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13 April 2023

Marconi, the Hero of the Titanic

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The RMS Titanic has become a meme, as originally defined by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976: a cultural element that is remembered, transmitted, and imitated. There is something about the story of the great ship’s sinking on the night of 14-15 April 1912 that, more than a century later, continues to generate so much fascination and inspire so many of today’s Internet memes. But despite being so often repeated, there are details of the story that are still not very well known. One of them is that the man who was hailed as the saviour of the 706 survivors at the time was an Italian, the winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics and widely regarded as the inventor of radio: Guglielmo Marconi. 

BBVA-OpenMind-Yanes-Marconi el heroe del Titanic_1 Marconi carecía de la formación científica pero tenía una gran ambición comercial: crear un sistema de telegrafía sin hilos. Crédito: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Marconi lacked the scientific background, but he had a tremendous commercial vision: to create a wireless telegraphy system. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi (25 April 1874 – 20 July 1937) never had to work to earn a living; the son of a Bolognese aristocrat and his Irish wife, the granddaughter of John Jameson, the founder of the Jameson Irish Whiskey distillers, Marconi was educated by private tutors in his palace. He never attended school or university, but he did acquire a keen interest in physics and electricity. By this time, the discoveries of various scientists had developed the theory of electromagnetism, and the German physicist Heinrich Hertz had demonstrated the existence of the invisible waves that would bear his name—Hertzian—later renamed radio waves.

The success of radio telegraphs

These pioneers were only interested in the scientific aspects of their discoveries; it was not even believed that waves could be used for a practical communication system, as they were thought to be limited to line-of-sight distances, like light. Marconi lacked the scientific background to understand the complexity of the phenomenon, but he had a tremendous commercial vision: to create a wireless telegraphy system. Although Nikola Tesla is often cited as the true inventor of radio, and Marconi used components patented by the Serbian-American, Tesla did not even believe in Hertzian waves. And Tesla’s ideta failed, while Marconi proved the scientists wrong: by building tall antennas or lifting them high on kites, he was able to increase the range of his communications until, on 12 December 1901, he succeeded in transmitting the letter “S” in Morse code from England to Canada.

BBVA-OpenMind-Yanes-Marconi el heroe del Titanic_2 El Titanic llevaba uno de los transmisores más potentes de entonces, con un alcance asegurado de más de 500 kilómetros. Crédito: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The Titanic boasted one of the most powerful transmitters of the time, with an operating range of over 500 kilometres. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Marconi became a successful businessman, with the scientific recognition of his Nobel Prize. Ships were soon being fitted with radio telegraphs, including the brand-new Titanic. Both the radio equipment and its two operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, belonged to the Marconi Company. The ocean liner boasted one of the most powerful transmitters of the time, with an operating range of over 500 kilometres, and an antenna consisting of long cables stretched between two tall masts fore and aft.

A stroke of luck

Marconi himself could have been on the Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage. According to his daughter Degna in her 1962 book My Father, Marconi, the businessman was due to travel to the USA at the time, and the White Star Line offered him and his wife Beatrice free passage. Unbeknownst to him, Marconi made the luckiest decision of his life when he declined the offer for a trivial reason: he had to work during the voyage and needed a stenographer. His personal stenographer got seasick on ocean voyages, so he would have to rely on the ship’s own stenographer. But Marconi knew that the stenographer on the Lusitania was very capable, so he decided to take that ship instead, which sailed three days before the Titanic. His wife, who was excited by the idea of travelling on the world’s largest and most luxurious passenger liner, was planning to travel on the Titanic. But in another stroke of luck, she was unable to do so because her youngest son, Giulio, fell ill and had to stay in England.

BBVA-OpenMind-Yanes-Marconi el heroe del Titanic_3 El salvamento de los 700 supervivientes del Titanic había sido posible gracias a la señal CQD (Come Quick, Danger; Vengan Rápido, Peligro). Crédito: Universal Images Group/Getty Images
The rescue of the 700 survivors of the Titanic had been made possible by the CQD (Come Quick, Danger) signal. Credit: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

On disembarking in New York, Marconi learned that one of his stations had received a CQD (Come Quick, Danger) signal from the Titanic, his company’s standard distress message. It was not until late on 15 April that the full extent of the disaster became known, and that only about 700 survivors of the more than 2,200 passengers and crew had been rescued by the Carpathia. It was reported that the rescue had been made possible by the Titanic‘s distress message; in fact, in addition to the CQD, the stricken ship had for the first time used the new international code, SOS, which was easier to transmit in Morse code. Of the two radio operators, Bride survived, while Phillips went down with the ship.

A key invention

On 17 April, the day before the Carpathia arrived in port, Marconi was honoured by the New York Electrical Society, where inventor Frank Sprague said: “When tomorrow night, some 700 or 800 persons land in New York, they can look to you as their saviour.” Marconi was one of the first to board the Carpathia, where he met Bride. A few days later, the survivors gathered at the hotel where Marconi was staying to present him with a gold medal. At the British inquiry into the sinking, Britain’s Postmaster General Herbert Samuel declared: “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi… and his marvellous invention.”

BBVA-OpenMind-Yanes-Marconi el heroe del Titanic_4 El desastre del Titanic consolidó la importancia de la radiotelegrafía, y el papel histórico de Marconi. Crédito: Bettmann /Getty Images
The Titanic disaster cemented the importance of radiotelegraphy, and Marconi’s historic role. Credit: Bettmann /Getty Images

The disaster cemented the importance of radiotelegraphy, and Marconi’s historic role has managed to overshadow his later enthusiastic support for Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Perhaps fortunately for his memory, he did not live to see the Second World War, dying in 1937 of his ninth heart attack. Fortune was always with him in every way. Three years after the Titanic tragedy, in April 1915, he travelled to the USA again on the Lusitania. On its return to England, without Marconi on board, the ship was sunk by a German torpedo and 1,200 people lost their lives.

Javier Yanes


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