|2. The Universe / Travel & Transport / Transport|
2. The Universe / Travel & Transport / Travel
3. Everything / History & Politics / Historical Events / Disasters
The RMS Titanic
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:
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:
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 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.
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:-
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:-
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:-
People have been talking about this Guide Entry. Here are the most recent Conversations:
Most of the content on this site is created by h2g2's Researchers, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here to alert our Moderation Team. For any other comments, please start a Conversation below.