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The RMS Titanic

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Picture of a boat in water, the relative great depth of which is illustrated

The story of the Titanic is one which holds an enduring fascination for a world fascinated with technology and which is dependent on all forms of organisation; all of which failed so dramatically in the Titanic's case. So many things simultaneously went wrong for the Titanic that the case is often regarded as some kind of bizarrely unlucky lottery, in which the ship's complement could have been rescued from their eventual fates at almost any stage of the accident that caused the ship's destruction. It is a macabre, but fascinating, example of Murphy's Law and the confusion inherent in a change of era - a reflection of changing social values as well as of changing technological capacities, and an enduring reminder that no construction, social order or way of life can ever be completely relied upon in the face of all contingencies.

The Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, star of the White Star Line, was built in the great Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff. She left the wharves at Southampton for her maiden voyage at high noon on Wednesday 10 April, 1912. On Monday 15 April, at approximately 2.20am, that voyage came to an end at the bottom of the ocean, 153km south of Grand Banks, Newfoundland, Canada. Of the 2,228 passengers and crew on board, only 705 would survive to make the final leg of the journey to New York City.

Under pressure of losing out in the ocean passenger liner trade, the White Star Line commissioned the building of the Olympic Class of ocean liners. The emphasis was to be placed on size and luxury, not speed. The Titanic was the second of the three to be completed, and as the launch date approached, the Titanic found itself to be the centre of media attention. Such fanfare brought out some of the wealthiest and most prominent members of American and British society. Among these prominent passengers were:

  • John Jacob Astor was wealthiest man on board. He was returning from honeymoon with his 18 year old bride. She was five months pregnant already, and they were returning to New York so her child could be born in America.

  • Benjamin Guggenheim was a Swiss emigrant to the US, a trip his family made to make its fortune. Benjamin invested the family money into research and development of new smelting techniques, and it payed off handsomely, as his interests soon far outstripped the value of those of the rest of the family. He was returning to New York to his wife after an extended stay in Paris, and was accompanied on board by his Parisian mistress.

  • Molly Brown was a nouveau-riche American woman who would later become famous for her tenacity, and become known to history as the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Her husband struck it rich in gold-mining in Colorado. He was a social recluse, but Molly intended to become part of the social elite, and she once stated that she knew 'everyone worth knowing from Moscow to the Bosphorus'. She was in Egypt with her friends the Astors when news reached her that her grandchild in Denver was gravely ill, and was returning to attend to him.

  • Colonel Archibald Gracie was an independently wealthy man from a prominent family, among whose accomplishments was the construction of the Gracie Mansion which became the home of the mayor of New York City in 1942. His family was also rather prominent in the military history of the US. Brigadier General Gracie, Archibald's father, went south to fight for the Confederacy, and lost his life at Chickamauga. Archie was a military man himself, being a Colonel for the 7th Regiment, and had just written a novel on the battle of Chickamauga. He was returning from a holiday in Europe immediately following the publication of his book, and was a member of a coterie of authors that formed itself in the first class library during the voyage.

  • Major Archibald Butt was a military advisor to former president Taft.

  • Isidor Straus was the co-owner of the Macy's department store chain. He was returning to New York with his wife, Ida.

The Titanic displaced 46,000 tons, the largest luxury liner1 of its very brief time. It was also one of first ocean liners to come equipped with a new concept in ship design, the watertight bulkhead. The ship was divided into 16 watertight compartments from bow to stern, and no penetration, for ventilation, cabling, machinery, or anything else was permitted to allow water to pass from one of those compartments into the next. The personal access doors could be closed by remote from the bridge or by emergency float switches, thus sealing the barrier that would allow no fire or flooding to pass from one part of the ship to the next. During the media frenzy, White Star Line boasted that this feature, along with its sheer size, rendered the Titanic 'unsinkable'.


Wednesday, 10 April, 1912, 12pm: Titanic cast off mooring lines from the pier at Southampton and is towed out to the river Test. As she approaches the New York, the New York's mooring lines snap, and she swings stern-first toward the Titanic. Collision is averted, and Titanic steams out to sea at approximately 1.30pm.

