Shackleton's "Missing" Radio Equipment
A failure to appreciate a proven technology nearly ended the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in disaster
An essay just for fun by
John L. Fuhring.
©  2014 by John Fuhring

The Steam Yacht 'Endurance'
Sails set in vain hope of freeing herself


Foreword
     The following essay is my take on Sir Ernst Shackleton's Trans Antarctic Expedition of 1914 and told from my perspective as a radioman who is somewhat knowledgeable with regard to the early radio equipment and technology of this period (1915).  The essay assumes that you, the reader, are familiar with the story of Shackleton and his crew's harrowing experiences beginning with their ship, the Steam Yacht 'Endurance' unexpectedly caught in the ice and unable to actually make it to the shores of Antarctica, but I'll try to give a brief summery anyway.  

     There are many well written and dramatic books that tell of this expedition and describe all the trials that Shackleton and the 'Endurance's' crew suffered before they made it back alive.  Very briefly, Shackleton wanted to do something really spectacular and so he barely scraped together enough money, two ships and equipment to enable him to sail  to Antarctica where he and a "trekking party" would get off and cross the Antarctic continent one way, in record time and in relative comfort and safety.  Things fell apart when the ice failed to break up as expected that summer and the 'Endurance' got stuck and finally crushed by the ice later during the Antarctic winter.  Fortunately the sinking of the little ship was slow enough that the lifeboats and all the survival gear was able to be unloaded.  Fortunate too was the presence of the ship's carpenter, Harry McNish who was able to construct shelters and equipment that enabled the men to survive out on the ice.

     After the 'Endurance' was gone and when the ice pack started the summer break up, the small boats (modified by McNish for the open sea) were launched and a highly dramatic and dangerous voyage was made to deserted Elephant Island where they landed with much difficulty on that dangerous shore.  Once safely on Elephant Island, Shackleton knew there would be no rescue because nobody knew they were down there and so they had to fit out one of the boats for a long and difficult and dangerous voyage to the wrong side of South Georgia Island where they would somehow have to cross the mountains to a whaling station on the other side for rescue.  

     Again, thanks to the skill of Harry McNish, a small boat, the 'James Carid', was covered over and made seaworthy to enable it to make that long voyage.  The voyage was dangerous, but it was successful only because of skilled navigation enabled by lucky breaks in the otherwise horrible weather and the fact that the 'James Carid'  was held together by McNish's skill.  By these skills and great measure of good luck, the boat made it to South Georgia Island where McNish made ice trekking equipment for Shackleton and the couple of the men who were going with him.  As crude and "ad hoc" as McNish's equipment was, it enabled the men to make the trip across the glaciers and mountains and clear across the island to the whaling station where they could get help.  Once at the whaling station, the men told their astounding tale, but had to wait until a rescue ship could be secured and sent from South America.  By the time a ship could be sent to Elephant Island, ice had set in and the men had to wait a long time before they too could be rescued, but they all made it back alive.  

     This, in a nutshell is the story that most people have heard about, but it is by no means the entire story.  It is my hope to add another side to the story not mentioned by those who laud Ernst Shackleton and use him as the "finest example of leadership" both in business seminars and at the U.S. Naval Academy.  To my mind, this reputation overlooks many serious flaws, almost fatal flaws in the man.  It is my opinion that all the books and stories, each one in competition to praise the man, have painted a very false image, but that is for you to decide and you are, by no means, asked to agree with me.


Introduction
     Just lately a friend of mine lent me a book that told the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's harrowing South Pole adventure from the point of view of one of his men, Tom Crean.  This book brought back memories of when I read the book, 'Shackleton's Valiant Voyage,' back in my high school days (early 1960s).  For me, this new book was an excellent review, but in addition, it seemed to bring into more vivid focus just how miserable and risky the whole ordeal was.  It also was a good reminder of how a mixture of good leadership, skilled craftsmanship and good luck enabled the failed Shackleton South Pole adventure from turning into a disaster.  I say adventure because the difference between an adventure and a disaster is that in an adventure, nobody gets killed (an Old Saying I made up a few years ago).  

