Marconi’s “gadget”

In today’s interconnected world where communication can be constant and relentless, when it seems we can be in touch with anyone, anywhere at any time, it’s difficult to think ourselves into an era when we couldn’t (or didn’t want to).

MarconiThe Italian experimenter Marconi was not the “inventor” of radio, as is sometimes believed, and such a claim was never made by Marconi himself. The pioneering research into the phenomena of electro-magnetic pulsations or “waves” was done by scientists of many nations, including German, Italian, French, British, and American physicists; but Marconi had quite properly patented transmitting and receiving apparatus of his own design in 1896, and formed a company to sell the apparatus and the idea, at first specially for the transmission of messages over water – that is, principally for use in ships – in which, in the nature of things, wire-telegraphy was impossible.

It was for this reason that the name “wireless” came into use, as a dramatic description of a new kind of electric telegraph which could send signals by Morse code between ships out of sight of one another at sea, or between ships and the shore, far beyond visual or normally audible range.

Part of a chart illustrating the Morse Code alphabet.

For centuries seamen had been accustomed to being isolated from the rest of the world when they were at sea, with no method of communicating with other vessels or with the shore except by flag signals or semaphore or signal lamps within a visual range of, say, five miles at most, or by siren blasts, megaphones, and leather-throated singing out within directly audible range.

Signaling with flags.

But, in its early stages, wireless seemed of little use in the mercantile marine, in the everyday working of ships at sea. It was envisaged as an emergency method of sending or receiving signals of distress, which happily are very rare. In other words, it was only “a gadget”.

Cigarette card image of the Cunard ship RMS Caronia.The Caronia [in 1907] carried one wireless operator, who was a former Post Office landline telegraphist. He pottered about in the daytime and slept soundly throughout the night, and nobody paid much attention either to him or to his “fantastic instruments”. The name “wireless telegraphy” – also known as “marconigram signalling” – indicated to our minds something newfangled and unreliable, and not of much practical use.
‘Tramps and Ladies, My Early Years in Steamers’, Sir James Bisset with P.R. Stephensen, Angus & Robertson, 1959.

Marconi – cigarette card, Famous Men series by Carreras, 1927.
Graphics from ‘Brown’s Signalling’, 1954.
Caronia – cigarette card, Merchant Ships of the World, W.D. & H.O. Wills, c. 1923.


The Spoils of War

Cigarette card image of the Cunard ship RMS Berengaria.In the 1920s, and into the 30s, British and American shipping companies were able to boast that they operated the biggest trans-Atlantic passenger liners afloat. It was a source of national pride. They didn’t advertise that some of them had been built in Germany for the Hamburg-America Line before the outbreak of world war and handed over to the victors as part of the peace settlement. Cunard’s Berengaria, which had sailed under the German flag for over a year as Imperator, was one.

C.R. Vernon Gibbs takes up the story in his book ‘Passenger Liners of the Western Ocean’, (1952).

[Imperator] began a trio of Hamburg-American ‘giants’ which remained the world’s largest liners until 1935. The others were Vaterland (afterwards the United States Line’s Leviathan), and Bismarck (later the White Star Majestic). The subsequent vessels were given extra beam to improve watertight sub-divisions in the light of the Titanic disaster.

Work on Imperator started in August 1910. The ship was launched in May 1912 and began her maiden voyage thirteen months later. The Ambrose Channel up to New York had been deepened just in time to take her and she worked from Cuxhaven [at the mouth of the river Elbe], not Hamburg. A novel detail was a gilded figurehead in the form of a German eagle, but this proved a nuisance, was often damaged and finally removed.


Imperator c. 1913, before the figurehead was removed.

Imperator and her consorts were the first big German turbine liners and nothing was spared to make them the most luxurious ships afloat. The after funnel was a dummy. Uptakes of the other two were split and rejoined above the boat deck so as to avoid passing through the dining saloon.

The beginning of August 1914 found her lying safely in the Elbe, where she stayed until surrendered to the victorious Allied Powers. She ferried American troops homewards between May and August 1919 and was then laid up at New York, to be transferred to Great Britain the following February. The Cunard Line operated her on the Southampton route throughout 1920 and needed the ship to replace the lost Lusitania, but was in no hurry to buy. The Bismarck was also for sale and the only possible purchasers for either were the Cunard and White Star companies. To avoid outbidding each other, the Cunard and White Star bought Imperator and Bismarck jointly from the Government in February 1921.