Wednesday, 5.30pm - 8.30pm: Titanic arrives at Cherbourg, France. She is forced to anchor outside the harbour, as there are no piers big enough to moor to, so tender ships ferry out passengers and cargo.

Thursday 11 April, 11.30am: Titanic docks at Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland (now known as Cobh). A large number of Irish emigrants board.

Thursday 11 April, 1.30pm: Titanic departs from Queenstown, as the last known photographs of the ship are taken.

Saturday 13 April: Titanic's wireless telegraph set breaks down during the evening.

Sunday 14 April: Titanic's wireless telegraph system repaired in the early morning. The wireless operators are swamped with the number of passenger messages that have accumulated during the down time, and hurry to catch up.

Sunday 14 April, 1pm: Ice warning received from Caronia. Second Officer Lightoller posts the message in the chart room.

1.40pm: Additional ice warning received from Baltic. This one is delivered directly to Captain Smith, who passes it to White Star Line's managing director J Bruce Ismay. Ismay pockets the message, and it is not delivered to the bridge until late that evening.

6pm: Captain Smith orders course to be changed slightly south and west of normal.

7.30pm: By this time three ice warnings have been received from Californian and delivered to the bridge. Californian is only 50 miles away, directly ahead of Titanic at this point. The captain is not notified, however, as he is attending a dinner party at the time.

9.20pm: Captain Smith pays a visit to the bridge, and has a discussion with his Officer of the Deck (OOD)2, Second Officer Lightoller, about the poor visibility. The captain's night orders are to proceed on course at 22.5 knots.

9.30pm: Ice warning received from Mesaba, which reads:

Ice report. In latitude 42N to 41.25N, longitude 49W to 50.3W. Saw much heavy pack ice and great number of large icebergs, also field ice. Weather good, clear.
It quite clearly points out the magnitude of the hazard, and places it squarely in the path of Titanic. This message never reaches the bridge.

10pm: Next shift of watches take over. First Officer Murdoch has the bridge.

10.10pm: Wireless operator Jack Phillips, still trying to cope with the backlog of passenger messages to be transmitted, has the following conversation with wireless operator Cyril Evans of the Californian:

  • Evans: Say, old man, we are stopped and surrounded by ice.

  • Phillips: Shut up! Shut up! I am busy. I am working Cape Race3.

11.35pm: Californian's wireless operator Cyril Evans turns off his set and retires for the night.

11.40pm: Crow's nest lookout Frederick Fleet spots an iceberg dead ahead. He telephones the bridge immediately. First Officer Murdoch orders all engines full astern, and helm hard to port. The idea is to avoid the berg by reversing the engines and turning to the left. Several seconds later, a grating sound is heard along the starboard bow.

11.45 - 12am: Inspections reveal the forward five watertight compartments have been compromised. Titanic's chief design engineer, Thomas Andrews, informs Captain Smith that the ship will founder in less than 90 minutes.

12.05am: Smith orders the lifeboats uncovered and the women and children loaded into them, an order Lightoller would follow to the letter. Wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride begin transmitting the following:

CQD MGY4 41.46N 50.14W We have struck a berg. Require assistance. Putting the women off in the boats.

Closest ship to respond is the Carpathia, approximately four hours away at best speed.

Apart from the melodramatic love story, much of the content of the James Cameron movie Titanic accurately and artfully depicts the last moments of the ship. Amongst the chaos in the last few hours are known to have occurred the following events:-

  • The ship's orchestra stations themselves outside the first class entrance, hoping to soothe the passengers and forestall a panic.

  • 12.45am: Boat 7 is the first boat in the water. Out of a capacity of 65 people, only 28 are aboard.

  • 12.55am: As Boat 5 is being lowered with room for 24 more, J Bruce Ismay points out that the boat isn't full to the officer in charge of lowering that boat, Fifth Officer Lowe. Lowe verbally chastises Ismay for interfering with his command.

  • 1.10am: Boat 1 is lowered with 12 aboard out of a maximum capacity of 40 persons, with Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon aboard, and seven crew. At the same time, on the port side, Boat 8 is lowered with 39 out of 65 capacity. It is steered in the water by the Countess of Rothes.

