Putnam's Magazine, April, 1909, pages 73-82:
MEN OF THE WIRELESS
THE HURRY CALL OF THE SEA, AND THOSE WHO SEND IT
By ARTHUR D. HOWDEN SMITH
WITHIN two hours of the moment when the wireless operator at Siasconset was startled by the ill-fated Republic's C Q D call, last January, the public was beginning to get the news. The White Star liner, Mediterranean-bound, had been rammed by an unknown vessel, and was sinking, though her passengers were safe. Crowds gathered in the streets of New York, whence she had proudly sailed the day before. They besieged the steamship offices and the offices of the Marconi Company. It took little imagination to realize that a drama of surpassing interest was being played behind the curtain of fog that enshrouded the sea south of Nantucket Island.
In this state of public suspense, wireless telegraphy bridged the billowing waves, telling in quick, throbbing beats the story of the accident. Wireless stations on shore caught the brief bulletins from the rescuing liners that were feeling their way toward the Republic; and these were served up to the waiting multitudes on shore as fast as newspaper presses could throw off the printed sheets. Now and then, a faint buzzing in a receiver indicated a message from the Republic herself, where "Jack" Binns--the youngster of twenty-six who became famous in a day--was sitting at the key in his shattered cabin, nursing the power in his depleted accumulators, so that he might keep in touch with the outside world.
It was to the wireless that the passengers on the Republic owed their salvation. The collision waterproof bulkheads and the iron discipline of the liner's crew must receive their due meed of praise. Yet, had it not been for the wireless instrument that Binns contrived to run on his accumulators, after the incoming water had flooded the engine-room dynamos, it is quite conceivable that the Republic's danger might have been unknown for hours--perhaps for the two days that, as it was, sufficed to bring her passengers back to New York. To be sure, the transfer to the Florida was made within that time; but the Florida was badly damaged herself, and an attempt to reach port with such an added load might have resulted disastrously. At any rate, it is the wireless that the Republic's passengers must thank for saving them much discomfort and a certain amount of physical harm.
The world learned a thing or two about the wireless service and the brotherhood of operators, in the two days that followed the ramming of the Republic. Previously, it had only conceived of the service as nests of wires strung on tall poles. Messages were sent from these, but how or why was beyond the comprehension of all except the scientifically instructed. Of the operators, as well, the world only knew, in a vague, general sort of way, that they were men who sat in the little cabins on the hurricane-decks of ocean liners, living amidst a constant crackle of blue sparks.
Now, it realizes that a new guild of men who live face to face with danger has been established. For the code of the wireless operator is the code of the locomotive engineer, of the shipmaster, the fireman, the soldier. He sticks to his post to the last. His is the same spirit that animated Captain Sealby of the Republic, who almost insisted on going down with his ship; for so long as there is a spark to be got from the batteries, the wireless operator stays by his key.
It will be many a long day before men of the sea forget the names of "Jack" Binns and H. G. Tattersall, the operator on the Baltic, who sat at his key for fifty-two hours while the work of rescuing the passengers of the Republic and Florida was in progress. With the wall of his metal cabin splintered and shattered by the knife-bow of the Italian liner, Binns stuck to his instrument all through the dreary day, sending, sending, sending the hurry call of the sea--C Q D! C Q D!
The fog clung round them like a clammy veil; strange noises and mutterings sounded, dimly; the submarine bell signal tinkled an ominous warning that was too late. But Binns stuck to his key and tapped out the cry of the stricken in streaks of electricity that pierced through fog and ether to where the sandspit of Siasconset stretched into the Atlantic.
Of Tattersall it was only known, until he reached New York, that he was the man who, two nights after the accident, ended a message with the pathetic paragraph: "I can send no more. I have been constantly at the key without sleep for fifty-two hours." Afterwards, striding up and down the pier, with the nervousness of the man who has lacked sleep so long that it is no longer necessary to him, he told his story of the rescue.
