Lessons from Titanic

Susan Flanagan
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This week two of my texting teenagers switched from regular cellphones to iPhones. They can now look up hockey highlights, check the weather in Zimbabwe, film their friends roller blading off roof tops, order a pizza in Italy and text Martians — all for $25 a month. (Note: they pay out of their own pockets). Not bad considering one of them set a household record of sending and receiving over 500 text messages in one day.

It’s hard for my children to remember life without iPhones even though they only came on the market five years ago. The thought of poking a screen with their fingers to send messages anywhere in the world is as second nature to them as gathering around the radio to listen to stories was to my mother when her family got the new-fangled device in 1942, when she was a teenager.

As the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking approaches, I’d like my children to realize how far communications have come in the past century and the role Newfoundland played in the rescue of survivors. Back in 1912, the fact that 700 people were saved from the freezing North Atlantic was a true miracle. It was only 11 years before the Titanic disaster that a 27-year-old Irish Italian named Guglielmo Marconi received the letter s in Morse code from Poldhu, England, 1,800 miles across the Atlantic. Unheard of. Eleven years, incidentally, is just about how long smart phones have been available to regular folk.

I’d recommend showing your children the spot on the parking lot (plaque on wall looking out over North Head Trail) where Marconi stood in the blistering winds on Signal Hill setting up kites to raise an antenna to receive the signal.

Marconi may have been the Steve Jobs of the turn of the century. Back in 1896, he had taken out a patent for wireless telegraphy using radio waves. Two years later his company was communicating wirelessly between ships and lighthouses. In 1898 Marconi even managed to send messages across the English Channel from England to France. It was no surprise to anyone who knew him that he would not give up until he succeeded in sending wireless signals around the world.

It is thanks to Marconi that ship-to-shore communications were as advanced as they were in 1912. Without him, signals would not have been sent from Cape Race to the ship Carpathia to hightail it to the wreck site and pick up anyone they could find. The more than 700 survivors owed their lives to him. What’s the lesson for today? We don’t know how many lives smart phones will save, but I’m guessing it could be millions, if health care apps and other unknown solutions really take off. Embrace the technology, I say. You never know where it will take you.   

I must confess, however, I am not ready to jump aboard all technological marvels. I remember the first time I saw the white Russian research vessel, Akademik Keldysh, docked in St. John’s harbour. It was summer 1991 and I was working for NTV as a reporter. I scored the big story that morning and was so excited about seeing the two remote submarines that were heading to the wreck of Titanic that I snuck my engineer sister on board as my assistant.

It was incomprehensible to me that these two tiny subs, Mir 1 and Mir 2, were capable of descending almost four kilometres to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic. What freaked me out even more was the fact they were remotely operated.

It cost about $37,000 a head to take a Mir taxi down to the wreck of Titanic back in the day. Now more than 20 years later, it’s $79,000. And with Titanic mania taking hold of the world in the week leading up to the anniversary, people are once again signing up to take the trip. http://titanicexpeditions.com/

Before you rush to your iPhone to book a sub ride once the Keldysh docks in St. John’s this summer, take note that the entire Titanic Expedition takes up to 16 days with 12-13 days at sea. Once on site, the two submersibles will dive with two paying customers and a pilot down to the wreck. Depending on weather, the dive may begin at night.

Sounds scary, but what difference does it make whether it’s night or day on the surface? It won’t take very long before it’s pitch black under that water. It’d be like Healey’s Pond multiplied by a million. You couldn’t pay me $79,000 to descend two and half hours in the scary darkness to a place where the water pressure is over 6,000 pounds per square inch. After polling my four older techy children, three of the four said they’d have no qualms about descending. They’d have total confidence in the technology and the fact that someone else happily up on the sun (or moon) lit surface is controlling their descent.

But hey, I can sign on to the expedition minus the dive option for $19,000. Besides the Cape Race connection, this includes an airplane trip to Halifax to see the wooden deckchair at the Maritime museum and Fairview Lawn Cemetery with its Titanic graves, including the one of J Dawson, the inspiration for James Cameron’s Jack Dawson in his movie Titanic. The only difference is the real J Dawson was actually an Englishman named James who worked in the engine room, rather than a poker-playing American named Jack, who won his ticket on Titanic minutes before the ship set sail. When I went there back when the movie came out, people had left their movie stubs on the grave.

You don’t have to pay $19,000 to take part in the activities commemorating Titanic. But before you drive two hours south of St. John’s on April 14, please know that Cape Race will be a busy place with slews of international journalists and that you’d be best to book in advance for any of the activities (http://www.receivingtitanic.com/) or else you might have a car load of disappointed children. If you do decide to drive without reserving, please check in at the Edge of Avalon Interpretation Centre in Portugal Cove South (709-438-1100). The road to Cape Race is 19 kilometres of unforgiving dirt, and the bridges are to be navigated slowly and with respect. I once ripped the transmission out of my van while guiding four well-heeled Americans interested in Titanic. Luckily, aforementioned light keepers helped procure a tow truck for the van and a lift for the Americans where they enjoyed supper in the Trepassey Motel. But that’s another story.

