SOS! CQD! “Help, our ship is sinking! Save us!” Between the introduction of Marconi’s wireless at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and WWI, the excitement in technology was the wireless telegraph. Used primarily to keep track of ships and save their passengers and contents from storm-tossed waters, it led to a popular vocation for a young man, a shipboard wireless operator.
Tom Swift and his Wireless Message, 1911, uses wireless to save people from the angry sea, a typical story line in most of the wireless-themed juveniles. Tom and his pals have crashed their plane on a deserted island that is prone to earthquakes. Tom believes that if he can build a wireless set from the parts of his wrecked airship he might be able to send a message and get rescued. Of course he saves everyone, just seconds before a giant earthquake causes the island to fall apart and sink. After the rescue the captain tells Tom “Your wireless message came just in time. An hour later and our operator would have gone to bed.” Obviously, the shipping industry did not learn from this bit of 1911 Tom Swift wisdom, as one year later the Titanic suffered a massive loss of lives partly because no operator was on duty aboard the closest rescue ship. Wireless saved lives and these juvenile stories were often prescient in their use of this technology.
Every wireless boys’ adventure had a storm, often described in a poetic way: “Aloft the heavens were one constant glow of liquid fire, and the thunder crashes reverberated as in a hollow vault. The sea was lashed into a tremendous fury, the waves sweeping mountain high and breaking with a detonating roar that added to the babel of the night.” And this: “The boys could feel it pressing and tearing against them like some solid thing. Their voices were blown back down their throats when they tried to talk. Their garments were blown out stiff as boiler iron.” The wireless operator was always alert during a storm: “The boy was in constant readiness for service. His ear was close to the receiver. He knew from experience what those tempestuous nights meant for those at sea.”
Another theme was that of career: “There is a good chance for a live young fellow in a business that can send a message hundreds of miles in a few seconds. The business is now only in its infancy, and those who get in first have the best chance.”
Below are two covers depicting the wireless life at sea.