This article originally appeared in the New York Herald, which operated a prominent shore radiotelegraph station, OHX (later WHB), which partially explains the company's enthusiasm for better radio regulation.
The original scan for this article is at:
San Francisco Call, July 7, 1912, page 22:
Many are the reforms which are likely to follow from lessons taught by the loss of the steam ship Titanic, in which 1,600 lives were destroyed. After the ill fated vessel had come into collision with an iceberg hours followed in which, had the wireless been the perfect instrument for saving vessels in distress which it was held to be in the popular imagination, possibly every soul on board might have been rescued.
The Carpathia did her duty well, but the testimony showed in investigations on both sides of the Atlantic that the wireless operator on the Californian, four miles distant, was asleep in his bunk when the Titanic was sending up rockets as visible signals of distress. Had he been at his post, or had the Californian been in touch with the appeal for succor which traveled through the ether, the history of that night of disaster might have been different.
About wireless communication at sea there has been for years the glamour of romance. The operator has been the dashing, sparkling hero of the well adorned tale; the friend of maritime pilgrims of the night, the squire of dames in distress. He has hitherto lived in an atmosphere of potent mystery; he has been regarded as the modern Merlin, as the seer who sees visions to which all other men are blind. The loss of the Titanic destroyed a popular illusion and showed that the destiny of the great unsinkable ocean steamship and the lives of thousands of men, women and children were at the mercy of an untrained and inexperienced youth of 18. Now the time has come when the wireless system and the wireless operator must be stripped of their trappings of infallibility and become subject absolutely to the laws which are imposed upon ordinary human beings.
The attention of the whole world has been called recently to a discussion of the part which the wireless is to play in the future. The authoritative article by Charles Bright of England, printed in the Nineteenth Century, a London magazine, contains the opinion that wireless will never supplant the submarine cable, but will rather supplement its work. Where secrecy, accuracy and speed are desired the cable has the advantage. The wireless is at present much affected by atmospheric disturbances and probably always will be, no matter how far the process of attuning may be carried. J. H. Scarr, a forecaster of the United States weather bureau, said recently that when storms occur in the gulf of Mexico or on the ocean wireless reports of the meteorological conditions are not received by him.
The government equips 50 American vessels with instruments for recording weather and obtains bulletins from these craft by wireless when it can. It is accepted at all stations that when these wireless bulletins are not obtained there is a storm at sea.
The difficulties of transmitting matter by wireless with speed and accuracy were well exemplified when the names of survivors of the Titanic were being dispatched from the steam ship Carpathia. Even with the advance list of passengers as a means of checking the messages, the names of well known persons were so mangled in transmission as to be almost unrecognizable.
Regulation of Wireless
When a large proportion of the matter is in code, as is the case with cable messages, the difficulties of sending increase.
Extravagant statements are made from time to time concerning the great value of wireless as a means of universal communication. So far the indications are that its usefulness will be restricted to communicating between vessels at sea or from vessels to the shore. In this sphere it seems to have plenty to do. Its mission as a means of saving life in time of danger and distress, of bringing quick aid over hundreds of miles of water, is one which, it develops from official testimony, has been interfered with by the sending of commercial messages. The regulation of wireless by the nations will probably result in imposing such restrictions that its greatest advantage will not be nullified by imposing upon it a service for which it is not fitted in order to advance the interests of monopoly.
The wireless may, in the opinion of men who have made rapid communication the study of their lives, become an aid to the submarine cable and the land telegraph, but it will never supplant either one of these systems any more than the telephone has been able to supersede the telegraph, despite the extravagant assertions to that effect which were once so loudly made.
The science of radio communication itself is in its callow youth. Marconi did not begin transmitting messages through the air until 1896, when he sent them between stations only two miles apart. Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist, in 1888 set in vibration with his ausculator those waves of electric impulse which bear his name. Branly of Paris devised the first detector, or coherer, in 1890, and five years later Popoff, the Russian, gave to the world the receptor, or receiving instrument. Marconi, son of an English mother and an Italian father, devised the transmitter which is sensitive to the Hertzian waves. Sir Oliver Lodge, the British scientist, by means of his syntonic experiments, made possible the attuning of the wireless impulses by which communication over land and sea is now easily effected.
Other minds were working on the same problem as that which engaged the inventive genius of Marconi. Given an electric wave and the means of controlling it, the ingenuity of inventors evolved different applications of the same principle. So it is that the world also has a Fessenden, the Tele-Funken, the De Forest system and several others. Probably no modern science has progressed more rapidly than that of radio communication and none other has so rapidly outstripped the rules and regulations made for the control of messages.
