One hundred years ago today, the world became slowly aware of an unfolding tragedy in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic that resonates in our time as an engrossing saga. The RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York struck an iceberg at 1140 pm April 14, 2012 of the coast of Newfoundland, and so began a harrowing two and one half hour dance with death that ended with her sinking at 220 am April 15th, 2012. Of the 2224 passengers, 1514 would not survive the night, making the sinking of the Titanic one of the largest loss of life at sea in peacetime recorded. The unique confluence of one of the great engineering achievements of the twentieth century, the tragedy striking the boat on its maiden voyage, and the progressive binding of the world in the communications revolution that wireless provided has led to a story of tragedy of special nature and endurance.
The RMS Titanic was one of three magnificent ships built by the White Star Line to create a luxurious and rapid transatlantic transport they hoped would make the voyage predictable and repeatable. The concept was a boat leaving Southampton for New York every Wednesday and an ocean liner back from New York every Saturday, all in the modern convenience and luxury of a White Star craft. Transatlantic voyages, forever a hazardous and lengthy process in the time of sail, taking up to six weeks to traverse 3000 miles of open forbidding ocean, was becoming through the miracle of steam power a tolerable six days, and in the magnificent luxury of the White Star Line, conceived as a pleasurable voyage. A one time one way perilous voyage was now being conceived of as a repeatable event, where vacations to Europe or America, business on either side of the Atlantic, or moving to American shores while not leaving the family far behind was possible and potentially commonplace. J.P Morgan, an American financier and primary investor in the cruise line thought so, and in underwriting the building of the Titanic and her sister ships, saw it as just another inevitable triumph of man’s conquering of his environment.
These were special ships and engineering triumphs. The RMS Titanic was the largest ship built of its time, over 10 stories tall and 882 feet from stern to bow, displacing over 50, 000 tons. Her massive reciprocating engines backed by turbine were capable of over twenty knots consistently, driving 23 foot propellers. An army of firemen were required to shovel the 600 tons of coal a day required to drive such engines. She had 15 watertight compartments, and with the loss of any two, or the partial flooding of any four, the great ship could continue to float. Over 15000 workers of the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company of Belfast, Ireland labored 26 months to weld her 2000 6 by 30 foot steel sheet plates together with millions of rivets in the technology of the day. She was designed with a bounty of modern conveniences, designed in essence to be a floating luxury hotel, with spas, swimming pools, premier restaurants, workout facilities, and spectacularly furnished suites and verandas. She was a triumph of her time and the zenith of British shipbuilding capability and know how.
The Titanic had her sea trial just a week before her planned transatlantic voyage but handled beautifully. Captain Edward John Smith was senior most of White Star’s executive captains and was selected to oversee her maiden voyage. The initial voyage contained many celebrities among its passengers, including one of the richest men in the world John Jacob Astor, the owner of Macy’s Department store Isidor Strauss, and the ship’s architect and designer Thomas Andrews. Leaving Southampton on April 10th, she crossed the English Channel to pick up passengers in Cherbourg, France, headed to Cork, Ireland and then into the expanse of the Atlantic. The Titanic was approaching Newfoundland on the fifth voyage day, entering the area of the Grand Banks known as “the corner” where ships routinely angle south towards New York. The night of April 14th was quiet and moonless, and the water exceedingly still. Reports of rogue icebergs in the area were filling the wireless, usually the indication for ships to slow down with such poor visibility, but Titanic was part of a cruise line that wanted to establish predictability to transatlantic scheduling and continued unbounded into the iceberg zone.
The starboard side impact with the iceberg that felled Titanic was one not envisioned by the designers, a glancing blow that caused only a minor plate buckling that however popped rivets , creating a sliver of water access to the ship’s interiors, transitioned fatally across five compartments. Water poured in at a rate 15 times the capability of the bilge pumps to remove it, and progressively the forward compartments inevitably filled until the stern tipped forward enough to allow water to pour over the bulkheads, filling one compartment after another. Though the initial impact was so slight the majority of the passengers barely noticed it, the fate of the ship was settled in the original thirty seconds. The next two and one half hours of progressive terror were inescapable from the initial failure of the rivets.
The early morning of April 15th was filled with horror as the ship’s demise became progressively apparent and the surrounding dangers obvious. The water temperature was estimated 28 degrees, creating a scenario of rapid hypothermia and death for any individual forced to contend with unprotected exposure, the lifeboats were too few and the stunned passengers and crew too disorganized to achieve a rapid and measured abandonment of the ship. As the bow began to reach water line, the end became sudden, as the great ship, with thousands of tons of water pulling its bow toward the bottom, seized and split in half, its stern then pitched vertically with hundreds holding on as best they could , until it too past beneath the surface. Only 700 passengers and crew made it to the boats and those in the water due to the temperatures had no chance. Despite two hours of distress calls it was three hours after sinking that the RMS Carpathia finally approached to pick up the survivors.
The indepth story of Titanic’s last hours as told by the survivors was so filled with courage and bravery, terror and panic, chivalry and cowardice, that it seized the attention of the public and has never let go. The incomprehensible defeat of modernity to the basest elements of ice and water, crushing the light out of a ship declared essentially in just two hours made the loss an especially poignant one. Men had decided to conquer time and distance for their own needs and pleasures and the flaws in their assumptions had disastrously brought to bear. There is nothing in the Titanic saga that stopped progress – the incredible speed of a six day voyage is now a seven hour flight from New York to London and many times the population of the Titanic make that trip every day. But the moral of the story, man’s willfulness and pride in his achievements at times overwhelming his common sense continues to show itself this very day. In 2009, an Air France transatlantic plane was lost with all on board when the pilots, attempting to navigate through a mid-atlantic thunder storm, mis-interpreted their air speed and in a stall continued to pull their plane’s nose upward, compounding their plane’s loss of air speed until the entirely capable plane was essentially flying vertically and with no forward momentum tumbled out of the sky into the Atlantic. The vulnerability of man as he continues to stretch the limitations of his earthbound nature will always have potential tragedy shadowing him, as a matter of course. One hundred years later, the Titanic’s tragic beauty appears before us as in a long ago dream, and reminds us of our own unpredictable journey.