     There was one thing that this particular book mentions that I had never heard mentioned before and that is the fact that they had a radio receiver aboard the Steam Yacht (SY) 'Endurance' (Shackleton's ship) and tried to operate the receiver after the 'Endurance' was crushed and everyone was stranded out on the ice.  No author I had ever read mentioned this radio and so I had never given any thought to what a difference having radio communications might have made.  The mention of a radio pressed one of my hot buttons and really started me thinking because I have always been very interested in early radio and have researched and written extensively on radio technology of just this time period (1900-1921).

     Upon doing some research on this, I was astounded* to discover that Shackleton's Trans Antarctic Expedition actually consisted of two parts.  Shackleton and his trekking party aboard the 'Endurance' was to be landed at one side of the continent and a second party aboard the SY 'Aurora' was to land at the opposite side.  This second party was to establish supply depots for the "returning" trekking party as close to the pole as they could get them.  For some reason, the heroic work that these men accomplished and the great efforts and sacrifice they made has never been part of the Shackleton story although it should be.  In that half of the expedition, three men died, but few know or appreciate that.  Another thing I learned about this half of the expedition is that they had a complete radio set, including both a receiver and a transmitter, and this gear had already proven itself during an earlier polar expedition under Dr. Douglas Mawson.  

     This new knowledge started me to thinking; why would one half of a well equipped expedition be without, what was by then, standard shipboard equipment?  You may already know that the RMS Titanic sank two years earlier (1912) and with great loss of life, but around 750 lives were saved thanks to the efforts of Chief Radioman Jack Phillips (who died) and Assistant Radioman Harold Bride (who survived).  Even as early as 1910, it was very common for even small ships to have radio equipment aboard and soon after the Titanic disaster, international rules required all seagoing vessels to have radio receivers and to listen for distress calls at 500 KHz at the top of every hour.

     I hope to do more detailed research on this, but what I have found out so far is that Shackleton's 'Endurance' did indeed have a receiver, but a transmitter was considered too expensive and so one was not included in the expedition's gear. There can be no doubt that Shackleton knew that the 'Endurance's' voyage would be fraught with extreme danger, so to my way of thinking, it was extraordinarily irresponsible of Shackleton not to have had a two way radio set and a trained radioman on board and I am having a very hard time understanding how he could have overlooked this.  As far as being too expensive, I can't believe that the Marconi company (among others) wouldn't have donated a small transmitting set or that one of the scientists couldn't have built one from parts available in England.

Objections regarding the need for radio gear
     Talking this over with a friend, an objection was raised that even if they would have had a radio, nobody in that part of the world would have heard their calls for help.  Well, first of all, the 'Aurora' was down there and she had a radio set.  Not only that, all ships were required to be equipped with radios and were required to listen at the top of each hour for distress messages.  I can't believe that some ship somewhere wouldn't have heard them and relayed the messages to a port somewhere.  I simply can't imagine that the whaling station on South Georgia would not have had an operating radio station.  At this time in history, radio stations on shore were in common use so that the station could check on the arrival of whaling ships into port, listen for distress calls and for communicating with their headquarters (via landline telegraph relayed through ports in South America).  

     The other objection I've heard expressed is that nobody could have gotten a ship down to the 'Endurance' anyway.  That, of course is true - at first, but as mentioned, a ship could have been waiting for them as they drifted north and west at the time the ice pack started breaking up.  At the very least, a ship could have been waiting at Elephant Island.  Now, if a ship could not have made it down before Shackleton's crew was forced to land at Elephant Island, they all could simply have stayed put until a ship could get down there (as most of the men did anyway) and that very risky voyage to South Georgia Island and that terrible trek across the mountains and glaciers to the whaling station would not have been necessary.

     There are other objections and this time some of them are raised by me.  First of all, this expedition left England just as the Great War (WW 1) began and trained radiomen were not as easily available as ordinary seamen or even scientists.  Trained radiomen were in great demand and were well paid professionals.  I think it would have been extremely difficult to recruit one of these guys and ask him to sacrifice a couple of years of his career for very little pay.  The other objection that I need to give some thought to is the question of how to rig up the huge antennas (called aerials) that were in vogue at the time.  The Marconi top loaded 'T' antenna system consisted of a very tall array of three to four wires suspended between two insulated spreaders and multiple feed wires running down from the centers to the transmitting station.  To erect an antenna of this sort takes at least two very tall masts that have to be stepped properly and guyed in place.  Of course, a long-wire 1/4 wave sloping antenna would work well, but somehow everybody thought that you had to use a Marconi style antenna.

