A Very Deceiving Night: Scintillating Morse

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Extreme scintillation. Instead, Californian had been trying to contact the nearby ship by Morse lamp, even since before Titanic’s collision:

Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian

“She came and lay at half-past 11, alongside of us until, I suppose, a quarter past, within 4 miles of us. We could see everything on her quite distinctly, see her lights. We signalled her, at half-past 11, with the Morse lamp. She did not take the slightest notice of it. That was between half-past 11 and 20 minutes to 12. We signalled her again at 10 minutes past 12, half-past 12, a quarter to 1 o’clock. We have a very powerful Morse lamp. I suppose you can see that about 10 miles, and she was about 4 miles off, and she did not take the slightest notice of it. When the second officer came on the bridge, at 12 o’clock, or 10 minutes past 12, I told him to watch that steamer, which was stopped, and I pointed out the ice to him; told him we were surrounded by ice; to watch the steamer that she did not get any closer to her.

At 20 minutes to 1 I whistled up the speaking tube and asked him if she was getting any nearer. He said, “No; she is not taking any notice of us.” So, I said “I will go and lie down a bit.” At a quarter past he said, “I think she has fired a rocket.” He said, “She did not answer the Morse lamp and she has commenced to go away from us.” I said, “Call her up and let me know at once what her name is. So, he put the whistle back, and, apparently, he was calling. I could hear him ticking over my head. Then l went to sleep.”

Initially, Lord and Gibson thought that the nearby ship was answering them:

Groves: 8169. (The Commissioner.) Would this be something after 11 o’clock?
– Yes, my Lord, when I went down to him it would be as near as I could judge about 11.30.

  1. (Mr. Rowlatt.) What did you say to him?
    – I knocked at his door and told him there was a steamer approaching us coming up on the starboard quarter.
  2. (Mr. Rowlatt.) Did you say why you thought she was a passenger steamer?
    – Yes. I told him that I could see her deck lights and that made me pass the remark that she was evidently a passenger steamer.
  3. (Mr. Rowlatt.) How many deck lights had she? Had she much light?
    – Yes, a lot of light. There was absolutely no doubt her being a passenger steamer, at least in my mind.
  4. Could you see much of her length?
    – No, not a great deal; because as I could judge she was coming up obliquely to us.
  5. Now is that all you said to the captain before he said something to you?
    – Yes. He said, “Call her up on the Morse lamp, and see if you can get any reply.”
  6. What did you say to that?
    – I went up on the bridge; I went away and went up on the bridge and I rigged the Morse lamp.
  7. (The Commissioner.) How long does it take to do that?
    – It is only a matter of taking a key out of a locker up there and just putting the plug in.
  8. A minute?
    – Yes, that is all.
  9. (Mr. Rowlatt.) Did you get any reply?
    – Not at first, no reply whatsoever.
  10. Did you afterwards?
    – Well, what I took to be a reply. I saw what I took to be a light answering, and then I sent the word “What?” meaning to ask what ship she was. When I sent “What?” his light was flickering. I took up the glasses again and I came to the conclusion it could not have been a Morse lamp.
  11. (Mr. Rowlatt.) Did you go down again to the captain?
    – No, he came to the bridge.
  12. Did you tell the captain about the Morsing?
    – Yes.
  13. What did he say?
    – He saw a light flickering himself, and he passed the remark to me. He said, “She is answering you.” This was just before I sent the word “What?”

As well as firing distress rockets, Titanic also began using her own Morse lamp in a desperate attempt to communicate with the nearby vessel:

Titanic’s Fourth Officer, Joseph Groves Boxhall:

JGB1143. And you saw her no more after that?

– No, sir. As a matter of fact, Capt. Smith was standing by my side, and we both came to the conclusion that she was close enough to be signaled by the Morse lamp. So I signaled to her. I called her up, and got no answer. The captain said, “Tell him to come at once, we are sinking.” So I sent that signal out, “Come at once, we are sinking.”

JGB1144. And you kept firing up those rockets?

