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RMS Titanic

The New York Herald reports the disaster.
The New York Herald reports the disaster.

RMS Titanic (also SS Titanic) was the largest passenger steamship in the world at the time of its launching, and Titanic's builders hoped that it would dominate the transatlantic ocean liner business. During Titanic's maiden voyage, it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. (ship's time) on Sunday evening April 14, 1912, and sank two hours and forty minutes later at 2:20 a.m. the next day. The sinking resulted in great loss of life, ranking as one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history and by far the most famous.



RMS Titanic (left) undergoes sea trials on April 2.
RMS Titanic (left) undergoes sea trials on April 2.

Titanic was a White Star Line ocean liner, built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, designed to compete with rival company Cunard Line's Lusitania and Mauretania. The Titanic was the second of three Olympic-class ships and along with her two sister ships, the Olympic and the soon to be built Britannic (originally named Gigantic), were intended to be the largest, most luxurious ships ever to operate. Construction of the RMS Titanic, funded by the American J.P. Morgan and his International Mercantile Marine Co. , began on March 31, 1909. Titanic's hull was launched May 31, 1911, and its outfitting completed March 31 the following year. Titanic was 882 ft 9 in (269 m) long and 92 ft 6 in (28 m) wide, had a gross tonnage of 46,328 tons, and a height from the water line to the boat deck of 60 ft (18 m). Although it enclosed more space and therefore had a larger gross tonnage, the hull was exactly the same length as Titanic's sister Olympic. Titanic contained two reciprocating four-cylinder, triple expansion, inverted engines and one low pressure Parsons turbine which powered three propellers. There were 29 boilers fired by 159 coal burning furnaces that made possible a top speed of 23 knots (43 km/h). Only three of the funnels were functional; the fourth funnel, which functioned only as a steam vent, was added to make the ship look more impressive. The ship could hold a total of 3,547 passengers and crew and, because it carried mail, its name was given the prefix RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) as well as SS (Steam Ship).

For its time, the ship was unsurpassed in its luxury and opulence. While not the first ship to offer an onboard swimming pool, gymnasium, baths and elevators, Titanic pulled out all the stops and offered a level of service never before seen including a Turkish Bath and squash court. The ship offered three elevators for use of first-class passengers and, as an innovation, offered one elevator for second-class passengers.

Titanic was considered a pinnacle of technological achievement and thought by Ship Builders magazine to be "practically unsinkable." Titanic was divided into 16 watertight compartments; however, these did not traverse the entire height of the decks (only going as far as E-Deck), an oversight that would doom the ship. The Titanic could stay afloat with any two of the middle compartments flooded or the first four compartments flooded; any more and the ship would sink.

Legends and myths

Use of SOS

Despite popular belief, the sinking of Titanic was not the first time the internationally recognised Morse code distress signal "SOS" was used. The SOS signal was first proposed at the International Conference on Wireless Communication at Sea in Berlin in 1906. It was ratified by the international community in 1908 and had been in widespread use since then. The SOS signal was, however, rarely used by British wireless operators, who preferred the older CQD code. First Wireless Operator Jack Phillips began transmitting CQD until Second Wireless Operator Harold Bride suggested half jokingly, "Send SOS; it's the new call, and this may be your last chance to send it." Phillips then began to intersperse SOS with the traditional CQD call.

Titanic's rudder and the ship's turning ability

Although the dimensions of the Titanicís rudder were not legally too small for a ship its size, the rudder's design was hardly state-of-the-art. According to researchers with the Titanic Historical Society: "Titanicís long thin rudder was a copy of an 18th-century steel sailing ship. Compared with the rudder design of the Cunard's Mauretania or Lusitania, Titanic's was a fraction of the size. Apparently no account was made for advances in scale, and little thought given to how a ship 882 feet in length might turn in an emergency, or avoid a collision with an iceberg. This was Titanic's Achilles heel."

Perhaps more fatal to the design of Titanic was its triple screw engine configuration, which had reciprocating steam engines driving its wing propellers, and a steam turbine driving its centre propeller. The reciprocating engines were reversible, while the turbine was not. When First Officer Murdoch gave the order to reverse engines to avoid the iceberg, he inadvertently handicapped the turning ability of the ship. Since the centre turbine can't reverse during the "full speed astern" manoeuvre, it would simply stop turning. And, since the centre propeller is positioned forward of the ship's rudder, the effectiveness of that rudder would have been greatly reduced. Had Murdoch simply turned the ship while maintaining its forward speed, Titanic would likely have missed the iceberg.

