We all think we know what happened on the night of April 14 1912. A great big ship hit an iceberg and sank. But every age gets its own, slightly different version of the story, as it comes to be told in different media. We’ve had documentaries, novels, plays, a Hollywood blockbuster and several TV versions; each medium conveys a slightly different message. Now we have an app, so you can download the whole thing, and watch it on your iPad.
An app? Of course there’s an app – there’s an app for everything, isn’t there? With this one, Titanic Calling, you can see the Titanic, represented by a white star (it was part of the White Star Line shipping company) moving across your screen, towards the moment of doom, in real time, or faster if you’d like. You can also watch the movement of the other ships in the area – the Carpathia, which picked up the survivors, the Californian, which, weirdly, didn’t – and many more. You can listen to the Morse code messages these ships sent and see when they sent them. Handily, the app provides printed subtitles. You could set it up so that the whole thing plays out, on your tablet, on the 100th anniversary of the event. Which would be rather spooky.
Jean-Michel Dentand, a French-Canadian from Montreal, designed the app. It took him a month. He says “it gives you a sense of going through the night, and a sense of communication in Morse code – you can follow the sound of it. There’s a typewriter effect – you can follow each letter.” One interesting thing, he says, is how slow it all seems – but also, in a way, how quick, when you consider that the thing translating the message is not a microprocessor, but the human brain.
And who sent these messages? On the Titanic, the telegraphists were Jack Phillips, 25, and Harold Bride, 22. The Carpathia’s man was Harold Cottam, 21; on the Californian was Cyril Evans, who was 20. These men sat in specially built Marconi booths, or offices, on the ships. Guglielmo Marconi, the Steve Jobs of his day, had recently invented wireless communication, and realised that wealthy passengers on ocean liners would pay a lot to send messages to friends and relatives on the shore. Sending SOS messages was not his primary concern. The best time to send messages was during the hours of darkness, because sunlight bends electromagnetic waves. Passengers typically wanted to herald their arrival. So for Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, the fourth night of the Titanic’s putative five-day journey was likely to be very busy indeed.
Katherine Bosworth – who, with fellow archivist Michael Hughes, wrote the book Titanic Calling, based on the Titanic’s telegraph messages – is fascinated by April 14 1912, and its place in the history of communication. “The technology was vital to the whole event,” she says. “Without it, news would never have made it to the other ships. But it had not advanced to the stage where it could have solved the problem.” Amazingly, 10 years earlier, the only way ships could communicate with each other was by using flags, Nelson-style. Equally amazingly, the two young men in the Titanic’s Marconi office, hard at work sending telegrams as the ship approached New York, had a loud bleep from Evans in the Californian’s telegraph office. At that time, the Californian was the closest ship to the Titanic. You can see that from the app. In fact, people on the Californian could see the lights of the Titanic. Phillips and Bride sent a message back to Evans: “Shut up, shut up, I am busy.” Later, in two official inquiries, Bride would say that these words sounded harsher than they were; telegraphers routinely told each other to shut up; it just meant they were occupied.
Of course, they should have listened to Evans. He was trying to tell them that the Californian had stopped for the night, because there was so much ice around. That was Evans’s final message before he went to bed. Later, people on the Californian could see rockets being launched from the Titanic; later still, they saw the lights go out. But nobody thought to wake Evans until it was too late.
As I said, every era has their own version of the Titanic story. It’s always about hubris and nemesis, but each telling is tilted slightly differently. Sometimes it’s more about snobbery, and sometimes it’s more about carelessness, or courage in the face of the brutality of nature. It’s always a bit about snobbery, and how this contributed to this disaster. In this version, one might say that Phillips and Bride were too busy making money to hear the important message, the real message; this, when you think about it, sounds very contemporary.
Eventually, as the ship was tilting into the water, the captain told Bride and Phillips they could stand down. It looked like it was too late. All that was left was one of the Titanic’s collapsible lifeboats, and it entered the sea upside down, with Bride caught underneath. Eventually, several men, close to hypothermia, managed to right it. Bride survived; Phillips did not.
And what will we think, when we look at this app? Well, we might think how far we’ve come. We’ll be tempted to think how much better our communications are now than theirs were a century ago. We might look at our phones, our tablets and our laptops, and allow ourselves a moment of hubris. Just like those people did on the Titanic, 100 years ago.
Photographs taken from ‘Titanic Calling’, edited by Michael Hughes and Katherine Bosworth.
The Titanic Calling app is available for download from April 14. To obtain free access to the app (first 40 readers only), please email firstname.lastname@example.org. ‘Titanic Calling’ is published by Bodleian Library Publishing (£14.99). See also ‘Titanic memorabilia’ in this weekend’s How To Spend It magazine