When the supposedly unsinkable luxury liner Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in April 1912, killing 1,513 people, the disaster altered Western civilization's confidence in the very notion of progress. The Titanic 's doom has been exactingly recounted and re-created in countless books and documentaries, a Broadway musical, and three major motion pictures, the last of which, Titanic (1997), set records at the box office.
The early-twentieth-century equivalent of a space station or supercomputer, the Titanic was a vessel that inspired awe not only for its gargantuan dimensions and lavish accommodations but also for its claimed unsinkability, purportedly guaranteed by a double-bottomed hull with sixteen watertight compartments that would keep the ship afloat even if four were flooded, an unimaginable contingency.
Weighing 53,000 metric tons and measuring 882 1/2 feet long, the Titanic was the largest ocean liner of the era, and by far the most extravagant and splendid. It featured a theater, a variety of elegant restaurants, a reading and writing room, a gym, a barbershop, a swimming pool, a miniature golf course, ballrooms, and first-class cabins of unparalleled size and sumptuousness. The Titanic promised a dazzling voyage for those who could afford it—the top price for first-class passage was $4,350 (about $50,000 in twenty-first-century dollars). Its superabundance in nearly every particular was marred by one fatal deficiency: It carried lifeboats for only half of the ship's passenger capacity of 2,200.
Thus provisioned, on April 10, 1912, the Titanic set out from Southampton, England, on its much-heralded maiden voyage, bound for New York City. The ship's first-class passenger list was a roster of the elite of Anglo-American high society, politics, and industry, including the mining tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim; John Jacob Astor; Major Archibald Butt; Isidor Straus, the head of Macy's department store, and his wife; Margaret Tobin Brown, the Colorado socialite later lionized as the "Unsinkable Molly Brown"; and the British aristocrats Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon.
Mindful that the Titanic 's management company, the White Star Line, hoped to set a speed record on its first crossing, the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, maintained a brisk pace, averaging 550 miles per day. Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller reflected the high spirits during the journey in the following diary entry: "Each day, as the voyage went on, everybody's admiration of the ship increased; for the way she behaved, for the total absence of vibration, for her steadiness even with the ever-increasing speed, as she warmed up to her work" (Warren 1960, pp. 279–280).
All throughout the day on Sunday, April 14, the Titanic had begun to receive telegraph reports of approaching icebergs. At noon, it received this message: "Greek steamer Athenai reports passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today." At 9:30 p.m. another such warning arrived from the Mesaba : "Much heavy pack ice and a great number of large icebergs." That last message was never sent to the bridge because the ship's chief radio operator, Jack Phillips, was overwhelmed with requests for personal messages to be sent on behalf of the ship's passengers.
Nevertheless, Smith had ample warning of the danger that lay ahead, yet he unaccountably failed to reduce the ship's speed or post additional lookouts. At 11:40 P.M., Seaman Frederick Fleet, peering out from his fifty-foot-high perch, noticed a hulking white object in the distance, and the Titanic was heading directly toward it. He rang out the warning bell and called the bridge to announce, "Iceberg ahead." Less than a minute later, a mild shudder rippled through the great ship's starboard side as it grazed the side of the ice floe.
The impact was so mild that it did not even rouse some of the sleeping passengers. Lady Duff Gordon recounted the moment in these words: "I was awakened by a long grinding sort of shock. It was not a tremendous crash, but more as though someone had drawn a giant finger all along the side of the boat" (Mowbray 1998, p. 216). Laurence Beesley, a science teacher in second class, portrayed it as "nothing more than what seemed to be an extra heave of the engines ...no sound of a crash or anything else . . . no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another" (Warren 1960, p. 27 ).
The ten-second encounter with the iceberg had left six seemingly slight gashes in the ship's steel hull, but they were sufficient to puncture and flood six watertight compartments and thus sink the fabled vessel. Later metallurgical tests revealed that the ship's steel was overly brittle and thus prone to fracture because of an excess of slag used in its manufacture.
The crew quickly became aware that the ship had, at most, a few hours left and began organizing the evacuation. Initially the first-class passengers greeted the news with bemused incredulity and seemed more concerned with extracting their valuables from the bursar than with leaving the warmth of a luxury liner for a tiny lifeboat adrift in the frigid open sea. When the first lifeboat was lowered at 12:45 A.M. , it was less than half full. John Jacob Astor helped his wife into a lifeboat and graciously retreated when he was told that only women and children could enter it. Ida Straus decided that she would not avail herself of the safety of a lifeboat. She said to her husband, "Where you are, Papa, I shall be" (Mowbray 1998, pp. 205–206). She offered her coat to her maid, Ellen Bird, who proceeded to the lifeboat alone.
As the bow of the ship began to slip beneath the water at 1:00 A.M. , the urgency of the situation became evident, and the pace of lifeboat launchings quickened accordingly. As that frantic hour wore on, Jack Phillips kept up his stream of SOS messages, adding, "Women and children on boats. Cannot last much longer." Benjamin Guggenheim stood on the deck with his valet, dressed in full evening attire. He told a woman waiting to board a lifeboat, "We've dressed up in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentlemen" (Biel 1996, p. 41).
At 2:20 A.M. , the Titanic 's boilers exploded; the ship went into a vertical position and then disappeared into the icy waters. As the lifeboats splashed in the desolate darkness, none of the survivors knew if an SOS had been received or if they would ever be rescued. At about 4:00 A.M. the lights of the Carpathia appeared on the horizon, and its crew immediately set to work hoisting the 700 survivors from their lifeboats. Of the 2,223 passengers
The inquiry following the disaster noted the insufficiency of lifeboats and the captain's heedlessness in maintaining full speed in the face of repeated iceberg warnings. To prevent another such catastrophe, an International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea was convened in London in 1913 and established binding regulations that included lifeboat space for all passengers; mandatory lifeboat drills; and 24-hour radio watches on all ships.
The wreck of the Titanic was found in 1985 and has since been thoroughly examined through the use of unmanned submersible vessels. The grand ship's tragic story has assumed the proportions of legend, most recently in the Hollywood spectacle Titanic (1997). The film's worldwide popularity helped to remind a new generation that the most advanced technology is easily humbled by the commanding powers of nature.
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Biel, Steven. Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Butler, Daniel Allen. Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.
Eaton, John P. Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Norton, 1986.
Hyslop, Donald, ed. Titanic Voices: Memories from the Fateful Voyage. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember. New York: Holt, 1955.
Mowbray, Jay Henry, ed. Sinking of the Titanic: Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Dover Publications, 1998.
Warren, Jack, ed. The Story of the Titanic As Told by Its Survivors: Laurence Beesley, Archibald Gracie, Commander Lightoller, and Harold Bride. New York: Dover Publications, 1960.