Titanic & the ROA

Update Details:  The core message on this thread will remain below at all times but the latest information will be updated as necessary at the top of the article.

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3rd April 2012

After some delay the BBC Future website has published the article written by Gordon Kelly.  The BBC requested the author to make substantial changes to his original article, which is, of course, their right and we recognise the focus of BBC Future.  However, because of our background we prefer the original document because of it’s greater focus on history and wireless communication, which the author rightly believed we would appreciate.  He has kindly granted us access to the original document and this is shown in full below.  The ROA has gained some publicity from this venture.

In the interests of fairness we show an email from from Gordon Kelly advising how to access the BBC article and the original document is below that.

“Hi guys, after what seems an age BBC Future has at last published my article on 100 years of technological advancement since Titanic. 


Being BBC Worldwide, this blocks UK dwellers (it isn’t covered by the license fee) but you can get around that with this link using the ‘anonymouse’ service:


It has had a great response with 529 *likes* on Facebook and has been featured on the BBC Worldwide homepage as a highlight article.”


RMS Titanic: 100 Years Chasing the Unsinkable Ship

On 15 April 2012 a century will have passed since the world’s most infamous naval catastrophe. It shocked the world then and changed the future of maritime safety forever.

“There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.”

-Phillip Franklin, White Star Line vice-president, 1912

Latitude 41° 43′ 32″ north, longitude 49° 56′ 49″ west, 370 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2.5 miles down lays the wreck of the RMS Titanic. It rests in two parts, the stern 600 metres from the bow and facing in opposite directions. Details of the sinking are etched into history: the belated spot of an iceberg, a failed swerve, the lack of lifeboats and the loss of over 1,500 lives – roughly 70 per cent of the ship’s passengers and crew. Today the sinking of the Titanic is perhaps most famous for the documentaries, television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters it has and continues to inspire. Less well known is without it today’s ships would be very different because the disaster changed the way we approach the sea.


Living in an era where overregulation is of more concern than under-regulation makes comprehension of pre-Titanic times difficult. In the late 19th and early 20th century passenger travel by sea was deemed to be in a golden age, a time when emigration was still rife and there were no aircraft. Golden was a relative term, however, as incidents were rife. The annual loss of life from British ships alone averaged between 700 and 800 people throughout this period[1]. Contrast this with the Costa Concordia, the biggest maritime incident of recent times sent shockwaves around the world when 32 lives were lost from a total of over 4,000 passengers and crew[2].

For the Golden Age, the Titanic was the last straw. The US Senate began hearings on the 19April and in little more than a month transcripts totalling 1,100 pages demanded widespread reform. The response became international within two years as the treaty for the ‘International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea’ (SOLAS) was adopted in 1914[3].

“SOLAS is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships,” says Professor Dracos Vassalos, professor of maritime safety at the University of Strathclyde. Chapters were included on the safety of navigation, construction, radiotelegraphy, life-saving appliances and fire protection[4] and these sections still exist today.

More recently SOLAS was updated to include the ‘International Ship and Port Facility Security Code’ (ISPS) which came into force in 2004 to impose “minimum security arrangements on governments, shipping companies, shipboard and port personnel”[5]. ISPS was created by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the specialised agency of the United Nations which develops and maintains shipping regulatory framework. The IMO was created in 1959 with its first purpose to update SOLAS.

 The Distress Signal

Misplaced binoculars, calm waters disguising the base of the iceberg and excessive speed have all been factors levelled at the demise of the RMS Titanic, but the reason maritime travel is so much safer today comes because of a far more universal remedy: SOS.

Upon collision the Titanic broadcast two standards: SOS and CQD, the latter the proprietary signal used by Marconi whose wireless radio equipment dominated ships of the era[6]. Titanic also broadcast over multiple frequencies and the strength of its transmitter (at 5kW over three times the 1½kW standard) drowned out signals sent and received by vessels in close proximity. Worst still confusion over distress rockets fired from the Titanic saw its foundering ignored by the SS Californian[7], a ship considerably closer than its eventual saviour, the RMS Carpathia.

