Titanic Musical Conveys a History Lesson: The Telegraph Might Have Saved More Passengers

Published: Saturday, January 25, 2014 10:00 am By: Jerry Eimbinder Source: The Patch

Titanic, a musical now playing at the dinner-theater Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, brings awareness to the involvement of wireless broadcast technology in the disaster that took 1,500 lives and the roles of pioneer telegraph operators in early twentieth-century history.

Many different issues are dealt with in the play including upper class arrogance, working class dreams, bravery, selflessness, love and cowardice. 

The musical has a Tony-winning score by Maury Yeston (Grand Hotel, Nine) and a Tony-winning book by the late Peter Stone (The Will Rogers Follies, 1776). It won Tony Awards in 1997 for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Peter Stone), Best Orchestrations (Jonathan Tunick), Best Score (Maury Yeston) and Best Scenic Design (Stewart Laing).

When the Titanic departed Southampton, England for New York on April 10, 1912, two wireless operators were on board—25-year-old senior officer John G. Phillips and 21-year old junior officer Harold S. Bride.

The first hint of danger on the evening of April 14, 1912, came from a wireless operator on another steamship who telegraphed a warning to the Titanic that it was heading directly into an area full of icebergs.

Phillips was extremely busy transmitting messages via Morse Code composed by wealthy and influential passengers and continued sending them even after a second warning arrived—this one from the S.S. Californian. Its wireless operator reported that his ship was surrounded by ice. Soon after alerting the Titanic, the Californian's operator turned off his transmission equipment and went to bed.  

Bride was scheduled to relieve Phillips at midnight in the telegraph room; the Titanic hit the iceberg only twenty minutes before Bride's tour of duty was to began—too late if Phillips had intended to deliver the warnings to the bridge once Bride arrived. 

Bride and Phillips continued to send out SOS messages until the ship's electrical power failed. Flairs were also fired into the night sky and observed by crew members of the Californian but the ship's captain failed to understand their significance and took no action.

Phillips and Bride were able to leave the ship. 

Phillips climbed onto an upturned boat but died the next morning from hypothermia. Bride also made it to an upside-down boat and was picked up by the S.S. Carpathia the following morning. He would later provide much insight as to the final happenings on the Titanic to the press and authorities and died in 1956. 

Three years after the Titanic tragedy, the Californian was sunk in the Mediterranean Sea by torpedoes fired by a German submarine during World War One. 

David  L. Sarnoff employed as a telegraph operator at Marconi's New York City location in the Wanamaker (a department store) tower, picked up and deciphered the Morse Code message from a wireless operator on board the S.S. Olympic, 1,400 miles away. The message was: "S.S. Titanic ran into iceberg. Sinking fast." After being rescued, Bride, although injured, helped to send messages from the Carpathia.

Sarnoff, who was 21 at that time, provided the world with the names of the survivors and other details and went on later to head the Radio Corporation Of America (RCA) and to be recognized as "The Father of American Television." 

 Dinner-and-show prices range from $54 to $80 plus tax depending on the performances chosen. For reservations, call 914-592-2222. Titanic ends its run at the Westchester Broadway Theatre on February 23, 2014.