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Cape Race in 2003

The sinking of the HMS Titanic on April 14/15. 1912 — and let’s be clear here, that was a real thing that happened, and not just a movie — was such an enormous event in the annals of the 2oth century that it, like 9/11 or Katrina, was big enough to support any theory you liked.

Who was to blame?

If you hated giant corporations, you could claim that the White Star Line should have built the boat stronger and provided more lifeboats for rescue, rather than just trusting in the sense of infallibility surrounding luxury liners at the time.

Inclined to blame the rich, or the crew which served them? Well, the Guggenheims and Astors met their doom as gentlemen, offering their seats to women and children, but Lord and Lady Gordon — not so much. If you’ve seen the movie, you also know that the third-class passengers were deliberately kept from making their way onto the decks. No one wanted the well-off sharing a lifeboat with a possibly disease-riddled immigrant.

Then there’s the personal angle. First Officer Lieutenant Will Murdoch — who had already been under investigation for poorly handling three other White Star Line collisions — should’ve done a normal turn around the iceberg but instead decided to “port around” it, opening a deep rent in the hull when the normal turn would have likely produced little or no collision.

How about nature? Certainly that iceberg had a lot to say about the folly of navigating through the Atlantic in winter, a route that ensured many of the passengers froze to death in the water, even when they might have survived until the arrival of the Californianfour hours later.

A warning from the German cargo ship Amerika.

And speaking of the Californian — why did it have to lurch full steam to rescue the survivors when the Carpathian was much closer? Well, as you probably also know, it got a bad rap when its radio operator, one Cyril Evans, went to bed ten minutes before the Titanic hit the infamous berg, making rescue impossible.

However, it turns out Evans had already done his duty earlier in the night, which leads to my favorite scapegoat in the Titanic story.

The ship had actually received two warnings of heavy ice earlier in the evening, both of which reached the captain, who immediately set a course further south. The section of the North Atlantic the doomed liner was now steaming through, however, was going through one of the iciest spring seasons in memory. The Californian and another ship wired all craft in the area that they were trapped in a giant ice field, one which lay directly in the Titanic’s new path. Yet the Titanic’s wireless operator, Jack Phillips, never got the message. He stopped it before it came through.

Why?

Phillips famous response to the Californian’s final warning was this:

SHUT UP SHUT UP. I AM BUSY. AM WORKING CAPE RACE.

Cape Race was a wireless station at the bottom tip of Newfoundland. A very powerful one indeed. Think of it as a predecessor to the modern wi-fi tower. When Phillips shut up Evans, it was because he was busy transferring messages back and forth from that station. Many people assume these were important and official messages, but they weren’t.

The only known photo of the Titanic’s “Marconi Room.”

The “Marconi” wireless stations, named after the famous wireless inventor, were actually owned and operated by the Marconi company, who hired college-age students to work the sets on board various ships. They worked six hours on and six hours off, round the clock, and were paid at about minimum wage levels, even though they were sending hundreds of messages a night. The Marconis were not just used for official business — any passenger could send a personal message to friends or family around the world, provided they could come up with 2 shillings and sixpence for ten words, and 9 pence for each additional word. By today’s standards, that would be $30 bucks for the original message and $2 for each additional word. So only the first-class passengers used this service. And they used it to send personal messages.

Phillips missed the general ice warning, one that could have saved the ship, because he had a backlog of personal messages from passengers.

In other words: Tweeting sunk the Titanic.

In fact, you could truthfully say that the the Titanic was so busy texting, it couldn’t see where it was going.

Remember that next time CNN decides to go on about how social networking is changing human nature for the worse.

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