Today in History: The Unsinkable Titanic.
It was called The Ship of Dreams. It was called The Unsinkable Ship. “God himself couldn’t even sink this ship,” some proclaimed. But the Ship of Dreams became the ship of nightmares and did sink, 103 years ago today at 2:20 AM, two hours after striking an iceberg. The massive vessel dropped to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking with it fifteen hundred lives.
The creation of Titanic all started back in the mid-1900s, when it was instigated by the actions of a shipbuilding company called Cunard, a rival to the shipbuilding company White Star Line; the company that created Titanic. In 1907, Cunard presented two new passenger ships; The Lusitania and the Mauritania. These ships were the fastest in service. Chairman Bruce J. Ismay of the White Star Line decided to top Cunard’s ships, but he planned to do so based on size and luxury of the ships as opposed to speed. Plans were laid, and construction began on the White Star Line’s Olympic Class trifecta of extravagant sister ships that were built to be ahead of their time, completed with top quality designs and features unlike any seen before. The first of these ships was the RMS Olympic, which began construction in 1908. The plans for the RMS Titanic were already underway by then, designed by Irish shipbuilder William Pirrie and headed by Naval architect Thomas Andrews, and Titanic was supposed to be even bigger (which it definitely was, clocking in at the weight of over 46,000 tons and sized 883 feet long and 104 feet high), faster, and more luxurious than Olympic. Construction on Titanic began in March 1909, a little less than five months after Olympic’s construction.
Over 2,000 men built Titanic, and a handful of them died doing so. Others were seriously injured. The work was long, hard, loud, and dangerous, and the salaries of those who built Titanic were measly, about $10 a week, but after three years, the ocean liner was completed at the Harland and Wolffe shipyard, located in Belfast, Ireland.
Over 900 people were employed on Titanic. Captain Edward Smith, an experienced captain who was put in charge of The RMS Olympic the previous year, was put in charge of Titanic. Included in the main crew were seven officers, some of whom were mentioned by name and were dramatized in the 1997 James Cameron film “Titanic.” Also employed were deck, engineering, and victualing crew, bar and restaurant staff, postal clerks, guarantee group and orchestra members, and doctors, nurses, and medical staff who worked in the ship’s infirmary.
Carrying the captain and crew, Titanic sailed off from Belfast toward Southampton, England where awaited anxious passengers that ranged from millionaires and silent movie stars who wanted to be part of the maiden voyage to humble emigrants who had spent every penny they had for a third class ticket to New York in hopes for a better life for themselves and their families. Tickets for Titanic, even for third class, were priced quite high. A first class parlor suite ticket cost almost $5,000, which today would be about $80,000. First class berth tickets were $150, which today would be about $3,000. A business class ticket cost $60, which today would be about $1,200, and a third class ticket cost $40, which today would be close to $1,000.
Titanic set sail from Southampton on April 10th, 1912, picked up some final passengers in Cherbourg France and Queenstown Ireland, and then from Queenstown, sailed full speed ahead toward New York City. For the five days of the voyage, passengers, namely those in first class, enjoyed their comfortable and spacious accommodations and amenities such as a heated pool, an exercise facility, and even a squash court. All passengers of every class could also enjoy walks on the lavish decks (Titanic had 9 decks in total) and look out at the breathtaking beauty of the Atlantic Ocean. Titanic even had its own newspaper which was called The Atlantic Daily Bulletin which was published every day and, along with news and advertisements, it included an entertaining gossip column and the daily menu.
On April 14, Titanic’s wireless operators received ice warnings from other ships, beginning in the early hours of the morning and continued throughout the day. There were six warnings in total, and the first warning was received at 9 AM by the RMS Caronia. The warnings prompted Captain Smith to set a new course to avoid the ice and also have the crew scheduled for a lifeboat drill, but for unknown reasons, he canceled that drill and continued on course. It is said that Ismay ordered Captain Smith and the crew to continue sailing at full speed, despite the fact that he was shown a telegraphed warning from the RMS Baltic at 1:40 PM, which suggested that Titanic maneuver slowly through the water as there were large amounts of ice. Typically icebergs and field ice didn’t pose serious problems for ships, especially one Titanic’s size, so the warnings weren’t taken as seriously as they should have been.