A Marconi 'T' antenna typical of the period

Update, July 11,2017:
     Just today a gentleman in England and a man who was very active in radio communications for the British Antarctic Surveys, sent me a wonderful note and a copy of a famous flash photograph of the 'Endurance' stuck in the ice during the dark, dark and lonely antarctic night.  I'm sure you have seen this photograph and I certainly had too, but I some how never looked close enough at the top rigging.


The SY Endurance stuck in the ice during the dark polar night


If you will look closely at the very top of the foremast, you will
see the wires and spreader of a classic Marconi top loaded antenna.
The ship had everything there for radio communications
except a transmitter and somebody who knew how to use it.

How radio would have helped
     To go off into the wild with no means of communication when shipboard radio technology was already in common use was, in my opinion, extremely foolish and irresponsible and it takes away from me some of my admiration for the character of Sir Ernest Shackleton.  Consider if they would have had a complete and (by then) a very common piece of shipboard equipment.  First, they would have been able to relay messages of their progress to their sponsors back in England and, as it turned out, they would have been able to inform potential rescue parties of their situation and be able to coordinate with them their safe recovery.  

     Rather than take open boats from the edge of a disintegrating ice pack across the open sea to Elephant Island and risk that dangerous landing on that awful shore, they could have had a ship waiting to pick them up.  If they had a ship waiting, everyone could have been rescued months earlier and without the terrible risk of that 800 mile open boat voyage to South Georgia Island and that terribly dangerous trek across the backbone of the island to the whaling station.  Without a radio, it was the skill of the carpenter and the navigator and it was Shackleton's iron will that enabled the voyage to South Georgia, but a huge, huge amount of luck was involved too and his Trans Antarctic Expedition could have so very easily resulted in another Franklin Expedition with all hands lost and gone without a trace.

     Just as importantly, with a transmitter, the 'Endurance' could have contacted the men at the other side of the Antarctic Continent informing them of their situation.  If they would have known that Shackleton wasn't coming, their efforts could have been called off and the death of three men would have been prevented.  In addition, their other ship, the 'Aurora,' would have have known where and when to pick them up when conditions allowed it.  Finally, just consider what a wonderful effect on morale it would have had.if the men knew that England was aware of their plight and furthermore, how happy they would have been if they could have sent and received messages from home while waiting for rescue.


Earlier successful use of radio equipment in the Antarctic
     Now you may ask if there had been any other Antarctic expeditions of this period that had successfully used radio equipment?  The answer is a resounding, yes.  The disastrous 1911 to 1914 Douglas Mawson expedition, in which two of the explorers died and Dr. Mawson himself came very close to dying, had a complete radio set for their ship (the very same SY 'Aurora') and a second set for the base camp.  

     After a successful year of surviving the Antarctic winter and making biological and geological discoveries, the 'Aurora' was due to return in the summer.  Before its return, Mawson and two other men went out on a long exploration trip, but they failed to return by the time the 'Aurora' was scheduled to leave.  With the ship set to sail before the ice closed in for the coming winter, six men volunteered to stay behind in camp for another year to look for the lost explorers.  Mawson, in a really terrible physical and mental condition (which reads like a horror story), was finally able to make it back to camp, but only just in time to see the 'Aurora' sailing away.  Jeffryes, the camp's radioman, contacted the 'Aurora' by wireless while she was at sea and asked her to return to pick up the camp crew and the badly disabled Mawson.



The Australian Steam Yacht  'Aurora'