  • Realising that there is very little hope of getting the men off, Benjamin Guggenheim and his manservant emerge from his cabins dressed in their finest suits, lifebelts discarded. When questioned, he responds, 'We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen'. His last thoughts are of his wife in New York, and he composes a letter to her and gives it to another man, who survives to see the letter delivered.

  • Ida Straus, wife of Isidor Straus, refuses to get into a boat without her husband. Mr Straus is offered a seat on the boat, but he declines, citing that none of the other men are boarding, and it would be improper of him to do so.

  • Fourth Officer Boxhall spots a masthead light off the port bow. He immediately attempts to communicate via morse lamp. Quartermaster Rowe begins firing off distress flares.

  • Captain Smith orders Boat 10 to row toward the ship quite clearly visible off the port bow, drop off its passengers, and return for more.

  • 1.55am: John Jacob Astor asks to accompany his new wife in Boat 4, citing her delicate condition. He is refused by Lightoller. The boat is lowered into the water with room for 25 more.

  • 2.05am: J Bruce Ismay steps aboard Collapsible D, the next to last boat to be lowered. In an effort to fend off the panicked passengers, Lightoller waves his pistol in the air. The crew locks arms around the boat in a circle, allowing only women and children to pass through.

  • The forward smokestack breaks loose and falls, crushing several people, including, it is suspected, John Astor5.

  • Beside Collapsible A, an officer is seen to shoot a pair of overanxious passengers. He then says a quiet goodbye, and shoots himself. None of the most reliable survivor's accounts of this incident manage to name the officer in question, but scuttlebutt among the survivors names him as First Officer Murdoch.

  • As the bridge is submerging, Collapsible A, which is still being boarded, is washed off the deck and capsizes. Collapsible B, in the frenzy to get it into the water, is pushed off the roof of the officers' quarters and falls overturned onto the boat deck, then washes away empty.

  • The ship, pulled down at the bow by the weight of the water now filling it, begins to submerge at the bow, lifting the stern up out of the water. The ship is not designed to support its weight in that fashion, and so the ship tears apart amidships. The bow drifts slowly down and away from the stern. The stern does not slam down onto the water6, but remains standing on end for several seconds, before taking on water and falling fast and hard to the ocean floor.

  • 2.20am: Titanic submerges.

  • Approximately 30 people scramble onto the overturned collapsible B, including Second Officer Lightoller, wireless operator Harold Bride, and Colonel Archibald Gracie.

  • Boat 4 returns to the site where Titanic went down, and manages to recover only five living passengers, of whom only two survive.

  • 4 -5am: Carpathia arrives to pick up survivors just as the New York Times hits the news-stands. The headline reads: New Liner 'Titanic' Hits An Iceberg; Sinking By The Bow At Midnight; Women Put Off In Lifeboats; Last Wireless At 12.27am Blurred.

    Quartermaster Robert Hinchens tells the survivors in Boat 6 to ignore Carpathia, as 'she is to pick up bodies'. Molly Brown insists they cast off from Boat 16 and row towards the steamer. When Hinchens protests, Molly threatens to cast him overboard.

  • 5.30am: Californian's radio set is turned on, and the Frankfort informs them of Titanic's fate. Despite their proximity, it would take them three hours to reach the scene.

Contributing Factors

The causes of the tragedy are varied and complex. No single detail caused the incident, it was rather a complicated set of circumstances and decisions, and the changing of any one of them may have been enough to save lives.

The watertight bulkhead design wasn't exactly watertight. The boundaries extended vertically from the keel of the ship to D Deck, four decks below the main deck. This design was sufficient to keep the Titanic afloat if as many as four of her watertight compartments were breached. With the fifth breached, the water level would rise until it reached D Deck, at which point it would begin to spill over into the other watertight compartments.