The night of April 14th was moonless, the sky was clear, and everything was still. In these conditions, ice is difficult to see and if the condition is just right, it creates a sort of mirage that would have likely made the ice almost invisible to the naked eye until it was too late to see it.
At 11:40 PM, the lookouts saw the ice, telephoned the bridge to say “Iceberg right ahead” and sounded the alarm. They only had 37 seconds to react before Titanic hit. First Officer Murdoch ordered a “hard a-starboard” which meant make a hard left and called down to the engine rooms and told them to put the engines in reverse. Despite the crew’s best efforts, Titanic scraped the iceberg and a series of holes punctured into the side of the hull on the starboard side. Andrews, who was aboard the ship, was summoned to examine the damage and concluded that the ship would sink. The pumps were incapable of keeping up with the water flooding into the compartments. There were 16 watertight compartments built on the ship that four maximum could be filled with water and the ship would have stayed afloat, but the water filled five of the compartments, which tilted the ship enough for the water to spill over into the sixth, seventh, eighth, and so on, because they weren’t sealed at the top.
Titanic’s wireless operators sent distress signals to the nearest ships, telling them that the ship was going down and was going down fast. Ironically, it was White Star Line’s rival company Cunard’s The Carpathia that received the signal and went full steam ahead to the rescue, but it was too far away to help before Titanic went down. They did, however, rescue Titanic’s passengers who were in the lifeboats and the six passengers who were pulled from the water.
Another ship was closer though. The Californian was within two hours from Titanic and had their wireless operator received the distress signal, The Californian could have made it in time to rescue all the passengers and crew aboard Titanic before the ship went down, but unfortunately their wireless operator had gone to bed ten minutes before the signals came in. The Californian had been another ship that had warned about ice and sent a couple more ice warnings, and it is said that Titanic’s wireless operators Harold Bride and Jack Phillips became so annoyed with The Californian’s wireless operator that they told him to “piss off.”
At first, only the crew knew what was happening with Titanic. Passengers didn’t feel much of an impact. Most reported feeling only a slight shudder and thought that it was just an engine that had stopped but there was nothing dangerous to alarm over, even when crewmen knocked on doors and instructed everyone to put lifebelts on. Some passengers thought it was a lifeboat drill for the crew and so they shrugged their shoulders and went back to their rooms. Others nonchalantly strolled out onto the deck to investigate the cause of the noise and children were even kicking around the ice that had dropped onto the decks when the iceberg was hit. Little did they know that water was already flooding the supposedly watertight compartments below G deck and some of the engine crewmen were likely already dead, unable to get out of the way of the water rushing in.
It didn’t take long for people to realize what was happening. In less than an hour, word began to spread that Titanic had hit something and water was flooding the lower decks. Panic ensued and people rushed out onto the decks to clamber into one of the 20 lifeboats that Titanic carried. To keep order and also because there weren’t enough boats, the officers put the “women and children first” policy into effect and they started with the first class passengers. Wives said goodbye to their husbands, children said goodbye to their fathers and climbed aboard lifeboats with their mothers. For many, those were final goodbyes. Those left behind watched as the last lifeboat rowed off, only filled to half of the capacity, and they were left to their fate. Those in the lifeboats watched in horror as Titanic rose into the air and then snapped in half around 2:18 AM and two minutes later, completely disappear beneath the waves.
Some went down with the ship. Others desperately tried to survive the frigid waters of the Atlantic and stay afloat. Most of the passengers froze to death. Those without lifebelts on drowned if they didn’t find something to cling to.
One of the lifeboats, filled only with crewmen, rowed back to rescue those left in the water. They were only able to find six survivors and pull them to safety.
The Carpathia arrived an hour and a half after Titanic sank and rescued the 705 passengers (including two dogs) in the boats. Crew and passengers of The Carpathia gave the survivors warm meals and clothes.
