Through the Ages – The Titanic
You’ve sung the song. You’ve seen the movie. Now it’s time for the tragic, true story of the RMS Titanic.
A Game of Monopoly
At the beginning of the 20th century two British shipping companies—White Star and Cunard—were battling for the leading position in the passenger shipping business.
In 1902 White Star was purchased by the American-owned International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC), which was attempting to eliminate competition (yes, kids, this is a nice euphemism for a monopoly) and standardize the costs of travel and freight shipment.
As the reputation of the British Mercantile Marine was sullied by the American buy-out the British Government gave the Cunard Lines a $10 million incentive to remain competitive with the White Star lines.
Without Cunard on board for a complete monopoly, the IMMC was unable to standardize prices, and a price war broke out as the competing lines dropped their prices continuously lower and lower in hopes of wooing purchasers. By 1908 a passenger was able to travel from the United Kingdom to the United States for as little as $10. Even with inflation accounted for, that’s pretty incredible!
With ticket prices as low as they were, it was impossible for shipping lines to make any money. Officials with White Star lines pushed to build larger ships that travelled at only moderate speed. It was simply more cost-effective to move many passengers in one craft with one crew (in much the same way that larger airplanes are more efficient for airlines today). They began building larger, finer ships where travel was no longer an action, but a luxury.
The new technology that went into the construction of these large ships was intended to increase safety. The new ships were protected with a double-bottom, and sixteen watertight compartments formed by the bulkheads running across the ship with water-tight doors that could be closed instantly with an electric switch. Should any two of the largest compartments be flooded, the liner could still remain afloat indefinitely. The only oversight was that these water-tight compartments remained open at the top and thus, in the seemingly unlikely case that the ship became tipped over, the compartments could fill with water from the sea like buckets tipped to their sides, or drain water into each other like the sections in a tray of ice.
With all of these new safety features in use, the White Star Line boasted that their new ships, the Olympic and the Titanic were “Practically Unsinkable.” This advertising campaign was later distorted into the legend of “The Unsinkable Titanic.”
With the creation of these mammoth-sized ships, the British Board of Trades’ safety regulations were out of date, as they failed to accommodate for the increasing number of passengers transported at once, but made lifeboat requirements based upon the weight of the ship. Though the large White Star ships far exceeded the lifeboat requirements as set by the Board of Trades, there were not nearly enough lifeboats fitted to the ships to accommodate the number of passengers they were intended to carry.
Shaky First Steps
These new ships were truly luxury cruisers, costing nearly $5,000 dollars in high season. (That’s almost 500 times the cost of the same trip only two years earlier!)
As the maiden voyage loomed nearer for the ill-fated Titanic, the preparations were replete with difficulties. A coal miners strike nearly rendered the trip impossible, as the Titanic was left without sufficient fuel to make the six-day trip. However, as other, smaller ships were encountering the same difficulty, they cancelled trips and passed their coal to the Titanic.
On Wednesday, 10 April, 1912, the Royal and United States Mail Steamer Titanic took to the sea.
As the Titanic began her trip, passing the docked liner SS New York, the Titanic’s huge propellers created a massive suction, which sucked the New York so strongly that her three-inch steel ties snapped. Captain Edward J. Smith immediately ordered the Titanic’s propellers to be reversed and the crew fitted the Titanic with collision mats, thus averting a small disaster that would have prevented the Titanic from continuing on the voyage.
She continued to pick up passengers from various ports around the United Kingdom, her last stop in Queenstown Ireland on April 11th, with only 2,200 passengers and crew members (compared to her 3,500 capacity).
Just as airplanes have designated flight altitudes, ships had designated lanes for travel, which were dictated by general trends in current and weather. From January to July, ships took the Southern Track, which was 200 miles longer than the Northern Track. After an incredibly mild winter in the Arctic, ice had flown much further south on the Gulf Stream than was precedented, and the number of icebergs was correspondingly high.
Passengers were too caught up in the luxurious setting to notice the cancellation of the lifeboat drill on April 14th, a non-mandatory safety measure. The crew also failed to do their routine lifeboat provisions and parts check, for unknown reasons.
