Harry Cheetham's Radio Operator License

Harry Cheetham's Radio Operator License

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Harry Cheetham was one of the pioneers of early radio in the United States. His 1911 radio operator's license was issued shortly before Titanic sank, and the Boston Globe newspaper hired him to listen for and intercept radio communications messages from Carpathia while it steamed back to New York with the Titanic survivors aboard. Although Carpathia's captain had imposed a general radio blackout, it did communicate the names of survivors for the benefit of the families ashore who were anxiously awaiting news of their relatives' fates. Cheetham intercepted one of the survivor messages and sold the information to the Globe for $175.00.
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Object Name
radio licenses
date made
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
from Harry R. Chetham
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Work and Industry: Electricity
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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"The notes above said that he sold the intercepted message to the Boston Globe for $175. Yet the license on display indicates that he agreed to keep secret the messages that he received, So did he commit a crime when he sold the message transcript of the names of the survivors of the Titanic?"
"Hi Joel:Good question! I took a look in our files to learn a bit more about Cheetham’s Titanic experience. (He later changed his last name to Chetham, by the way.) Turns out he made six donations to the Smithsonian in the 1930s, not all of which pertained to the Titanic. He left accounts describing the various donated items as well as his career in early wireless. In one of these accounts he reported the following: “I will relate a little incident of the wreck of the Titanic. ... At that time great concern was felt by Pres. Taft as to whether Maj. Archie Butts [sic], U.S.A. was among the survivors. ... On Monday, Apr. 15, Mr. W. D. Sullivan City Editor of the Boston Daily Globe commissioned me to get the news. Amateur calls, static, and general bad conditions made it impossible to copy the signals of the Carpathia then 1500 miles afar, here at Boston. Getting in touch with T.he Stevens, then Supt. of the Marconi Co. of Boston, I packed up a crystal receiver and we started for the North Station en route to Gloucester, Mass, Cape Ann. Arriving about 7:50 pm in a dreary downpour of rain we were met by the Globe Representative and rode to Mr. Smith’s house in a cab. He was pres of the National Bank there at Gloucester and had a bon interest in wireless. We proceeded to connect up our wireless set to his antenna and Stevens and myself stood watches of half hour duration up to 3 am the next morning. ...“At about 2:10 AM on my watch I copied the following. “Maj. Archie Butts not among the survivors.” This message was for President Taft and sent to the Scout Cruiser [USS] Salem which was near the S.S. Carpathia at the time. We had been holding a telephone line open to the Boston Globe and gave them the news. It scooped all the other papers and on our return to Boston in the morning we were one hundred and seventy five dollars richer for the night’s work.” So Chetham and Stevens were actually working for the Boston Globe and the money was their pay. The question of whether Chetham (and Stevens too for that matter) committed a crime is one I can’t answer. Chetham was a civilian operator in the employ of the Globe and the information about Major Archibald Butt wasn’t a military secret. While one could certainly argue that Taft should not have learned of his friend’s fate from the newspapers, I don’t know if that would qualify as a criminal or civil offense, then or now.Certainly the episode in no way hindered renewal of Chetham’s license. He donated fourteen licenses, this one being the oldest. The next one is dated 13 December 1912 and the rest date from 1916 through 1930; all contain the secrecy oath. The language on the licenses stayed much the same until after passage of the 1934 Telecommunications Act when the operator’s signature then indicated they understood and would abide by the secrecy provisions of that legislation."

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