You know how it ends.
It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but woke it with a start. To my mind, the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.
—Jack Thayer, Titanic survivor
The RMS Titanic
was a transatlantic liner that sank
in 1912, causing approximately 1,500 deaths. At the time of her maiden (first) voyage, she was the largest ship to have ever sailed the seas
. Construction started in 1909 in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and was completed a few months before the big trip—enough time for rumors to spread about the luxurious White Star Liner being "unsinkable". Then, said ship sets sail for New York, hits an iceberg on the fourth day, and sinks in less than three hours. Its fate has inspired at least 36 movies
, including a Nazi propaganda film
, two cartoonified versions in which Everyone Lives, and James Cameron
's 1997 blockbuster Titanic
Throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, millions of emigrants wanted to go to America to start a new life, and the mail services in Europe needed a swift and reliable means of transporting hundreds of thousands of letters and packages across the Atlantic. Various ship lines in Great Britain, the United States and eventually Germany
would answer the call with large, steam-driven
ships, but the most famous of these lines, Great Britain's Cunard and White Star, would be the big dogs, constantly competing against each other for emigrant passenger tickets (the real
bread and butter of the trade, rather than first-class passengers) and the profitable license to carry the mail to and from Britain. Hence the initials RMS
on ships that held that license — R
But in the late 1890s, the Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hamburg America Lines threatened to encroach into Cunard and White Star's competition with the launch and maiden voyages of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse
, two liners of unprecedented size, speed (with Kaiser
running at a then-unheard-of speed of 22.35 knots (Just over 41km/h or almost 26mph), and Deuschland
traveling even faster) and luxury. In response, the Cunard Line (that had always placed speed and reliability
as paramount for their ships) produced the 787 and 790-foot long Lusitania
in 1907, with top speeds of over 24 knots, thanks to their four turbine engines (the first class of ocean liners to be exclusively turbine-driven, after the comparative experiment with Cunard's liners Carmania
over the cost-effectiveness of the turbine in 1905) and the largest liners in the world both in physical size and mass (the empty shell of the Lusitania
at launch outweighed the fully outfitted Kaiser
by 2,000 gross tons), as well as among the first to have elevators (or "lifts" as the British know them) for passengers.
White Star, seeing the threat Cunard's new "Greyhounds of the Atlantic" presented to the company, quickly drafted a response. As opposed to Cunard, White Star prided itself on comfort and luxury rather than pure speed (as that tended to come at the cost of passenger capacity, and resulted in a tendency to vibrate uncomfortably). Part of this was granting modest luxuries to third-class, which included linens, silverware, waiters who brought their food, and free postcards on their menus, so that they could praise White Star to their friends and relatives back home. As such, they sought to build two, possibly three, liners that were at least ninety feet longer than the Lusitania
, and by far more luxurious than both together.
The answer was the Olympic
-Class of ship: 52,000 ton, 882-foot long superliners with the capacity for 3,000 passengers and crew, three
lifts in first-class and one for second-class, and two reciprocating high-pressure engines for the two "wing" propellers, and a low-pressure turbine for the smaller, central propeller, increasing cost-effectiveness in steam economy by reusing steam wasted by the reciprocating engines. For luxury, the ships boasted promenade decks for each class, whose cabins for third and second class were just as good as second and first-class cabins on other ships, and the first-class rooms were just as splendid as any suite at the best hotels in the world, with the most expensive suite of cabins (yes, suite of cabins
) went for hundreds of thousands of American dollars in 2012 money, with private baths for more first and even second-class cabins than any other ship afloat (even as late as the 1930s most ships still required most passengers to share bathing facilities like in a college dorm). As the popular ships of the day had four funnels, a fake was added on the back, which also doubled as a large ventilator for the engineering spaces, reducing the number of ventilator cowls on deck, producing a clean outline, whereas the Mauretania
's deckhouse roofs, with their multitude of cowls, looked cluttered in comparison.