The repercussions last until this day. CQD was abandoned, SOS adopted across the world and 500kHz (known at the time as 500kc) was made the compulsory frequency for broadcast of all distress signals. In addition Silent Periods of three minutes were introduced every 15 minutes where all transmissions were stopped to listen for SOS calls. The firing of red rockets was also standardised as visual distress signals[8] and wireless radio officers were formally certified, operated 24 hours and their equipment fitted with backup power. At least one lifeboat even had to carry emergency wireless equipment.

The effects were immediate. On 2 October 1913 the passenger ship SS Volturno caught fire and used the new SOS protocols, in all nine ships came to aid. “It was a revolution in maritime safety, by our estimates it has saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” says Tony Selman, vice chairman of the Radio Officers’ Association.

SOS was eventually supplanted in 1999 by the satellite-based Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), but alongside red distress flares it continues to be recognised as a visual distress signal.


At 11.40pm on 14 April 2012 the Titanic collided with an iceberg. Two hours and 40 minutes later the ship was underwater[9]. The key factor in the speed of its demise was the height of the bulkheads, the partitions which stop a breach from flooding the rest of the ship. Bulkheads have been a fundamental part of ship design since the 15th century but, like ships before it, Titanic’s were not sealed at the top instead extending just 3m above the waterline. On impact the first five of Titanic’s 16 compartments were breached causing the bow to dip and water cascaded into the remaining 11 which accelerated its founder.

In the aftermath Titanic builders Harland and Wolff recalled sister ships the HMHS Britannic and RMS Olympic to significantly extend the height of the bulkheads and make them fireproof. They also fitted a second internal hull to make both more resistant to impact. These practices were widely adopted after their inclusion in SOLAS in 1914[10] and eventually bulkheads became watertight on all sides by stretching from deck plate to deckhead (floor to ceiling).

A noticeable example of this alteration came in 1956 when Italy’s largest ocean liner, the SS Andrea Doria, collided with Swedish cruise ship, the MS Stockholm. The Doria carried over 1,700 passengers and crew and was struck side on by the ice breaking prow of the Stockholm. The impact killed 46 Doria passengers, pierced fuel tanks and let 500 tons of seawater aboard. Despite having only extended bulkheads rather than a complete seal, and what was later discovered to be a propensity for listing, the Doria stayed afloat for 11 hours with no further lives lost[11].

In terms of construction materials questions were also asked of the steel in Titanic’s hull which was later shown to be brittle at cold temperatures. Steel containing higher levels of manganese was researched to make it more ductile. Today the steel used in modern ships has been shown to be 10x less brittle than that used in the Titanic[12]


Titanic did not have enough lifeboats. This is probably the most chilling memory of the ship’s demise and it is true, to a point. At the time the Board of Trade regulations required British vessels over 10,000 tons to carry 16 lifeboats with capacity for 50 per cent of passengers and crew. Owners the White Star Line stocked 20 lifeboats, enough for 52 per cent, therefore exceeding requirements. The flip side is Harland and Wolff had built the Titanic with space to house 48 lifeboats which would cover everyone aboard, but it went unused.   This mistake was never repeated. Board any ship since and it was mandated that lifeboats must be provided for everyone onboard. Furthermore regular lifeboat drills and inspections must be carried out and all passengers have the evacuation procedure explained.

No maritime regulation has saved more lives and the reaction was immediate. Just two weeks after Titanic sank its sister ship the RMS Olympic witnessed its crew go on strike after it was hurriedly equipped with additional, second hand lifeboats. Protests and legal action saw 54 strikers charged with mutiny and its intended journey delayed nearly a month[13], but their conditions were met.

 Remarkably the two sister ships saved the lives aboard their third and final sister, the HMHS Britannic. Despite its reinforced hull and extended bulkheads, the Britannic suffered a similar fate to the Titanic sinking inside three hours in 1916 after being torpedoed by a German submarine during the First World War. Just 30 lives from over 1,500 were lost, most from the initial explosion, as all successfully made it to lifeboats.

