On Two Radiomen

Yes, I’m old enough to be able to use the phrase, “Back in my day…” to describe things that young whipper-snappers of today can’t relate to. In this case, what they can’t relate to is that broadcast radio used to be the domain of a few people. If you were on the radio as an announcer, you had to study for, take, and pass licensing tests. There were different levels or classes of licensing as well–2nd and 1st class licenses, for example. As someone who wanted to get into radio (and did so, for a short time), I managed to get a provisional license and then get a 2nd class license. 1st class eluded me.

All that was said to say my struggles with radio licensing were nothing compared to what it took to operate a radio (also known as a wireless) back a the beginning of the last century. The Marconi Company, founded by the man of the same name who is credited with inventing and perfecting wireless radio transmissions, had the corner on the market of the new industry. Marconi wireless training schools controlled who could operate their technology and who could not. Young men (and a few women) trained at these schools for jobs on land and on sea.

Harold Bride and Harold Cottam were a pair of plucky British young men who took the Marconi school’s 6 month training course at different times, and both excelled at the new system. Despite Harold C. being a few months younger than Harold B., he had started his training in radios earlier and had advanced a bit more in the industry than Harold B. had. Harold C. had managed a job with the British Royal Mail, and it was there that he met other wireless operators (as one does) who came and went over the months and years. Harold B. came in one day and introduced himself, and the two became great friends. By 1909, Harold C.’s skill as a wireless operator caused the Marconi Company to hire him for themselves, and then they dispatched him to work for a shipping company in 1912. Harold B., on the other hand, went straight to sea as an assistant operator after his training.

Marconi had convinced the British admiralty that they were the only ones who could adequately train shipboard wireless operators, and the company had the exclusive contract to provide radiomen for British sailing vessels. Not only did Marconi train people to operate their instruments, but their training also included repair and maintenance of the equipment. Thus, both Harolds, while each working for Marconi, found themselves aboard different ships operated by other companies.

Being a radio operator on a ship like a passenger liner was less of a glamourous job than it sounds. You were little more than a glorified page boy. Most of the time, your job consisted of people onboard radioing other people on land to tell them, “Hey, I’m on a ship!” or something as inane. Sure, occasionally, ships would radio each other things like storm warnings or positioning, but most of the job was catering to the whims of wealthier patrons.

Then, in April of 1912, fate would bring the two Harolds together. Harold B. and Harold C. found themselves on the same ship due to a quirk in history. The pair were ecstatic to see each other; the friends embraced warmly. Then, immediately the pair took turns at the radio sending the usual messages for passengers, with most of the passengers’ messages stating, again, that they were simply fine and dandy. Except this time, those usually inane messages had a more serious tone. This trip, the passenger messages were telling friends and loved ones that they were alive.

What I didn’t tell you is that Harold B. had been brought aboard Harold C.’s ship, the Carpathia, after his own ship had sunk.

You see, Harold B had been the assistant radio operator onboard the Titanic.


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