"Excited?" he repeated. "No--that is, I was, once, when I got the first message from the Republic, via Siasconset. After that, I don't remember anything coherently. Things just happened, one after another. I don't even remember the order in which they took place. The most trying part of it was having to send and receive those Republic messages, matters of life and death, while all the time the powerful batteries of the shore stations were calling me. It was a terrible strain on the nerves.
"Five minutes after the Republic was struck her lights went out, and the dynamos were put out of business. After that, Binns, her operator, had to rely on his accumulators. You can't get a great deal of power out of your accumulators. They won't send a spark much more than sixty miles--not more than eighty, at a maximum. And even at sixty miles they are very faint.
"With the shore stations jerking out flashes of desperate power, it was all I could do to decipher the feeble signals from the Republic. They were mere buzzes in my receiver, for the first few hours. They were jammed out, as we say, by the powerful messages from the shore stations, dinning and crackling into my ears. But all the time I kept calling 'Republic! Republic!' and telling them that we were coming to their aid. The first wireless operator conspicuously identified with a disaster at sea answered that we were coming as fast as we could steam through the fog.
"Was I excited? No; it's the awful nervous strain of striving, always striving, to get the messages right, when half a dozen gigantic batteries are jerking flashes to you at the same time, drowning each other out, pounding in your ears, making the night seem to swarm with sparks before your eyes. That's what gets on a man's nerves; that's what makes you next to insane. I hardly knew what to do, with the Republic calling me faintly, so faintly that I could not make out whether they were saying: 'We are sinking!' or 'All safe!'
"Sometimes, I wanted to swear at Siasconset or Woods Hole. It made me angry that they could n't realize they were spoiling my receiving. How could I take those flutters from the Republic's wires, when they were crashing out their sparks powerful enough to travel two hundred miles?"
There is nothing at all romantic-looking about Tattersall. He is a little, slim, red-whiskered Londoner, as quick and limber as a cat. And, strange to say, he is bashful about what he has done. It is not easy to make him talk about himself, and when he realizes that he has been led into such a digression, he blushes and stammers like a school-girl. "Jack" Binns is the same sort of man--young, boyish, quite immature in appearance, but possessed of the identical iron nerve and dauntless resolution that kept Tattersall at his post for more than two days.
He took it as a matter of course that he should be the last man to leave the sinking Republic, except her captain and the second officer, who insisted on remaining with his chief. It was Binns, too, who held his broken instrument together with one hand, while with the other he rapped the cry for help. Of this, he made light, afterwards. It was nothing, he insisted, with a cheery grin. "Any fellow could do that much," he declared.
Binns and Tattersall are like most of the other operators on the trans- Atlantic liners, in that they are young. Somehow or other, the wireless trade seems to be attractive to youth. It is not because men do not last long at it. It is a hearty and healthy, though strenuous, occupation, and gives a man bracing air in his off-hours. Yet the constant change and excitement incidental to it are factors that appeal to youth. That is the reason most of the men in the trim blue uniforms who have charge of the network of wires that criss-cross between the masts, are under thirty.
As a general thing, they are men of education; most of them, in fact, have what corresponds to a technical college training. This is particularly true of the American operators, afloat and ashore. They come from a superior class. On the English steamers, not a few of the wireless men are "younger sons"--members of that varied army of adventurers who have followed, and sometimes preceded, the British flag to the earth's ends. It is the hint of adventure in the life that appeals to them. They like the sensation of sitting in a quiet cabin, with untold ohms of power beneath their fingers, snapping short, staccato messages across the ocean waves to their brethren of the craft.
Then, also, a wireless operator is an important personage on a steamship. He ranks as an officer, and takes his orders from none but the captain himself. He has real responsibility on his shoulders, and that is another thing that appeals to a young man. Most of the operators, as has been said, have had the usual advanced technical education, and perhaps have served for a time as telegraph or cable operators. But before they qualify for the wireless service, they must take a course of instruction in one of the company's schools, in this country or abroad; and it is in these schools that they are imbued with the ethics of their calling.