It has also been speculated that the ship could have been saved if it had rammed the iceberg head on. It is hypothesised that if Titanic had not altered its course at all and had ran head on into the iceberg, the damage would only have affected the first or, at most, first two compartments. This would have disabled it severely, but would not likely have resulted in its sinking since Titanic was designed to float with the first four compartments flooded.

Titanic's band

One of the most famous stories of Titanic is of the band. On April 15, Titanicís eight member band, led by Wallace Hartley, had assembled in the first-class lounge in effort to keep passengers calm and upbeat. Later they would move on to the forward half of the boat deck. The band continued playing music even when it became apparent the ship was going to sink.

None of band members survived the sinking, and there's been much speculation about what their last song was. Some witnesses said the final song played was the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee." Hartley reportedly said to a friend if he was on a sinking ship "Nearer, My God, to Thee" might be one of the songs he would play. Walter Lordís book A Night to Remember popularised wireless operator Harold Brideís account that he heard the song "Autumn" before the ship sank. It is considered Bride either meant the hymn called "Autumn" or "Songe d'Automne," a popular song at the time.

David Sarnoff

An often-quoted story that's been blurred between fact and fiction states the first person to receive news of the sinking was David Sarnoff, who would later found media giant RCA. Sarnoff was not the first to hear the news (even though Sarnoff willingly promoted this), but he and others did man the Marconi wireless station, atop the Wanamaker Department Store in New York City, and for three days relayed news of the disaster and names of survivors to people waiting outside. [1]

The "Titanic curse"

When Titanic sank, claims were made that a curse existed on the ship. One of the most widely spread legends linked directly into the sectarianism of the city of Belfast, where the ship was built. It was suggested that the ship was given the number 390904 which, when read backwards in a mirror, was claimed to spell 'no pope', a sectarian slogan attacking Roman Catholics that was (and is) widely used provocatively by extreme Protestants in Northern Ireland, where the ship was built. In the extreme sectarianism of north-east Ireland (Northern Ireland itself did not exist until 1920), the ship's sinking, though mourned, was alleged to be on account of the sectarian anti-Catholicism of its manufacturers, the Harland and Wolff company, which had an almost exclusively Protestant workforce and an alleged record of hostility towards Catholics. (Harland and Wolff did have a record of hiring few Catholics; whether that was through policy or because the company's shipyard in Belfast's bay was located in almost exclusively Protestant East Belfast — through which few Catholics would dare to travel — or a mixture of both, is a matter of dispute.)

The 'no pope' story is in fact an urban legend, with no basis in fact. RMS Olympic and Titanic were assigned the yard numbers 400 and 401 respectively.

The rediscovery of Titanic

Titanic bow as seen from the MIR I submersible.
Titanic bow as seen from the MIR I submersible.

The idea of finding the wreck of Titanic, and even raising the ship from the ocean floor, had been around since shortly after the ship sank. No attempts were successful until September 1, 1985, when a joint American-French expedition, led by Jean-Louis Michel and Dr. Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, located the wreck. It was found at a depth of 2 miles (3,800 m), south-east of Newfoundland at , 13 miles (22 km) from where Titanic was originally thought to rest.

The most notable discovery the team made was that the ship had split apart, the stern section lying 1,970 feet (600 m) from the bow section and facing opposite directions. There had been conflicting witness accounts of whether the ship broke apart or not, and both the American and British inquires found that the ship sank intact. Up until the discovery of the wreck, it was generally assumed the ship did not break apart.

The bow section had imbedded itself 60 feet (18 m) into the silt on the ocean floor. Besides parts of the hull having buckled, the bow was mostly intact. The stern section was in much worse condition. As the stern section sank, water pushed out the air inside tearing apart the hull and decks. The speed at which the stern hit the ocean floor caused even more damage. Surrounding the wreck is a large debris field with pieces of the ship, furniture, dinnerware and personal items scattered over one square mile. Softer materials, like wood and carpet, were devoured by undersea organisms. Human remains suffered a similar fate.