Safety was also considered in the design: a double-bottomed hull to contain flooding in the event of running aground; sixteen bulkheads that went two decks above the waterline (any two of which could flood with bulkheads above the floodwater to spare); in the event of a collision, or in the impractical probability of the first four compartments flooding the ship would still float, acting as its own lifeboat until help could arrive; and above all, in the event of the worst, the ships boasted a new davit
design that could hold up to 68 lifeboats, but for various reasons (cosmetics, impracticality, cost, etc.) the number was reduced to 20, which was still four boats beyond the legally required 16 for ships 10,000 tons and over in the British Board of Trade regulations.
being the operative word. Certainly, unpredictable things might happen, but as a major passenger tragedy had not befallen any White Star ship in some forty years, there was little reason for anyone in the shipping industry to be overly concerned beyond academics.
And so it became known in the shipbuilding world that the Olympic
-Class were "practically
unsinkable", and the press at large censored out the "practical" part and simply deemed them "Unsinkable," and the public bought it and ran with it. After all, in an age where men were flying, and one person communicating with someone else on the other side of the world in real time, and horses were losing buyers to the horseless carriage, the idea of a ship that could not be sunk was hardly unimaginable.
And so the first ship, RMS Olympic
, set sail in 1911, and the response was so successful that White Star ordered a third ship, Britannic
(the urban myth that she was to be named "Gigantic" and renamed after the disaster is just that, Gigantic
was a meme
bandied about by the workers at Harland and Wolf as a hopeful potential name for all new ships).
It was in this environment that the middle child, Titanic
, rose to the prominence. On her maiden voyage, starting at Southampton, England and Cherbourg, France on April 10th before going off to Queenstown (now Cobh
), Ireland, she was loaded with not only hundreds of emmigrants from both the Continent and the British Isles, but the wealthiest aristocrats, by title or by position, on both sides of the Atlantic. These included big names such as John Jacob Astor IV, heir to the Astor Railroad fortune and his barely 19-year old
bride Madeleine returning home from their extended honeymoon (and to wait out the scandal involving JJ's divorce and marriage to a younger woman... and to ensure that their unborn child was born on American soil). As well as the Strauses, Isidor and Ida, co-owners of the world-famous Macy's Department Store in New York, along with scores of other members of the 1912 rich and famous. White Star was also represented on board, with managing director J. Bruce Ismay and Harland & Wolff's head designer Thomas Andrews traveling to observe the general performance of the new ship.
And at the helm, was Captain E.J. Smith, "The Millionaire's Captain," and White Star's favorite officer, who took out every new ship of the line on her maiden voyage for the past decade and a half. At the age of 63, Smith planned to retire. If not after this voyage on Titanic
, then certainly after Britannic
's in the spring of 1915.
But the winter of 1911-12 was unusually warm, and the threat of icebergs breaking off from the glaciers of Greenland and northeast Canada was more dire than usual, with a thicker density of icebergs and pack ice farther south than usual. Titanic
's wireless operators received a number of ice warnings, but due to the nature of their employ
, only sent a few to the bridge. On the day of the disaster, the operators were trying to clear a large backlog of messages that had accumulated as their equipment had broken down the day before. This made Senior Wireless Operator Jack Phillips a bit irritable, and when a nearby ship called the Californian
tried to warn them of a ice field right in their path, Phillips told him to shut up, as the Californian
was so close they were interfering with Titanic's
signal to the mainland (the Titanic also had much more sensitive radio equipment than the Californian
; the message nearly blew out Phillips' ear drums). The operator on the Californian
then turned in for the night and shut down his equipment, and thus the one ship within fifteen miles of the Titanic
would not hear of the disaster until morning.
On Sunday, April 14th, at 11:40 PM ship's time, it was a new moon and the sea as smooth as glass, highly unusual for the typically swell-filled North Atlantic. These circumstances made the prospect of finding icebergs almost impossible, without the light of the moon or the whitewash of waves breaking at the waterline of the iceberg. Normally, the lookouts would be equipped with binoculars, but a last-minute change to the command structure resulted in the binoculars being misplaced at Southampton. So it's a testament to Frederick Fleet's eyes and dedication that he saw the iceberg when he did (really more of a black mass where starlight wasn't
), his co-watchman Reginald Lee ringing the bell as Fleet telephoned the bridge.
The officer on duty on the bridge, First Officer Murdoch, saw the iceberg too, and ordered "Hard to Starboard" (technically to Port, or a Left Turn, but Titanic
used tiller commands and so the directions were reversed), and ordered all of the engines full astern.
