Harold Cottam

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Harold Thomas Cottam
Harold Cottam 1912 April 20 NYT.jpg
Cottam in 1912
Harold Thomas Cottam

(1891-01-27)27 January 1891
Died30 May 1984(1984-05-30) (aged 93)
Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, England
OccupationWireless telegraphist

Harold Thomas Cottam (27 January 1891 – 30 May 1984) was a 21-year-old British wireless operator on the RMS Carpathia who fortuitously happened to receive the distress call from the sinking RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912.[1][2] Cottam's decision to awaken Captain Arthur Henry Rostron and relay Titanic's message in spite of the scepticism of the officer on watch[1] allowed Carpathia to arrive at the scene hours before any other ship and is "credited with saving hundreds of lives."[3]

Early life and career[edit]

Cottam was born on 27 January 1891 in Southwell, Nottinghamshire to William Cottam and his wife Jane. He had four younger brothers.[4]

At 17, Cottam left home to study eleven months at the British College of Telegraphy in London,[5] becoming the school's youngest graduate in 1908.[6] Afterward, he obtained a posting with the Marconi Company as second wireless operator on the RMS Empress of Ireland, sailing between Liverpool and Quebec.[5] At the time, despite being stationed in a variety of locations on ship and land, wireless operators remained employees of the Marconi company.

As a Marconi employee, Cottam was subsequently assigned as a telegraphist at the British post office[7] where, on separate occasions, he met and befriended both Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, who would later become the Titanic's wireless operators.[6] He also served as the wireless operator aboard the SS Medic,[5] on which he made two voyages from Liverpool to Sydney, Australia.[7]

Cottam had been employed by the Marconi Company for three years before joining the crew of the Carpathia in February 1912 as the ship's sole wireless operator.[8]

RMS Titanic disaster[edit]

Initial communications with Titanic[edit]

On the night of 14 April 1912, Cottam was on the Carpathia's bridge reporting the day's communications, thus missing Titanic's first distress calls shortly after midnight.[9] Afterward, he listened to the receiver before going to bed, waiting for a confirmation of that afternoon's communication with the SS Parisian.[7] While waiting, he received messages from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, stating they had private traffic (messages) for Titanic. Having heard Titanic's wireless operator was overworked[10] and because Carpathia was the nearest ship, he decided to "give him a hand."[2]

Roughly ten minutes after Titanic first began transmitting CQD, the wireless distress signal, Cottam relayed Cape Cod's message to Titanic. In reply, he received a distress call from Titanic's wireless officer Jack Phillips:[11] "Come at once. We have struck a berg. It's a CQD, old man."[9] To Cottam's question whether it was serious, Phillips reportedly replied, "Yes it's a CQD old man. Here's the position, report it, and get here as soon as you can."[10]

At the Senate inquiry, Captain Arthur Rostron stated:

"The whole thing was absolutely providential. I will tell you this, that the wireless operator was in his cabin, at the time, not on official business at all, but just simply listening as he was undressing. He was unlacing his boots at the time. He had this apparatus on his ear, and the message came. That was the whole thing. In 10 minutes, maybe he would have been in bed, and we would not have heard the messages."[12]

Cottam took the message and coordinates to the bridge. According to Rostron's Senate testimony, both First Officer Horace Dean and Second Officer James G.P. Bisset were there on watch,[13] although Rostron was reportedly asleep in his cabin at that time. Bisset's book[14] and Cottam's 1956 BBC interview agree that only Dean was on watch, Bisset having already been relieved. Many accounts differ on what happened next. According to Cottam in 1956, the officer on watch was slow to respond to the news.[10] Cottam did not mention this point in either inquiry in 1912, nor in the news story he gave to the New York Times immediately upon landing in New York. Rostron also does not mention it. However, various sources have speculated why Dean might have questioned the report. Some cite CQD's status as an all-purpose distress call, not necessarily signifying loss of life. Others point out that CQ by itself simply means "calling all stations" and it's thus possible there was doubt whether Cottam heard the call correctly. It is also mentioned that, because SOS had been adopted in 1908 (although not widely used by this time), it might have been expected to hear that in a true emergency. Finally, because it had been widely vaunted that Titanic was unsinkable, it could have been reasoned that whatever danger the ship was in could not be critical.[10]