When a wireless operator is appointed to a position on a vessel, he is supplied with a booklet of rules covering his conduct on and off duty. But, after all, rules are not what bind a man to his obligations. On all big steamships, like the Republic and the Baltic, there are two, if not three, operators. The rules say nothing explicit about what a head operator shall do in time of stress and danger. Yet the words of Tattersall, shot through the murk that shrouded the sea, were pregnant with the spirit of the wireless operator.
He had a mate at hand who could have relieved him of his task, a task from which he never swerved, save to gulp a cup of coffee or eat a roll, while he chewed on a black cigar and tapped away all through the weary hours. But it was not in accordance with his idea of the duty of a chief operator, to leave to a subordinate the responsibility that devolved upon the wireless in that time of suspense.
Yes; it will be many a long day before those who go down to the sea forget the names of Binns and Tattersall. They did not fail when the test came, and they will be added to the roll of heroes of the wireless service, which begins with Cruttenden, of the St. Paul, who clenched his teeth and never took the receiver from his ears, that afternoon of snow and fog off the Isle of Wight, when the cruiser Gladiator went down, and the St. Paul, reeling backward from the shock of the collision, limped crippled into port with her tale of death and disaster.
It may be said by carping critics that the wireless heroes are not numerous. The answer is that the wireless men have a record of 100 per cent. Besides, there arc not lacking men whose names deserve to be on the roll of honor and who are not even known outside the ranks of their own profession. The service is in its infancy. Its chances for the display of heroism have been few, but not one has been refused. And it may be taken for granted that the morale of the service will be raised even higher by the examples provided by Cruttenden, Binns and Tattersall.
Finally, if proof was needed of the innate gallantry of these men, it was provided by the conduct of little "Jack" Binns. Feted on every hand, the subject of laudatory addresses in Congress, in the Legislatures, in foreign Parliaments, kissed by scores of chorus girls, presented with cigarettes by the hundred, voted a medal by the French Chamber, given theatre parties and dinners, Binns stood the ordeal for five days. Then he gave up. "I can't stand any more of this," he said to his friends. "I never want to see my own picture again." And he fled to England.
The true test of a hero is the manner in which he takes his ovation.
While praises have been heaped upon the heads of the operators afloat, one should not forget the men who keep their vigils in lonesome shacks dotted along the coast of Long Island and the main shore. It was these men who, by relaying the Republic's message of distress, from station to station, acquainted the world with the news of the accident. The life of a wireless operator at one of these shacks is not exactly cheerless, although, by one means or another, the opinion has gained credence that the shore stations are gloomy, barren, draughty boxes of lumber, thrown hastily together over a dynamo and a key. Not long ago, a story in a popular magazine gave what purported to be a description of the interior of a shore station that aroused considerable wrath among the officials of the company to which the station was supposed to belong.
Indeed, there are many far worse places than a wireless operator's hut, even if it be on windswept Fire Island, or Siasconset, or Cape Cod. At Cape Cod, there is a force of nine men, and they have a chef of their own, and very comfortable living quarters. The chief operator at such a station is a person to be reckoned with. He receives a salary of $125 a month, besides his living accommodations, which is extremely good pay for the wireless service.
It may be well to remark, in passing, that the pay of wireless operators is anything but high. A man like Binns, for instance, gets about $12 a week. This rate of pay, to be sure, applies distinctively to British ships. On the few American boats equipped with wireless, the men are paid according to the American scale. Operators on the American Line are started at $60 a month. As a rule, however, the wireless operator gets more pleasurable excitement than money out of his profession; and often he has to learn the difficult lesson of making his own company interesting.
