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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Titanic: 100 Years Later

From the Archive, A View from 1912: Scientific American on the Loss of the Titanic




Scientific American

Scientific American
Vol. CVI, No. 17, April 27, 1912
Editorial

Light Out of a Dark Tragedy
Out of the necessarily confused and contradictory stories of the "Titanic" disaster, told by the survivors, there has shone, conspicuously, one reassuring fact, which has shed a softening light upon the unspeakable horror of the disaster. Supreme among the master motives of this complicated human nature of ours are the love of life and the instinct to preserve it at whatever cost. True it is that under certain conditions of iron discipline or the contagious passion of the multitude, men have seemed to hold life less dear and so the roll of recorded heroism has grown with the passing years. When the side of the "Titanic" was torn asunder, the rapid settling of the ship must soon have foretold her doom to every thinking man aboard; and early in the development of the disaster the terrifying fact was known that two out of every three of that ship's complement must go down in that ice-covered sea. Yet in all the narratives of those final hours of agony there is practically unanimous testimony to the noble spirit of chivalry which prevailed. With scarcely an exception the men stood aside and surrendered the one chance of life for women and children, until the safety of every one of these had been assured. Then, with that calm resignation in the face of certain death which is the mark of the highest courage, and to the music of the band (to whose eternal honor be it recorded) the majority awaited the final plunge, or flung themselves in a last vain hope into the dark waters. Let the pessimist who laments the debasing effects of our modern civilization take note of this—the supreme triumph of the man in us over the brute. The blow which proved the "Titanic," the supreme exhibit of our boasted skill and prowess, to be after all but a fragile shell, served to demonstrate the eternal strength and the eternal growth of those sublime qualities of heart and mind, which, after all, are the true values and highest glory of our human life.

Scientific American
Vol. CVI, No. 17, April 27, 1912
Editorial

Lessons of the "Titanic" Disaster
On Sunday, April 14th, the largest and supposedly the safest steamship afloat, while steaming on her proper course, on a clear, starlit night, struck an iceberg and within a few hours sank, carrying down with her over sixteen hundred souls. The technical lessons taught by this prodigious disaster are three: First, that the naval architect has not yet learned how to make an absolutely nonsinkable ship, and, that, probably, he never will. Second, that if every ship is sinkable, it should carry at least a sufficient number of lifeboats to take care of every person on board until other ships, summoned by wireless, can reach the scene of a disaster. Third, that the transatlantic sailing route for passenger steamships should be shifted so far south as to be entirely beyond the track of floating icebergs. The loss of the "Titanic" has brought home to the public at large the fact (always understood by the naval architect), that in spite of the improvements in ship design and construction, there is not a vessel afloat which is unsinkable by one or other of the accidents to which ocean travel is liable. And this is not to say that a great advance toward the unsinkable ship has not been made. The double bottom, the water-tight compartment, bulkhead subdivision, the powerful steam pump, and, above all, the vast size of the modern steamship, have conspired to render such a ship as the "Titanic" proof against any but the most severe trial. A collision with another ship which would have quickly sunk the 7,000-ton ship of the early eighties, would have relatively little effect upon the stability of the 45,000-ton ship of our day. A sailing schooner sufficed to send the swift "Oregon" to the bottom; but the blow which sunk the crack liner of that time would not have endangered for a moment the flotation of the "Titanic." In the presence of the overwhelming disaster to this ship we must not lose sight of what has been done upon the hull of the modern liner to make ocean travel safe. We very much doubt if any possible accident of wind, weather, or collision with another ship, could have sunk the "Titanic." In meeting the fatal iceberg in mid-Atlantic she encountered the one form of accident which could surely wreck her, namely, that of running ashore or, what is tantamount in its effects, collision with an iceberg of magnitude. If, then, the modern ocean liner is not unsinkable, dictates of common prudence and humanity demand that it should carry a sufficient number of lifeboats to accommodate every soul on board. The regulations of the United States and the German governments call for boats to carry, in the large liners, two-thirds of the passengers and crew; but no government demands enough boats to carry the complement of an absolutely full ship. In Great Britain the question of lifeboat accommodation is determined by the Board of Trade, and under their regulations a ship like the "Titanic" is required to carry lifeboats sufficient for only about one-third of the ship’s complement of passengers and crew. Under an international agreement our government accepts the certificate of inspection of foreign countries; and if the Board of Supervising Inspectors find that the foreign ship carries the number of boats called for by the certificate, she is permitted to sail. Under the laws governing American ships a ship of a given size must carry boats of a certain total cubical capacity. Under the table given in the Regulations of the Board of Supervising Inspectors we find that, had the "Titanic" carried the American flag, she would have had to provide 24,120 cubic feet of space in her lifeboats, which, at 10 cubic feet per passenger, would have afforded accommodation for 2,412 passengers and crew. As it was, the maximum provision in the lifeboats that the "Titanic" carried was about one thousand! Now, as regards the conditions on this ship, we can simply say that they were an invitation to the very kind of ghastly horror which took place on Sunday night, April 14th, when the 1,600 souls for whom no lifeboats had been provided went to an inevitable and altogether unnecessary death. The Department of Commerce and Labor, in which the Steamboat Inspection Service is included, will be remiss in the duties with which it is charged, if it does not become the moving spirit in an effort to change the treaties with foreign governments, so that our government can compel every ocean-going steamer which visits our ports to carry sufficient lifeboats of first-class construction to accommodate every soul on board. Finally, we take it that the future steamship routes must be moved so far south during the spring and summer months as to be absolutely clear of the awful menace of the iceberg. In the presence of this stupefying disaster, we enter a plea for the exercise by Congress of a calm and judicial spirit in all legislative action which may be taken. Evidently the matter is one for joint international action. The Hague Tribunal has been suggested, but the subject scarcely comes within its scope. A special international commission, including the leading builders, ship owners and insurance agents of the world, would be better qualified for the task.

Here we can see a lifeboat drill taking place on a German liner that is contemporary with the Titanic. Note the cork life-vests on the German crew. Credit: Scientific American, April 27, 1912

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