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How the Sinking of the Titanic Sparked a Century of Radio Improvements

samzenpus posted about 2 years ago | from the do-better-next-time dept.

Communications 99

joshuarrrr writes "When the RMS Titanic scraped an iceberg on the night of 14 April 1912, its wireless operators began sending distress calls on one of the world's most advanced radios: a 5-kilowatt rotary spark transmitter that on a clear night could send signals from the middle of the Atlantic to New York City or London. What the radio operators lacked, however, were international protocols for wireless communications at sea. At the time, US law only required ships to have one operator on board, and he was usually employed by the wireless companies, not the ship itself. On the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, IEEE Spectrum looks at how the tragedy accelerated the improvement of communications at sea."

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99 comments

NYC did pick up the signals (5, Informative)

Billly Gates (198444) | about 2 years ago | (#39653743)

Most of New York was asleep and the listeners were in disbelief. Thats how it hit the newstands the following morning.

Fact of the matter is only one vessel was in those treacherous waters as many sailors avoided the ice field.

Re:NYC did pick up the signals (5, Informative)

WaffleMonster (969671) | about 2 years ago | (#39654023)

Fact of the matter is only one vessel was in those treacherous waters as many sailors avoided the ice field.

SS Californian was close enough to see her emergency flares.

SS Californian warned her (2, Interesting)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#39654727)

Indeed, the Californian sent a warning before the collision and the Titanic's captain ignored it. The only real injustice was that the owners should have gone to prison for corporate manslaughter because they insisted on him sailing at night in icy waters. The Californian had stopped.

The root cause of the Titanic disaster was, in fact, free market capitalism. (The people who down-mod things they disagree with, instead of responding to them, may now proceed as usual.)

Re:SS Californian warned her (5, Informative)

Fusselwurm (1033286) | about 2 years ago | (#39654865)

Indeed, the Californian sent a warning before the collision and the Titanic's captain ignored it.

(emphasis mine)

Not quite. Actually, the Titanic's radio operator ignored it, as well as a previous warning by the Mesaba [wikipedia.org], being busy transmitting/receiving the passengers' private messenges.

Re:SS Californian warned her (1)

stud9920 (236753) | about 2 years ago | (#39655125)

You see, the Wireless is a series of tubes.

Re:SS Californian warned her (0)

Fusselwurm (1033286) | about 2 years ago | (#39655231)

No, but the male mind is, or so I've been told.

Re:SS Californian warned her (1)

mcgrew (92797) | about 2 years ago | (#39660617)

AFAIK you couldn't transmit without tubes untl transistors were invented.

Re:SS Californian warned her (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39662151)

"AFAIK you couldn't transmit without tubes untl transistors were invented."

    Idiot. Transmitting by spark was commonplace for at least 15 years before transmitting tubes came into use. And as for transistors, try getting a few megawatts out of one. And as for reliability, our EMI 1000 one kilowatt parallel-transistor driver was, by far, the most unreliable component in our otherwise mostly tube chain.

Re:SS Californian warned her (1)

Tore S B (711705) | about 2 years ago | (#39691105)

Actually, since the spark-gap transmitter was not tunable, it's more accurate to say that in 1912, wireless was "a tube".

Re:SS Californian warned her (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39655201)

The problem with blaiming the owners is that after you dole out blaim to the captain there is very little left to be assigned to anyone else.

Re:SS Californian warned her (3, Insightful)

argStyopa (232550) | about 2 years ago | (#39657369)

I understand that you have a meta-complaint and/or political viewpoint that suffuses your worldview, thus everything gets translated through that filter. Granted.

But:
First you say that the CAPTAIN ignored the warning. Then you say the OWNERS should have gone to prison for "insisting" on him sailing at night in icy waters.

Is there proof or merely inference that the owners directly ordered the captain to make this call? You might say that "capitalist" motives caused the captain/owners to make bad judgement calls, but to then hyperbolize that into a blanket indictment against free-market capitalism seems at the very least specious.

I know that my mere questioning of your point has already probably painted me as a 'crony capitalist' and thus you've probably stopped reading. But your logic escapes me; by that same token Midas' story was also a criticism of 'free market capitalism' long before such was even formulated as an holistic concept.

Doesn't it ipso-facto follow from your assertion that people in socialist, monarchist, or other (non free-market) economic systems are contrariwise immune to the all the sorts of motivations that could make a captain of a huge ocean liner make errors in judgement? (If it logically was the "fault" of free-market capitalism, removing it from the situation would have made the accident impossible.)

Re:SS Californian warned her (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 2 years ago | (#39661417)

Is there proof or merely inference that the owners directly ordered the captain to make this call?

That is the wrong standard to apply.

The question is whether the owners rewarded people who made calls like this, and whether they punished people who made calls like this when it didn't result in disaster.

Suppose I hire 100 people to do somewhat dangerous work. I supply safety equipment and issue orders that it be used. However, the safety equipment tends to slow the workers down. Then every week I fire and replace the 3 slowest workers. I do not punish anybody for not using safety equipment. Then a disaster happens, and somebody is severely injured and was found to not be wearing their safety equipment. I claim innocence, since I supplied the equipment and even ordered people to wear it. However, the fact is that I created the work environment where nobody wears the equipment through how I chose to enforce policies.

Lax safety standards don't come about because bosses tell people to cut corners. They happen because bosses do not punish people for cutting corners (either failing to detect problems, or failing to take action).

People like you are why we can't have nice things. (0)

drainbramage (588291) | about 2 years ago | (#39657513)

It is so good to know that no communist, no socialist, no dictator has ever, ever, ever made a bad decision.

Re:SS Californian warned her (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39659049)

In other news: In April 1986, the people operating the Chernobyl nuclear power plant went ahead with a test they should have had the balls to cancel, but the Powers That Be (tm) were adamant about getting the results of the test, so the test was conducted against the better judgment of people who actually knew what was at stake, and everyone knows how that turned out.
The root cause of the Chernobyl disaster was free market capit... Oh wait...

