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.
The ship was never touted by the White Star Line as unsinkable—the term "practically unsinkable" appeared in a couple of admiring reviews of the ship beforehand and was played up for ironic effect afterward. The perception in the public mind was that the ship exuded modernity and comfort, giving a great impression of solidity and safety—the same way a bank built of solid masonry does even as it founders from unstable finances. The article "Wreck of the White Star Liner Titanic" from Scientific American from April 27, 1912, shows how the ship was designed with safety in mind. Unfortunately the ship was not designed with safety as the first priority. There were watertight doors and bulkheads, but even in 1912 engineers recognized that the bulkheads did not rise high enough—some were only three meters above the waterline. But such barriers cut up the interior space and made it harder to accommodate the easy flow of fare-paying passengers, and so they were discouraged. The ship had a double bottom for safety, but the company decided to save money and interior space and not build double sides. After the sinking, engineers immediately retrofitted the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic with a double hull.
These days we believe there must have been a special kind of Dionysian madness to send a ship into the ocean without enough lifeboats to carry every soul on board. Early designs for the Titanic did in fact call for 64 lifeboats, but by the time the ship was launched, the company had whittled that complement down to 20.
Astonishingly, the number of boats carried was actually above and beyond what was legally required by the British Board of Trade for seagoing ocean liners. One argument said that a full complement of lifeboats would have made the ship too top-heavy, perhaps risking capsize. Another argument was that in an emergency the lifeboats would not have time to be loaded and launched, especially if the ship was heeling over. But the main reason for dispensing with lifeboats may have been to provide plenty of room for luxurious sundecks and sumptuous parlors for the pleasure of the well-to-do passengers. There were certainly plenty of technical fixes available: the front cover of Scientific American from April 27, 2012, shows one possible solution of stacking all the boats on the top deck.
Speed in ice fields
The Titanic was never designed to be as fast as more powerful competitor ships. A fast first crossing, though, made for good media image and better business for the White Star Line in the highly competitive transatlantic steamer business. Therefore, quite possibly, the chairman of the company, J. Bruce Ismay, pushed the venerable Capt. Edward John Smith to steam ahead with all possible speed. Other ships in the area had radioed that they had seen icebergs, and Smith may have altered course slightly to avoid possible locations of these known hazards, but in the balance between speed and risk, the company line won out. Yet there was no shortage of knowledge about the perils of ice, as you can see from this April 27, 1912, Scientific American article. Sonar was developed within the next two years as a way to avoid icebergs.
For many years it was widely believed that only a giant ripping gash torn by the iceberg could have doomed such a magnificent ship. A "300-foot gash in the hull" was often mentioned—just like the image we show in our issue from two weeks after the tragedy:
Later calculations looked at the rate with which water flooded the ship during the two hours and 40 minutes it stayed afloat after the collision and showed that "the gash" in reality would have resulted in only slight damage to the hull, perhaps amounting a dozen square meters in total. This deduction was confirmed in 1985 when submersibles imaged the hull of the Titanic resting on the ocean floor four kilometers down. The images revealed several small gashes, or perhaps several hull plates had popped apart giving the illusion of gashes. (Historians have suggested that the wrought iron rivets holding the plates together were not as strong as they should have been.)
As the complexity of engineering projects increases exponentially, so does the focus on safety. Within any system there is no danger more potent, more capable of causing harm, than human frailty. In January of 2012 the Costa Concordia, the largest luxury liner built in Italy, manufactured at the Fincantieri shipyards in the ancient seafaring city of Genoa to the highest standards of safety specified by law, struck a reef in the Mediterranean, and partially capsized, killing dozens of people. The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, seems to have steered his ship onto the rocks in a moment of weakness: The courts and the tabloids as well as armchair experts of the Internet are still disputing whether that weakness had anything to do with a comely 25-year-old Moldovan ex-dancer—and a Roman god called Cupid.