     Unfortunately, the weather was so terrible, the returning 'Aurora' was unable to land a boat.  After hanging around for several hours, the Aurora missed the wireless message asking her to keep trying and then left the area (per the original plan) to pick up men at another camp.  Dr. Mawson (later Sir Douglas) and the other six had to stay for a year or so before the 'Aurora' could return and pick them up.  In the meantime they made outstanding scientific observations and discoveries and, for the first time in history, they established radio contact between Antarctica and the outside world.  In Sir Douglas' own words, "The "wireless" gave us another interest in life, and plenty of outside occupation when the stays became loose or an accident occurred. It served to relieve some of the tedium of that second year. ... It was now a common thing for those of us who had gone to bed before midnight to wake up in the morning and find that quite a budget of wireless messages had been received. It took the place of a morning paper and we made the most of the intelligence, discussing it from every possible point of view" (from the book 'Home of the Blizzard' by Sir Douglas Mawson).  They were even able to contact and get permission from King George V to name a piece of land down there.  Guess what they called this newly named land?? Give up? Answer: "King George V Land," now isn't that ironic?  A similarly ironic thing occurred when they radioed and got permission from England's Queen Mary to name a section of Antarctica and guess what they called that?  "Queen Mary Land."  What's really ironic is that Queen Mary Land abuts a section of Antarctica called "Kaiser Wilhelm II Land."  Who would have guessed that a year later this wouldn't be such a cozy association?  On the other hand, being where they are, perhaps it is appropriate since the association between Queen Mary and Kaiser Bill was so ah .. well .. ah .. frosty, although it might be a little .. ah .. cold .. of me to point this out.

     By the way, it was probably a very good thing that Dr. Mawson spent that time sequestered from the pressures of the outside world because it gave him the time he needed to heal in mind, body and spirit before having to return to the Rat Race of civilization.

     Although largely forgotten today, Douglas Mawson and his men had a great adventure and they certainly had their share of disaster.  Mawson and his fellow explorer, Dr. Mertz, suffered far more in mind and body than Shackleton had (Mertz died horribly with his skin falling off and Mawson nearly died that way too).  The disaster for the party began when Lieutenant Ninnis, the best sled dogs together with almost all the food went down hundreds of feet into a crevasse and were killed.  To survive without the lost food, the two men were forced to eat their dogs.  Since the dogs' muscle meat was too tough, they gave it to the other dogs and took the organ meat for themselves.  Little did they know that dog liver contains a toxic amount of Vitamin 'A' and chronic poisoning causes one's skin to fall off.  The exploration part was a disastrous failure and Mertz and Mawson suffered terribly trying to get back to the station, but the scientific work at the station later turned out to be a great success.  A small part of that success was because, early on, Dr. Mawson understood the value of radio and his radioman used it effectively to communicate with the outside world and to study the phenomena of the southern aurora and its effect on radio communications.


An expedition radioman using German equipment made by Telefunken.
Telefunken , Marconi and DeForest commercial radios were similar.
The equipment to the front and left of the operator is probably a receiver similar to the Marconi
 "Multi-tuner" with a crystal detector and the device to the right is probably the transmitter.  At the
far lower left is a dynomotor for generating high voltages.  Note the extensive use of "pancake" coils
 and, behind the operator's head, the typical electrical board for monitoring transmitter voltage and current.

     This is way off the subject, but you might be interested to know that in that second year, while waiting for the 'Aurora' to return, the professional radioman, Sidney Jeffryes, developed some rather bizarre psychotic symptoms.  He had been turned down for the job before the beginning of the voyage, but then was chosen when Mawson's first choice couldn't make it.  He was unknown to the close-knit group of adventurers and so he never really fit in and besides, I think everybody sensed something strange about the guy.  At first he performed his duties well and consciously.  Mawson praised his work, but expressed concern that perhaps he was working too hard.  Later he started behaving strangely and he started to slack off and fail in his duties.  Fortunately his symptoms began slowly enough and he was lucid most of the time so that he could train the talented Frank Bickerton in the Morse Code and teach him how to operate the radio equipment.  Finally, a couple of months before the 'Aurora' arrived, Jeffryes had a complete psychotic break, sent out some really crazy messages and was relieved of his position altogether.  Little is known of his life after returning to Australia and I can't say if he ever recovered.  For several decades, his was an intentionally forgotten name, but recently his outstanding early work in setting up the wireless station, getting it to work and indeed making the first wireless contacts from Antarctica to the outside world is finally being recognized.  There is even a small glacier on the Antarctic continent that was recently named for him.


Shackleton's lack of scientific and technical appreciation
     It can not be disputed that Sir Ernest Shackleton and Dr. Douglas Mawson knew each other and had discussed antarctic exploration and equipment.  I don't think it is at all likely that Shackleton was unaware of what was transpiring at the scientific station on the Antarctic Continent during the years 1912-1913.  Having made wireless contact with the outside, I'm sure the whole world was ah... "electrified" by reports from the Mawson's expedition even before Shackleton's expedition began in 1914.  So this begs the question, if wireless communication was already a proven technology in the antarctic, why didn't Shackleton scrape together at least one complete radio set for his ship?

