Telecommunications, Twitter and Titanic

No, I am not a big fan of the James Cameron film, mostly because of the awful script and the inability of the two leads to rise above it.

I have also not been a big fan of tweeting “history”, in historical reinactments done via Twitter. I critiqued the approach heartily almost exactly two years ago.

However, I have now been to two museum exhibits of artifacts from the Titanic (including the current one in San Diego), and tonight I sit here watching Twitter as the Carpathian steams in to pick up survivors, and I have to say, it’s ridiculously riveting to watch the disaster unfold on Twitter.

I have followed both Real-Time Titanic  and TitanicVoyage  out of the  UK publishing house The History Press for the last couple of days. Both have done a great job in creating a suspenseful account of what professional historians like to call (often disdainfully), “popular” history, Real-Time Titanic using a third-person, journalistic style and TitanicVoyage marking posts by the type of tweeter (#captain, #crew, #thirdclass) for an even more harrowing first-person tone.

As with most of the popular history I’ve enjoyed, I was drawn to a single aspect of the subject, in this case the problem with the Marconi wireless radio just a day before they hit the iceberg.

Apparently, the transmitter went down.

And apparently, they broke the rules to fix it.

Naturally, this sent me on a hunt for rules about Marconi wireless, and the stories of the young men who worked the radios. I found a respected article by Parks Stephenson, a fascinating page on the wireless telegraphists, a website “specialising in radio aspects of the Titanic disaster since 1999“, and a recent article from Atlantic Monthly on the importance of radio to the survivors. None of the creators of this stuff are, to my knowledge, professional historians. They are enthusiasts, of history and radio.

Even if only parts of the stories are true, it is possible that a couple of young men took apart a radio against some sort of policy to make sure it transmitted, and if they hadn’t then a day later when Titanic hit an iceberg they might not have been able to send the distress call.

Conclusions can thus be made about the value of mechanical tinkering, and not being afraid to break the rules, and professional pressure to do your job (hundreds of passenger-sent messages were sent from the ship by radio).

It’s harder to explain, though, the emotional impact of watching it unfold, in “real time” 100 years later, as if it were happening now and we could hear the screams of the people freezing to death yards from the lifeboats. There was a certain War of the Worlds aspect to it, even though Twitter is not really the radio and one couldn’t unknowingly follow the Twitter stream the same way people unknowingly tuned in to Welles’ show.

And again this odd use of Twitter makes me rethink the role of stories and history and the enthusiasts who put it all together, and I’m filled with nothing but respect for their work.