Re:SS Californian warned her (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39662511)

"The root cause of the Titanic disaster was, in fact, free market capitalism."

    True. Regulations on international shipping mushroomed after the Titanic disaster, including lifeboat requirements, radio monitoring, rules of the road, establishment of shipping lanes, and, probably most important, International requirements for Marine Insurance, which is very heavily regulated, and probably the least corrupt branch of insurance. For some fun reading, check out Admiralty Law.
    For the best example of Free-Market capitalism in action, check out Somali Piracy. (Note that I don't blame the Somalis for this; their traditional fishing livelihood had been destroyed by the International fishing industry. Somehow, they had to find a way to eat. Free-Market capitalism only works in the most primitive of societies. But then, there is always the alternative- Feudalism.)

Re:NYC did pick up the signals (1)

bemymonkey (1244086) | about 2 years ago | (#39656517)

I still don't get why they didn't respond. The documentaries I've seen pretty much said the captain asked what color the flares were each time he was told about them, and then did nothing. Was there something wrong with the flares' colors?

Oh, and why were the watertight compartments open at the top? What purpose did that serve?

Re:NYC did pick up the signals (2)

wickedskaman (1105337) | about 2 years ago | (#39658717)

They didn't imagine the listing of the ship would cause the water to spill over. They figured a few feet below the waterline was safe enough. After the Titanic sank they eventually requires watertight compartments to traverse the width of the horizontally to allow water to flood evenly up to a certain point, preventing complete sinking and allowing for rescue.

Re:NYC did pick up the signals (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39658981)

I still don't get why they didn't respond. The documentaries I've seen pretty much said the captain asked what color the flares were each time he was told about them, and then did nothing. Was there something wrong with the flares' colors?

These days we think that any flare == distress signal but back then they were used for a lot of mundane things like ships of the same company identifying themselves to each other at night. Flare colour was important because it told you the intent (and possibly the identity) of the launcher.

Re:NYC did pick up the signals (1)

k6mfw (1182893) | about 2 years ago | (#39658015)

from http://forums.qrz.com/showthread.php?341809-The-sinking-of-the-Titanic/page2 [qrz.com] (they're getting overloaded with T discussions) W1YW wrote, "You know the story at that point - the 'two Harolds' as heros; junior Marconi employee David Sarnoff claiming picking up the distress signal (legend but not true; he was one of several ops working the key in NYC). No pun intended, wireless equipped shipping became a legally required 'killer app' for Marconi. What ensued was a company that rocketed in 1912-1913, much like, say, Facebook today. There was even a MAJOR scandal in the UK over insider info and trading of Marconi stock, that is very famous in the UK, but unknown here."

Thanks a lot Cameron (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39653783)

If I see another story about the Titanic, I'm going to crack my skull open with the largest block of ice I can find.

Re:Thanks a lot Cameron (0)

sjames (1099) | about 2 years ago | (#39654175)

So one time Randy Beaman was playing with his toy boats in the tub and when he dropped an ice cube in, it sank, so he called it the Titanic.

Pix or it didn't happen!

It's not Cameron (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39656429)

It's the 100th anniversary, or thereabouts.

Cameron just capitalized on it.

Re:Thanks a lot Cameron (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39666205)

Then your brains will leak out ... but your heart will go on ... and on!

I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39653785)

After all, if not for government regulations, the ship would naturally have had enough lifeboats and surely the others would have responded to radio and rockets on their own.

If only those mean governments had not interfered with the free market, then Astor would have saved us from the Great Depression.

And that would prevent World War 2. Or super-intelligent time-traveling cockroaches. One of the two.

Re:I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39653865)

Obvious Troll is much too obvious.

Re:I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39654329)

After all, if not for government regulations, the ship would naturally have had enough lifeboats and surely the others would have responded to radio and rockets on their own.

The ship was designed to carry enough lifeboats for everyone, but the company didn't fit them because regulations didn't require it. If I remember correctly, the Titanic was the first big ship to sink where the passengers did stand a decent chance of survival in lifeboats precisely because of radio; if you'd sunk twenty years earlier the odds of being picked up by another ship were small even if you had enough lifeboats because the other ships would have no idea of where you were.

Re:I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (1)

wickedskaman (1105337) | about 2 years ago | (#39658927)

You might also recall the Titanic was reported to have made an erie sound as it went below the water. I believe it was described as a "WOOSH!"

Re:I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (1)

dwye (1127395) | about 2 years ago | (#39668467)

Whalers lost thousands of miles from any landfall were able to navigate to South America decades before. IIRC, Captain Bligh had a lifeboat about the same size as the ones on the Titanic, even earlier, and made his way home. You do not need your lifeboat to be picked up at sea, that just makes it easier. OTOH, there was almost no chance for the passengers left swimming, unless lucky enough to be fished out of the water by one of the lifeboats.

Lifeboats (5, Informative)

mosb1000 (710161) | about 2 years ago | (#39654337)

Incidentally, the Titanic was carrying more [wikipedia.org] lifeboats than the regulations required at the time.

Re:Lifeboats (1)

tlhIngan (30335) | about 2 years ago | (#39659229)

Incidentally, the Titanic was carrying more lifeboats than the regulations required at the time.

Just a bit more. But the regulations didn't require everyone to be able to get in a lifeboat (i.e., it wasn't 1:1 - the ratios still dependend on which class you were in - it was an enormously complex formula).

Ironically, the White Star Line did outfit Titanic's sister ship with enough lifeboats to meet 1:1, except there was a shortage, so they used whatever they could find, including untested collapsible ones they acquired surplus from the military.

Of course, I'm wondering if 1:1 is enough, as Costa Concordia has shown that once a ship lists enough, it can render an entire side of lifeboats useless as they can't be launched.

Re:Lifeboats (2)

Nimey (114278) | about 2 years ago | (#39659299)

Out in the open ocean if a ship's listing that much, it's going to sink in a couple minutes or less /anyway/.

Costa Concordia was able to list over so far only because it was already aground.

