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Telegraph Recovered from the Wreck of the ‘Lusitania’

After a botched salvage effort last year, the artifact used to communicate with the engine room has now been brought to the surface

The main ship's telegraph from the Lusitania (Irish Ministry of Culture and Heritage)
smithsonian.com

Last week, the Irish Ministry of Culture and Heritage confirmed that divers have recovered the main ship's telegraph from the RMS Lusitania, the Cunard ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. The sinking of the ship in Irish waters on a journey from New York to Liverpool caused the death of 1,198 people, including 114 Americans. The sinking became a rallying cry for the United Kingdom and helped push the U.S. toward military involvement in World War I.

Ronan McGreevy at The Irish Times reports that the telegraph is in excellent condition. Another telegraph from the ship was recovered in October 2016. These are not the tappity-tap-tap type of telegraphs depicted in old movies. Instead they were engine-order telegraphs used  to send commands to the engine room. Officers on the bridge would move the telegraph lever to an order on a dial such as “full ahead” or “half astern.” That would also move the dial in the engine room and ring a bell alerting the engine crew to adjust the ship’s course.

This wasn’t the first time that divers have tried to recover this telegraph. According to the Press Association, in the summer of 2016 an attempt to use a lift bag to raise the artifact to the surface failed, and the telegraph fell back to the 270-foot seabed. That attempt was criticized since it was not supervised by an archaeologist, which is the usual protocol when working on the site which is considered a protected war grave. During the latest mission, divers were able to relocate the telegraph and successfully use air bags to float it to the surface.

While there was some speculation that the telegraph would shine some light on the sinking of the Lusitania, McGreevy reports that there is not much information to be gleaned. The ship was hit by German torpedoes, but there were reports that after the initial hit, a second explosion occurred, causing the massive liner to sink in just 18 minutes.

Since the shipwreck’s discovery in 1935, researchers have been eager to find clues to the mystery. There is speculation that the ship was carrying an explosives cache from the U.S. to the U.K., though some argue it was a boiler or coal dust explosion that did it. But getting a definitive answer has been difficult. Richad B. Stolley at Fortune reports that in 1982, American venture capitalist Gregg Bemis bought the wreck, believing he could salvage millions of dollars worth of bronze and brass from the ship. But over time, he became obsessed with the history of the ship and its sinking instead.

Tensions between Bemis and Ireland’s cultural heritage agency, which has jurisdiction over the wreck, however, has slowed some of Bemis’s plans for exploring the wreck. To examine the boiler room and the parts of the ship impacted by the second explosion, Stolley reports he will need to cut a hole in the wreck, something the Irish government has not been willing to approve.

According to The Guardian, documents divulged in 2014, seem to indicate the U.K. government has been hiding the fact that the ship—and the wreck—were loaded with high explosives. Those papers from the Foreign Office indicate that in 1982 the prospect of a salvage operation on the ship raised alarms among government officials who thought dangerous materials might still be onboard. They also expressed concerns that, even 70 years after the sinking, the revelation might cause friction with the American government and even potentially put the U.K. at risk of being sued by the relatives of American victims of the sinking. However, other government officials in the documents seem not to know whether there were explosives onboard, and, the BBC reports that divers have yet to locate any signs of explosives.

Bemis tells the Ministry of Culture and Heritage that he would like the telegraph to go to a museum in the nearby city of Kinsale.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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