In 1909 -- the year he turned 23 years old -- Thomas Appleby began working as an operator for the United Wireless Telegraph Company, which at that time was the dominant radio communications company in the United States. After first working at a company station, "BS", located atop the Bellevue-Stratford building in Philadelphia, followed by a short stint on the S.S. Capt. A. F. Lucas, Appleby was given the choice assignment of operator at the company's shore station, "AX", located at Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Not all emergencies resulted in disaster. In this extract, Appleby remembers a time when a passing ship which had caught fire asked that help standby, but it was never needed. (The radio operators normally were not permitted to send out a formal distress call until the ship's captain authorized it, partly because ships from other lines that came in response to a request for help could claim a monetary salvage award). In this case Appleby stayed on duty from midnight under after sunrise, monitoring the situation and "babysitting" the burning vessel, until it made its way to safety.
Thomas Appleby Memoirs, circa 1960, pages 11-12:
AX - ATLANTIC CITY.
Arriving back at Bayonne from my last trip on the Lucas I requested a short leave of absence to go home and see my folks in Philadelphia. While there a telegram arrived ordering me to the United Wireless Station "AX" located out near the ocean end of the Million Dollar Pier Atlantic City, N. J.
What a delightful surprise to be assigned to a land station and especially such a prominent one located in a resort later to known as "The Worlds Playground."
The couple of years spent at this station were most enjoyable as we alternated the day and night watches which gave both operators plenty of time for daytime as well as evening recreation and our location was almost as good as being aboard ship because during storms the pier rocked and the huge waves splashed up over the sides and through the open floor boards, with the twang of the salt spray most invigorating. Many were the good friends I made while there, among them Captain Jeffries who later operated the Jefferies baths on the boardwalk; Captain Young who built the Million Dollar Pier and had his home between the wireless station and the boardwalk end of the pier; Charley Seymour who was engineer at one of the big hotels; and others, all amateur wireless operators.
BABY SITTING WITH A SHIP
Out near the ocean end of the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, shortly after midnight in 1909, I was preparing to close the wireless station for the night after clearing all passing ships of their traffic, when suddenly there came a call in my head-phones, the dots and dashes spelling out "AX - AX, are you there". AX was our wireless call. So I immediately replied "Go ahead." In a rather excited and jerky manner came back the reply "We are on fire, please remain on our wave length, we are about 40 miles abreast of you."
With such a report of distress at sea I immediately did the customary thing of sending out the general CQ and OS meaning for all ships within range to answer and give their exact positions in that general locality, in the event they might be needed for rescue operations, and then I ordered silence of all other transmissions until the emergency was over.
Every few minutes the thoroughly frightened operator on the burning ship would call and ask "are you still there? We may need assistance at any moment." During the course of his following transmissions he gave snatches of information such as "the smoke in this room is so dense I can hardly see a thing." A few minutes later he said "I'm black as coal, have been down in the hold helping fight the fire", followed by "We now have a list of forty-five degrees, don't leave us as we may need help any minute, am awaiting the Captains orders."
And so it continued throughout the remainder of the night while his signals gradually grew weaker and weaker as the ship proceeded southward. Fortunately the fire was kept under control as by daylight the signals from the ship had become very weak due to increased distance, and I later learned that they had put into a port in Florida where the city fire department was called and extinguished the blaze.
I never learned that fellows name and still haven't any idea who he was, but I do have the dubious distinction of baby-sitting with a ship at sea.