However, in the heat of the moment, Murdoch forgot a vital factor in Titanic
's turning ability: The turbine could not go in reverse, so in a full-astern order it, and the center propeller directly in front of the rudder, simply stopped, and with the two wing propellers turning in reverse, the water flow over the rudder was greatly reduced, rendering the rudder practically useless. It has been speculated that had Murdoch ordered only the port engine reversed, or simply left the engines alone, Titanic
could have either missed the iceberg entirely, or collided with greatly reduced damage. But what was done was done, and less than forty seconds later, Titanic
hit the iceberg.
Most of the passengers never noticed the collision, or felt little more than a slight rumbling bump. Thomas Andrews, the designer, never even knew of the accident until Captain Smith ordered him to go down below to examine the damage. After midnight, Andrews returned with the news, and it wasn't good. Six
compartments had been breached: the forward peak, all three cargo holds, and boiler rooms 5 and 6. Titanic
could float with up to two compartments, or the four foremost compartments, flooding. Any more, and the ship would sink. The engineers were able to fix Boiler Room 5's two or so feet of damage and began pumping, but for every gallon the engineers pumped out, Titanic
took on 15 more. Andrews informed the captain that Titanic
would sink in less than two hours.
Over the next two hours the crew rushed to launch the boats while Senior Wireless Operator Jack Phillips worked frantically to get the word out, right up to the very end. The closest ship to respond to the distress call, Carpathia
, was four hours away. The launching of lifeboats was extremely chaotic and disorganized. Titanic had never had a lifeboat drill and only had enough boats to accomodate less than half those on board. Captain Smith, upon realizing the scope of the emergency, gave vague orders and became so disconnected he didn't bother to find out if his orders were being carried out. His command of "Women and children first" was interpreted by Murdoch to mean "Women and children first
, let men in if there's room," while Second Officer Lightoller took it to mean "Women and children only
." Neither officer was informed of the rated capacity of the lifeboats, and erred on the side of caution. Furthermore, the ship did not appear to be in immediate danger, which made passengers reluctant to leave it on a small rowing boat in the middle of the night. All of which meant that boats built for 65 were lowered half-full.note
Due to the chaotic nature of the evacuation, and the limited time in which they were launched, it has been speculated that even had there been enough lifeboats for all on board, only a small additional number would have been saved.
At 2:20 AM local time, Titanic
broke apart and slipped beneath the waves, and the some-odd 1,500 men, women, and children left behind died of hypothermia in the 28°F (-2°C) water within half an hour. Only one lifeboat went back to look for survivors, and only found six. This is another point of contention about the disaster, but it's usually agreed that many desperate swimmers trying to climb into the lifeboats could have resulted in them flipping over, dooming even more survivors. With little to do but wait, the survivors were picked up by RMS Carpathia
at dawn. Within hours, news of the disaster started to spread to newspapers across the globe. However, it would not be until the Carpathia's
arrival in New York three days later that the true scope of the sinking was clear.
After the disaster, new legislations was passed on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that such a tragedy couldn't happen again, and the Titanic
became another piece of pop culture until 1985, when a joint French and American team found the wreckage, and the following year the Woods-Hole Oceanographic Institute sent a team, lead by discoverer Dr. Robert "Bob" Ballard to dive and photograph the wreck.
Today the wreck lies in two big chunks, with smaller chunks consisting of the middle section over a fifteen-square mile area. The wreck itself is being consumed by iron-eating bacteria
, and assuming that those don't finish her off, recent sonar scans show that dunes that dwarf the ship are slowly being blown her way by the currents, ensuring that the whole site will be buried.
There is much controversy concerning the near-constant dives on the wreck and the issue of salvaging artifacts from the site, and the damage the efforts do to the wreckage (the team that retrieved the ship's bell destroyed the crow's nest while doing so, which until then had been virtually whole and intact. On one of the dives with the Russian Mir, subs damaged a deckhouse on accident with its propeller). Some equate the salvaging with grave robbing, and that the ship should be left to rust in peace. Others claim that such comparisons are invalidated by the treatment of similar legendary disaster sites such as Pompeii, and that it is important to document the wreck site as clearly and thoroughly as possible while the ship still exists.
Current international legislation prohibits tampering with the wreck of the ship itself, but the debris field containing thousands of artifacts ranging from pots and pans to shoes to tableware to dolls
to wreckage is more or less free rein for the Salvor-in-Possession Titanic
, Inc. (now Premier Exhibitions) to collect items from, which can be seen in museums and traveling exhibitions the world over.
