Wireless radio was a major breakthrough in communications technology. To send or transmit by wireless telegraphy, electromagnetic waves are used to send and receive information in the form of Morse code messages. 

Guglielmo Marconi (1847-1937) did not invent the wireless, but he applied certain improvements to the existing devices through experimentation and made the systems practical. At the turn of the 20th century, it was thought that there was no future in wireless telegraphy. However, Marconi proved them all to be wrong, when he astonished the world with the first radio message ever sent across the Atlantic Ocean on December 12, 1901. The transmitted message originated at Poldhu on the southwest tip of England and was received by Marconi at St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. One year later, he set up a permanent station in South Wellfleet, Massachusetts linking England with the United States. 

At this time, Marconi shifted his attention to the practical and usefulness form of the communication. He envisioned ship to shore communication, feeling that this would aid distressed ships at sea and help naval operations, for governments and commercial business, as opposed to taking on the established land systems. This was big business! In developing a new form of communication, Marconi was thwarted in his attempts, as people said, it was not worth the expense of putting it on ships. 

During this time, lightships had these apparatuses installed and the Nantucket Shoals Station was one of them. In service since 1854, the Nantucket Lightship was considered one of the most dangerously located lightships in the world. It was located forty plus miles off the shores of Nantucket Island and 200 miles east of New York City. Complicated problems arose in such a location, because of the inclement weather; the open sea, gales, and fog. It’s located right in the middle of the main shipping lanes. 

Its beacon is the first to be seen, when sailing to the U.S. from Europe. In some cases, vessels head straight for the lightship, before making the southwest swing toward New York City. The lightship crew was constantly challenged by the loneliness, the weather and being a sitting duck to potential collisions. All of this was to protect shipping from dangerous shoals, graveyard too many.

When the Nantucket Relief Lightship #58 sprang a leak during a raging gale, the crew resorted to bailing in an attempt to control the situation, while waiting for a ship to pass nearby. Unbelievably, on that Sunday, December 10, 1905, not one single ship passed. As the water continued to gush – it appeared that the ship was not going to make it.

The call was made, to send assistance as soon as possible and to send aid from anywhere. At this time, SOS (“Save Our Ship” or “May Day”) had not been established, so the radio operator on board simply tapped out, “HELP”.  The United States Naval Torpedo Station on Goat Island in Newport received the transmission, marking the first time a distress signal was ever sent via the wireless off the U.S. coast. 

Boston, Massachusetts was notified and the gunboat Hist was dispatched from Newport. However, she developed mechanical problems, and was forced to return to port. The lightship tender, Azalea departed New Bedford to lend assistance. Arriving upon the scene in the dark of that Monday morning, the Azalea could not get a line aboard, because of the heavy seas. When the seas eventually subsided, a line was attached to the lightship and a tow was under way. Before getting half way to the mainland, the lightship started to sink. The crew of thirteen boarded a small boat and rowed over to the Azalea just in the nick of time, as the Nantucket Relief Lightship #58, which had weathered many a storm, gave one great heave and plunged beneath the waves.

This story could have had a tragic ending, such as the unfortunate incident which happened in these same waters a little after 10:00 AM on May 15, 1934. In a thick fog, the 47,000 ton Olympic of the White Star Line, struck Lightship #117, shearing it in half with only four men surviving out of  the crew of eleven.  

Today, an LNB (Large Navigational Buoy) has replaced the lightship, as the United States Coast Guard continues to protect shipping from the dangerous and treacherous shoals off the coast of Nantucket. 

Countless small and large vessels rely heavily on the being able to send a distress signal. But, a strange coincidence happened with the usage of the word “wireless” in 20th century. It was used at the beginning of the 1900’s and then during last five years of that century, when the major phone companies described all cell phone service as “wireless” in their promotional campaigns to distinguish from the land line, which was a typical home phone. The latter is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

Brian Stinson

Newport researcher, author, historian and lecturer for 30 years, Newport Brian Stinson graduated from St. Michael’s and Rogers High Schools. He graduated from Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, NH, where he was the sports editor for the school’s information office sports and alumni publications.
Upon graduation, Stinson worked in the Boston financial markets as a correspondent and quality analyst and produced the 101 Colleges of New England Video Series, which was distributed to high schools and libraries across the country.
He has been published in various publications including The Newport Daily News, Old Rhode Island, the sailing publication WindCheck and was the research historian for Newport Life Magazine for a decade.
Stinson authored Newport Notables and was the head researcher for Rockwell Stensrud’s Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639 – 1969 published in 1997 and 2007 respectively – both were done under the auspices of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. He was a researcher and lecturer during Newport’s 375th Anniversary.
Additionally, Stinson has been a regular contributor to Newport This Week and authored Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims to Fame. Charleston, SC (The History Press), 2018.