Many counterexamples. . . (1)

dtmos (447842) | about 2 years ago | (#39660987)

. . . but consider just one, the SS Flying Enterprise [wikipedia.org], that sank in 1952 in the North Atlantic. While a freighter, it carried ten passengers, and spent 13 days listing from 45 to 60 degrees to port -- a list that would surely have prevented any lifeboats from being launched -- before finally going down.

There are many other examples -- the Yorktown [wikipedia.org] comes to mind, although naval vessels should probably be a separate discussion -- but the point is that it doesn't take much of a list to render lifeboats unlaunchable: Fifteen degrees will do.

Re:I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39655671)

It's easy. The market is self-correcting. The passengers who drowned on the Titanic would naturally take their business elsewhere to another company who did provide enough lifeboats.

Re:I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (0)

Nimey (114278) | about 2 years ago | (#39657455)

I can easily see the libertarians reaching for something like "if the government hadn't interfered and restricted competition, blah blah blah, Titanic wouldn't have had so many people aboard, etc. etc." or in some other way finding a creative way in which this wouldn't have happened if not for the government. It's happened to me before.

Jesus is the answer == the untrammeled Free Market is the answer.

Re:I wonder how libertarians blame the regulations (1)

operagost (62405) | about 2 years ago | (#39657557)

Clearly, Chernobyl did not have enough regulations. If the Soviet Union had just been a little more socialist, the accident would not have happened. Because of the USSR's laissez-faire capitalism, Pripyat is still uninhabitable.

Just goes to show you . . . (5, Insightful)

Linsaran (728833) | about 2 years ago | (#39653815)

People never do anything until someone gets hurt. Despite people predicting these sort of dangers, no one could actually get the government to step in and enforce communication standards until someone died from it. I'm sure there are similar examples throughout history, when cars first came to be on the road for example. Or various accidents at factories around the world.

It's an interesting bit of human nature, people are lazy, and if they can avoid doing something they usually will.

Re:Just goes to show you . . . (3, Interesting)

theIsovist (1348209) | about 2 years ago | (#39654309)

, no one could actually get the government to step in and enforce communication standards until someone died from it

Really? This is based of anecdotal evidence. This statement means nothing. I can think of many ways that the government has regulated things that haven't caused death, but that's as good as saying that they haven't. Here's a more pressing question - at what point should a government step in to regulate something to prevent death. if it prevents the death of 10 people? 100 people? 1000 people? Is there greater benefit in not regulating as the number of people who are killed pales in comparison to the trouble that regulation would cause? Accidents will happen, people will die. Not everything is done without reason. A lot of it is playing the odds, and sometimes, people lose.

Re:Just goes to show you . . . (1)

Mr. Underbridge (666784) | about 2 years ago | (#39654503)

People never do anything until someone gets hurt. Despite people predicting these sort of dangers, no one could actually get the government to step in and enforce communication standards until someone died from it. I'm sure there are similar examples throughout history, when cars first came to be on the road for example. Or various accidents at factories around the world.

First, it's easy to play Monday morning QB and second-guess every missed opportunity as if anyone would have seen such things coming. Absent a crystal ball, most examples of this phenomenon are from people who didn't understand the risks or didn't see the risk factors, not from people who chose to ignore them. Minus the factories part, and that's not laziness either, but cold-blooded cost/benefit analysis in an era before OSHA.

It's an interesting bit of human nature, people are lazy, and if they can avoid doing something they usually will.

And they should. We could spend the entire GDP solving potential or theoretical problems. Best to solve the ones that have demonstrated harm.

Re:Just goes to show you . . . (1)

StoneCrusher (717949) | about 2 years ago | (#39655505)

We could spend the entire GDP solving potential or theoretical problems.

OT I know.
I think it is cute that there are still people who think that government spending is limited to the GDP.
Get with the times man! Free your mind from the inferior thinking that spending must be less than income.
Why with modern financing we could spend hundreds of times the GDP on solving the problem of getting politicians elected.

Re:Just goes to show you . . . (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39654759)

Everybody dies sometime, but I would rather die after being able to live my life rather than be hamstrung by a million regulations. People love to scaremonger (video games make violent kids) and people are wrong (get irradiated for good health). It's easy to tell the scaremongers and the stupid in hindsight, but it's hard to tell in advance. If we discover that cell phones cause our brains to deteriorate much faster than normal, of course everybody will be asking why we thought it was safe to walk around with a radio transmitter up to your head all the time, and there are plenty of people out there that are warning about it.

The interesting part of it all is how humans overreact to someone getting hurt.

Re:Just goes to show you . . . (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39655083)

The interesting part of it all is how humans overreact to someone getting hurt.

This quote sums up libertarianism perfectly: "Oh, don't worry about death, the market will adjust."

While your regime is doing its magic competitive dog-eat-dog thing, the "losers" are suffering or dying, over and over. And the only thing worth a damn in this world is life, not the performance of your stupid quasi-religious "free market". The end - even making the absurd assumption that allowing the amassment of unbridled power will produce a worthy end - does not justify the means.

Re:Just goes to show you . . . (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39656695)

Well, your "regime" includes the magical belief that regulation will somehow solve everything. This belief is justified by specific cases but there is no reason to suspect it generalises, not least because some regulations are actually harmful. True believers blame regulatory failures on the evil influence of profit-making corporations, regardless of the real cause.

Just because your magical belief is mainstream, it doesn't mean it's right. Most people believe in God, do you think they are right?

Re:Just goes to show you . . . (1)

Asic Eng (193332) | about 2 years ago | (#39659753)

People never do anything until someone gets hurt.

That seems a bit unfair - after all they did design (and build) the ship to carry enough life boats, and they still fitted it with more life boats than they were required to. They also had a radio operator and they had a variety of safety features which - while not making the ship unsinkable - at least gave them time to evacuate quite a number of people before the ship sank.

Obviously, an accident like that will show you things that *can* go wrong, and that's something you can learn from.

Sea? (4, Insightful)

Formalin (1945560) | about 2 years ago | (#39653835)

Not really sure how the sea part, nor the titanic part is relevant.

