped and told “Full Ahead” do not bang the handle back to “Full Astern” and then on to “Full Ahead.”

Put the handle right on to “Full Ahead” and with all movements try to keep the handle on that side of the dial the order is on. Because, if the wires carry away -- and they often do -- it will be sure to be when you have the handle over at “Full Astern” prior to bringing it to “Full Ahead” results : barge sunk.

Some telegraphs I know are not as good as they should be in ringing in the engine room; in that case work the handle between the “Stand Bys” before going down to the order. Another reason why you should not send the pointer all over the dial in the engine room before bringing it to rest at the movement you want carried out is that the engineer must wait until you have finished, and all that time the last order is being carried out, and valuable time wasted, a spring carries away and the ship has a bent stem. Many engines are slow in going astern, so let them know below the order in the quickest way.

You cannot be too careful in working a telegraph in going and coming into dock, or going up or down a river; in fact, everywhere work the handles quietly, get into the habit of it and at least once in your nautical career you will be thankful. When ringing off for “Finished with the Engines” whether at an anchor or alongside a quay see that they answer you back at “Stop,” or “Finished with the Engines,” if so marked.

Titanic's Installation

Telegraphs linked three vital areas of the Titanic:

On some large ships, additional telegraphs were installed between the captain’s bridge and the forecastle head to coordinate docking and anchor handling forward; however, docking and anchor orders in Titanic were sent forward either directly through a megaphone or by means of a portable telephone.

Layout of Titanic’s telegraph systems: This diagram shows paths of communication (not individual telegraphs) between captain’s bridge, docking bridge, and engine room. The unmarked indicators are the boiler-room telegraphs and the dynamo annunciator.


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