The Cunard sent Imperator to the Tyne for reconditioning and conversion to oil fuel. She returned to Southampton with her speed improved to run alongside Mauretania and Aquitania, clearing the port as Berengaria* for the first time on April 16th, 1922.

Cunard White Star liner Berengaria, ex-Imperator.

Postcard of Cunard ship Berengaria, ex-Imperator, in drydock at Southampton.

The ex-Imperator completed her last voyage in March 1938 and was sold for breaking up at Jarrow six months later. The final stages of dismantling took place at Rosyth [Scotland] in 1946.

Postcard of Cunard ship Berengaria, ex-Imperator

*Berengaria, after whom the ship was named, was the wife of King Richard I of England – Richard the Lionheart.

The Navy gets its wings

During the late war [World War One], the Navy acquired its wings with the formation of the Royal Naval Air Service, which corresponded to the the Royal Flying Corps ashore. But these two separate forces were merged into the Royal Air Force, and for many years a dual control of the aircraft attached to the Royal Navy caused a great deal of muddle and misunderstanding. The aircraft were supplied by the Air Ministry. While they were embarked in H.M. Ships they were under the control of the Navy, but when disembarked they were commanded and administered by the R.A.F. The pilot personnel was 70 per cent Naval, while all the observers were Naval officers and men. In 1939 the Admiralty assumed control of the Fleet Air Arm.

Image from cigarette card of H.M.S. Eagle, with Fairey Flycatcher biplane.The first of our ships built to carry aircraft was H.M.S. Eagle, which was under construction as a battleship for the Chilean Navy when war was declared in 1914, and was bought by the British Government as she lay on the stocks in 1917. She is of 22,600 tons, but carries only 21 aircraft. The aircraft in this picture is a Fairey Flycatcher.

World War Two Royal Nay aircarft carrier Furious. Image from a cigarette card.Three heavy ships, of 22,500 tons each, were converted later into aircraft carriers – Furious, carrying 33 aeroplanes and completed in 1925; Courageous, carrying 48, completed in 1928, and Glorious, carrying 48, completed in 1930.

H.M.S. Hermes was the first ship to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier. She is of 10,850 tons, and carries only 15 aeroplanes. But design has advanced rapidly, and the more recent ships – Ark Royal and her successors – have accommodation for 70 aeroplanes.

HMS_sharkIn this picture a Blackburn Shark torpedo-bomber aircraft is seen taking off from the flight deck of H.M.S. Courageous. The wire stretching across the deck in the foreground is an “arrester” which catches on to a hook under the aircraft as it lands. The Courageous carries aircraft of various types adapted for torpedo-bombing, fighting and spotter-reconnaissance work.

HMS_RecPlaneThis shows a Fairey III F reconnaissance ‘plane taking off from H.M.S. Courageous. An aeroplane takes off and lands into the wind, the direction of the steam jet seen coming from the bows of the ship indicating to the navigator when the ship is steaming dead into the wind. The aircraft carrier Courageous belongs to what is admitted to be the Navy’s ugliest class of vessels.

Image from a cigarette card of a WWII Walrus aircraft in flight.The most popular machine in the Fleet Air Arm is the Walrus, an amphibian biplane with the propeller behind the cockpit – a “pusher.” This is essentially a reconnaissance plane, and as it is a very sturdy type of flying-boat it is very seaworthy. It is used chiefly on patrol duty on trade routes, for intercepting ships, spotting submarines and floating mines, and carrying out bombing attacks if necessary.

The Skua is a larger aircraft, a low-winged monoplane, and fighters are usually Gloucester [sic] Gladiators, small biplanes with a very high climbing speed and the utmost manoeuvrability.

Gloster Gladiator

Edited from ‘The Royal Navy’, Wm. Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., June 1941, and cigarette cards from 1936 and 1938. Aircraft design advanced so quickly during this period that the Fairey IIIF and Blackburn Shark had been withdrawn from frontline carrier service by the outbreak of war. Curiously, the 1941 book doesn’t admit that Courageous was sunk back in 1939, although it does mention the loss of H.M.S. Hood in May.