– Then leaving off and firing rockets. There were a lot of stewards and men standing around the bridge and around the boat deck. Of course, there were quite a lot of them quite interested in this ship, looking from the bridge, and some said she had shown a light in reply, but I never saw it. I even got the quartermaster who was working around with me – I do not know who he was – to fire off the distress signal, and I got him to also signal with the Morse lamp – that is just a series of dots with short intervals of light – whilst I watched with a pair of glasses to see whether this man did answer, as some people said he had replied.

  1. Did the ship make any sort of answer, as far as you could see, to your rockets?
    – I did not see it. Some people say she did, and others say she did not. There were a lot of men on the bridge. I had a Quartermaster with me, and the Captain was standing by, at different times, watching this steamer.
  2. Do you mean you heard someone say she was answering your signals?
    – Yes, I did, and then she got close enough, and I Morsed to her – used our Morse lamp.
  3. You began Morsing to her?
    – Yes.
  4. When people said to you that your signals were being answered, did they say how they were being answered?
    – I think I heard somebody say that she showed a light.
  5. Do you mean that she would be using a Morse lamp?
    – Quite probably.
  6. Then you thought she was near enough to Morse her from the “Titanic”?
    – Yes, I do think so; I think so yet.

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

Titanic’s surviving officers from left to right: Fifth Officer Harold G. Lowe, Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller, Third Officer Herbert J. Pitman (seated) and Fourth Officer Joseph G. Boxhall.

© Mary Evans Picture Library

Boxhall’s account of people on the Titanic thinking they saw a reply from the Californian, which he was unable to read, is strikingly similar to the Groves Lord testimony, above, and the following testimony from James Gibson, the Apprentice on the Californian, who thought he saw Titanic signalling, though he could also not read the Morse signals:

James Gibson, Apprentice, Californian:

It being my watch on deck from 12 o’clock, I went on the bridge at about 15 minutes after twelve and saw that the ship was stopped and that she was surrounded with light field ice and thick field-ice to the Southward. While the Second Officer and I were having coffee, a few minutes later, I asked him if there were any more ships around us. He said that there was one on the Starboard beam, and looking over the weather cloth, I saw a white light flickering, which I took to be a Morse light calling us up. I then went over to the keyboard and gave one long flash in answer, and still seeing this light flickering. I gave her the calling up sign. The light on the other ship, however, was still the same, so I looked at her through the binoculars and found it was her masthead light flickering. I also observed her port sidelight and a faint glare of lights on her afterdeck. I then went over to the Second Officer and remarked she looked like a tramp steamer. He said that most probably she was, and was burning oil lights.

Tragically, the same heavily stratified air in the thermal inversion, which Beesley noticed was making the stars appear to be Morseing to each other, was rendering the real Morse code signals between the two vessels incomprehensible, even to the point where Titanic’s steady electric lights appeared to be the flickering oil lamps of a much smaller vessel.

So the same process that explains the twinkling stars observed on the night the Titanic sank also explains why the Titanic and Californian could not read each other’s Morse lamps.  Anytime a light beam travels through air with a temperature gradient—in this case, the inversion layer—it encounters many small changes in air density (or refractive index).  These density changes, combined with the cumulative effect of turbulence along the very long line of sight between the two ships, cause the light beam to alter its path slightly with each new encounter.  Although at about 10 miles apart the Titanic and Californian were at the normal, outer limits of the range of their Morse lamps, the extreme clarity of that night should have meant that those signals could be read at much greater distances than 10 miles, that night.  After all, as Titanic’s fourth officer Joseph Boxhall recalled in his 1962 BBC radio broadcast, above, he could even see the porthole lights in Californian’s hull.

But the intervening air and light winds and calms of that night would have been continually altering the path of the light from these lamps.  Observers, therefore, would have seen the light flickering on and off, as the stars were that night, similar to the on and off signals of the Morse code itself.  Any message was thus rendered indecipherable by this extreme scintillation in the abnormally refracting thermal inversion, which Beesley described as staccato flashing.

I hope by blogging chapters from my book, A Very Deceiving Night, it will contribute to the ongoing discussions regarding the atmospheric conditions on the night of the tragedy and the true causes of the disaster. At the moment, the book is only available as an e-book. If you wish to purchase it then you can do so in Amazon Kindle format here and other formats, including Apple, Kobo and Nook, here. Thank you.

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