     As I mentioned earlier, I only recently learned that Shackleton's Trans Antarctic Expedition actually consisted of two ships and two teams on opposite sides of the South Pole.  For some reason it isn't widely known, but that second party was not an adventure, it was a disaster because 3 people actually died while fulfilling its mission.  As mentioned, the ship that carried what was called the "Ross Sea Party" was the 'Aurora', the very same ship with the same transmitter which was used so effectively a couple of years earlier on the Mawson expedition.  However, this time the organizers of the Ross Sea Party there in Australia couldn't get a professional radioman, but they were able to get the services of a highly talented 18 year old electrician and radio amateur, Lionel Hooke (later Sir Lionel), to operate the radio.  As before, they had a second radio set for shore use. So what was all this radio equipment doing there at what was supposed to be Shackleton's Finish Line?  It is my opinion and my guess that Shackleton wanted it there so that the world would immediately hear of his "great accomplishment" by radiotelegraph.

    In contrast to the Ross Sea Party's Lionel Hooke, the man who was in charge of the 'Endurance's' radio receiver was Frank Hurley.  He was brought on board as the expedition's photographer and he did take many wonderful and dramatic photographs, but, to the best of my knowledge, he had no training in the complex art and science of wireless operations.  My guess is that Shackleton felt that if you can operate a camera, you can operate a radio receiver.  It certainly appears (to me anyway) that Mr. Hurley was not very keen or knowledgeable regarding radio technology based on the reports of his half-hearted attempts to get the receiver working.  On the other hand, having only a receiver and knowing that nobody was out looking for them, he probably realized how utterly useless the radio receiver was without a transmitter.  Perhaps that was the reason he made such (apparently) half-hearted attempts to get the receiver working. It is also very possible that nobody on the 'Endurance' knew the Morse Code and that would have made the radio gear superfluous in itself since this was still the age of the radiotelegraph.

     In my mind, it is an indication of Shackleton's failure to appreciate the value of radio technology that he gave operation of the pitifully inadequate radio gear they did have to a photographer with no training in wireless telegraphy - by then, a highly technical field (the operation of which required much more skill than operating a radio today).  I think Shackleton's failure to appreciate technology stems from the fact that he was not himself a scientist, but simply an "explorer" (which is a polite way of saying that he was simply a glory seeking "jock").   Doctor Mawson, in contrast, was a recognized scientist with a PhD in geology and his expedition, despite its disasters, made exceptional scientific discoveries.  There were no scientific discoveries or advancements made by Shackleton or his crew worthy of mention.  Shackleton's expedition was to appeal (as it still does) to man's physical nature, not to his intellectual nature.


My controversial opinions regarding Shackleton as a leader
     Besides his lack of scientific credentials, I have come to believe that Sir Ernest Shackleton had certain aspects of personality that were at once both strengths and weaknesses.  It is my impression that Shackleton must have been a strong-willed leader when it came to dealing with his men, but I believe that he was a pig-headed man that nobody should dare to tell him anything that he didn't want to hear.  To me, Shackleton treated his men as a condescending father figure and as long as you were kissing his fanny, things were great, but don't ever question daddy because daddy was just a bit too fragile to stand up well to people who were similarly strong-willed.  He said that he didn't need a complete radio set on the 'Endurance' and so that was that - no argument.  

     If you think I'm being unfair, consider the lifelong hatred Shackleton developed for the Ship's Carpenter, Harry McNish, a skilled artificer who, more than anyone else, enabled their survival, but he was a man who dared to question some of Shackleton's (usually wrong) decisions while out on the ice.  It was McNish who built much of the survival equipment and it was he who modified the boats so that they could make the voyages.  The ability to hold even a deserved grudge against a man who had saved him and his crew through skill and hard work and to hold that grudge all his life, even to the point of denying the man his well deserved honors (the Silver Antarctic Medal given to everybody else) is proof enough for me that Shackleton had some real personality and leadership flaws.  Knowing me, I think I would have seen through Shackleton's "helluva guy" exterior and I really doubt I'd have gotten along with him either.  I hope that I would have had enough character to swallow my hurt feelings and resentments and would have nominated McNish for a Gold Antarctic Medal in gratitude for his skill and hard work, regardless of my personal prejudices.  Without McNish, it is highly likely that Shackleton wouldn't have been alive to pass out silver metals or receive the gold one himself.