Works Set aboard RMS Titanic
Too many to list here, but there a few noteworthy works:
- Saved from the Titanic (1912): The film was made shortly after the disaster. It starred actress and model Dorothy Gibson, who actually was on the ship and wore the clothes she wore on the ship when making the movie. The prints were destroyed in a fire in 1914 and the film is lost; Gibson was so traumatized by the sinking that she retired from show business after the movie.
- In Night and Ice: (1912): Originally titled In Nacht Un Eis, an early example of a "mockumentary," reenacting the the ship's crossing, iceberg collision, and sinking aboard the German luxury liner Kaiserin Auguste Viktoria, along with some laughable by today's standards model footage shot in the Baltic Sea. Unlike the Dorothy Gibson film made a few months prior, this film survives. A copy was rediscovered in 1998 and preserved by the German Film Archives.
- Titanic: A 1943 melodrama made in Nazi Germany as an anti-British propaganda piece. However, the film was promptly censored and withdrawn after scenes of disaster and panic turned out to be a hot bed for Unfortunate Implications and it was banned in Germany by Joseph Goebbels. The film established many conventions and clichés that were followed up by future Titanic films, like interweaving a fictional love story amongst real historical events and portraying J. Bruce Ismay as the villain. It also takes some weird liberties with the facts for the sake of propaganda—in this film Titanic is the fastest ship in the world, John Jacob Astor is plotting a hostile takeover of White Star Line and Ismay pushes Capt. Smith to go faster than necessary in an attempt to raise White Star stock prices to fight off the takeover. (Making the heroic ship's officer a fictional German doesn't help.)
- Titanic: "They Just Didn't Care" would be a good way to describe this 1953 Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck movie, which concerns itself more with a fictional custody battle between two catty first class passengers than the actual ship and the subsequent disaster.
- A Night to Remember: (1958) A docu-novel and later film that has aged fairly enough, and even today is considered one of the more accurate portrayals of the sinking in film (Pre-1985 that is).
- SOS Titanic: (1979) a British/American co-production miniseries using the same docudrama template as A Night to Remember, but covering the ship's entire voyage. Its historical authenticity is marred by lousy special effects, recycled stock footage from the 1958 film and some wildly inaccurate filming locations, which consisted mostly of the very art-deco liner RMS Queen Mary and a couple of luxury hotels in England. The fact that many actors are wildly miscast and look distinctly like they're from The Seventies doesn't help the matters either. The film was aired on American television in its entire 144 minute length (excluding commercials) and was released theatrically in Europe as a 100 minute feature.
- Raise the Titanic!: (1980) Based on the Clive Cussler novel of the same name. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, a team led by Dirk Pitt sets out to find and raise the ship, believing a rare mineral to be on board. The film was a financial and critical flop.
- Titanic: (1996) Another "They Just Didn't Care" version (this time a TV miniseries) which manages to ruin history and have completely out-of-left-field scenes such as Tim Curry raping someone.
- Titanic: (1997), James Cameron's multi-billion blockbuster that launched Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into super stardom.
- Titanic: The Legend Goes On: One of the cartoonified versions, featuring a gender-flipped version of the 1997 film's romance, recycled animation, and a rapping dog. Seriously.
- The Legend of the Titanic: Another cartoonified version, featuring another ripoff romance, singing mice, a giant octopus who saves the ship, and everyone lives. And it has a sequel, In Search of the Titanic. You can't make this stuff up.
- Titanic: A 2012 miniseries by Julian Fellows to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking. It's essentially "Downton Abbey at Sea." Aired in four parts, the series pretty much rehashes all the other fictional accounts of the Titanic disaster, filled with fictional characters, melodramatic intrigue, painful historical inaccuracies, and shallow caricature portrayals of actual historical persons onboard. It is also noted for a bizarre "Rashomon" style narrative.
- Titanic: Blood and Steel: A 2012 12-part TV series also made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking, which focuses on Titanic's construction at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland. Filled with Foreshadowing as to Titanic's eventual fate, the series follows metallurgist Dr. Mark Muir as he helps build the Titanic in the face of White Star's (unsubstantiated accusations of)cost-cutting measures, Belfast's class, political and religious divides, and his own past with the city.
Tropes as Applied to the Real Life Event