The wireless telegraph fired the imagination of boyhood with a single spark. The name of Marconi was one with which adolescent fancy conjured. The apparatus for imparting impulses to the air was easily and cheaply acquired. A $2 induction coil, a small staff, a little wire for antennae, owned by a boy 16 or 18, enable him to send out signals of distress from the top of his father's house which will disturb shipping for many miles along the Atlantic seaboard. There are thousands of low power sets scattered through the eastern country in the control of reckless young operators which are a means of annoyance, if not of menace, to vessels at sea. Much of this apparatus is effective over short distances only, yet there are budding operators the wealth of whose parents permits them to have as effective a wireless station as that which may be maintained by the regular companies or by the largest ocean steamship.
Bills for the reformation of wireless are now before congress and new rules are being considered by the wireless convention in London. Wireless triflers are constantly adding confusion worse confounded to aerial babel. One of their favorite diversions is to converse by wireless about their lessons or to discuss the gossip of school. They talk of everything from logarithms to marbles. When they become tired of such prosaic things they send out something like this, "S. O. S. Have been in collision and am sinking," or "Fire in hold; send fireboat." They may use the name of some vessel actually in the neighborhood, or invent one. Operators who are engaged in legitimate business can only request that these young persons keep out.
The Boy Wonder Question
"We won't keep out," was the reply heard at a newspaper station the other day from a youthful master of wireless in response to a government message, "You are all the time breaking in when we are sending,"
This matter of the boy wonder of the wireless must be handled with tact, for from the ranks of ardent, yet undisciplined, enthusiasts come scores of the best operators. It is proposed to adopt legislation which will permit them to practice wireless and yet prevent them from interfering with the business of the government of wireless telegraph companies and of the steamships. First of all a general license system, applying to all stations, is proposed. This will include those operated both by amateurs and professionals. Under the present regulation the government licenses only such operators as go to sea. There is no control of those who are at work on land, or who may operate the wireless for their own amusement or instruction. The new legislation provides that not only all operators, but all stations, shall be duly licensed. Stations which violate the amenities or transgress such rules as are deemed expedient for the conduct of the communication or the general safety of mankind would be liable to be closed, or at least to have their activity temporarily suspended. The wave lengths could be regulated so as to give certain lengths to the various classes of stations. It is proposed to limit that employed by amateurs to 300 meters, and that no station in proximity to one operated by the government shall have a set greater in power than half a kilowatt. This arrangement would give the young amateurs opportunity to develop and also would keep them out of the way of professionals, who would be permitted to employ greater wave lengths. By special permission the amateur might, in times which are definitely prescribed, be permitted to practice at longer range.
Such legislation would not check the instruction for novices which is now in progress. The Young Men's Christian association in its east side branch in New York city is conducting an admirable school for the training of operators. The wireless companies have classes where similar lessons are given. When a boy feels that he must exercise his new found craft in the wireless house of an ocean steamship he presents himself for examination at the electrical school in the Brooklyn navy yard. He takes an examination first in the theory of wireless and then essays a practical test, in which he must show that he can send at least 15 words a minute. In this school he comes in contact also with recruits in the navy who are undergoing similar instruction.
Indeed, many ambitious boys with a liking for electrical studies have been impelled to enlist in the navy with the hope of getting employment as wireless operators. An operator before he can receive a license must show more than amateur proficiency. The navy issues the licenses and the department of commerce and labor accepts them and also inspects the apparatus on all vessels which come and go within these waters. In the case of foreign vessels the license issued by the nation under the flag of which the vessel is registered is accepted by the United States government.
Many of the old line telegraph operators have passed their examination for wireless operators. They are specially valuable, because years of experience and of discipline have fitted them to cope with great emergencies and to be of value in times of danger. The average wireless operator, however, has had little of such preparation, and most of the operators in control of the sets on ocean steamships are youths of 18 or 20 years. They are alert mentally as a general thing, and develop rapidly in their science. The government and the international wireless convention, have before them the problem of encouraging the young operator to perfect himself in skill and at the same time to keep his activities well under control.
This, however, is only one phase of the program which is before the London convention, and there are many other reforms which are to be considered. Several are to be suggested by the American experts Lieutenant Commander E. W. Todd of the United States navy and W. D. Terrell, who is the inspector of ship wireless for the department of commerce and labor at New York. The United States only recently signed the international agreement made six years ago, and now an antiquated document in light of the progress of wireless since that time.