Virginia plane

U S S West VirginiaI bought these two old snapshots from the same online trader although, oddly, they were offered for sale several months apart. They could have been taken on the same day by the same person but were not printed on the same photographic paper. They feature a seaplane, which I didn’t recognise, and the name ‘U.S.S. West Virginia’, which of course I did.

VirginiaPlane2sIn the period between World Wars, American battleships, and those of other navies, carried observation aircraft – ‘spotter planes’ – fitted with floats. Launched by catapult from the deck, they landed beside the ship when their mission was over and were retrieved by crane. This was skilled, dangerous work and easier said than done.

The original images were obviously personal snaps taken by one or more of the West Virginia’s crew, not the work of a Navy photographer, but after a quick rinse through software they scrubbed up looking like this



I’ll admit that U.S. Navy aircraft of the 1920s are not my strong point. In my defence, I can’t possibly know everything and that’s why we have search engines. I discovered two things
(1) there are more to sort through than you might imagine
(2) as all you aviation experts already know, this is a Vought OU-1 – standard equipment in the U.S. Navy for ten years from 1923 and an aircraft with a couple of notable firsts to its credit.

In 1924 it was the first plane to be catapulted off a battleship at night and, five years later, the first plane to dock with a dirigible (airship) in flight! “Why?”, I hear you ask. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The San Diego Air and Space Museum have several better quality images on their Flickr site and you can find a good photograph of USS Pennsylvania with two planes mounted aft on this well researched page about the short history of catapult aviation.

Two mysteries remain – the location of the photographs (if you can help with that, please leave a comment) and how did these personal souvenirs from an American battleship end up in New Zealand?

The West Virginia found fame later in life when she was sunk at Pearl Harbour, salvaged, rebuilt, and put back into the fight. She was in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender in 1945.


A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Two men can be seen on the superstructure, upper center. The mast of the USS Tennessee is beyond the burning West Virginia.
USN/AP via rarehistoricalphotos

Queen of the Sea

The cruise season is underway again in the southern hemisphere. Just thinking about this annual invasion of floating palaces made me nostalgic for the time (not so long ago) when cruise ships were much smaller and looked like ships, not multi-storied apartment blocks on a barge.

A brief search through the files came up with one example that was based at Southampton, England, and very popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Reina del Mar (1955) from a postcard.

The Reina del Mar wasn’t even built for cruising but evolved into the trade. Launched in 1955 as a passenger/cargo vessel, she spent her first eight years sailing between Liverpool and the west coast of South America for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, at a loss. The route, like many others at the time, lost business to airlines and jet travel. The company reluctantly decided to withdraw her from service in 1963 and she was chartered for cruising by the Travel Savings Association, a partnership headed by South African millionaire Max Wilson. This episode deserves a page of its own and is well explained here.

The Reina’s new role called for an extensive refit.

Reina del Mar in 1964 with TSA logo on funnel. Card by J. Arthur Dixon.

1964. The Reina del Mar in TSA livery after her refit. Postcard by J. Arthur Dixon.

The cargo holds were converted to cabin space and the superstructure extended forward above them to form the Coral Lounge, claimed to be the biggest public room on any ship then afloat. The box-like structure between the bridge and the funnel was a cinema, perhaps not the best place to put it. Every movement of the ship could be felt at that height, making it difficult to concentrate on a movie when the Reina was “on a roll” (and not in a good way). The postcard above was sent from Gibraltar in 1964. The cryptic message on the back says –
“11.45 p.m. Monday Oct. 26
….as you can see we are on a Med. cruise. 1st stop Gibraltar at 2 p.m. 2nd stop Naples Thurs., Palermo Sat., Lisbon Nov 4th. The passage Friday very rough, alright now.”
Seems like the Bay of Biscay lived up to its reputation on Friday (not a good movie night). It isn’t always like that.

Sadly, the TSA organisation collapsed a year later but not before Wilson had given the British cruise “industry” a much needed shake-up. One of his partners, the Union Castle Line, took over the Reina del Mar charter and she appeared in company colours soon afterwards.

