The most famous communication disaster in the world
You know the story as well as I do.
It was a cold but clear April night. 1912. A Monday, nearly Tuesday. Thousands of miles away from home, and a thousand from its destination, the largest ship in its day was embarked on its maiden voyage. They say its Captain thought the ship was unsinkable, but that’s a bit of a misquote (more accurate quotes here and here).
At 11:39, a sailor named Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg. He telephoned the Bridge to say three words:
“Iceberg! Right ahead.”
This was, of course, the RMS Titanic. And as you know, Fleet’s warning failed to save it. Fleet survived the tragedy. Many didn’t. You know the story as well as I do. You know how it ends.
Fleet’s warning was clear, objective, and concise. It’s a textbook example of perfect communication. It’s the kind of writing that would make legendary copywriter David Ogilvy, a lover of “short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs,” proud.
Not everyone that night did so well.
I read the full transcript of the messages exchanged between the ships in the area that night. And that story you might not know.
Half an hour after the initial impact, the ship was still telegramming its passengers’ notes to family and friends. To one Harrison Sandford in New York, for example: “Dining with you in spirit tonight. Heart with you always.” The ship’s communication systems had been down on the previous day, and a large backlog had built up.
“Weather delightful,” the last of these personal notes read, ironically. The next message was more serious:
"Come at once. Have struck a berg."
The Californian was the closest ship, but its communications officer had gone to bed early. When sailors told him something might be going on, he ignored them.
Several other ships were close enough to hear it. They started by retweeting, if you will, the call for help: relaying the Titanic’s plight and position to nearby ships. The Frankfurt. Mount Temple. The Ypiranga. Cape Race, a lighthouse nearby, followed their example.
What happened afterwards was a total failure in communication. Ships started reaching out to fact-check this information (“Do you know that Cape Cod is saying you’re in trouble?” “Don’t you hear Olympic calling you?”) or asking what they should do next (“Shall I tell my captain?”). And even after half the ships were relaying the Titanic’s position, the other half were messaging the Titanic asking for that information.
Remember that this was all being sent in Morse Code, by telegram. It was a painfully slow way of communicating, and messages could only be received or transmitted one by one. And as the Titanic began to sink, the noise of steam and rushing air made it impossible for the Titanic to listen to anybody else’s messages. It could only broadcast that it needed urgent help, where it was, and that it couldn’t reply.
Almost an hour after the Titanic hit the iceberg, the Frankfurt, the first ship to receive the Titanic’s distress signal, was asking (I kid you not), “What is the matter with you?”
The Titanic had launched its first two lifeboats by 1:03, mostly filled with women and children. It was going down fast. Things were getting out of hand.
The messages wired by Titanic became increasingly urgent. The other ships started sending more and more messages, too. It’s impossible to say if this was at the Titanic or at each other because there was so much chatter on the lines that they started drowning each other out. Communication broke down. All signals jammed. Precious minutes went by during which nobody was able to reach anybody else.
Enter the Olympic. The Olympic was a sister-ship to the Titanic, she belonged to the same class and company. It was a ship that would come to be lovingly known as Old Reliable. And here, years before the action in the First World War that earned her that nickname, she was already proving she deserved it.
“OLYMPIC TO ALL STATIONS.” It transmitted. “STOP TALKING. STOP TALKING.” Over and over again. “STOP TALKING.”
Five minutes later, the other ships must have got the message and got their act together. The chatter stopped and they started to organize an improvised hierarchy of communication, relaying their positions to one another only as needed and organizing themselves for the rescue. Some used the nearby lighthouse, Cape Race, to coordinate.
The Titanic was finally given the necessary space to send its coordinates, along with the instructions: “Get all your lifeboats ready.”
At 1:30, the Titanic sent out the message “Cannot last much longer.” Minutes later, the engine rooms flooded. The ship lost power.
At 1:50, the Frankfurt reached out one more time. “What is the matter with you?” It asked again. Jack Phillips, senior wireless officer of the Titanic, clearly had had enough of the Frankfurt. “FOOL. YOU FOOL,” he wired. (The telegram didn’t really have a system for upper and lower cases but you know he was thinking in all caps.) “KEEP OUT.”
It stopped sending messages soon after that.
The Carpathia made it to the wreck at four in the morning. It saved over 700 lives, but the ship had gone down, together with the captain, the band, and 1500 passengers. A “great loss of life,” the Guardian called it at the time.
It is said that Jack Phillips, the wireless officer, made it onto one of the lifeboats and kept his fellow passengers’ hopes up, telling them the names of the ships that had answered the call.
“He hung on till daylight came in,” the Officer of that lifeboat recalled in his autobiography. But moments later after seeing the Carpathia approaching, Phillips is said to have lost consciousness. He never made it to the Carpathia. And he never made it to land.
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