One hundred years ago, during the night of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg, and in the small hours of the next day went down into the cold Atlantic Ocean with the loss of 1,517 lives.
There have been worse tragedies in history. Some were more violently spectacular, some still govern the daily routines of the survivors. Yet the Titanic disaster has strongly resonated with us for a century. Why? Because it is a tale of humanity as classic as a Greek tragedy. The story has been told and retold for the past century in movies, books, songs and magazine articles. Even James Cameron made a film using the Titanic saga as a backdrop.
Hubris—an excess of pride and confidence—is central to any classical tragedy. The Titanic set out from Queenstown, Ireland, on April 11, 1912, as a grand symbol of modernity and comfort. As she steamed at high speed through the dark of night her captain ignored the Cassandra-like warnings that icebergs lurked nearby, and through hubris the ship collided with one.
Within the tale of the sinking are interwoven many (mostly true) vignettes of human suffering—and also some cathartic scenesof triumph. Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet shucked off their life belts and donned their formal wear, saying, "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." Thomas Andrews, the designer of the flawed ship, sat forlornly in the opulent smoking lounge awaiting death, perhaps contemplating this awful reversal of fortune. J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line (which owned the Titanic), quietly slunk into a lifeboat and was later widely excoriated by the public for taking up a place when so many women and children were left to die on his ship. Charles John Joughin, the kitchen staff's chief baker, provides the comic relief in our retelling: He was the last person to step off the sinking ship into the ice-cold water, but was so well-fortified with liquor he survived to be picked up, his hair still dry. The "Unsinkable Molly Brown" was arguably the ship's most famous survivor: she defied convention and in an act of compassion commandeered her lifeboat to go back and look for survivors in the frigid water.
Heroes and villains. The quick and the dead. And all of this pathos communicated to the world by radio and by newspaper within hours of the tragedy.
Over the past century, a more prosaic reality has appeared in our path and the mythic tale has collided with it. Every detail mentioned here has been endlessly disputed (or fabricated) since April 15, 1912. With the growth of the Internet, a host of Titanic experts have become newly obsessed with the details down to the nanoscopic level. Google shows there are now 11 million sites with "Titanic" in the URL. (There are only 1.9 million for "gigantic.")
With every assertion and counterclaim, a pattern emerges, one that is not far different from the one that Scientific American reported two weeks after the ship went down. Despite some wonderfully creative conspiracy theories that have been floated in the past 100 years, the building and sinking of the ship is a study in failure: of engineering systems, of law, of design, of private profit versus public safety.