In the seven years that have passed since wireless apparatus became a recognized part of a seagoing vessel's equipment, much improvement has taken place in the methods of sending and receiving. The open-mouthed wonder of the men who stood at Marconi's side at Glace Bay, four years ago, and heard him taking down a message from the storm-beaten Umbria, hundreds of miles away, would now be regarded as a thing to laugh at. We are used to such trivial marvels. The Federal Government is advertising for bids for the construction of a station at Washington capable of maintaining communication within a radius of 1000 miles. The Eiffel Tower station in Paris already receives messages from the same distance; and communication, between the coasts of Newfoundland and Ireland, is an established fact.
But, despite the advances that have been made, the wireless transmission of messages still labors under certain weighty disadvantages. Most important of these is the inability of an operator to guard his spark from interference. Once shot through the air, a message goes to every receiving station within a given radius. In other words, privacy is an impossibility in wireless telegraphy, unless a private code is employed. Vessels and stations are continually picking up messages meant for others. They cannot help doing so. As often as not, in fact, it is inconvenient for the eaves-dropping operator to listen to some one else's secrets. Very likely the interloping message interrupts him in the middle of an important communication. If the second station happens to be more powerful than that which it interrupts, then the first station is drowned out--or "jammed," to use the wireless term.
"Jamming" is the great inconvenience that wireless operators have to face continually. Few of us know that the air above New York City is constantly thick with messages, flashed from stations along the coast, from vessels in port and at sea, and from the private stations that many enthusiastic amateurs have built on their houses--to the occasional vast disturbance of regular communication, one may observe. So bothersome has this interweaving of currents become, that the wireless companies have been obliged to issue strict orders, forbidding operators aboard ships in port to send any but official messages. The gossiping habit is a confirmed one with wireless men, and if it were permitted to thrive unchecked in New York harbor there would be no possibility of serious use of the machinery.
In this connection, it is interesting to recall the experiences of the operators who had charge of the wireless apparatus on the Times Tower, at the time of the latest Briarcliff automobile race, which was reported to the Times by wireless. To these men the air seemed full of noises. Signals were picked up from Washington, Cape Henry, Fire Island, and Glace Bay; and when an experiment in wireless telephony was started at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the men who were endeavoring to take down the account of the motor-car race found themselves interrupted by faint echoes from the phonographic band records that were being played into the receivers of the Navy's new invention. Once, it was necessary to ask the manager of a shore station to request ships at sea to suspend transmission for a few minutes.
One can hardly over-emphasize the development of the science. It was so recently as 1895 that Marconi sent his first message two miles. Regarded seven years ago in the light of a toy--as a questionably practical adjunct to man's power,--it has since leaped into position as one of the most useful inventions vouchsafed by modern science. Probably Marconi himself was pleasurably surprised when he first sent a message fifty miles. It was but the other day that the station on Russian Hill, San Francisco, established communication with the Kuhuhu station on the island of Oahu, 2100 nautical miles distant. And this year the Navy expects to transmit messages 3000 miles!
A German wireless company claims to have sent messages 2290 miles, and it is a common thing for the Marconi operators to flash despatches across the Atlantic--so common that some of the newspapers now publish a special page of wireless news in their Sunday editions. While the battleship fleet was in the Pacific, last year, certain messages flashed from the men-o'-war to the California land-stations were received by the operator at the Pensacola Navy Yard. Think of that! Those communications had passed through the ether, over many miles of tumbling blue water, across the Sierra Nevada, the hot sand-wastes of the southwest, the broad Texas prairies and the Gulf of Mexico, to the station on the Florida shore.
It may be of interest, by the way, to note that the Marconi Company is not the sole wireless concern to gain fame by its efficiency and dispatch. It was apparatus of the United Wireless Company that sent and received the messages exchanged by San Francisco and Oahu; and it is the De Forest system that is installed on most of the ships on the Pacific Coast and in the West Indian, Caribbean, Gulf and Atlantic coast trade. In fact, one seldom encounters a Marconi operator below Hatteras. In various parts of the world, thirteen systems in all are in use to-day.