     While I'm on the subject of Harry McNish, there is a story which might be somewhat illuminating.  McNish had a beloved cat named Mrs. Chippy that he poured all his affection into.  He loved that cat, but when it was time to kill the last dog, Shackleton decided that the cat would eat too much and so it was also killed.  McNish never forgave Shackleton for this needless cruelty because, after all, how much could a cat eat?**  To me, this small incident is an example of either rigid thinking or outright retaliation and neither speaks well of Shackleton.

     Now, if that wasn't enough, McNish's name was smeared when it was strongly implied that he was taken on the voyage to South Georgia because "he would cause dissension" among the people back on Elephant Island if he were left there and therefore Shackleton needed to "keep him under close supervision."  The indisputable fact is,  McNish's skill and inventiveness was needed to keep the little boat together during the treacherous voyage to South Georgia and he was especially needed to improvise gear for the overland trek once they got there.  Both of those things McNish was able to accomplish brilliantly.

     Lastly, it occurs to me that Shackleton was a man too much in a hurry and made decisions based on the pressures of being the first to do something really famous.  For him, this crossing of Antarctica was to be his supreme moment of fame and glory and he couldn't waste any time in fitting the 'Endurance' up for this new-fangled wireless gear or spend an extra day trying to get funds for a transmitter.  To me Shackleton's expedition has all the earmarks of a slam-bang, ad hoc, rushed-up kind of thing that was cobbled together in too much of a hurry.  I believe it was done this way so that Sir Ernest wouldn't have his glory stolen by some other glory seeker -- "stolen" as had Robert Scott's thunder been stolen by Roald Amundsen.  The way both ships, especially the 'Aurora,' was bought, financed, supplied and manned are good examples of poor and rushed organization.

     (By the way, to be fair to Captain Scott, Scott appreciated the "latest" in the technology of the age, but he failed to appreciate APPROPRIATE technology.  In his eagerness to get to the South Pole first, he did not take the time to test various equipments and discover what would and what would not work. Because of this failure, Scott and his men tasted the bitterness of defeat after finding Amundsen's marker at the Pole (left there 33 days earlier) and then Scott and his men tasted the bitterness of death as they all died on the horrific trek back.  Moral of the story: high technology is good, appropriate technology is better.  Speaking of Scott, he had a very low opinion of Shackleton and had nearly had him dismissed from an earlier expedition.)
 

Conclusions:
Fools have more fun
     Now having written all that, I have to fall back on another Old Saying that I made up several years ago and that is: "Fools Have More Fun."  Yes, without that foolish oversight and that rather bone-headed lack of appreciation for the radio technology that was available to them, the men of the 'Endurance' had to perform prodigious feats of mental and physical strength, endurance and suffering and by means of the most unlikely good luck, bolstered by incredible skill and leadership, they created for themselves and the world, an adventurous yarn that has seldom been equaled.  They had a hugely "fun" adventure that otherwise wouldn't have happened if Shackleton hadn't had a foolish disregard for the importance of two way radio communications.  In that regard, it proves the point I made in another story of mine: Fools Have More Fun.


A Usable Radiotelegraph Receiver and Transmitter Set
circa 1914
     At this point you might be curious regarding the kind of radio equipment that was available at the time and how it was operated.  The receiving set would have had an antenna matching coil, a tuning coil, some kind of a detector and a set of headphones (see the drawing below).  The detector would almost certainly have been an inexpensive, rugged and sensitive cats-whisker galena crystal device very similar to what hobbiests and kids are still building today. The figure below shows how the parts of one of these detectors are arranged:
 
    Of course, a really top notch Marconi receiver might have used one of his Magnetic Detectors (the famous Maggy), but a receiver with a galena crystal detector would have been easier to use, more sensitive and much cheaper.  If you are interested in just how a simple receiver like this works, at the end of this story there is a link to an essay I wrote regarding this technology.


