Institute for Telecommunication Sciences / January 1909

January 1909: Maritime Radio Distress Call Saves 1,500 Lives

One of the first maritime radio distress calls saved over 1,500 lives. Early on the morning of January 23, 1909, in a dense fog, the Italy-bound RMS Republic collided with the New York-bound SS Florida near Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Six people died in the collision, which heavily damaged both ocean liners. A combined total of over 1,500 passengers were at risk. Luckily, the Republic carried a new invention, a Marconi wireless distress signal. Jack Binns, the ship's Marconi-man sent out a CQD, an all stations distress signal, to alert nearby ships of the collision before the Republic went down. The call was received at 6:40 AM at the Siosconset wireless station and relayed to nearby vessels. Seven ships responded to the call, and rowboats were used to rescue all surviving passengers and crew from both ships. A tragedy had been averted and newspapers and magazines were filled with the heroic stories of passengers and rescuers alike. New wireless technology had been tested dramatically at sea and proven itself. The next year, Congress passed a change to U.S. maritime code that required all steam ships operating out of American ports to maintain radio distress signals. Much of the Department of Commerce's early radio work was directed at ensuring that all commercial vessels could send, receive, and understand Maritime distress signals like the one the Republic sent out. Today, ITS researchers still work directly to improve maritime safety through, for example, defining interference protection criteria and mitigation techniques to ensure marine radars can continue to provide accurate collision avoidance when sharing spectrum with other radio services.