John George "Jack" Phillips (11 April, 1887 - 15 April, 1912) was a British wireless telegraphist aboard the RMS Titanic, who died after the ship hit an iceberg and sank; he was serving as senior wireless operator on the maiden voyage of the ship. As the Titanic was sinking, Phillips worked tirelessly to send wireless messages to other ships to enlist their assistance with the rescue of the Titanic's passengers and crew. While Phillips has borne criticism for having told the radio operator of the Californian, "Keep out; shut up, I am working Cape Race!" When interrupted on-air by his counterpart telling him that his ship was surrounded by ice, similar warning messages earlier that day had been delivered to the captain and a lookout had been posted.
He died in the sinking. His body, if recovered, was never identified.
John George "Jack" Phillips was born in Farncombe, Surrey, England to George Alfred Phillips and Anne Sanders. Phillips finished private school in Cranleigh in 1902 and began working at the Godalming post office where he learned telegraphy. He started training to work in wireless for the Marconi Company in March 1906 in Seaforth and graduated five months later in August.
Phillips' first assignment was on the White Star Line ship Teutonic, and he later worked onboard the Campania, the Corsican, the Victorian, the Pretorian, the Lusitania and the Mauretania. In May 1908, he was assigned to the Marconi station outside Clifden, Ireland, where he worked until 1911, when he was assigned to the RMS Adriatic and later, in early 1912, to the Oceanic.
In March 1912, Phillips was sent to Belfast, Ireland, to be the senior wireless operator on board the Titanic for her maiden voyage. He was joined by junior wireless operator Harold Bride. Stories have appeared that Phillips knew Bride before the Titanic, but Bride insisted they had never met before Belfast. The Titanic sailed for New York City from Southampton on April 10th, 1912 and during the voyage, Phillips and Bride sent out passengers' personal messages and received iceberg warnings and other navigational information from other ships. Phillips celebrated his 25th birthday the day after the voyage began.
On the evening of April 14th, in the wireless room on the boat deck, Phillips was sending messages to Cape Race, Newfoundland, working to clear a backlog of passengers' personal messages that had accumulated when the wireless had broken down the day before. Bride was asleep in the adjoining cabin, intending to relieve Phillips at midnight, two hours early. Shortly after 9:30 pm, Phillips received an ice warning from the steamship Mesaba reporting a large number of icebergs and an ice field directly in the path of Titanic. Phillips acknowledged the Mesaba's warning and continued to transmit messages to Cape Race. The Mesaba's wireless operator waited for Phillips to report that he had given the report to the bridge, but Phillips continued working Cape Race. The message was one of the most important warnings Titanic received, but it was never delivered to the bridge.
After 11:00 PM, Phillips was again interrupted by another ship, this time the SS Californian. The Californian's only wireless operator, Cyril Evans, was reporting that they were stopped and surrounded by ice. The Californian's relative proximity (and the fact that both Evans and Phillips were using spark gap wireless sets whose signals bled across the spectrum and were impossible to tune out) meant that the signal was strong and loud in Phillips' ears. Phillips quickly sent back, "Shut up, shut up, I am busy working Cape Race!" and continued communicating with Cape Race while Evans listened a while longer before going to bed for the night. Some historians argue that this communication had critical consequences on the deathtoll of the Titanic disaster. Firstly, that Evans was giving a warning of ice, which if heeded could have prevented Titanic's sinking. Secondly, the Californian was the closest ship to the Titanic. As the radio had been switched off by Evans, Phillips had no way of communicating with the Californian should the Titanic require immediate assistance, which it very soon did. Others point out that several ice warnings had already been received and communicated to the captain, so he was aware that there was ice in the area, and a lookout had been posted. Further, the crew of the Californian did see the flares from the Titanic at 12:45 AM and woke their captain, who chose to ignore the flares and returned to bed.
Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 PM that night and began sinking. Bride had woken up and began getting ready to relieve Phillips when Captain Edward Smith came into the wireless room and told Phillips to prepare to send out a distress signal. Shortly after midnight, Captain Smith came in again and told them to send out the call for assistance and gave them Titanic's estimated position. Phillips began sending out the distress signal, code CQD, while Bride took messages to Captain Smith about which ships were coming to Titanic's assistance. At one point, Bride jokingly reminded Phillips that the new call was SOS and said "Send SOS., it's the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it." A myth developed after the disaster that this was the first time SOS was used, but it had been used on other ships previously.
After taking a quick break, Phillips returned to the wireless room, reporting to Bride that the forward part of the ship was flooded and that they should put on more clothes and lifebelts. Bride began to get ready while Phillips went back to work on the wireless machine. The wireless power was almost completely out shortly after 2:00 AM, when Captain Smith arrived and told the men that they had done their duty and that they were relieved. Bride later remembered being moved by the way Phillips continued working. While their backs were turned, a crew member (either a stoker or trimmer) sneaked in and attempted to steal Phillips' lifebelt. Bride saw and grabbed the man as Phillips stood up and knocked the crew member out. The water was beginning to flood the wireless room as they both ran out of the wireless room, leaving the unconscious crew member where he fell. The men then split up, Bride heading forward and Phillips heading aft. This was the last time any survivor saw Phillips.
