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Susan Douglas on: The Importance of Wireless
Susan Douglas Q: What about the lessons from the "Titanic," what lessons were learned, or not learned, as the case may be?

SD: Just two weeks after the "Republic"/"Florida" disaster, President Roosevelt urges that there be wireless legislation mandating that ships have wireless placed on board. And indeed that legislation passes in 1910 and it requires that all ships carrying more than 50 passengers and going between ports 200 miles apart or greater have to have wireless on them. So you would think that the "Titanic" disaster could have been avoided. But there were loopholes in the law. It did not mandate for example that equipment be manned 24 hours a day. And often these wireless operators would work 12, 16 hour shifts and finally they'd go to sleep because they were exhausted. And so the "Titanic" disaster is confronted by several things. One ship, the "California" which was close enough to save everybody had shut off its main engines and didn't have auxiliary power for its wireless equipment and its sole wireless operator had gone to bed. Had those two things been different, everybody could have been saved. So the loopholes in this very well-intended law that's passed in the aftermath of the "Florida"/"Republic" disaster have to be corrected, and they're immediately corrected in 1912.

Q: What was the impact of the "Republic" incident in people's minds in how wireless was perceived thereafter?

SD: In the aftermath of the "Republic" disaster, wireless was no longer a novelty or some luxury. Wireless was absolutely essential aboard ship. It also cemented Marconi's position in the United States, and indeed, by 1912 Marconi had a monopoly over wireless telegraphy in the U.S. But I think on a broader scale, what the "Republic" incident did is it made people realize that the airwaves were a common property resource that belonged to everybody and it had to be protected by government legislation so that everybody in danger could have access to those airwaves when they needed to. And so it put the airwaves in people's kind of geographic imagination about what territories in the United States mattered for American citizens.

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