Page last updated at 19:14 GMT, Wednesday, 1 September 2010 20:14 UK
25 years on: Finding the Titanic
John Pierce
John Pierce had salvaged the RMS Lusitania

Twenty five years ago, on 1 September 1985, The Observer newspaper broke the news that the Titanic had been found.

Hailed as unsinkable at the time of its maiden voyage in April 1912, the ship's fate has since become the stuff of legend, inspiring countless films, documentaries, books and even songs.

What is less well-known is the role that might have been played in its discovery by Chirk man John Pierce.

The engineer claims to have been the first to identify the ship's location.

It was John's theory which was nearest to what proved to be the truth in the end
Observer journalist Alan Roads

In the 1980s John Pierce had become one of the foremost salvage experts. He investigated the wreck of the Lusitania and raised the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior, off New Zealand.

Pierce was also working alongside the Ministry of Defence (MoD), who, still engaged the Cold War, were keen to develop techniques to help them find submarines lost in deep water.

John Pierce's expertise lay in acquiring and analysing large amounts of data. The quest for the Titanic was like searching for any other vessel: "It was a question of two currents. The iceberg wouldn't be there... unless the Labrador current had been effective. Then it catches the gulf stream, then goes to the north east."

The Titanic
1,517 people died when the Titanic sank on 14 April 1912

Pierce particularly paid tribute to the Titanic's navigator Joseph Boxhall: "Boxhall was an extremely good navigator and he'd done the last sighting at 12 O'Clock."

A joint USA-French expedition, led on the American side by Dr Robert Ballard, was established to identify the wreck of the Titanic. The MoD had little interest in the ship and, according to Pierce, urged him to pass his findings on to the Americans based at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

John Pierce's work alongside the MoD in the 1980s seems unclear and the extent of his contribution to the Titanic discovery and to wider MoD projects might never be fully known.

The MoD's current Chief Salvage Officer Morgyn Davies started work in the salvage department in 1985. While he couldn't say John's precise role in the search for the Titanic, he described as "credible" the suggestion that his findings might have been communicated to the Americans.

Newspapers announce the sinking of the Titanic
The sinking of the Titanic is one of the worst maritime disasters in history

According to Morgyn Davies, "In 1985 he [John Pierce] was showing me things that were of a very limited distribution - he was acquiring the data and the information on his own behalf, through his own efforts.

"What you could say I think is that there's a strong possibility that John contributed significantly to pointing people in the right place to look."

Breaking news

What is more certain, however, is John Pierce's role in revealing the story of the Titanic's discovery to the world's media.

Journalist Alan Roads, whose report in The Observer broke the news of the Titanic's discovery to the world, admitted that Pierce was his main source: "It is wholly due to John that we were first of all interested in the subject, and secondly... it was from John that we had the tip off."

John Pierce identifies the location of the Titanic on a chart
John Pierce said it took four years to identify the ship's location

Pierce informed the journalist that if he contacted the Admiralty in Bath he would receive a special password that would confirm his story. Roads said he heard the phrase he was told to expect.

Perhaps more surprised were the researchers at Woods Hole in Massachusetts, who refused to confirm or deny the discovery. The Observer's enquiries had been made barely after the American expedition themselves had confirmed the Titanic's wreck.

Pierce claims he knew they had found the Titanic as soon as he saw the search ships converging on the location he identified as its final resting place. The Observer ran the story and, despite having faith in his source, Roads was "relieved" to hear the official confirmation some five days later.

Alan Roads had visited John Pierce in Chirk and remembers being impressed by his data: "The results he came up with and the location was very, very close to the spot where it was ultimately found... It was John's theory which was nearest to what proved to be the truth in the end."


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific