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Wireless Telegraphy on Sea!

This page is about the century-spanning history of wireless telegraphy on sea. In 1887/1888 the German physicist Heinrich Hertz (on the stamp to the left) succeeded to produce, send and receive experimental electromagnetic waves. This was the start of wireless telegraphy.
The Russian Alexander S. Popov (see stamp to the right) built a receiver, which was able to change atmospheric interference into acoustic sound. Therefore he named his apparatus 'thunderstorm announcer' (literally translated). This was the birth of the receiving antenna, dated 1895. Later he succeeded with wireless message transfers between two buildings. In 1900 he installed a regular wireless telegraphy connection between two islands, which was used in a rescue operation for a Russian battleship (see below).

The French scientist Eduard Branly continues the gallery of pioneers of wireless telegraphy. In 1890 he improved the receiver of Hertz and called the new device 'kohaerer'. It was able to indicate electromagnetic waves. This tool was used in conjunction with a Morse writing machine to record the high frequency waves as Morse code.

The American Samuel Morse invented the first usable automatic telegraph, which translated the waves to zigzag symbols on paper tape. Later on his assistent Alfred Vail developed the famous system with points and dashes. From 1838 through 1844 this Morse-Alphabet became the standard telegraphy code worldwide. First it was used for cable telegraphy, then for wireless telegraphy and later on even for optical signalling using e.g. floodlights. Every wireless operator had to learn the code and be able to interpret signals just by hearing them. Samuel Morse

Marconi plan
In 1895 the Italian Guglielmo Marconi began to experiment with wireless telegraphy. From 1896 on he worked in Great Britain and constructed the first transmitter antenna by connecting the sparking coil with a wire. In 1897 he succeeded in the first wireless message transfer over a distance of 14.5 kilometers across the Bristol Channel. In the same year he began to replace the optical signal stations along the British coast with radio stations. In 1901 he crossed the North Atlantic Ocean with Morse signals. Marconi was not an inventor but an innovator. He used well-known techniques, advanced them and patented the results. Being a real business man, Marconi founded his own company to sell his spark apparatus. His work secured the worldwide breakthrough of wireless telegraphy.
To the upper left you can see Marconi with a diagram of a patent, to the right with his laboratory-ship 'Elettra'. In the 1920s he researched the expansion of short waves aboard this ship.

East Goodwin
SS Philadelphia
In 1898 Marconi connected the lighthouse at South Foreland and the lightship 'East Goodwin' (stamp to the left). You can spot the antennas on top of the mast. In 1899 he succeeded to cross the English Channel using morse signals.
In 1901 the first radio signals crossed the Atlantic Ocean between Poldhu Station, Great Britain and St. Johns, New Foundland. One year later Marconi started ship-to-shore testing from the steamer 'Philadelphia' (stamp to the right) to Poldhu and was able to transmit and receive messages over a distance of up to 3,378 kilometers.

Kaiser Wilhelm d.G.
Borkum stations
In Germany wireless telegraphy was researched by Adolf H. Slaby of the AEG company and Karl F. Braun from Siemens. These two pioneers founded the famous Telefunken company in 1904. The passenger liner 'Kaiser Wilhelm der Große' of the Norddeutschen Lloyd in 1900 (stamp to the left) became the first German ship equipped with a Marconi radio station. The Hapag company followed with the liner 'Deutschland' in 1901.
In 1900 Germany started to install a radio connection between the lightship 'Borkum Riff' and the lighthouse Borkum (see cancellation to the right). If the lightship sighted an incoming ship or was contacted via radio signals the arrival was telegraphed to the lighthouse. From there the shipping company was notified by using normal cable.

One of the first British ships with a wireless telegraphy station was the Cunard steamer 'Campania'. In 1905 during her voyage to New York the liner had permanent radio connection to coastal stations in Europe or America, i.e. from thereon a ship was not alone on the oceans any more. The ship could be reached and contact a station anytime. Campania

Nicaragua sparks
radio day
The wireless telegraphy to/from and between ships made for great headlines in newspapers in case of accidents and disasters. The brave radio operators were praised and telegraphy technology was glorified.
In 1899 the Russian battleship 'General-Admiral Apraksin' was stuck in ice in the Gulf of Finland. Popov's radio connection between the island Gogland and Kotka was used to contact the icebreaker 'Yermak'. With the help of this ship all people and the battleship were rescued. The stamp to the right is a symbolic remembrance of May the 7th, 1895 - the day Popov demonstrated his first receiver.

The first crime solved with help of the wireless telegraphy occured in 1910. The British doctor Crippen (in the middle, wearing glasses) had killed his wife (on the left) and secretly buried her in his cellar. He fled with his girlfriend (2nd from the right), who was disguised as a man, across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Canadian steamer 'Montrose' (below). The captain (to the right) became suspicious and sent a telegram to London. An inspector of Scotland Yard started the chase with the faster liner RMS 'Laurentic' and was able to stop the 'Montrose' off the Canadian coast. Crippen was taken prisoner and sentenced to death while his girlfriend was cleared of all charges.