Important legislation is also pending in this country of which the act to regulate radio communication has passed the senate and is now before the house of representatives. It provides that no person, company or corporation within the jurisdiction of the United States shall use radio communication as a means of commercial intercourse among the several states, or of intercourse with foreign nations or upon any vessel of the United States engaged in interstate or foreign commerce, except in accordance with the license, revocable for cause. Every government station on land or sea shall have special call letters designated and published in the list of radio stations of the United States. Any person, company or corporation that shall use or operate any system for radio communication in violation of this law shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $500, and the apparatus or device so unlawfully used and operated may be adjudged forfeited to the United States. This proposed law also provides that on every license shall be printed that the president of the United States in time of war or public peril may cause the closing of any station for radio communication and the removal of all its apparatus, or may authorize the use and control of the station or apparatus by any department of the government upon just compensation being paid to the owners.
One of the greatest evils of the present system of wireless communication is interference. For the purpose of minimizing this and to further the prompt receipt of distress signals it is provided in the proposed law that private and commercial stations shall be subject to special regulations to be enforced by the secretary of commerce and labor through the collectors of customs and other officers of the government. Willful or malicious interference is made a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not exceeding $500, or imprisonment for not exceeding one year, or both. Any one intercepting messages over a government system shall be subject to a fine of $1,000, or not more than three years' imprisonment. The making of a false distress call may be made punishable by a fine of $2,500, or imprisonment for not more than five years, or both, under the proposed legislation.
The regulation of wave lengths is receiving thorough consideration on the part of the American authorities. It is provided that every station shall be required to designate a certain definite wave length as the normal sending and receiving one of that station. If it is not less than 600 meters it shall exceed 1,600 meters. Every coastal station open to general public service shall at all times be ready to receive messages of such wave lengths as are required by the Berlin convention. At all stations, if the sending apparatus is of such a character that the energy is radiated in two or more wave lengths, more or less sharply defined, as indicated by a sensitive wave meter, the energy in no one of the lesser waves shall exceed 10 per cent of that in the greatest.
For the purpose of sending signals of distress every station on shipboard shall be so adjusted (except on vessels of small tonnage, unable to have plants insuring that wave length) as to permit these signals to be sent with a wave length of approximately 300 meters. Every station on a vessel at sea, according to the act, wherever practicable shall be prepared to send distress signals in accordance with the international code with sufficient power to enable them to be received by day over sea a distance of 100 nautical miles by a shipboard station.
All stations are required to give absolute right of way for signals of distress, to cease all sending on hearing a distress signal, and, except when engaged in answering or aiding the vessel in distress, to refrain from sending until all signals relating to the peril of the distressed vessel have been completed.
Experiences upon the sea in the last few weeks have shown the need of having a wireless operator constantly on duty on board the great steamships. It was only through a lucky fluke that the steamship Carpathia was enabled to catch the signal of distress sent out by the steamship Titanic. Five minutes later the "S. O. S" might not have been noticed, for the operator who caught it was about to turn in for the night. It is probable that the signal was not heard by other vessels which might have been of assistance because the wireless operators were not on duty.
Carry Two Operators
It is now proposed that every large ocean steamship shall carry two wireless operators, so that one may be constantly on watch to note signals of distress and to keep in touch with all that passes. It is also proposed to regulate the transmission of commercial and press messages in such a way that they will not interfere with signals of distress or will not drown the cry for succor which may come from across the intervening leagues of sea. When a large quantity of commercial work or press matter is being sent by the long length waves it has been suggested that another operator be on duty to receive any message which may be coming in waves of shorter lengths. The greatest strain upon the wireless comes between the hours of 10 o'clock at night and midnight, and at this period it is especially urged that every precaution be used with regard to distress signals.
Both by international agreement and by national legislation those who are interested in wireless reforms are urging that the possibility of distress signals being unheard or unnoticed on account of the jealousy of operators using rival means of radio communication be eliminated. It is quite well known that there are constant quarrels and disputes between operators on this account and that often the element of racial prejudice enters into their relations.
For this reason there is a strong sentiment in favor of increasing the responsibility of the wireless operator and holding him to strict account, as if he were an officer of a vessel. This proposal would also provide the operators be divided into grades and that they be trained that in times of distress or danger they would have a reserve of experience and discipline upon which to draw.
The control of the wireless telegraph of a nation in time of war is of the highest importance. For this reason it has been recommended that the Unites States government establish on the isthmus of Panama a $1,000,000 wireless equipment, and that all wireless in the canal zone be in the absolute control of the Unites States navy. By means of a higher power station it would be possible to have a 3,000 mile range, which would cause communication with this country and all its possessions to be easily effected.