Unable to convince Dean quickly enough to his satisfaction,[10] Cottam rushed down the ladder to the captain's cabin and awakened Rostron. Rostron testified at the Senate inquiry that both Cottam and Dean came to wake him.[13] Rostron immediately "gave the order to turn the ship around,"[13] and then "asked the operator if he was absolutely sure it was a distress signal from the Titanic."[13] Cottam said that he had "received a distress signal from the Titanic, requiring immediate assistance," gave Titanic's position, and said that "he was absolutely certain of the message."[13] Whilst dressing, Rostron set a course for Titanic, and sent for the chief engineer and told "him to call another watch of stokers and make all possible speed to the Titanic, as she was in trouble."[13]

Cottam, meanwhile, messaged the Titanic that Carpathia was "coming as quickly as possible and expect to be there within four hours." Second Officer Bisset writes that Cottam refrained from sending more signals after this, trying to keep the air clear for Titanic's distress signals.[14] However, Cottam testified that while Carpathia sped to Titanic's position, he was kept busy relaying messages from other ships in the area that Phillips was having difficulty hearing because of noise from the sinking ship. He also delivered updates to the bridge.[9]

Final calls and sinking[edit]

Around 1:45 a.m., Cottam received Titanic's final intelligible message: "Come as quickly as possible, old man, the engine room is filling up to the boilers."[15] He replied that "all our boats were ready and we were coming as hard as we could come"[7] but received no further response. The British Wreck Commissioner's inquiry found that other ships in the area continued to hear broken or unintelligible CQD and SOS calls from Titanic after the last message Cottam received, but all signals cut off abruptly at 2:17 a.m., three minutes before Titanic disappeared under the water.[15] Despite receiving no reply, Cottam continued to update Titanic on Carpathia's progress, instructing Phillips to look for their signal rockets.[2]

Rescue and aftermath[edit]

Carpathia arrived at the distress position shortly after 4:00 a.m., approximately an hour and a half after the Titanic went down,[16] and five hours before any other ship. Cottam recalled seeing floating wood and debris at the scene, but no bodies.[10] For the next four and a half hours, the ship took on the 705 survivors from Titanic's 20 lifeboats[17] before setting course for New York.

From the morning of 14 April before the disaster, to the evening of 18 April, when Carpathia arrived in New York, Cottam did not go off duty and slept less than ten hours.[18] He testified to the Senate that the first four days, he worked almost non-stop around the clock, only falling asleep unintentionally once at his desk for three hours Tuesday night.[18] In 1913, Rostron wrote that about 4:30 p.m. Monday 15 April, Carpathia responded to a request for information by RMS Olympic by sending "bare facts" and names of survivors, as well as official messages to the Cunard company, which took until 1:00 a.m. when Carpathia was out of range. He went on, "It was most difficult to get the names even, and the continuous strain at the instrument, the conditions under which the operator was working, and the constant interruptions made it anything but a simple matter."[19]

By either Tuesday or Wednesday evening (testimony of Bride and Cottam differs on this point), Harold Bride, Titanic's rescued junior wireless operator, had come to assist Cottam, in spite of serious foot injuries incurred in the disaster.[20] (Phillips did not survive the sinking.[21]) Cottam and Bride worked together,[21][7] relaying official messages about the disaster and survivors to ships in the area, as well as messages to and from relatives of Titanic passengers. On Rostron's order, they ignored inquiries from journalists.[18] Afterward, both Cottam and Bride stated that the volume of official and passenger messages was so great that they would not have had time to respond to media requests anyway.