The Marconi wireless telegraph was still a fairly new technological advance, and ships did not rely on it, as they would come to later, as an integral part of operations. The radio operators were under the command of the captain, but they were employed by the Marconi Wireless Company, and their purpose was to handle messages for passengers. Weather reports and other ship-to-ship transmissions were handled as a courtesy, but were a lower priority than traffic for the paying customers. The equipment failure Saturday evening and extended downtime created a backlog of outgoing messages that the operators felt they had an obligation to catch up. This overload caused numerous warning messages to be misplaced or misdirected, or, in the case of the last one from Californian, ignored.

Captain Smith ordered the ship to travel at high speed through the night, in spite of the one ice warning he had been confirmed to receive, and the other posted by Lightoller in the chart room. In fact, ice warnings were being received during the whole trip, for a total of 21 in all, only seven of which were received after the radio went down.

The unusual calmness of the North Atlantic made icebergs much more difficult to spot for the lookouts. When swells are active, they will reflect off a berg, causing counter-ripples at the surface that would indicate a large object well before it came into view. The clear, moonless sky gave the icebergs nothing to show up against in contrast.

The Californian was close at hand at the time of the sinking, so close that Fourth Officer Boxhall spotted its masthead lights, and Captain Smith ordered a boat to row the distance between them. The wireless operator had quit his post, and the captain and crew completely ignored the distress flares, and never even thought to rouse their radioman. Had the Californian responded to any of the distress calls or signals, Titanic's passengers and crew could have been evacuated before they froze to death in the nearly freezing water.

The Aftermath

Hearings on the matter were conducted first by the US Senate, and then later by the British Board of Trade (BOT). Along with survivor accounts, the vital testimony was provided by Lightoller, Ismay, Californian's Captain Stanley Lord, and Carpathian's Captain Arthur Rostron. During the Senate hearings, Ismay testified that he had told Captain Smith to travel at dangerously high speeds. When the hearings were concluded, the Senate placed full responsibility for the matter on Captain Smith, for maintaining such speeds in such poor conditions. They also chastised Captain Lord, whose indolence cost so many lives that could have been saved, and presented Captain Rostron with a medal. Revisions of maritime laws quickly followed.

Hearings with the BOT had an entirely different outcome. Anxious to maintain national and international confidence in British vessels and seamanship, all directly associated parties were exonerated, including White Star Line, Captain Smith, and Mr Ismay, and only Captain Lord was chastised. However, after the accident, maritime laws and regulations which had previously been lagging behind industry developments were revised. The revisions called for lifeboat capacity for everyone on board, and compelled ships to maintain a continuous watch at the wireless, among others.

Long before the hearings were completed, however, small boat manufacturers were already being overwhelmed by the demand for lifeboats. On 24 April, ten days after the sinking, Titanic's sister ship Olympic was scheduled to depart Southampton, but her coal stokers went on strike, refusing to serve aboard a ship without enough lifeboat capacity for all aboard. 285 crew members deserted, and the voyage was cancelled7.

Along from the investigations conducted by the Senate and the BOT, further historical inquiry has revealed much about the roles of the following people:-

  • J Bruce Ismay: His survival has always been the most controversial, having stepped aboard a collapsible at a time when the men were not being boarded. Furthermore, his part in the excessive speed of the ship has laid strong blame upon his shoulders for the entire accident. He was employed by the same people who operated the Californian, and so tried desperately to exonerate Captain Lord and his crew at the British BOT hearings.

  • Thomas Andrews: The presence of the chief design engineer on board the ship at the time of the accident turned out to be one of the few positives in a blizzard of negatives. The way the ship began sinking may have failed to alert the crew as to the severity of the situation, since it slipped forward just a few degrees in the beginning, then appeared to settle, then slipped forward again by a few degrees many minutes later, and so on. Andrews' intimate knowledge of the ship and its capabilities gave the crew an estimated 45 extra minutes to evacuate the ship. Had he not been on board, hundreds more would likely have died.