Titanic desaster
In 1912 the White Star liner 'Titanic' collided with an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. The radio operator of the 'Titanic' sent 'CQD' and 'SOS' signals, which were received by the steamer 'Carpathia'. The 'Carpathia' immediately hurried to the place of the tragedy and was able to rescue 712 people. The bulkcarrier 'Californian' passed the 'Titanic' by a mere 5-8 nautical miles but the only radio operator slept (Later on this led to operators having to switch on to emergency call frequencies at fixed times.). About 1,500 people died in the freezingly cold water. You can see the 'Titanic' and the 'Carpathia' in the middle of the souvenir sheet. To the left and right are the wireless operation rooms. The abbreviation 'CDQ' on the upper border is wrong, it should read 'CQD'. The Morse code on the lower border is correct - both for 'CQD' as well as 'SOS'.
See our Titanic page for more details.

ship-shore commun.
It was forbidden for radio operators of Marconi to accept telegrams from wireless stations of other companies. So the German Telefunken company began to install many wireless station on ships and along coasts on its own - resulting in a long and bitter conflict for fame and market shares. Endless patent lawsuits between the Marconi Company and Telefunken followed.
In 1911 the German DEBEG (abbreviation for 'Deutsche Betriebsgesellschaft für drahtlose Telegraphie') was founded. DEBEG purchased licenses for both Marconi and Telefunken equipment - thus effectivly calming emotions until the conflict ceased completey in 1914.

Scheveningen Radio
Rügen Radio
Since 1904 the Marconi operators used the signal 'CQD' as the standard emergency call sequence. Later on an operator interpreted this as an abbreviation for the text 'Come Quick Danger'. In 1906 the 1st international wireless telegraphy conference was held in Berlin, Germany. There all participants agreed to use the signal 'SOS' as the standard emergency call sequence. Later this was interpreted as 'Save our Ships', 'Save our Souls' or 'Send out Succor'. Wireless telephony used the term 'MAYDAY' as the standard emergency call.
The stamp to the left symbolizes the Dutch Scheveningen Radio, to the right German Rügen Radio.

Weather Watch
Some applications of wireless telegraphy on sea:
  • Time signal transmission of the Greenwich Zero-Meridian to control the chronometer aboard. You need the Greenwich time to calculate length meridian (stamp to the left).
  • Weather forecast worldwide, with charts and text (stamp to the right), warning messages, information services about iceberg drifts etc.
  • Telegram, teletype and wireless telephony services for passengers and crew members.
  • Messages for seamen, information and changes to shipping routes.
  • Board newspaper, short summaries of well-known newspapers like e.g. 'Times'.
  • Medical advice on sea, especially for ships without a doctor.
  • Radio location with a radio direction finders, Consol, Decca, LORAN (Long Range), Omega, Transit/GPS (Global Position System via satellite).
  • Collision prevention via RADAR (Radio Detecting and Ranging).
  • AMVER (Automated Mutual Assistence Vessel Rescue), intelligence service of the US Coast Guard; i.e. each vessel crossing the Atlantic has to notify the Coast Guard when entering and leaving the area.

Additional information:
  • Since 1914 development of the valve transmitter, which became common in all radio stations after World War I.
  • In the twenties start of the short-wave telegraphy, because the Heavyside layer in the stratosphere reflects the short waves. Progresses in wireless telephony.
  • 1925 saw 115,000 wireless stations worldwide - ashore and aboard.
  • In 1934 all vessels got new call signals with the first two characters indicating the nationality.
  • In the Fifties use of the ultra-short-wave for radio telephony, call channel 16.
  • Since 1965 teletype service, teleprinter exchange and telefax for weather charts.
  • Since 1971 the emergency radio-beacon EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is in use.

Satellites end the traditional wireless telegraphy:
  • Since 1979 the INMARSAT (Internationale Maritime (later Mobile) Satellite Organization) system is operational. Nearly all shipping nations are members of this organization. The system does'nt need a wireless operator as the data exchange is managed via satellites to all receiver stations like telephone, teletype, telex, modem etc. etc.
  • Since 1992 the satellite emergency system GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) is in use. A ship's officer is able to start an emergency call by simply pressing a button. Wireless telegraphy with the SOS signal is no longer necessary.
  • Since January 1st, 1999 the GMDSS is mandatory for all seagoing ships.
  • Since the middle of the 1990s the most wireless shore stations were closed, in Germany Kiel Radio, Norddeich Radio, Rügen Radio. No one needs a providing station, Morse Code, or a radio operator any longer!

© Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved.

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