Originally, historians thought the iceberg had cut a gash into Titanicís hull. Since the part of the ship the iceberg damaged was buried, scientists used sonar to examine the area and discovered the iceberg had caused the hull to buckle, allowing water to enter Titanic between its steel plates. During subsequent dives, scientists retrieved small pieces of Titanic's hull. A detailed analysis of the pieces revealed the ship's steel plating was of a variety that loses its elasticity and becomes brittle in cold or icy water, leaving it vulnerable to dent-induced ruptures. Furthermore, the rivets holding the hull together were much more fragile than once thought. It is unknown if stronger steel or rivets could have saved the ship.

Dr. Ballard and his team did not bring up any artifacts from the site, considering it to be tantamount to grave robbing. Under international maritime law, however, the recovery of artifacts is necessary to establish salvage rights to a shipwreck. In the years after the find, Titanic has been the object of a number of court cases concerning ownership of artifacts and the wreck site itself. In 1994 RMS Titanic, Inc. was awarded ownership and salvaging rights of the wreck.

Approximately 6,000 artifacts have been removed from the wreck. Many of these were put on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, and later as part of a travelling museum exhibit.

Current condition of the wreck

Many scientists, including Robert Ballard, are concerned that visits by tourists in submersibles are hastening the decay of the wreck. Underwater microbes have been eating away at Titanicís iron since the ship sank, but because of the extra damage visitors have caused, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that "the hull and structure of the ship may collapse to the ocean floor within the next 50 years."

Ballard's book Return to Titanic, published by the National Geographic Society, includes photographs depicting the deterioration of the promenade deck and damage caused by submersibles landing on the ship. The mast has almost completely deteriorated and has been stripped of its bell and brass light. Other damage includes a gash on the bow section where block letters once spelled Titanic, and part of the brass telemotor which once held the ship's wooden wheel is now twisted.

Comparable maritime disasters

With the loss of 1,503 lives, the sinking of the Titanic was, at the time, one of the worst maritime disasters in history, although the death toll was exceeded by the explosion and sinking of the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River in 1865, with 1,700 dead.

In terms of loss of life in a single vessel, the worst maritime incident in history is recognised as the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian submarine in 1945, claiming between 5,000 and 7,000 lives. Some recent studies of the disaster estimate the actual death toll to be over 9,000.

The worst maritime incident in history, in terms of loss of life in two vessels, is recognised as the sinking of the Cap Arcona and the Thielbek by RAF Typhoons on May 3 1945, in which around 8,000 deportees died.

On 17 June 1940, HMT Lancastria, evacuating troops and civilians from Saint-Nazaire, France, was sunk by German aircraft. The death toll is estimated at 4,000 to 9,000. The true figure will remain unknown until secret British Government papers are released to the public in 2040.

Titanic in popular culture

The sinking of Titanic has been the basis for many novels.

Morgan Robertson's 1898 novella Futility was found to have many parallels with the Titanic disaster; Robertson's work concerned a fictional state-of-the-art ocean liner called Titan, which eventually collides with an iceberg whilst en route to New York, sinking in the dead of night with great loss of life. Both Titan itself and the manner of its demise bore many striking similarities to the eventual fate of Titanic, and Robertson's novella remains in print today as an unnerving curiosity.

Titanic has featured in a large number of movies and TV movies, most notably:

The most widely-viewed is the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. It became the highest-grossing film in history (unadjusted for inflation). It also won 11 out of 14 Academy Awards, tying with Ben-Hur (1959) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) for the most awards won.

The story was also made into a Broadway musical, Titanic, that ran from 1998 to 2000.

In 1964 the Broadway and film musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown tells survivor Margaret Brown's colourful life story, including the events on Titanic.

Titanic: Adventure Out of Time and Starship Titanic are computer games inspired by the story.

In the animated TV series Futurama, one episode saw the cast boarding a space-faring vessel called Titanic. The ship was torn in half by a black hole on its maiden voyage. The main cast survived, but a female robot that fell in love with Bender was lost.

The Intel Itanium microprocessor has often been jokingly called the "Itanic", since (as of 2005) its sales have fallen far short of expectations.


  • Eaton, John P. and Haas, Charles A. Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy (2nd ed.). W.W. Norton & Company, 1995
  • Lynch, Donald and Marschall, Ken. Titanic: An Illustrated History. Hyperion, 1995
  • Quinn, Paul J. Titanic at Two A.M.: An Illustrated Narrative with Survivor Accounts. Fantail, 1997

See also

External links

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