    Furthermore, Andrews had always had safety firmly in mind as a design consideration. BOT regulations for lifeboat capacity at the time Titanic was being built set minimum capacities by the size of the ship, not by passenger capacity. Furthermore, ships could get a credit for life saving equipment as an incentive to incorporate watertight bulkheading, the rationale being that ships that are harder to sink were desirable. Titanic incorporated outstanding watertight integrity, and was eligible for a credit that would have cut the requirement for lifeboat capacity to 756. White Star Line did not exercise this option, and, as a further commitment to safety, the ship was built with the new Wellin boat davit system, which would have accommodated four boats for each lifeboat station. Notes were discovered at Andrews' home where he calculated lifeboat additions that would have exceeded the maximum capacity of Titanic by 65 people, and would have fit with the davit system. He did this in anticipation of the passage of new BOT regulations calling for lifeboat space for everyone on board, but these were not passed. When the Titanic set sail with lifeboat capacity for 1178 passengers and crew, it was still 10% more than regulations required.

  • Captain Stanley Lord: He contended during the BOT hearings that the ship he and his crew saw firing flares could not have been the Titanic, as it appeared to be too small. However, he could not explain why another ship would have been firing distress rockets at the same time Titanic had, according to testimony received from Second Officer Lightoller. Furthermore, when word was finally received of the Titanic's fate, the Californian pursued an odd, roundabout route to arrive there. North and slightly west of Titanic's last position when word was received, Californian proceeded west through the ice field, then south, and then east through the debris field a second time. No adequate explanation has ever been given for this odd behaviour.

  • First Officer Murdoch: It was determined that Murdoch, who was the officer in charge at the time of the incident, had reacted in a timely and appropriate manner. It has been speculated that, had the engine room personnel been directly on hand to back the engines immediately, the situation may have been alleviated, but the engines would have taken a full 20 seconds to reverse, and only about 40 seconds passed from sighting until collision. The engines weren't reversed, according to a few survivors from the boiler room, until the collision, and possibly not until after. Furthermore, it has been speculated that Murdoch would have received better results had he ordered the port side propeller reversed, and the starboard propeller to continue forward. However, this was not something that was practiced during sea trials. When confronted with an immediate emergency, he quite naturally fell back on his training, and during sea trials they executed sharp turns by backing up all the engines. Some have even suggested that the ship may have survived had it just rammed the iceberg head-on, compromising only the first compartment. This is ludicrous, as it would have crushed hundreds of passengers and crew in the forward part of the ship, and caused stresses on the hull all along the keel, which could have caused any number of breaches in hull integrity. Regardless of the ifs and whys, Murdoch's instinct to try to avoid collision altogether was the correct one.

  • Second Officer Lightoller: No blame was ever rested on Lightoller, the senior-most survivor of Titanic's crew. The only recognisable fault he committed was in sending lifeboats off partially filled, which would have saved hundreds more lives. He went on to have a fruitful career, and made a great contribution as a citizen in March of 1940, when he sailed his personal yacht to Dunkirk, rescuing an estimated 130 men of the British Expeditionary Force in France at the time of the German invasion.


The story of the fate of Titanic has continued to captivate people since the fateful day of its demise. Curiosity about the wreckage, with lessons to be learned and valuables to be secured, gnawed at the human psyche for many years. It was speculated that an undersea earthquake in Titanic's vicinity might have buried the wreckage in silt, but dedicated searchers were undeterred. When technology finally caught up with curiosity, the search was on in earnest.

The first search for the lost ship in the wake of these technological developments was undertaken by Texas oil tycoon and would-be looter Jack Grimm. He commissioned his first search in July 1980, but was plagued by technical problems and poor weather. He returned again in 1981 and 1983, but all his efforts were fruitless.

The next expedition was a joint US-French venture. The US vessel Knorr, on loan from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, was led by Dr Robert Ballard. It conducted search patterns in a geographic grid in conjunction with the French vessel Le Suroit, beginning on 5 July, 1985. By mid-August, the search had been fruitless, and the French could afford to spend no more time in the search, having to return home.

Dr Ballard's team stuck with it, and they were soon rewarded. In the evening of 31 August, the underwater camera sled Argo first recorded pictures of the debris field from the Titanic. Excited by this development, the search continued on into the night. At 1.05am on 1 September, Argo photographed a boiler which could be clearly identified as a part of Titanic. The search was over. The wreckage was found 13 miles south-by-southeast of Titanic's last reported position.