The number of independent wireless concerns has been a great hindrance to uniformity of communication. The Marconi Company, for instance, refuses to accept messages from the United Wireless, and there is a general lack of friendly spirit. Fortunately, only three wireless companies worth mentioning operate on the Atlantic coast. The third is the Massie Company, whose system is confined to some of the Long Island Sound boats. The same system is also employed, to a certain extent, on the Pacific Coast. Were there more than the three companies hereabouts, it can be seen that the confusion would be well-nigh unendurable.
Last winter, Senator Hale introduced a bill in the Senate, to bring about unity among the several wireless companies, and making it obligatory for each to handle messages in the interest of others. This bill was consistently fought by the wireless people, however, and never became a law, although with the memory of the pact wireless telegraphy played in the Republic disaster fresh in men's minds, it may well be that Congress will now force the measure through.
Wireless apparatus is installed today on upwards of two hundred vessels following the trans-Atlantic and coasting routes. Its use had been demonstrated often before the collision off Nantucket, although never in such a sensational manner. People have not entirely forgotten the stranding of the Coamo on Fire Island, a year ago. It might have been an adventure to worry over had she not been equipped with wireless; all her captain had to do was to call on his New York agents for tugs. The knowledge that they were in constant communication with their friends did much to keep his passengers cool.
As soon as the Metropolitan tower is finished it is proposed to erect a wireless station upon it, by means of which, it is hoped, communication with the Eiffel Tower station in Paris may be permanently maintained. There seems to be no reason why this should not be done. Dr. De Forest does not hesitate to say that the system of wireless telephone stations which he is planning to establish along the Atlantic coast will provide adequate vocal communication between all the large cities of the Eastern seaboard. So it will hardly seem surprising to send aerograms to Paris.
Indeed, the most serious rival of the wireless telegraph is the wireless telephone. All of the battleships of the Atlantic fleet are equipped with it and the Italian Navy has adopted it. British warships have talked together, while under full head of steam, fifty miles away from each other. Improvements are constantly being achieved in this latest invention, and the possibilities of its development no man can prophesy.
In the meantime, however, the wireless telegraph must be awarded first place. Originally branded as a plaything for military uses, at the most, it has become a solid commercial proposition, and a paying speculation for investors. Its possibilities in assisting the advance of civilization have been strikingly illustrated in Alaska, where recently installed stations enable constant communication between points separated from each other by hundreds of miles of snow-clogged trails. And yet, while it is an undoubted commercial asset, a word should be said on the importance of the wireless in modern warfare. Its initial test, of course, was in the Russo-Japanese war. Heretofore, the only known way of giving battle to an enemy was to sail until you found him, and then to close in, if he was not too strong, or turn tail and run, if he was.
But this mode was changed by the Japanese. Squadrons of light, fast cruisers or destroyers were sent out, miles in advance of the battle fleet, to scout and reconnoitre the enemy. They acted upon the enemy as a sort of bait, drawing him farther and farther away from his base, while keeping in touch with their own heavier divisions at the rear. When the enemy had been inveigled far enough to suit the purpose of the opposing commander, a call was flashed for the battleships, and suddenly they would appear on the horizon, steaming down upon the startled enemy almost before he had opportunity to dispose his forces.
In the American Navy, use of the wireless plays an important part in all battle manoeuvres, and experiments are being conducted by the Army Signal Corps with a view to employing it as an adjunct to the field telegraph and telephone, as well as providing a means of communication between war-balloons and airships and the earth. In future campaigns on land or sea, it is destined to play as prominent a role as any of the engines of destruction.
And with the time not far distant, according to many engineers, when Bellini and Tosi will perfect their device for independent communication--too complicatedly simple for the layman to understand,--and when Hans Knudsen will succeed in working linotype machines by wireless waves, not to speak of flashing perfect photographs through the infinite ether, what seems the fairy-tale of to-day, will be the familiar proceeding of to-morrow.