The Titanic

The following was written by historians @

April 14, 2007, marked the 95th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury liner, RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic, approximately 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, with its 2,200 passengers and crew members. At 11:40 PM on April 14, 1912, at a speed of about about 23 or 24 miles per hour, the Titanic grazed the tip of a massive iceberg. It took less than three hours for the luxury liner, once pronounced as ‘unsinkable,’ to descend 2 1/2 miles to the Atlantic Ocean’s floor. At least 1500 people on board went down with the ship and only 335 bodies (roughly 20%) of those unfortunates were ever recovered. The Titanic’s sudden demise on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York in the icy waters of the north Atlantic in 1912 stunned the world. The tragic event continues to capture the imagination of contemporaries through film portrayals, scholarly books and, with the discovery of Titanic’s resting place in 1985, artifacts from the grand liner.

Perhaps it is difficult for us living in the 21st century to understand the appeal and importance of luxury liner travel as represented by the Titanic and similar ships in the early twentieth century. Transatlantic commercial airplane travel didn’t exist until 1939 with the first non-stop Atlantic crossing. Mass air travel didn’t become feasible until after the Second World War and the development of the jet propulsion engine. Thus, in the early 20th century, ships were the primary means of venturing across the “Pond.” In contrast to the early 19th-century cramped, dimly-lit, slow-moving, and unpleasantly smelling vessels that carried cargo across the Ocean, the Titanic offered both speed and luxurious surroundings to paying customers in an age in which more people were beginning to reap the economic and technological benefits of industrialization as well as enjoy more leisure time.

The Titanic was constructed amidst the escalating naval race between Great Britain and Germany and imperial rivalries among European nations. Great Britain had ruled the seas for centuries and intended to maintain its preeminence by building larger and sturdier ships suitable for both military and commercial use. The Cunard and White Star shipping companies competed with each other for the honor of building the best and fastest luxury liner. Owned by White Star (which had been purchased by the American billionaire J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine consortium), the Titanic was built at the shipyards of Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Ireland, over the course of two years (March 1909 and May 1911). It took, however, nearly an additional year for its engines, boilers, interiors, galleys and navigation equipment to be installed. When completed in 1912, the Titanic boasted a double-bottom and sixteen watertight compartments. Theoretically, the watertight doors in the bulkheads were to close automatically (operated by an electric switch on the bridge) in case of an emergency, thereby creating the mystique of an unsinkable ship. With a length of 882.5 feet and weighing over 46,000 tons, the Titanic was certainly a leviathan.

On April 10, 1912, the Titanic began its maiden and final voyage from Southampton docks in southern England. The huge displacement of water caused by the luxury liner as it was being towed by tugboats out of port nearly caused a collision with another smaller vessel, the New York, which was moored nearby. Only at the last moment was one of the tugboats able to prevent an accident. Was this a bad omen? That night the luxury liner reached Cherbourg, France, where an additional 142 first class, 30 second-class, and 102 third-class passengers boarded. The last port of call before her Atlantic crossing was Queenstown, Ireland, where 123 more passengers alighted on the morning of April 11. At that point the Titanic counted roughly 1320 passengers and 915 crew. According to the Mersy Inquiry, responsible for probing the luxury liner disaster, 1316 passengers were on board, 325 of whom were in first class, 285 in second class, and 706 in third class. Many of the first class passengers were wealthy, prominent Americans, among them millionaires John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus (owners of W.H. Macy’s department store), Denver millionaire Margaret “Molly” Brown (later known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”), American painter, Frank D. Millet, and Major Archibold Butt, President Taft’s military aide. British businessman and Managing Director of the White Star, J. Bruce Ismay, was also on board and one of the relative few who survived the tragedy. Both financier and railway magnate John Pierpont Morgan and chocolate magnate Milton Hershey had planned to make the journey but cancelled their reservations. British and European sightseers and immigrants hoping to start a new life in America accounted for the remainder in second and third classes. The Titanic, under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith, was scheduled to arrive in New York harbor on April 15.

For three days the Titanic, aided by clear and relatively calm weather, proceeded toward its U.S. destination at an uninterrupted pace of over twenty-two knots. Indications that possible trouble lay ahead began to surface the morning of April 14. On at least eight different occasions Titanic’s wireless operator received warnings from other ships in the North Atlantic encountering “large belts of ice.” These icebergs had broken off from Greenland as a result of a mild winter and had floated into the shipping lanes. The information warning about the presence of icebergs along her route was passed along to Captain Smith, save for one, sent by the German steamer Amerika at 1:45 PM. Sometime thereafter the ship’s wireless suddenly stopped working until early evening . By the time the problem was fixed, what turned out to be the most critical warning was never delivered to the Captain.

Early Sunday evening, April 14, the outdoor temperatures fell ominously to almost 32 degrees, driving all passengers who had ventured out on deck back inside the liner. The temperature decline likely was an indication of the icy waters that lay beyond. The Titanic steamed ahead under a moonless, clear sky. The sea resembled smooth plate glass. So placid were the Atlantic waters that they offered little assistance to crew members in the crow’s nests, looking for waves that generally broke around an iceberg’s base. By 11:30 PM most passengers had adjourned to their cabins for bed. The still of the night was interrupted only by a few diehard card players who remained in the first class smoking area and some crew members setting the tables for Monday morning breakfast.