I'd say the bulk of the advances in radio were military, and general commercial use of radio. Ships benefited too, but I really don't see them as being the real cause for innovation.

Standardisation though, yeah, I'll give them that. Accidents tend to lead to that. Good thing too.

Re:Sea? (1)

The Snowman (116231) | about 2 years ago | (#39653967)

Not really sure how the sea part, nor the titanic part is relevant.

I'd say the bulk of the advances in radio were military, and general commercial use of radio. Ships benefited too, but I really don't see them as being the real cause for innovation.

Ships... military... the Navy, maybe? Before satellite communication, the U.S. Navy had to communicate long distances using radios. Think the Pacific Theater in WW2 if nothing else. Radio was definitely a big factor in communicating long distances over water.

Re:Sea? (1)

Formalin (1945560) | about 2 years ago | (#39653997)

Absolutely, I agree. Warships, definitely. I'm just saying the Titanic and other commercial ocean-liners were not very vital to radio development, the way I see it.

Re:Sea? (2)

techno-vampire (666512) | about 2 years ago | (#39654147)

The radio operators on Titanic did their best to get the word out. Maybe if all ships were required to keep a radio watch around the clock the rescue efforts would have been more successful and there would have been less fatalities. Newer, stricter radio requirements pushed the envelope of what was possible in those days and led to improved equipment. Then, when war broke out in August 1914, warships were able to take advantage of the improvements if they hadn't already. And, of course, radio company's R&D departments were already working on increasing both range and sensitivity giving them a flying start on learning how to give their navy what it now needed.

Re:Sea? (5, Interesting)

Sir_Sri (199544) | about 2 years ago | (#39654183)

In a way they were though. British shipping was the *the* shipping around the world. When you moved thousand upon thousands of people by ships (think modern airplanes) people care very much that they're safe, that was after all, how people emigrated by the hundreds of thousands. The "RMS" part was Royal mail ship, as in they expected any ship with RMS in its name to meet government standards for how quickly it got to destinations and got things loaded for the royal mail service. These were all really big deals before aircraft and modern radio communications got the job done mostly better.

I'll grant you that the navy, especially at this point the Royal Navy, which was larger than the next two largest navies combined (and those were france and germany) and operated over the whole world, all the time cared very much about communication. But even as the article points out, they had the technology on the ship at this point. What they needed was to understand how to use that effectively.

The Titanic highlighted what *could* have been done, given the technology (including technology on the ship) if there had been systems and procedures in place. Which is much like aircraft, if someone breaks into a cockpit and crashes a plane, everyone wonders why we don't have reinforced cockpits, why we have gps on aircraft etc etc, because an airliner landing at the wrong airport, or an airliner crashing due to bad weather that could be dealt with by automated systems very much drives adoptoin. . Ocean liners that carried thousands people, vital food supplies and the masses of the public (rich and poor) were very much in the consciousness of people wondering about moving overseas or having their families from europe follow them. The military, the royal navy in particular, had functioned for 300 years without radio, and had systems and procedures in place to act on their own initiative without orders from London, and to act in the best interest of the crown. But the titanic highlights what was, at the time, all of the things that could have been done with what they knew then, but weren't using effectively. They didn't try (and fail) to build the ship as unsinkable, or with a radio because they didn't vaguely appreciate that these were good things. They just didn't understand quite how to use them at that point. The navy got its lessons at Tsushima and Jutland, the army its lessons in the boer war.

A bit more complicated than that (1)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#39656839)

Once the ship hit the iceberg, large numbers of people would have died regardless of the radio technology available.

Very few non-military ships are capable of working anywhere in the world in all seasons. Some sailing ships are, nuclear icebreakers can. Any cruise liner has a maximum safe working map which varies from season to season, and then there are further restrictions like don't keep steaming at night where there is ice. By the time of the Titanic all these things were well known and understood. What seems to have happened, quite simply, is that for commercial reasons the owners instructed the captain to exceed the safe working envelope of the Titanic. There may have been contributory factors, like the question of whether the helm orders were the right way round (because steam practice was the reverse of sail practice). The failure of the wireless operator (thanks for the correction above) to recognise the seriousness of the warning from the Californian was a serious, and stupid, dereliction of ordinary duty of care, but the fact is that if one experienced captain thought it best to stop, another could have done so without the warning.

In short, it was a multicausal accident, but almost all the causes were well known.

I'm not sure of the relevance of Jutland. As far as I can see the principal lesson of Jutland was "Don't mix old and new ships in your battle fleets", and that had been amply demonstrated in earlier WW1 engagements.

Re:A bit more complicated than that (1)

Sir_Sri (199544) | about 2 years ago | (#39657069)

Jutland was don't overload your ship with cordite, and that radio communications allow you to sail out and intercept on your own terms. It was also a chance to realize just badly coordinated the various battle fleets were compared to their german counterparts. This was salvaged by significantly outnumbering them, but it still didn't work as well as it could have.

And yes, once titanic hit an iceberg things were going to go badly. The issue is more of a 'given what tools they had much more could have been done with those resources to save more people'. Sure, the disaster in total was multi causal, but it also led to people trying to not be dipshits in a lot more areas than radio that just seems like one relatively interesting area. Pay attention to icebergs seemed to be another. Though obviously cruise ships still have issues.

Re:Sea? (1)

deadweight (681827) | about 2 years ago | (#39656991)

Not so. Ships were *THE* killer app for radio. If you were on land, a telegraph office was usually close at hand. You had high dollar types that had been "wired" since 1850 or so cut off from the "net" when they were at sea and now they could keep up with the markets and send buy and sell orders to their flunkies while at sea. This was a big deal.

Improvement or lockdown? (1)

Gothmolly (148874) | about 2 years ago | (#39653837)

It sounds more to me like various powers used this as an excuse to exercise greater controls. Never waste a good crisis, right?

Re:Improvement or lockdown? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39653883)

That's borderline tinfoil hat talk. As if there is some conspiracy by somebody (often referred to as them or they) to use the sinking of the Titanic to exercise greater controls. Why stop there? Maybe they sank the Titanic on purpose...

Re:Improvement or lockdown? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39653943)

if you think people in government don't capitalize on tragedies to further their goals, you're an idiot.

if you think people in government don't CREATE tragedies, inadvertently or not, you're also an idiot.

Re:Improvement or lockdown? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39655841)

If you really think like that, you're also an idiot.

Re:Improvement or lockdown? (1)

dtmos (447842) | about 2 years ago | (#39661111)

If they did, they were awfully slow at it. The first ratifiable Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) treaty wasn't signed until 1929 -- seventeen years after the Titanic disaster -- and the US didn't ratify that treaty until 1936, seven years after that.

advances come with tragedies (1)

k6mfw (1182893) | about 2 years ago | (#39653845)

I believe same with KAL-007 after the airliner was downed by a Soviet fighter when it strayed into USSR airspace. After that, much GPS technology was developed for non-military uses to prevent such a bad navigation error.

I think this article about Titanic, though not news for nerds being 100 years late but radio communications is a nerdy topic (unlike Zimmerman articles). With exception of getting overloaded by Titanic articles.

Re:advances come with tragedies (5, Insightful)

jd (1658) | about 2 years ago | (#39654001)

It isn't clear to me that KAL-007 was a genuine navigational error. Marconi's RDF was good enough to do precision-bombing and instrument-only landing in the 1940s. It is entirely possible that navigational aids 40 years later were indeed inferior, but even if true that's not through a lack of capability but a lack of wit. I'm not inclined to believe the conspiracy theories that the pilot was paid by the CIA to trigger the USSR defenses (the CIA haven't been competent in anything else, so there's no reason to believe they'd be able to accomplish such a task). Nonetheless, staggering errors of judgement were made by the pilot, even given all the other staggering errors of judgement that had led to pathetically sub-standard navigational aids.

Ultimately, however, this is true of most other disasters - be it the R101, the Titanic, the current global economic meltdown, Fukoshima or any others you might care to name. The problem can almost always be traced to a string of errors, stupidities and absurdities, ALL of which had been known to be errors, stupidities and absurdities AT THE TIME. In other words, gross negligence -- usually, but not always, accompanied by bean-counting. The disasters do NOT lead to solutions, the solutions already existed. The disasters lead merely to the accountants being ordered to loosen the purse-strings. At least for that week.

(The recent sinking of a cruise ship with loss of life has led to the discovery that modern passenger ships also lack sufficient lifeboats - and are also horribly unstable once they start shipping water, leading to half the lifeboats they do have being unusable. This is a repeat of the situation leading up to the Titanic. It exists not because people don't know how to build lifeboats or count passengers, but because decisions are made according to profit margins and not according to rational examination of cause-and-effect.)

History does not repeat itself, but accountants do. You can't avoid making decisions based on some economic philosophy, but it is self-evident to anyone but the determinedly blind that none of the economic philosophies out there are very good at risk management.

Re:advances come with tragedies (1)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | about 2 years ago | (#39656345)

Marconi's RDF was good enough to do precision-bombing and instrument-only landing in the 1940s.

I don't know where you are getting this idea from. While instrument-only landings did occur, that's after one already knows one is in the right vicinity and is making the right final approach on instruments. The claim that anything in WW2 was precision-bombing is hard for me to understand given that some of their navigation was so inaccurate that sometimes British and American bombers didn't even target the intended city.

Re:advances come with tragedies (1)

dave420 (699308) | about 2 years ago | (#39656731)

You should read about the radio targeting used in WWII. It really was rather accurate.

Re:advances come with tragedies (1)

jd (1658) | about 2 years ago | (#39660359)

You will find that inaccurate navigation was of the dead-reckoning kind. Homing in on a radio signal is a rather different story. The Marconi system used a combination of directional and omnidirectional aerials to produce multiple bearings, where the transmitter was guaranteed to be at the intersection of those bearings, with the output visual displayed in the form of needles on a meter that could overlap.

Typical usage would be a member of the Danish or French Resistance placing a transmitter at a known frequency in the target building. The Marconi R1155 was sensitive enough to pick up even relatively low-power transmissions from a few hundred miles away* (I have great fun with the one I got back into working condition) and home in on it as you could any VOR on a modern aircraft. The difference being that, because you've multiple bearings, you have range as well as direction once you're close enough for the needles to be visually something other than parallel.

Aircraft navigation of the 80s was not much more than a simple variant on the theme, using multiple VOR transmitters at well-known locations rather than significantly-offset aerials operating on a single VOR. Ultimately, though, you're still using multiple bearings, except here the point of overlap is the aircraft itself and not a homing beacon.

What do you do when VORs are out of range?

The R1155 was capable of picking up medium-power signals from London with the aircraft in North Africa. A modern receiver has vastly superior reception. Unless you're flying over one of the poles, it's very hard to imagine any place on Earth where you could be out of range given 1980s-era technology and be incapable of accurate positioning.

*The R1155 was rated at 10uV of transmission power to 50mW of usable signal.

Re:advances come with tragedies (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39663885)

"... some of their navigation was so inaccurate that sometimes British and American bombers didn't even target the intended city."

    Or country. They have never determined who bombed my Father's strawberry farm near Monkstown, Ireland in 1943. Fault can be blamed on both sides... Getting rid of unused bombs after a raid was commonplace for safe landing; any cloud-blind bomber would just let them loose where nobody important could protest.

    Decades after his death, I still have his strawberries growing in, what we like to call, the Lower Forty. It's just a few thousand miles West from his original strawberry patch.
    Just in case...

Re:advances come with tragedies (1)

dj245 (732906) | about 2 years ago | (#39657699)

The recent sinking of a cruise ship with loss of life has led to the discovery that modern passenger ships also lack sufficient lifeboats - and are also horribly unstable once they start shipping water, leading to half the lifeboats they do have being unusable

The instability is intentional. The more unstable a ship is, the more comfortable it is to be on (up to a point when the roll angles become uncomfotable). Imagine a ship in calm water. Something pushes the ship into a roll. If it rolls to 5 degrees and back in 10 seconds, that's not uncomfortable. It may not even be noticable if you are below decks. If it does this in 1 second, it is noticable and possibly uncomfortable. It is similar to the difference between soft car suspension and hard sporty suspension. The soft suspension is more comfortable but cornering performance is reduced.