We have done the trip to the Myrick Wireless Interpretation Centre as a family and it was fantastic. And on the 100th anniversary of Titanic sinking there are a lot of cool things happening down there, like the re-enactment of the wireless messages being relayed back and forth. After the wireless operator at Cape Race received the iceberg warning from the ship, Californian, the operator relayed the message to Titanic, whose wireless operators were busy firing messages from well-healed passengers to waiting loved ones in New York.

“Shut up, shut up, I’m working Cape Race,” came the reply. Their response sounds a bit shocking today. In fact I may have got a cake of Sunlight soap rubbed on my tongue had I said the same thing as a child. But it may have just been the way wireless operators communicated with each other when they wanted to keep lines clear.

After all, the operator on Titanic had received ice warnings earlier and communicated them to the bridge. It’s interested that both the wireless operators on land and those on board Titanic were all employed by the Marconi company. You can imagine the disbelief of the Cape Race operator when he received the CQD distress call from the largest, most majestic ship in the world. For four days after the sinking the wireless operators at Cape Race worked day and night relaying messages between relatives of those on board Titanic and ships involved in the rescue effort.

Like any big disaster, Titanic’s sinking changed the way the world viewed safety procedures. It made people realize nothing is unsinkable, as we well know with the Ocean Ranger. The sinking of Titanic brought regulations concerning lifeboats, dedicated communications rooms, automatic danger alerts, changes to hull design and also the International Ice Patrol.

So as #2 fires up his iPhone to watch “Titanic’s” Jack Dawson proclaim: “I’m the king of the world,” I’ll be I’m dusting off my old two-tape VHS set to watch DiCaprio’s character voice some more memorable lines like the following.

“Each day is a gift. Make it count.”

Marconi certainly did just that.

Susan Flanagan recommends visiting St. Nicholas Church in Torbay on April 13 at 11 a.m. for a wreath dedicating ceremony, Admiralty House Museum in Mount Pearl for their 24-hour wireless extravaganza on April 15 and 16, and The Rooms on the 16th to see a life jacket, recovered from Steward James McGrady, whose body was the only one picked up by a Newfoundland vessel involved in the search effort. Susan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca.


This article has been changed to fix typographical errors.

Organizations: Maritime museum, Edge of Avalon Interpretation Centre, Myrick Wireless Interpretation Centre Nicholas Church Admiralty House Museum

Geographic location: Cape Race, Newfoundland, North Atlantic Zimbabwe Italy England Signal Hill English Channel France Halifax Portugal Cove South New York Torbay Mount Pearl

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Recent comments

  • Jennifer Prokhorov
    April 10, 2012 - 21:39

    Too bad it's wrong. You could find out where brains could take you. Read logic and practice thinking rather than wishing.

  • Desiree
    April 10, 2012 - 09:50

    Excellent article Susan, I often wonder where all this technology is going to go. I notice all the time when watching movies what a difference it makes, you are thinking the whole time, why don't they call on the cell or simply text or just take a snap and sent it along ;oD Meanwhile I am surprised to see how many places were involved with the Titanic. Recently I saw a program on the building of the ship in Ireland and now it seems most of the celebrations are taking place in Halifax. What I do not understand is why the survivors went to Halifax instead of St. John's? Was it because they were afraid of encountering more ice bergs?

    • Susan
      April 10, 2012 - 12:57

      There is a FREE SHUTTLE BUS going to CAPE RACE FOR THE TITANIC EVENTS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE BOUGHT THE $ 79 + HST TICKET - THAT ENTITLES the holder to a lot: http://www.receivingtitanic.com/news http://www.receivingtitanic.com/cape-race-main-event Specifically: 5:30 p.m. there will be an ecumenical service at Holy Redeemer Church in Trepassey, the closest church to the gravesite. At 7:00 p.m. experience the Flavours of Cape Race during a reception meal featuring the flavours enjoyed by citizens of the Cape Race region a century earlier. This evening’s main commemorative event features international calibre guest speakers including Dr. Fred MacLaren - retired US Submaine commander who has been to Titanic, Bismark, and other deep ocean highlights. Fred’s underseas exploits have made him a sought after authority on Titanic’s "rusticles" and he is the most recent winner of the Explorers Medal putting him in the company of Neil Armstrong and Sir Edmund Hillary. (No Canadian has ever achieved this distinction but one Newfoundlander has.) Throughout the night we will follow events as they unfolded a century earlier. Jim Payne and Fergus O’Byrne will remind us of our marine heritage and history while Ron Hynes will debut his new song commissioned to remember this tragedy from 1912.Join us at Holy Redeemer Parish Auditorium: I am hoping that people ask if there could be an earlier shuttle put on to allow people to attend the community brunch & local entertainment at noon Portugal Cove south - just before Trepassey Community Brunch at Portugal Cove South – 12:00 P.M. CAPE RACE-PORTUGAL COVE SOUTH HERTIAGE INC will be hosting an Irish Heritage brunch featuring pea soup, fish cakes, baked beans, homemade bread, and toutans with molasses and jam. During brunch we will also have local performers on stage for your enjoyment. Location: Portugal Cove South Community Centre Tickets: Adults- $10 Students- $5 Children under 12- Free - but included in the $ 79 price. Contacts are http://www.receivingtitanic.com/about-us