We recently acquired a rare Chelsea Clock Company Lighthouse Service Radio Room clock face that prompted us to think about the early use of wireless radio in the Lighthouse Service.
You have surely heard of the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 and of the life-saving role that the new wireless radio communications system played in alerting the nearby RMS Carpathia and other vessels, who were able to save over 700 passengers and crew. However, few know that the Lighthouse Service helped to pioneer the use of radio for emergency communication from ships at sea more than ten years earlier.
In August 1901, Marconi wireless telegraph equipment was “temporarily and experimentally” installed on Nantucket Lightship No. 66, this being its first use for lighthouse purposes in the United States. Having good results, Lightship No. 66 was permanently equipped in 1904, the first lightship in the United States to have permanent radio communication. In October of 1901 Lightship No. 58 also had Marconi wireless telegraph equipment installed for evaluation and by 1904 electric lighting plants and wireless radio outfits were placed in full time service aboard Lightship No. 58 as well as other light vessels.
The value of wireless radio was quickly proved, for a year later this radio was the means of saving the lives of the crew from the foundering Lightship No. 58 on Nantucket South Shoals. On December 10, 1905 during heavy gale, while relieving Nantucket LV 66, a serious leak developed in the fire-room compartment of Lightship No. 58. The crew placed pumps into operation but the pump suctions clogged repeatedly.
Captain Jorgensen, Master of the vessel, ordered that distress messages be sent. There was then no establishment of SOS or other distress call, but the radio operator kept spelling out the word “help” in both international and American Morse codes. The messages that the fires were out and assistance was urgently needed were soon received by the Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island.
Newspapers that day reported “…the vessel was at the mercy of giant waves surging against her.… all pumps working full force…. water gaining, we are helpless….” Then all communications ceased.
Besides Caapt. Jorgensen, the lightship carried a crew of two engineers and eight seamen, with three wireless telegraph operators detailed by the Navy Department (Russell Furbanks, Charles Blankenship, William E. Snyder).
Rising water eventually extinguished the boiler furnaces and the lightship was then bailed by hand for 24 hours. The USLHS Tender Azalea responded from New Bedford to the scene, braving the heavy gale. She arrived at 0400 hours the following day. The crews worked for hours to get a towing hawser aboard and the tender was finally able to take the disabled lightship in tow by 1100 hours. Heavy cross seas continued to hinder the operation as the seas continued to flood the lightship. After about five hours, Captain Jorgensen finally signaled to the tender “must abandon.” The crew of fourteen was safely taken aboard Azalea and 10 minutes later Lightship No. 58, listing heavily to starboard, went down by the stern in 25 fathoms of water, about 18 miles NW of station. However, this would be the first US vessel of any type to transmit a distress call by radio.
By about 1904, CQD (all stations: distress) transmitted in Morse became one of the first distress signals adopted for radio use. Although used worldwide by Marconi operators, CQD was never adopted as an international standard since it could be mistaken for a general call “CQ” if the reception was poor. Sometime in 1905 “SOS” would be adopted as the international ocean distress signal.
Between 1899–1908, as shipboard wireless became more accepted, nine documented sea rescues were made by the use of wireless. The first distress call was simply “HELP.” By February 1904, the Marconi Wireless Company required all of its operators to use CQD for a ship in distress, or requiring URGENT assistance. In the early morning of 23 January 1909, whilst sailing into New York from Liverpool, RMS Republic collided with the Italian liner SS Florida in the fog off the island of Nantucket. Radio Operator Jack Binns, having sent the CQD distress signal by wireless transmission, would become a hero - as the Republic began to sink, the twenty-five-year-old wireless operator sent the distress call that brought the rescue ship, Baltic. The Republic had suffered a puncture to its hull and began to sink. The collision also killed two of the Republic’s passengers and damaged Binns’ wireless. But Binns quickly made repairs and began to transmit the distress signal CQD. Although his signal was weak and he worked from batteries alone, Binns reached the Siasconsett wireless station on Nantucket. He stayed at his wireless for the next 36 hours, sending signal after signal from his frigid, water-swamped cabin. Eventually, the Baltic, another White Star liner, came to the rescue. When Binns arrived ashore in New York, he was surprised to find himself the focus of mass adoration. A ticker tape parade was held in his honor. He was offered contracts to perform on the vaudeville circuit. A song and a short film were made about him. No longer simply “Jack,” he was now “CQD Binns,” a “certified hero.” But the attention was upsetting to Binns. Jack Binns worked as a wireless operator until 1912, when he turned down an assignment aboard the ill-fated Titanic. He returned to America, where he began a new career - journalism - the day before the Titanic sank (courtesy PBS.org).
Following the sinking of the Titanic, ship owners from around the world began installing wireless radio aboard their ships. The Radio Act of 1912, initiated after the sinking of the Titanic, mandated that all seagoing vessels must continuously monitor distress frequencies. One result of the Act was the development of the radio-room clock. The design featured two 3-minute periods (marked in red) which were designated silent periods-times when only distress signals may be transmitted. Later green periods were added indicating times when radio operators would listen for emergency messages.
In U.S. Government specifications for later Chelsea clocks, it notes “the dial has accurate 4 second marks in red around the outside edge, over which the sweep seconds hand passes, enabling the radio operator to accurately transmit the 4 second alarm signal provided by the International Telecommunication Convention and the International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea.” And later, it indicates that, “also marked in red on the dial, clearly and forcibly calling attention to the radio operator thereto, are the two 3 minute silent periods which must be observed by all radio stations at 15 and 45 minutes past each hour.” Thus, the red marks on the dial edge are for the seconds alarm, and the red sector triangles for 3 minute radio silent periods on the 500 kcs. distress frequency. Later models featured additional green sectors at the top of each hour and 30 minutes past each hour for the monitoring of the 2182 kcs. distress frequency.
By 1933, Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam noted that “…all of the remote lightships and sea-going tenders were provided with radio communications, making it possible to direct them to immediately correct defects such as a buoy off station or a light out. Likewise, a lightship may report at once if assistance is needed for itself or for another vessel in the vicinity.” A number of offshore or remote light stations were provided with radio communication as well.
The Lighthouse Service maintained a number of shore radio stations to communicate with their vessels at sea. One such station was located in the Department of Commerce building in Washington, DC, and another, with call letters WWR, in the 11th Lighthouse District. This station was equipped with a 50 watt crystal controlled transmitter, which was constructed by Lighthouse Service personnel at the 11th District shops.
In addition, nearly all of the isolated stations, as well as lightships and tenders, would eventually have radio broadcast receivers for listening to music and news stations, which were for the most part donated by friends of the Lighthouse Service. These radios would add greatly to the lives of the keepers and families.
Radio aboard lightships would serve other “important” functions as well. Thomas Leach in his book The Lightships of Nantucket Sound (Harwich, January 2006), noted that “…the Monomoy Point [lifeboat] Station, one of the last surfboat stations in New England, [was] located on the south side of the Powder Hole, with three lightships nearly on its doorstep. By that time, radio was AM modulation (voice), no longer Morse key, and they would hear the radio traffic between lightships and Chelsea Creek, Boston the repair and lightship tender and lightship base at the time. One late afternoon, as Robinson recalls, it was about dinnertime, Stonehorse Lightship broke radio silence as the Monomoy Point radio operator intercepted an important call: “Monomoy Coast Guard, Monomoy Coast Guard.... This is US Coast Guard lightship Stone Horse Shoal November-Mike-Golf-Alpha (call sign for LV#53) … we are out of potatoes... please send supplies”…
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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