Today ships carry lifeboats for their total passengers and crew plus liferafts for a further 25 per cent. The huge turnaround allows for lifeboats that may have been damaged in any incident that lead up to the use. Furthermore lifeboats must now be fully or partially enclosed due to their superior protection against the elements. A number of Titanic passengers in lifeboats still died from hypothermia[14].

Despite these changes, there is still room for future improvement according to Markku Kajosaari, manager of concept development at the Arctech Helsinki Shipyard. “Lifeboats have saved a lot of lives, but there have also been shortcomings related to their use,” he argues. “Think notably of the disaster of Estonia [1994], where lifeboats were almost no use [due to bad weather], or even the case of Costa Concordia, where they had remarkable difficulty launching the boats. In this field there remains clear demand for real innovation.”

 The Human Factor

“On 14 April 1912 Titanic received no fewer than six ice warnings. All six were sent to the bridge and the lookouts were warned,” explains David Barlow, National Trust manager of the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station. From there it was a comedy of errors: “binoculars went missing, the quartermaster [initially] turned the wrong way and everywhere egos were conspiring.  Hubris is the word that comes to mind.”

 “On the night of January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordia committed the most egregious of maritime sins by steaming into shoal water with seemingly little or no concern for the risks involved,” argues retired US Navy Captain John Kunert. “Why? The answer, I submit, lies deep within the human conditions of hubris, ego and arrogance. Each of these elements, when taken individually, are fatal flaws unto themselves.”

Titanic’s sinking revolutionised ship design, safety procedures and created a global standards body to ensure these changes were responsibly implemented. What it still struggles to change is human error. Titanic Captain Edward Smith was encouraged to arrive in New York at day ahead of schedule, despite six ice warnings. 100 years later the captain of the Costa Concordia deviated from its regularly navigated route for the thrill of passing the Italian island Isola del Giglio at close proximity. Both incidents required ignoring warning signs provided by the technology of their day.

They are not isolated incidents. The greatest loss of life at sea during peacetime came from a collision between the MV Dona Paz and the oil tanker Vector in 1987 which killed 4,341. At the time of the incident only one apprentice crew member was monitoring the bridge, other officers were drinking beer and watching television while the captain was watching a movie[15]. Meanwhile cruise ship the MTS Oceanos sunk in storms off South Africa in 1991 after setting sail with a 10cm hole in a watertight bulkhead, loose hull plates and check valves stripped for repair[16].

 “The human element is known to cause in excess of 80 per cent of ship casualties,” says Captain Peter Holloway, managing director of London Offshore Consultants Ltd. “Simplicity of operation and ease of maintenance is the key: if it is not easy to operate, the human element may introduce unsafe shortcuts where an unapproved modification might be made, and, if maintenance is difficult because  of access for example, and it may not be carried out, then equipment may fail from fatigue or lack of lubrication, sometimes with fatal consequences.”

In light of the Costa Concordia’s reckless change of course, the IMO has said it will consider tightening the rules for overriding of onboard safety warning systems. It has yet to announce its findings.   

 The Myth of the Unsinkable Ship

The wake-up call Titanic delivered to maritime safety sparked changes worldwide and changed the future of sea travel. The aforementioned areas offer insight into just some key categories and the newfound focus on preventing loss of life led to innovations such as radar (‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’ was coined by the US Navy[17]) and Sonar (SOund Navigation And Ranging). The latter in particular gained traction after Titanic foundered with the first patent for an ‘underwater echo ranging device’ filed in May 1912. It is perhaps fitting that Titanic was found in 1985 by scientists testing a new, state of the art sonar system[18].

“The bottom line is no ship is unsinkable,” states Tony Selman. “The very concept is alien, no matter how safe a ship is if you drive it full speed into a rock it is likely to sink. The subset to that answer is the chances of not getting yourself into that scenario are infinitesimally better than they were 100 years ago.”

According to the official transcripts of the 1912 US Senate investigation, 1,517 lives were lost after Titanic’s fateful collision[19]. As we approach its centenary, working out the number to have been saved by their sacrifice in the years that followed is considerably harder to calculate.