Fearful of looters, Dr Ballard's team kept the location in strictest confidence. They returned the following year with the submersible Alvin, which they piloted deep into the interior of the sunken vessel for photographs, and captured images of the entire debris field and the hull and stern sections.

After accomplishing this, Dr Ballard's team did finally release the coordinates of Titanic's final resting place. Dr Ballard's initial fears were soon realised. In a highly controversial move, the French vessel IFREMER visited the Titanic and collected many artifacts from the site. The controversy consisted in the fact that the French had had nothing remotely to do with the discovery of the Titanic, and that the French nation had had little to do with it before it sank8. To further fuel the controversy, their submersible Nautile collided with the Titanic's crow's nest, which was still intact at that time. The impact caused it to crumble to dust.

In spite of the controversy, the recovered artifacts were well received. In August 1987, the artifacts were displayed to the American public on Return to the 'Titanic'... Live, hosted by the late Telly Savalas. The highlight of this show was to be the first opening of a safe recovered from the purser's office. This safe had already been inspected and photographed prior to the show, and the photographs reveal that the entire back had rusted out, and that the safe was completely empty. Just before the show, a false back was welded on, and the safe was stuffed with artifacts recovered from the site.

Then, to add even more controversy, in 1988 the backers of the French expedition advanced the silliest conjecture about the demise of the Titanic ever considered. They claimed that the real reason Titanic had sunk was due to an explosion of dust in a coal bunker. They based this theory on a hole discovered in the stern section of the ship. This theory was advanced despite:-

  • The hundreds of survivor accounts which include the sighting of the iceberg and/or the sensation of the impact.

  • The fact that the hole in the ship was too far aft to have been caused by an explosion in said bunker.

  • The fact that the hole was too high above the ship's waterline to have sunk the ship.

Since that time, several other expeditions have been mounted. Quite a lot about the nature of the sinking that was hidden before is known now. Some of the more important points:-

  • The sinking was attributed to a long, horrible gash along the starboard side of the Titanic. Sonar readings from the buried starboard bow have given the lie to this. The ship was evidently afflicted with many small holes as the ship bounced off the iceberg. The total area of the holes is only 12 square feet.

  • The steel used to construct Titanic was unusually brittle. Ship steel manufactured today would have bent more easily, thus resisting complete failure better than Titanic's did. Even for its day, Titanic's hull contained more sulphur than usual, which contributed to its brittleness.

  • The point of failure on the hull, at the steel rivets which secured the hull to the bulkheads, was due to construction methods which caused them to pop out like popcorn when a 90° sheer was applied to them. The method of creating rivet holes at that time was known as 'cold stamping', which involves a cutting machine ramming the steel when it is cold. This process creates microscopic cracks around the rivet holes, which make it that much easier for the rivets to pop loose under unusual stresses. Modern rivet holes are made while the steel is still hot, when riveting is used at all.

1Titanic's design was based on that of the Olympic, its sister ship, but modifications were made which rendered Titanic 1,000 tons heavier and much more luxurious.2The OOD is the acting captain, when the captain is not on the bridge taking charge personally.3Cape Race, Newfoundland, was the home of the wireless relay station whose job it was to direct messages from the Atlantic to New York.4CQD was the call symbol for an emergency distress message for all vessels. MGY were the call letters assigned to Titanic's own radio set.5Astor's body was recovered a few days later, soot stained and partially crushed.6The James Cameron movie suggests this, however, it is not supported by any eyewitness accounts, and recent investigation of the wreckage suggests the breakage went from bottom up, not from top down, as shown in the movie. If it had snapped from the top down, Cameron's interpretation would have been correct.7Just how well were the lessons learned from the Titanic disaster? On 21 September 1916, just two years after the Titanic had sunk, her other sister ship, Britannic, struck a mine in the Aegean Sea. It sank in approximately 55 minutes, but only 30 people were lost.8Two countries could be said to have an interest in the Titanic: the UK, since it was built in Northern Ireland, designed by British engineers, registered in the UK, and served by British crews; and the US as the ship was owned by White Star Lines, which was owned by the International Mercantile Marine, which was owned by American tycoon JP Morgan.

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