The Titanic was fitted with another fairly new technology: wireless telegraphy, which allowed the ship to communicate rapidly with other ships, or to send messages to land. In addition to its use as a device for the crew of the ship, the telegram was marketed for passenger use. After the machine broke down on Saturday night, the operator was struggling to catch up on a backlog of such passenger messages when he received an incoming message (1:40pm on Sunday, 14 April) warning the captain of the exact location of a dangerous ice field. This message was handed directly to the captain, rather than being posted in the charts room where the hazard could be noted on the map.
The ship received several such messages from other ships, most noting that there was ice around 41-42 degrees N, 49-50 degrees W. In the chaos of sending the back-logged messages, many of these critical warnings were set aside and never delivered.
As the ship headed into the danger zone, the sea calmed down. It was a clear, moonless night.
Though it seems like a smoother ride would aid the Titanic in the dangerous seas, the calm actually made it more difficult to spot icebergs, as there would be no breaking waves and white foam to draw attention to the base of the iceberg. With no moonlight and no clouds to reflect the light back from the ship, the night was incredibly dark, further obscuring icebergs. The crewmen in the crow’s nest were instructed to be incredibly vigilant and look out carefully for ice.
When the wireless operator received yet another ice warning, along with a request that he stand by for further updates, he forwarded the message but ignored the request to stand by, continuing to send backlogged outgoing messages (he was paid on commission—based on the number of passenger messages he sent).
At 11:40 pm, after Captain Smith had retired for the evening, the crewmen in the crow’s nest spotted ice directly ahead. The crew played a rapid game of telephone, relaying the “iceberg, right ahead” message, until the First Officer turned the engine to “Stop,” then “Full Speed Astern” and ordered “hard a starboard.” The orders came too late, and the ship turned too slowly.
The iceberg struck below the waterline, causing massive leakage. The First Officer flipped a switch, closing off the water-tight doors separating the ship into its 16 compartments.
Captain Smith rushed up to the bridge.
The damage assessment found that the first 6 of the ships water-tight compartments had been penetrated, and were flooding uncontrollably. The weight of the water on this side of the ship drew the Titanic’s bow down, allowing water to enter the un-flooded compartments through their open tops, making the foundering of the Titanic a certainty.
First class passengers on the far side of the ship were unaware of the danger and were reluctant to leave the warmth and seeming safety of their cabins when instructed to do so.
Closer to the danger, the second and third class passengers began to panic, but, due to US immigration regulations, the third class passengers were not allowed to mix with the first class passengers, and thus, many stewards kept them below deck until they received word otherwise.
By the time third class passengers were allowed on deck, most of the lifeboats were already gone.
As the crew was loading their lifeboats, they failed to load them to capacity, for fear that the boats would buckle in the air under the weight of so many passengers. The first boat, with a capacity for 65 adults was loaded with only 27 people on-board. This practise led to 500 unnecessary deaths.
Varying understandings of the rule of the sea “women and children first” led to some officers refusing all men entry to a lifeboat, leaving a man on one side of the ship 5 times more likely to be allowed onto a boat than a man on the other side.
At 12:10am, Captain Smith had ordered the wireless operator to send out a distress signal. By 2:10 am, help had still not arrived.
The ships stern poked out of the water at a 90-degree angle. As the entire contents of the ship slid downward, the ship screamed out into the night. Finally, the ship snapped in half, The bow sank immediately as the stern settled back into the water for a few minutes, before tipping vertically again, and slipping into the water, leaving a huge suction in her wake.
Although there was ample room in the lifeboats, only two boats (of 18 total) immediately made rounds to collect people from the water. The other boats rowed away, fearing that the drowning masses would pull them all under.
The first ship to arrive in response to Captain Smith’s distress call did not arrive until 4am. Most of the people left in the water died of hypothermia waiting for their rescue.
Of the 2,200 who boarded the ship, only 706 people survived.
Join us soon for another Through the Ages