Many ships do have very high stability. Navy ships for example. Wartime survivability is more important than crew comfort.

I'm not excusing modern passenger ships performing so poorly in incidents, or the assumption that all lifeboats will be servicable, but if we made the ship as stable as possible nobody would want to ride on it. There are requirements for safety written by the IMO (International Maritime Organization) and by various government regulations in the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). And different countries may have slightly different requirements also. If the requirements are not sufficient, they should be changed. Any ship wanting to buy insurance needs to follow at least some of the international requirements and some country-specific ones, and nobody sends large ships out to sea without insurance because ports require insurance.

Re:advances come with tragedies (1)

k6mfw (1182893) | about 2 years ago | (#39664383)

>"History does not repeat itself, but accountants do."

Post of the month! That second paragraph is quite insightful (and you get the full 5 points, I got squat). And amck comment, "A practice had developed of "accidentally" traversing USSR, etc. airspace, taking a shortcut to save fuel. It was believed that the US had spotted this trend, and was using it to sneak reconnaissance flights over the area by piggy-backing them..."

Re:advances come with tragedies (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39654027)

They never proved that Reagan didn't send it there on purpose, as a sort of test. Gov wouldn't release the fed documents on it.

Re:advances come with tragedies (5, Interesting)

amck (34780) | about 2 years ago | (#39654387)

The KAL-007 tragedy is unlikely to have been pilot error.

Pilots are in many countries rewarded for saving the airline money: prinicipally by picking good routes and saving fuel (about the only performance incentive available to pilots). This was true of JAL at the time.
A practice had developed of "accidentally" traversing USSR, etc. airspace, taking a shortcut to save fuel.
JAL 747 pilots had developed a reputation for doing this.

It was believed that the US had spotted this trend, and was using it to sneak reconnaissance flights over the area by piggy-backing them on commercial "flight routes" and timetables: flying ELINT aircraft with commercial tags.

The Russians now believed that JAL-007 was really a US elint aircraft. They screamed blue murder over the airwaves, warning the flight that they would shoot. JAL-007 had its radio turned off, so that it could claim it was "accidentally" in Russian airspace, and so missed the warnings.

Hence the tragedy.

A lot of this kind of subterfuge happened during the cold war.

Re:advances come with tragedies (1)

dwye (1127395) | about 2 years ago | (#39668719)

After that, much GPS technology was developed for non-military uses to prevent such a bad navigation error.

Declassified, not developed. Also, GPS would not help if the pilot miss-entered the waypoints, as is quite likely. Or did it deliberately, if you believe the conspiracy theories.

Ah, I may be young; but I know this one!!! (5, Funny)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 2 years ago | (#39653983)

They improvements TFA describes are the technique of handling collisions by having both sides back off for a randomly chosen period of time, and then send another ship, right?

Bad article (5, Informative)

slimjim8094 (941042) | about 2 years ago | (#39654059)

All the "information" is in a timeline. Ugh. At least it's a pretty nifty HTML5 one.

I was about to spout my mouth off, but figured I'd read the article before I made a fool out of myself. But the article didn't have anything, so here goes.

The Titanic was near another ship - the Californian could have made it in time before the ship sank, but the radio operator went to bed. In those days, there was no requirement for 24/7 manning of the radio station, which was the single largest thing to come out of the sinking (in terms of radio). It's hard to fault them for it, though, since radio was still pretty new. The next-closest ship that did hear them (the Carpathia) hauled ass, at great risk, and got there a few hours after the sinking. Radio, as a technology, worked. Again, since this was the event that basically defined radio as a serious method for emergency communications, it's hard to fault people for not realizing it in advance.

Part of the rules for the calling frequency (500 KHz) was that everybody would stop talking for a few minutes every half-hour, so people could hear if there was a station in distress that was far away, or running out of power, and being swamped out by local traffic. Not an issue for the Titanic, but still a good idea.

All in all, the radio stuff is interesting, but what the Titanic needed were more lifeboats and a more serious response by the crew and passengers. Even if the Californian had made it there while the ship was still afloat, there were thousands of people on that ship, no way to get them off, and freezing cold water so they couldn't just jump in and be pulled out.

Re:Bad article (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39654109)

Well, the ship was built to carry as many as 68 boats. There was no reason it couldn't have had 30, even 60 lifeboats.

Certainly not all of them would necessarily have been offloaded, and some people would have died, but as it was, the 700 people on the boats could have had another 400 just on the rated capacity of the boats.

Re:Bad article (1)

Deep Esophagus (686515) | about 2 years ago | (#39654111)

24/7 monitoring on a nearby ship was the ONLY change that would have made a difference, at least in terms of technology. As someone else pointed out, operators in NYC did hear the distress call... but what could they do about it? Hope the ship stayed afloat for a few weeks while they sent a rescue vessel? "Look, he wouldn't bother writing out 'glub glub glub', he'd just SAY it." "Perhaps he was dictating?"

Re:Bad article (2)

WaffleMonster (969671) | about 2 years ago | (#39654377)

24/7 monitoring on a nearby ship was the ONLY change that would have made a difference, at least in terms of technology.

Aint so. The closest ship (SS Californian) would have been alerted had the Titanic had red emergency flares on hand to launch.

  Instead all they had were white signal flares which we know the closest ship saw and promptly ignored because they were the wrong color.

Re:Bad article (1)

slimjim8094 (941042) | about 2 years ago | (#39654397)

The Californian was nervous about what they saw (the Titanic making a hard port and stopping, the flares). They were nervous enough to attempt a signalling by Morse lamp, but it didn't occur to them to wake the radio operator, and for that they deserve flack. But check out my comment [slashdot.org] replying to your sibling - I ran the numbers, and it seems implausible that the Californian could have saved all, or even a significant majority of the people on that ship. There's no question their presence would have helped, but they wouldn't be the factor changing the - well, Titanic-level disaster into one more like the Costa Concordia (thousands saved, a few dead). At best it would have been a small majority saved, but still a Titanic-level calamity.

Re:Bad article (1)

WaffleMonster (969671) | about 2 years ago | (#39655117)

Instead all they had were white signal flares which we know the closest ship saw and promptly ignored because they were the wrong color.

Doing a bit more checking flare colors were sorted out circa 1950s before that any color could be used. I'm sorry for my stupid assumptions.

Re:Bad article (1)

deadweight (681827) | about 2 years ago | (#39658103)

I also have white flares on my boat. They are used to prevent collisions and for illumination. They are not a distress signal now and I think the color coding of flares was a result of the Titanic. Red = distress now. (and I have red ones too)

Re:Bad article (2)

techno-vampire (666512) | about 2 years ago | (#39654211)

If Californian had gotten there in time, they could have used both sets of boats as shuttles, bringing passengers across. Ships generally have an accomedation ladder that can be rigged from the main deck to the water line to allow access to small craft of that sort which would have been a great help in evacuating the ship. And, even if that wasn't possible, Titanic's officers could have controled and organized the passengers, having them jump into the water when, and only when there was a life boat available to pick them up so that nobody would have to be in the freezing water for more than a minute. You'd be surprised how much could have been done if there'd been another ship on the scene to help with the evacuation and act as a holding platform for the passengers while the boats went back for more.

Re:Bad article (5, Insightful)

slimjim8094 (941042) | about 2 years ago | (#39654373)

Hypothermia killed most people in the water within minutes, so that would've been a bad idea to risk.

The ship sank in about 2 hours - for a lot of that time (about a half hour) they didn't really "get it" (which is obviously a huge problem as well), and for about the last hour, the ship was tilting far enough that rescue may very well have been impossible. If I were the captain of a mid-size steamer, I'd be very reluctant to be anywhere near an ocean liner whose stern was literally coming out of the water. In any case, even if the Californian had rushed directly to aid, it would have still taken almost an hour to get there (the Californian topped out at about 22km/h, and the Titanic was about 19km away). By that time, it would have been so clear that the Titanic was going down that the (much shorter and half-as-long) Californian wouldn't want to be taken down with it. Any assistance would not have been a direct ship-to-ship transfer, and they would have been stuck with ferrying boats around, which they only had an hour to do, or having people jump in and swim, which would have killed hundreds of people anyway due to the cold and the distance. Had they decided to ferry the lifeboats back and forth, they would have needed to either get the boats back up to the deck, or send a thousand people down on ladders one-by-one. And then repeat it all on the other ship.

There's no question that more people would have survived, but it would have been more like a 50-50 or even a 60-40 split instead of the 32-68 split it was (save-lost). It still would have been a calamity of unthinkable magnitude.

Bottom line, the Titanic needed more boats, and more urgency about using them. Everything else would have helped, but not enough.

Re:Bad article (1)

techno-vampire (666512) | about 2 years ago | (#39654673)

Very well written and reasoned. I congratulate you. Californian would most likely have placed herself off to one side, well away from the stern, lowered her own boats and rigged her accomidation ladder if she hadn't set it up already. And, as far as hypothermia goes, that's why I specified that people would only be sent overboard when there was a boat ready to pick them up to minimize their time in the water. Yes, many people would still have died but not, I think anywhere near as many.

Silent Periods (4, Informative)

dtmos (447842) | about 2 years ago | (#39655569)

Part of the rules for the calling frequency (500 KHz) was that everybody would stop talking for a few minutes every half-hour, so people could hear if there was a station in distress that was far away, or running out of power, and being swamped out by local traffic. Not an issue for the Titanic, but still a good idea.

To be sure, but Silent Periods (15 to 18 minutes, and 45 to 48 minutes, past the hour, every hour) were installed as a result of the Titanic disaster, not before, as part of the Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) treaty series. One of the conclusions drawn from Titanic was that there was no universally agreed-upon prioritization of wireless traffic, and the SOLAS treaties established one.

There was a SOLAS treaty of 1914, but World War I kept it from being ratified in most (if not all) countries and, though many countries implemented parts of the agreement piecemeal, the first ratifiable treaty wasn't signed until 1929. (Even then, the US did not ratify the treaty until 1936 -- with the Titanic disaster now ancient history, the depression gave a certain political party the opportunity to complain about onerous, burdensome government regulation taking jobs from otherwise employed sailors, and that treaty supporters were dupes of foreign powers trying to take the jobs of hard-working Americans by modifying the "free market" in their favor. Reading the political arguments of the time, and the reports of the congressional hearings, in the old newspaper microfilms is quite depressing -- and cynicism-inducing.)

WW1 (5, Insightful)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 2 years ago | (#39654189)

Two years after the Titanic, there was another incident had a far greater influence on improvements in radios: The First World War.

Re:WW1 (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39655625)

Yet we're subjected to a lot more media about the Titanic than WWI.... I mean whats 30 million plus dead compared to Titanic: The Love Story.

Re:WW1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39664541)

I mean whats 30 million plus dead compared to Titanic: The Love Story

It's a statistic, rather than a story. Guess which one people find easier to relate to.

Re:WW1 (1)

dwye (1127395) | about 2 years ago | (#39668947)

Yet we're subjected to a lot more media about the Titanic than WWI.... I mean whats 30 million plus dead compared to Titanic: The Love Story.

Wait until the 100th anniversary of WWI rolls around before complaining. Since this is a USA-based site, except lots of flack from the British about the USA not joining in (the Europeans killing themselves for reasons almost Irish in their stupidity, from the US PoV) until 1917, the Americans about hearing about the war years before it started (for the US, and why nothing about the pursuit of Pancho Villa?), and the Germans about how they did NOT start the war, verdamnt it. Heaven knows what the Russians will complain about (everything, I expect, including whether the whole USSR thing was a mistake or whether Gorby was :-) .