For many years there has been conflicting and contradictory information regarding the exact manner in which Phillips met his death. Many researchers have expressed the belief that Phillips managed to make it to the overturned Collapsible Boat B, which was in the charge of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, along with Harold Bride.
In Lightoller's autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships, he writes,
- "Phillips, the senior wireless operator, standing near me, told me the different ships that had answered our call..." "...As it turned out, the information from Phillips, and the calculation, were about right, though poor old Phillips did not live to benefit by it. He hung on till daylight came in and we sighted one of the lifeboats in the distance...
I think it must have been the final and terrible anxiety that tipped the beam with Phillips, for he suddenly slipped down, sitting in the water, and though we held his head up, he never recovered. I insisted on taking him into the lifeboat with us, hoping there still might be life, but it was too late."
Harold Bride reported seeing Phillips's body as he boarded the Carpathia.
However, Lightoller's and Bride's claims about Jack Phillips are contradicted elsewhere by fellow survivor Archibald Gracie IV, who made it clear that the wireless operator who cheered up the occupants of the upturned collapsible by calling out the names of approaching ships was Harold Bride, not Jack Phillips (as Lightoller thought in 1934). It is also clear from the accounts of Gracie and Lightoller that only one body was transferred from the collapsible onto boat #12. Bride stated that he knew the body of "the man lying aft" was transferred to #12; this was undoubtedly the body of the crew member mentioned by Gracie and Lightoller. His body, if recovered, was never identified.
As a Wireless Operator, Phillips is one of the most historically significant people. One of the few popular cultures that didn't show him or Harold Bride was the 2012 Miniseries Titanic.
Ashley Cowan portrayed Jack Phillips in Titanic (1953), as a blonde man. In real life, Phillips had much darker hair.
Kenneth Griffith portrayed Jack Phillips in A Night to Remember (1958 film). Captain Smith released him and Bride from their duty as the bow is going underwater. A stoker try to steal his lifejacket but they knocked him off.
Jack Phillips was portrayed by an uncredited actor in S.O.S. Titanic (1979).
Gregory Cooke portrayed Jack Phillips in the 1997 Film Titanic. However, most of his appearances were cut from the final film, and he is only seen once. In one of the deleted scenes ("The Wireless Room & The Californian"), he is annoyed by the telegraph from the Californian, saying, "Keep out; shut up, I'm working! Cape Race". In another deleted scene (“I'm not going"), he is seen in contact with the Carpathia as the boat deck begins to submerge, and was forced by Bride to wear his life jacket. Phillips saying "I'm not going!"
100 Years of Titanic
To mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the BBC World Service broadcast, on April 10th, 2012; a radio documentary in the "Discovery" series, entitled Titanic—In Her Own Words. The program was conceived and created by Susanne Weber and was narrated by Sean Coughlan, who had previously written a book on the Titanic radio messages. The program used voice synthesis to recreate "the strange, twitter-like, mechanical brevity of the original Morse code messages" transmitted by Titanic and neighbouring ships. Messages often included the fashionable slang expressions of the time such as "old man." The BBC noted that "these messages were recorded at the time in copper-plate handwriting, now scattered across the world in different collections, but together forming a unique archive."
- Lane, Allison and Stephenson, Parks. "Mr John George Phillips". Encyclopedia Titanica. http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/biography.php/phillips_john_george_2051.html. Retrieved July 23, 2005.
- Harold Bride, Suriviving Wireless Operator of the Titanic (19 April 1912). "THRILLING STORY BY TITANIC'S SURVIVING WIRELESS MAN; Bride Tells How He and Phillips Worked and How He Finished a Stoker Who Tried to Steal Phillips's Life Belt -- Ship Sank to Tune of "Autumn"". The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9E07E0DF153CE633A2575AC1A9629C946396D6CF. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
- Booth, J. A. and Coughlan, S., (1993) "Titanic": Signals of Disaster, White Star Publications, ISBN 0-9518190-1-1, ISBN 978-0-9518190-1-2
- "Discovery: Titanic - In Her Own Words" at www.bbc.co.uk
- John Phillips' Memorial on Titanic-Titanic.com
- The River Wey and Wey Navigations Community Site — a non-commercial site of over 200,000 words all about the River Wey including information and images about Jack Phillips and the memorial in his honour at Godalming near his Farncombe home
- The radio legacy of the R.M.S. Titanic
- Wireless radio messages on the night of the R.M.S. Titanic's sinking