BOX-OUT: The Unsinkable Boat

While unsinkable ship may be a myth, but the unsinkable boat is closer to reality. RNLI lifeboats exhibit this trait most predominantly as foam is layered into their hull construction to increase buoyancy. Its 16 metre Tamar class lifeboat is also completely watertight allowing it to self-right with up to 60 people onboard. Scaled up this approach is unworkable as build costs skyrocket and the hull becomes too thick to fit an economically viable number of passengers.

30th March 2012

The following is the text of a self explanatory email that was sent to interested members of the ROA Titanic Group.  Photos and links will appear here as soon as they are available.

1.  A report on a tough day in the trenches in The Smoke on Wednesday 28th.  Had a very good 25 minute interview on tv at the studios yesterday.  This was followed by a 5 minute interview with Jessica and a tv handover of the framed presentation.  Still photos were also taken.  Later yesterday afternoon Kevin and the producer were travelling down to Cornwall to meet David Barlow today (Thursday).   I now know what the plan is for transmission.  All elements of the production will be edited down to a final 15 minutes or so and this will be broadcast on the company’s own website.  The plan/hope is that it will then be picked up by the documentary companies like Discovery, National Geographic etc and be sold to them.  This regularly happens apparently.  The company is very well known in the corporate production and documentary industry. They will send me a link to their programme and I will then distribute this to everyone and put it on the website.  The programme will go live on their website just before the Titanic anniversary.

Jessica was lovely in every sense of the word.  A really friendly, charming and very attractive lady who is an intensive care nurse at a London hospital.  She was overwhelmed by the gift and thanked me repeatedly, she seemed genuinely touched.  Being now stars of stage, screen and radio we were mobbed by autograph hunters outside the studios but our gallant minder Kevin guided us through and we found an excellent eatery where I bought Jessica and Kevin lunch (apologies to the Treasurer).

It was pretty warm in London yesterday as well but luckily my Red Sea Tiger training saw me through it, however, I did need a couple of refreshing Sauvignon Blancs when I got home.

Someone had to do it and it is just as well as I was free.

2.  Information from The Hon. Archivist, Willie Williamson.  “My wife and I have been invited to attend a Service of Remembrance for the 100th anniversay of the sinking of the Titanic. It will take place in the Liverpool Cathedral on Sunday 15th April 2012. I will be representing the Liverpool Marine Radio and Electronic Society as well as the ROA.”

3.  We have no further news of the plans involving Godalming Council and BBC South.

4.  See The News section for a change of plan concerning the ROA members visit to Fort Perch Rock in New Brighton on the afternoon of the AGM.

14th March 2012

1.  It has been confirmed that two ROA members will make television appearances in late March.  Tony Selman will be in London on Wednesday 28th March to be interviewed by Martyn Warwick of Telecom TV.  The theme is the role of radio in the Titanic disaster, the personalities involved, the aftermath and the role of radio in Safety of Life at Sea and the demise of the R/O.  Right up our street really.  They will travel to the Lizard to film David Barlow the following day 29th March.  The programme is being recorded but I do not know the transmission date, nor the channel,  but will advise on here as soon as it is known.  

2.  It is not yet confirmed but it is very likely that our Media guru Kevin Taylor and Tony will have lunch with Jessica Wilson (see below) on the same Wednesday 28th March.  Presuming the item can be made in time we will make a presentation to Jessica on behalf of the ROA at that time.

7th March 2012

1.  We might at last be making some progress with Godalming.  Through the Wey Valley Amateur Radio Group Tony Selman has established the relevant structure with the Local Authority who are handling the memorial events in the town.  Our two previous contacts are known to the Chairman of the above group and he is going to speak to them on our behalf.  I have appraised him of our capabilities and sent him one of our Media Packs which he found detailed and interesting.  Concerning their own activities the Chairman advises ” In short, we are setting up an HF/LF amateur special station in Godalming, at Charterhouse (School) in the period 9-16 April.  The public will be invited to attend on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 April between the hours of 12.00 noon and 4.00pm.”