Hopefully the complaints will not be here, of course (yeah, that'll happen).

Tragedy sparked a century of radio improvements (4, Interesting)

dgharmon (2564621) | about 2 years ago | (#39654191)

`On the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, IEEE Spectrum looks at how the tragedy accelerated the improvement of communications at sea"'

At least one ship heard the SOS and failed to respond, the main improvements in the aftermath of the tragedy is it became compulsory to respond to a distress signal.

Nevermind it was picked up (1, Interesting)

Osgeld (1900440) | about 2 years ago | (#39654199)

nor that the spark gap generator on the titanic (and its sisters) produced a fairly unique, "almost musical tone", and that help was on the way shortly after the signals were sent (and those signals were greatly delayed due to mostly arrogance) ...

lets bend this into a tech story about radio!

And not a lesson in sea time disaster management.

At the time, US law only required ships... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39654995)

Umm.... what has US law got to do with this? It's a British ship, running under British command and registered in Britain. At the time, Britain was the unquestioned master of the world's oceans. The appropriate regulatory authority would have been the British 'Board of Trade'...

More Titanic radio stuff (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39655021)

..including a list of all messages sent to and from the ship here [paullee.com]

20/20 hindsight (1)

argStyopa (232550) | about 2 years ago | (#39657613)

It's very easy from our keyboards and couches in 2012 to say "why didn't they understand how critical radio was??!?!?!?!" but let's understand that the captain and senior crew were long-serving officers, and the naval tradition in England wasn't one to quickly adapt novelty.

Ships had been sailing the high seas for centuries. The nominal state was that once a ship left land, and barring a rare meeting at sea, ships were ALONE. Thus the remarkable powers attributed legally to captains. They were truly worlds unto themselves.

Further, people generally didn't have telephones - unless you were in person, you generally corresponded by letter. People were used to not being 'connected'.

Wireless tech was only perhaps 15 years old in 1912, and extremely novel in shipboard service. It would be like skype today - although we live in such an interconnected world we really can't comprehend how naturally people accepted being alone/disconnected.

As I type this at 44, having grown up when you actually had to talk into phones connected to the wall and otherwise not being connected at all...I wonder if my generation is perhaps one of the last that will understand what it's like to have the 'natural state of things' being disconnected (in the US). I know teenagers today certainly couldn't comprehend it.

Folklore (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39658175)

No one could have imagine terrorists flying airplanes into buildings, so there was no defense in place beforehand.
Enjoy.

The Auto-Alarm (2)

dtmos (447842) | about 2 years ago | (#39660073)

One of the under-appreciated technologies to result from the Titanic disaster was the development of the auto alarm: An automatic receiver that continuously monitored the calling frequency (500 kHz) for a specific alarm signal to be sent by ships in distress.

Prior to this time, an operator trained in Morse code reception was required to be on duty or, failing that, a "wireless watcher," a deck officer trained to listen for the distinctive three-dits-three-dahs-three-dits of the SOS call. However, the wireless watcher system had obvious flaws (e.g., other duties of the deck officer taking him away from the receiver), and so an automatic system was desired. The trick was doing it with 1920s technology.

It was decided early on in the development of the auto alarm that having a detector able to correctly decode "SOS" with sufficient sensitivity and selectivity (i.e., without false detections during a night of reception of multiple simultaneous and possibly interfering signals, lightning crashes, etc.), and at different rates and fidelity (recall that the SOS signal would be sent by hand, by a person likely to be under high stress) was beyond the technology of the day. Instead, a second, simpler, signal was invented -- a signal specifically for detection by the auto alarm. This signal was defined to be a series of four or more dashes, each four seconds long, with a space of one second between them. (Clocks provided in the radio rooms were required to have a sweep second hand, and a pattern of 4 on, 1 off dashes was printed around the circumference of the clock to aid the timing of the operator.) Alarm bells were placed over the bunks of both the Radio Officer and the ship's Master.

When the radio officer went off watch, he turned the auto alarm on. Should an auto alarm signal be received, the bells would go off (not unlike a fire bell and, a foot over your head, very impressive at 2 AM, I can assure you), and the operator would then climb off of the ceiling, go to the radio room, turn off the auto alarm, and monitor 500 kHz to see what's going on.

In an actual emergency, the radio officer on the ship in distress actually sends the auto alarm signal first, then sends the SOS signal. (The SOS signal, by the way, is sent as a single character, with no spaces between the letters -- di-di-dit-dah-dah-dah-di-di-dit, not di-di-dit-space-dah-dah-dah-space-di-di-dit.) This mp3 file [qsl.net], of an actual disaster (the fire on the MS Prinsendam, PJTA, in 1980), has this clearly audible: The recording starts with a long series of auto alarm tones, followed by the SOS call at about the 2:30 mark.

Those of us with a logical bent would find the design of these auto alarms to be a study in stone-knives-and-bear-skins analog computing. This document [fcc.gov] gives one some idea of the requirements. It would be a good task for an engineering student project.

Re:The Auto-Alarm (1)

dwye (1127395) | about 2 years ago | (#39669145)

BTW, at the time, CQD was the preferred distress signal, except among ships in the German Empire. The fact that sending a 9 code signal sort of like SOS is easier to do (especially when excited or panicky) or to recognize than sending three letters chosen because CQ is a pun on French and the D stood for Distress (as opposed to landline CQ, which was just a message for everyone) still took some time to sink in (yes, it IS blindingly obvious in retrospect, unless you are an experienced Morse Code operator, much like the Wordstar codes were once simple when everyone already knew them).

Obviously, the 9 code character called SOS is also much easier for the auto-alarm to recognize than CQD would be, especially with inter-letter spacing included.

Titanic Tech (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#39662967)

Just for fun, check out "RMS Titanic, 1909- 1912 (Olympic Class), Owners Workshop Manual" by Haynes.
http://www.amazon.com/RMS-Titanic-Manual-1909-1912-Workshop/dp/076034079X

    Can Samzenpus be brib... be tasked with commissioning a review?

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