Just ten minutes later, at 11:40 PM, one of the crew in the crow’s nest, spotting what appeared to be an iceberg, rang the bell three times to alert the bridge. Responding to the urgent call, the First Officer ordered the helmsman to make a hard turn to prevent the ship’s stern from hitting the protruding iceberg, but it was too little, too late. The iceberg grazed the luxury liner, tearing the iron rivet heads that fastened its steel shell plates and admitting water below the waterline. Although the watertight doors were activated, sealing the 16 compartments, the collision already had sent water into the first six, flooding them. The fact that watertight bulkheads did not extend completely upwards meant that the ship was now vulnerable. Ice from the iceberg fell onto the forward decks. At the moment of impact, the Titanic was at 41 degrees 46’ N, Longitude 50 degrees 14’ W. The closest seaport was Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The ship’s collision went unnoticed by many passengers, especially on the upper decks, most of whom remained in their cabins. Others in third class cabins forward on the lower decks, closer to the point of impact, were awakened by a kind of grating or ripping sound, and found water about them. A few curious passengers went up on deck to investigate, only to find ice on the deck. Some of these even began to toss the pieces of ice around as if playing a game of football, completely unaware of the seriousness of the situation. When J. Bruce Ismay heard the noise from the ship’s encounter with the iceberg, he immediately rushed out of his cabin to question Captain Smith. That the Titanic was seriously damaged, Smith told him, was without doubt.

It was not until 12:05 AM on April 15, twenty-five minutes after the initial impact, that Captain Smith ordered the crew to uncover the ship’s lifeboats and send a distress call. Lacking a public address system, the ship depended upon its crew to knock on the doors of all passengers to inform them of the incident and insist on evacuation. Even with the urgent (if polite) appeal to come up on deck and put on their lifejackets, many people still could not believe that the mighty Titanic was in trouble. To make matters worse, communicating about the ship’s impending doom was complicated by the fact that some immigrants in third class did not understand English. Even sadder was the existence of gates restraining passengers in third class, a regulation required by U.S. immigration. Fear of and unfamiliarity with other cultures forced the crew to keep the third class passengers below until they received word for them to be allowed on deck. Only when the ship began to list did reality begin to set in.

By 12:20 AM the ship’s crew began loading passengers onto twenty lifeboats, that could accommodate roughly 50% of its passengers. This ridiculously small number of lifeboats for over 2,000 passengers, however, legally complied with British regulations that vessels over 10,000 tons carry at least 16 lifeboats. Worse yet, the lifeboats were not filled to capacity. For example, the first lifeboat carried only 27 passengers, women and children, although it had a capacity of 65. In placing passengers onto the lifeboats, the crew adhered to the unwritten rule of the sea — “women and children first.” Between 12:40 and 2:05 AM eighteen lifeboats were launched.

At 1 AM the ship shot off its distress rockets, sparking panic among the remaining passengers, who now realized that the ship was indeed sinking with them on it. Third class passengers, unfortunately, were less likely to survive, thanks to the gates and tardiness with which crew members attempted to “herd” them up to the lifeboats. By 1:45 AM the Titanic’s bow was underwater, and the ship was listing severely. The impending doom evoked curious reactions among the passengers. Perhaps realizing the futility of it all, a few men continued to play bridge, despite a precipitously slanting card table. Some men, however, placed the lives of other passengers before their own by assisting them into the lifeboats and then throwing overboard assorted furniture that could float to be used as rafts. As valiant as the efforts by individual passengers and crew members were, nothing short of a miracle could halt the demise of the Titanic. Between 2:10 and 2:15 AM the luxury liner’s stern rose out of the water to an upright angle and its bridge dipped under the water, resulting in calamitous crashing of furniture, plates, pianos, and the like. Unable to withstand the pressure, the massive boilers finally tore away from their foundations, crashing through the bulkhead and causing booms to resonate through the doomer liner. As the lights flickered for the last time and with passengers still clinging desperately to railings and decks and still others jumping into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, the Titanic disappeared from sight into its watery grave.

Fifteen hundred people, most of them wearing lifejackets, went down with the ship. While some were crushed when the ship sank, others simply drowned or fell victim to hypothermia as water temperature was below freezing. 705 people in the lifeboats were rescued by the Carpathia, owned by Cunard Line, which had received the Titanic’s distress call and arrived at the scene around 4 AM. Worried about encountering more icebergs, the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur H. Rostron, charted a course south to New York instead of to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was the closest major seaport. Three ships, the Mackay-Bennett, Minia, and Montmagny, dispatched from Halifax, and the Algerine from Saint John’s Newfoundland, recovered only 335 bodies from the 1500 Titanic victims (roughly 1 in 5). Among the fortunate (and more promient) few who survived were Margaret (“The Unsinkable Molly”) Brown, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (a British landowner) and his wife, Lady Lucy Christiana, and J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of White Star. Captain Smith, however, went down with his ship.

Interested in reading about some new revelations about the Titanic? Try:

Jennifer Hooper McCarty & Tim Foecke, What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries (Citadel, 2008)
Brad Matsen, Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler (Twelve, 2008)


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