Marconi marvel

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Postcard of a liner at sea

My postcard of the Republic

I sometimes go to postcard fairs and join the throngs of people leafing through piles of illustrated epistles mailed long ago with every sort of message and greeting. Each stall has cards sorted into themes and one of my favourites is ships and shipping. Recently I bought this card showing the Republic. I added it to my collection simply because I liked it, only later discovering the unique role this vessel once played.

One hundred years ago radio technology pioneered by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi and others became reality in saving lives at sea.

Two significant centenaries are being celebrated in 2009 – the first radio sea rescue and the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.

In the early hours of 23 January 1909 the 15,378-ton passenger liner Republic, owned by the Liverpool-based White Star Line, was steaming from New York to the Mediterranean with 742 passengers and crew. She entered thick fog off Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, and sounded her whistle 

Suddenly another whistle was heard directly in front of the ship. Republic’s engines were quickly thrown into reverse and her helm swung hard-a-port but then a ship’s bow loomed out of the fog and sliced into the Republic amidships.

As water poured into the disabled Republic’s engine and boiler rooms, radio operator Jack Binns wired his new Marconi set with backup batteries and sent out a distress signal using Morse Code – CQD, later replaced in popularity by SOS.

CQD is understood by wireless operators to mean All Stations: Distress (not Come Quick, Danger as is often thought).

The call was relayed to all ships in the area but the first ship on the scene was the Lloyd Italiano liner Florida – the ship that had crashed into the Republic. Passengers were transferred to the Florida, which was in no danger of sinking. Attempts by the captain and some crew members to save the Republic failed and she sank the day after the collision.

In Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress gallery there are many Titanic-linked exhibits including the 20 ft long original builder’s model used to publicise the ship.

Both CQD and SOS were used by wireless operator Jack Phillips as the ship went down but it is a popular myth that this was the first time SOS was used. Phillips, who did not survive, and junior operator Harold Bride, who did, were employed by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).