Thursday, 29 August 2013

Waratah - no wireless communication.

The Waratah did not have the Marconi wireless set and was due to have on fitted upon returning to the UK after leaving Cape Town. The crew relied on Lamp and Flag signals to communicate with passing vessels. If the crew of the Waratah had been able to communicate with a land-based receiver her position could have been established and even though nothing probably could have been done to rescue the 211 souls at least her final position could have been verified. But the tragedy is further compounded by the fact that even if Waratah had carried a wireless system, there were no land-based receivers in the vicinity of the Wild Coast to receive a distress message, only the remote chance that another vessel at sea, 27 July, carried a wireless and could have responded to the emergency.

The term wireless telegraphy came into widespread use around the turn of the 19th century, when spark-gap transmitters and primitive receivers made it practical to send telegraph messages over great distances, enabling transcontinental and ship-to-shore signalling. A ship's master could contact shipping line agents ashore to inquire which port was to receive their cargo without the need to come ashore at what was the first port of landfall.

The emphasis of communication at that time was based on the economics of goods' arrivals at port rather than issues of safety and problems at sea.  The following extract highlights the lack of commitment to legislate compulsory wireless requirements aboard all vessels:

HC Dec 08 September 1909 vol 10 cc1298-9 1298

'Mr. REES asked whether the missing ship "Waratah" was provided with wireless telegraphic apparatus?'

'Mr. CHURCHILL: I am informed by the owners of the "Waratah" that she was not fitted with a wireless telegraphic-apparatus.'

'Mr. REES: Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that the time has come to make it obligatory on owners to provide this great safeguard against loss of life on passenger ships?'

'Mr. CHURCHILL: No; I do not think that the time has come for that yet.'

(This is indeed Winston Churchill who was also President of the Board of Trade at the time)

Muirhead Morse inker. Apparatus similar to that used by Marconi in 1897


Graham Clayton said...

Why was there such resistance to wireless sets being installed on ships- was it purely the cost?

andrew van rensburg said...

This is a very good question, Graham. We know that the case of Waratah galvanized implementation of wireless installations on ships of a certain size in both the Commonwealth and US. At the time when Winston Churchill answered the question in Parliament, he was referring specifically to the point whether a wireless on Waratah would have 'saved' the situation. He was correct in assuming that in view of her rapid disappearance, wireless would not have helped, further complicated by the fact that there were no wireless receiver installations along the South African coast that that time. However, as a direct result of Waratah's loss, the installation of wireless receivers along the South African coast was initiated, and yes, cost was a significant factor. But ensuing widespread legislation in this regard ensured that this important change in marine safety had to be implemented irrespective of cost. Andrew