2.  Additionally Tony has made initial contact with a journalist from BBC South who are apparently making a programme about Jack Phillips and are interested in filming a replica Titanic radio room.  I have advised them we have just the thing!  Watch this space.  Update later the same day:-  Lengthy conversation with BBC South who are nearing the end of a programme based around Jack Phillips.  I have put them in touch with David Barlow for some specific information they need and they may well visit The Lizard.

25th February 2012

1.  Colman Shaughnessy and Tom Frawley are busy on the ROA’s behalf in Ireland.  They will attend a “Titanic Last Supper” in Galway on 21st March where the menu from the final dinner on board Titanic will be recreated.  Colman will take along Morse keys and other memorabilia.  Colman and his wife will also represent the ROA at the Addergoole Titanic Society Cultural Event in County Mayo, Ireland, from 8th to 15th April.  The link to this event is below if members are interested in reading the details:


2.  Tony Selman met a journalist working for the BBC Futures website on 22nd February concerning an article with the broad heading “What did we learn from the Titanic disaster, how were these safety messages carried forward and is there such a thing as an unsinkable ship.”   The meeting went very well and when the article is published I feel sure the ROA will get good publicity and a link will be published here.  We have, through the untiring efforts of our media team, made contact with Jessica Wilson (see below) and she is keen to help us in any way.  We are in the process of setting up a meeting with her and perhaps making some form of presentation to her as a memento of the involvement of her great grandfather.  There may well be some possibility of media exposure in this process.

3.  Contact has been attempted with Godalming Council, yet again, concerning their anniversary celebrations with no response as yet.  We have also responded to a request for information from BBC South in Southampton.

4.  David Barlow has been busy in the deep South West and sends the following:-

I have sent out a media pack to BBC South West with a covering sheet outlining the 50 Cornishmen on board the Titanic and the wireless contacts with the Lizard and Poldhu wireless stations. Plus the fact that local secondary schools came out and sat on a wall to “watch the big ship go by” on 3rd April 1912. Living in Cornwall this makes for local coverage and I will be in touch with Radio Cornwall nearer the time. I have succeeded in getting an amateur special call sign GB100MPA (MPA was the Carpathia call sign) and will use it from the Lizard in April.  Yesterday I commenced setting up an area in the Lizard station museum to replicate the wireless room on the Titanic and this should make good televisual material if they can get as far South and West as possible in the UK !!!

Core Message: 

Members will recall that in the last issue of QSO it was reported that the Association was setting up a small committee to respond to any media enquiries relating to the Titanic disaster. This committee has had two very successful meetings as a result of which an ROA Titanic Media Pack has been produced. Three ROA members with specialist knowledge of the communications aspects of the Titanic sinking have agreed to act as media spokesman – David Barlow, Tony Selman and Willie Williamson.

Initial indications are that these efforts will not be in vain and several contacts with media organisations, including the BBC and Sky, have already been made. It is the intention of the group to create further opportunities for the Association to put itself forward as THE source of radio and communications information regarding the Titanic.

Contact has been established with the local council in Godalming, which is the birthplace of Jack Phillips.  They have several commemorative events planned and we have offered our services, perhaps in the form of a Powerpoint presentation.  BBC local radio stations are thought to be gearing up for widespread coverage and media packs have been distributed to the stations in areas known to have strong links to Titanic, eg, Belfast, Southampton etc.  There will undoubtedly be a outpouring of newspaper and magazine articles as well as radio and television programmes in the weeks leading up to the 100th anniversary and hopefully the ROA will feature in some of these-so keep your eyes and ears open!

Members may have seen a documentary on the Yesterday channel in the Find my Past series concerning the Titanic disaster.  Of particular relevance to us was the section involving Jessica Wilson who is the great granddaughter of Harold Bride.  Jessica was taken to The Lizard by the programme producers where she met star of stage, screen and radio David Barlow, who, looking very smart in his uniform shirt and epaulettes showed Jessica the equipment at The Lizard station, which bears considerable similarities to the actual Titanic equipment.  David was seen sending morse on the spark transmitter and the ROA even got a mention in despatches.  Excellent publicity.  Let us hope there is more to come.

Tony Selman

February 2012.

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