The Union Castle cruise ship 'Reina del Mar' in Grand Harbour, Malta, c. 1971

Grand Harbour, Malta. 1971.

Union Castle eventually bought the Reina in 1973, just in time for an oil crises that saw fuel prices quadruple. This made the company’s only cruise ship uneconomic and she was scrapped in 1975 – at 20 years old. From that point on cruise ships would be built using the economy of scale to keep fares affordable. More passengers on more decks.

Mal de Mer

Cunard liner Caronia, Atlantic ocean, 1907.


When we were 300 miles to the southwestward of Ireland, we ran into a storm, and for a few hours the liner pitched and rolled.

As the seas rose, and the Caronia began “shoving her nose into it”, a few of the less hardy souls on the promenade-deck made for the lee rail and began quietly “feeding the fishes”. Among them were a man and his wife. The husband was affected only slightly by Nautical Nausea, but his wife was suffering from intense equilibristic disturbances. He was standing by, holding her hand, and doing everything that he could to lessen her misery with comforting remarks.

Along came a fellow-passenger, one of those hearty characters who believe that ocean travel is at its best in rough seas. It was his boast that he always did forty times around the deck before breakfast, and ate four square meals a day in every kind of weather. He had a nodding acquaintance with the couple at the rail, and, sizing up the situation as one that required a little pep talk, he roared, “Good morning. Good morning. Lovely weather, isn’t it? I’m sorry to see that your wife has such a weak stomach.”

This was too much for the husband, who roared back indignantly and proudly, “She hasn’t a weak stomach. She’s throwing farther than anybody else!”
‘Tramps and Ladies, My Early Years in Steamers’, Sir James Bisset and P.R. Stephensen, 1960.

Cruising Fiordland

The remote region of New Zealand’s South Island covered by the Fiordland National Park has been a tourist attraction since the 19th century. Then, as now, the most comfortable way of seeing it was by cruise ship, or steamer excursion as it was known then. The sounds were visited by many ships, especially in summer. S.s. Waikare was one of the most popular.

Milfor art

Mitre Peak. Of the many beautiful Sounds of New Zealand, Milford Sound is the most famous. It is situated on the west coast of the South Island, and the scenery found there equals any in the world. Many great mountains slope to its shores, one of the most important being Mitre Peak (6,000 feet high).
Postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons, c. 1911. Artist A. H. Fullwood.

Manawatu Standard, 28 November 1901.
SUMMER EXCURSION To The WEST COAST SOUNDS BY S.S. WAIKARE, LEAVING DUNEDIN on MONDAY 13th JANUARY, 1902. For Patterson’s Inlet, Halfmoon Bay (Stewart Island) thence via Preservation Inlet, Dusky Sound, Wet Jacket Arm, Breaksea and Doubtful Sounds, Crooked Arm, Hall’s Arm, Smith, Bradshaw, Thompson and George Sounds to MILFORD SOUND, Returning to Dunedin on 27th January. FARE: £15 and Upwards. For full particulars apply to offices of UNION STEAM SHIP COMPANY OF N.Z., Ltd.

Milford mono

New Zealand Herald 19 Jan 1909.
Dunedin, Monday. The Waikare left Port Chalmers on Saturday on her annual excursion to the West Coast Sounds. A large number of excursionists arrived during the afternoon by the Ulimaroa from Sydney, and joined the party, which included ladies and gentlemen from all parts of the Dominion. After visiting Preservation Inlet, the Waikare will call in at Dusky Sound, Wet Jacket Arm, Doubtful Sound, Bradshaw Sound, Hall’s Arm, Thomson, George, and Milford Sounds, and return via Stewart Island.


George Sound


Wet Jacket Arm

(Per Press Association.)

DUNEDIN, Jan. 4, [1910]. The Union Steamship Company received word this evening that the s.s. Waikare had struck a rock in Dusky Sound at noon. The vessel is reported to be badly damaged, and the engine room and stokehold are full of water to the water’s level. She was beached on Stop Island, passengers and crew being safely landed on the beach of the mainland.
Arrangements are being made to despatch the s.s. Moura as early as possible to-morrow for the scene of the wreck.