Immediately upon Carpathia's arrival in New York, Cottam told the Senate inquiry, he received his employer's permission to meet with the New York Times, which bought his story for $750.[22] The story, "Titanic's "C.Q.D." Caught by a Lucky Fluke", was published the next day.[2]


In April and May 1912, first in New York and then in Washington, D.C., Cottam was called on to testify on multiple occasions before the U.S. Senate inquiry into the disaster.[7] Upon returning to England, he testified on 12 May 1912 before the British Wreck Commissioner's inquiry in London.[8]

Questions to Cottam at the inquiries sought to establish the disaster's timeline of events and standard wireless procedures, as well as wireless operators' obligations in emergency situations. Questioners also cited conflicting news reports and miscommunications from the various ships. They asked numerous questions regarding whether Cottam had communicated with journalists or received instructions from the Marconi Company or one of the shipping lines not to share information he had been instructed to send.[7][8] Pursuant to these questions, Cottam testified that, although he was an employee of the Marconi Company, aboard ship, the captain's orders superseded those of the company.[7]

Findings and criticism[edit]

The Senate inquiry found Cottam did not show "proper vigilance"[23] in handling official information during the Carpathia's return to New York, citing a telegram from Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, to Philip Franklin, who was in charge of the White Star Line's New York office. According to the inquiry's report, although Carpathia's purser gave the message to Cottam the morning of 15 April, it was not sent until the morning of 17 April, via Halifax, despite specific instructions from Rostron via the purser to send the message as early as possible. The report suggested that a previous incident of a different wireless operator using disaster information to their own advantage, together with Cottam's motivation to sell his story to reporters, "subjects the participants to criticism, and the practice should be prohibited."[23] This line of reasoning, among others, came under criticism from other members of the investigating committee, who threatened to quit over Senator William Alden Smith's handling of the investigation.[24] During the course of the investigation, it was revealed that the message had been transmitted with the first bundle of messages sent when Carpathia regained contact with shore.[24][25]

The British Wreck Commissioner's inquiry report made no remark about Cottam beyond noting that the Carpathia received and responded to Titanic's distress call.[26]

Recognition and legacy[edit]

The fact that Cottam had received Titanic's distress calls by chance, while the SS Californian, which was much closer, missed the calls entirely (its wireless operator being asleep) added to the evidence for consistent safety measures regarding wireless and led to the Radio Act of 1912, requiring all ships to man wireless distress frequencies around the clock.[27]

Cottam received a "hero's welcome" when the Carpathia reached New York. For their rescue work, the crew of Carpathia were later awarded medals by the Titanic Survivors Committee.[28] Crew members were awarded bronze medals, officers silver, and Captain Rostron a silver cup and a gold medal, presented by Margaret 'Molly' Brown.[29]

Cottam was modest about his role in the disaster and, outside a few interviews, rarely spoke of it to friends and family, preferring privacy.[10]

He turned down an offer to play himself in the 1958 film A Night to Remember.[10] The role went to Alec McCowen. In 1979, he was portrayed by Christopher Strauli in S. O. S. Titanic.[30]

His crucial role in the disaster was honored in 2013 with a blue plaque on the wall of The Old Ship Inn in Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, where he lived after retiring.[31] The plaque reads:

Harold Cottam
1891 - 1984

'Unsung Hero'
Wireless Operator on RMS Carpathia
On April 15, 1912 received Titanic's call for help.

His diligence and prompt reaction were
instrumental in saving 705 souls

Born in Southwell
Retired to Lowdham in 1958

Lowdham Local History Society[31]

Later life[edit]

Cottam continued to work as a shipboard wireless operator on various ships until 1922, when he married Elsie Jean Shepperson[4] and took a job as a sales representative of the Mini Max Fire Extinguisher company.[29]

Cottam and his wife had four children, William, Jean, Sybil and Angus. Angus died in the late 1960s.[6]

Cottam retired and moved to Lowdham, Nottinghamshire in 1958, where he died in 1984.[31]