A workable receiver could be as simple as this.
Ironically, the tuning range of a receiver of this era is
almost identical to the AM Broadcast Band and many of
the crystal sets people build today would have worked well.
As simple as a receiver such as this is, you don't simply just turn it on.
Operating this kind of equipment takes specialized knowledge regarding
antennas, finding a "hot spot" on the crystal and tuning the tank and matching coils.
Besides all that, an operator must know the Morse Code.  None of these skills were
widely practiced by photographers of the day.                                                             

     A diagram of a small, but usable transmitter is shown below.  There were commercial transmitters for sale ranging from a few watts output to hundreds of watts output.  The transmitter shown below would have been very similar to the Titanic's emergency transmitter and would have probably been adequate for contacting ships and stations up to a couple hundred miles away.  You may know that there were other ways to produce radio waves, but the spark gap transmitter was, by far, the most common way of doing so.  To this very day, the badge that identifies a US Navy Radioman is a shower of sparks from the old days when Radiomen operated spark gap transmitters.  If you are interested in how one of these transmitters works, there is that link to an essay I wrote regarding this technology at the end of this story.



A low power spark gap transmitter typical of the period.
This design is typical of emergency transmitters and what many amateurs of the period built.
they would typically have an input power of about 50 watts at the distress frequency of 500 KHz.
Such radio equipment requires a high degree of technical knowledge to operate properly.  A radioman
must know how to adjust the interrupter buzzer for low frequency resonance, the spark gap for maximum
signal generation, tune the tank coil to the right frequency, match the antenna coil to the antenna and finally, he
must have the technical knowledge to set up an antenna for maximum radiation of the signal.  Trained radiomen
of the day were good at such tasks, but photographers, not so much.                                                                           

A parting shot
     Although a commercial shipboard transmitter might be very expensive, many educated amateurs built their own transmitters out of commonly available induction coils and other components.  Although an amateur built transmitter would not have been as powerful as a commercial unit, it would have been much better than nothing and it would probably have been adequate for the Expedition's needs.  I will say again, in my mind, there was no excuse for Shackleton not to have outfitted the 'Endurance' with some kind of a radio transmitter.


End of Essay








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Other links to my radio pages that you might enjoy:


If you want to know how the radio waves from the early transmitters were detected,
you might be interested in my essay on

The Coherer and other early radio detectors


If you are interested in knowing more about radio transmitters and a common type of receiver used
on the Titanic all through the Great War, you might be interested in my essay


Radio Technology Circa 1914


If you are interested in learning a little more about basic radio theory, please checkout


An essay on the Armstrong Superheterodyne Radio Principle

If you want to learn something about how crystal radios work, please see the story of

My Heathkit CR-1 high performance crystal radio

If you are thinking of building a crystal radio, perhaps you'd like to read the story about

My high performance crystal radio kit
Please note that my Armstrong "Crystal" Radio project, linked to below,
will greatly outperform this radio and is cheaper and easier to build.


My Armstrong regenerative radio projects

This is the story of my first regenerative radio I built when I was in the 8th grade,

My First Amplified Radio
And my first introduction to the wonders of vacuum tube technology.

Over 50 years later, I built an almost identical radio, but using very cheap and easily available components.

An Armstrong "Crystal" Radio
Amazing performance from a radio that is easier and cheaper to build than almost any crystal radio.
If you want to build a simple radio yourself, this is the one I suggest.
from "The Old Geezer Electrician"

If you are looking to build something with the same great performance of these other regenerative radios,
but looks a whole lot nicer, I would like to suggest


The Geezerola Senior radio


Another Armstrong regenerative radio story, but this one tunes shortwave,

My Regenerative Shortwave Radio.


If there is nothing on your local AM radio worth listening to, perhaps you would like to build
A low power AM transmitter


I have several other stories regarding antique and home made radios you might like to read.

Select Another Really Interesting Radio Story.


or, as a last resort, you can search for something starting at
My Home Page

* By the way folks, when you are as ignorant as I am, it's rather easy to be astounded even by learning about things that many people consider common knowledge.

** I am sure that Mrs. Chippy would have gotten the most ironic pleasure out of eating the dogs that had been killed.  The cat's sense of schadenfreude would have raised the spirits of everybody.