Death didn’t know a class the day Titanic went down. 6% of first class passengers perished along with 20% in the business class and 52% in the third class. Most of those who died were men. Some of those who perished were notable figures such as J.J. Astor (real-estate tycoon and founder of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel), Benjamin Guggenheim (of Guggenheim Mines) and Isador Straus (the co-owner of Macy’s Department Store). Struas died along with his wife, who refused to go to a lifeboat and instead decided that if her husband would die on the ship, she would die alongside him. They were last seen sitting together on deck chairs, holding hands (their story was so touching that in the 1997 movie Titanic, they are portrayed as the elderly couple lying in a bed together as water rushes into the room). Of the crew, only 215 survived out of almost one thousand. Those who did not included First Officer Murdoch, wireless operator Jack Phillips, Captain Edward Smith, and the ship’s architect Thomas Andrews, who refused to go to a lifeboat and thought it would be more noble and proper to go down with the ship he built. He stayed behind and helped as many passengers as possible. The most memorable of the deaths of the crewmen though is that of Titanic’s musicians, a band of eight men led by bandmaster and violinist Wallace Hartley. To keep passengers calm, the musicians stayed together and played until the very end. The last song they played was called “Songe d’Autumne” (also known as Autumn Waltz). In the movie, the last song is “Nearer My God to Thee” which the band also did play on that fateful night.
On April 17th, the Mackay-Bennett was sent from Halifax, Nova Scotia to recover the bodies from Titanic. Of the fifteen hundred people who went into the water, only 328 bodies were found, and of those 328, 116 were not able to be identified. Some of these victims were buried at sea but other bodies were carried back on the Mackay-Bennett. A memorial dedicated to the victims of Titanic was erected in Nova Scotia.
News of the sinking finally reached the shores on April 18th and caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. White Star Line had advertised Titanic as ‘unsinkable’ and claimed that Titanic was specifically designed not to sink. Inquiries carried on in The United States and Great Britain from April through July 1912 and several were called to give their testimonies about what had happened. Among these to give a testimony was Bruce J. Ismay, who had made a rather controversial decision to climb aboard one of the lifeboats. The sinking sparked several debates about what factors were at fault. For one, Titanic was only carrying 20 lifeboats when it was equipped to carry 32. The decision to have only 20 boats came from White Star management and Ismay, who thought that 32 boats would make the deck look too cluttered. Another factor was that the lifeboats, which were equipped to carry 65 people, were only filled halfway. Throughout the years, other factors were included in the long list that may have contributed to the sinking. Many say Titanic was simply too big. A smaller ship would have been easier to control. Others say it wasn’t just the size that was a flaw in the design, but the rivets and metals holding the ship together were too weak and the watertight compartments should have been sealed at the top. Whatever the reason, the sinking of the Titanic called into question the safety regulations of the day. One of the biggest reasons for this catastrophe was that the regulations that were applied to Titanic were regulations equipped to for smaller ships which carried fewer passengers. 20 lifeboats was the standard number that a ship, by law, was required to carry. Titanic should have been required to carry more than that, as it was carrying almost 3,000 passengers. Regular lifeboat drills for the crew should have also been necessary. While the officers were experienced, many members of the deck crew were not. The regulations were adjusted accordingly, prompted by the Titanic sinking, and are still in place today.
The sinking of the Titanic was one of the most talked about events in the 20th century and for many, it foreshadowed the global tragedy that was World War 1 and was the first of the chain of tragic events of the 1910s that led to the end of the majesty that was the Edwardian era. Even over 100 years later, Titanic is still a topic of interest and was the subject of movies, television shows, books, and articles. Fascination dimmed somewhat in the mid -20th century but resurfaced with a new spark after the discovery of the wreckage by Titanic explorer Robert Ballard and his crew in 1985 and today’s adult generation was introduced to Titanic in 1997 when it was the setting for a period romance between a first class lady and a third class gent who met aboard the ship and faced the tragedy together.
Today Titanic still sits at the bottom of the Atlantic, but artifacts have been recovered from the wreckage and have been put on display in museums, exhibits, and Titanic memorials across the globe. It might not be there long though. In the early 1990s, Canadian scientists extracted samples of bizarre-looking rust that coated Titanic. The rust was called ‘rust-sicles’ because of how similar they looked to icicles. The rust contained a specific form of undiscovered bacteria, which was then named Halomonas Titanicae after its discovery on Titanic. These bacteria are currently eating the remains of Titanic and the ship is slowly disintegrating. In another hundred years, there may not be anything left of the once majestic ship, the marvel of its day that took just over three years to build and just under three hours to come to rest at its watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic, just 300 miles away from the shores of its destination that was New York.
“When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident … or any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.”
Edward J. Smith, 1907
Captain, RMS Titanic, 1912
-Researched and written in memorial to all who perished aboard Titanic. May they never be forgotten.