  1. ^ a b Associated Press (31 May 1984). Harold Cottam, The Blade
  2. ^ a b c d Cottam, Harold Thomas (19 April 1912). Titanic's "C.Q.D." Caught by a Lucky Fluke, The New York Times
  3. ^ Belcher, David (28 November 2013). "Tracing a Precious Relic of the Titanic". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  4. ^ a b Encyclopedia Titanica (2018). "Harold Thomas Cottam". Encyclopedia Titanica.
  5. ^ a b c "Boy wireless saved them". 19 April 1912. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Aurora Brynn (1998). "Harold Thomas Cottam". Titanic Heroes. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "United States Senate Inquiry: Testimony of Harold T. Cottam". Titanic Inquiry Project. Retrieved 15 April 2012.
  8. ^ a b c "British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry: Testimony of Harold Cottam". Titanic Inquiry Project. Retrieved 15 April 2012.
  9. ^ a b c "Day 15, Testimony of Harold T. Cottam". British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry. Titanic Inquiry Project. 24 May 1912. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h "The reluctant hero who took the Titanic's distress call". 20 October 2013. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  11. ^ The Times (31 May 1984). "Wireless operator in rescue of Titanic survivors". Encyclopedia Titanica.
  12. ^ "United States Senate Inquiry, Day 1, Testimony of Arthur H. Rostron.", "Titanic" disaster, report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, pursuant to S. Res. 283, directing the committee on commerce to investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White Star liner "Titanic.", 19 April 1912
  13. ^ a b c d e f "United States Senate Inquiry, Day 1, Testimony of Arthur H. Rostron.", "Titanic" disaster, report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, pursuant to S. Res. 283, directing the committee on commerce to investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White Star liner "Titanic.", 19 April 1912
  14. ^ a b Bisset, James G. P. (1959). Tramps and Ladies: My Early Years in Steamers. New York: Criterion Books. p. 297.
  15. ^ a b British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry Report: List of Wireless Communication to and from RMS Titanic[1]
  16. ^ "United States Senate Inquiry, Day 1, Testimony of Arthur H. Rostron, cont.", "Titanic" disaster, report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, pursuant to S. Res. 283, directing the committee on commerce to investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White Star liner "Titanic.", 19 April 2012
  17. ^ "Titanic Inquiry Project". Electronic copies of the inquiries into the disaster. Titanic Inquiry Project. 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  18. ^ a b c "United States Senate Inquiry Day 2: Testimony of Harold T. Cottam". Titanic Inquiry Project. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  19. ^ Behe, George. Voices from the Carpathia: Rescuing RMS Titanic (Voices From History) at Google Books
  20. ^ "Harold Bride Recovering". 20 April 1912. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  21. ^ a b "Thrilling story by Titanic's surviving wireless man". 19 April 1912. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  22. ^ "United States Senate Inquiry Day 10: Testimony of Harold T. Cottam". Titanic Inquiry Project. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  23. ^ a b "United States Senate Inquiry: Report". Titanic Inquiry Project. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  24. ^ a b "Threaten to Quit the Titanic Inquiry". New York Times. p. 4. 29 April 1912. Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  25. ^ "Smay Message Not Sent for Two Days". New York Times. p. 5. 5 May 1912. Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  26. ^ "British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry Report on the Loss of the "Titanic." (s.s.)". Titanic Inquiry Project. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  27. ^ "Robot is Made to Pick Up S O S". New York Times. p. 174. 28 February 1937. Retrieved 2 October 2018. Ever since the S. S. Titanic plunged to eternity in 1912, and Operator Harold Cottam of the rescue ship Carpathia picked up the S O S by a lucky twist of fate, radio engineers have sought to design an automatic distress alarm that would screech for help without the necessity of an operator.
  28. ^ "Titanic Survivors honor Capt. Rostron". 30 May 1912. Retrieved 30 September 2018.
  29. ^ a b (22 September 2008). Auction items show role of Notts man in Titanic rescue Archived 2010-10-18 at the Wayback Machine, Nottingham Post
  30. ^ "S.O.S. Titanic Full Cast & Crew". Internet Movie Database.
  31. ^ a b c (November 2013). Titanic Hero gets recognition in Notts Archived 2018-09-29 at the Wayback Machine, Our Nottinghamshire