The Unsinkable Legend of the Titanic—100 Years After the Disaster
It is the disaster of which everyone has heard. There have been greater losses of life, and catastrophes which have changed the world in more fundamental ways, yet none stay in the collective memory in the way that Titanic does. Why should this be so?
The answer lies in an extraordinary series of myth-generating events and facts, the like of which Hollywood itself could scarcely have dreamt up for a believable work of fiction.
(There are many websites and pages which detail all these known events and facts, and some of these are listed at the end. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, this page looks at the enduring legend of the great ship, and considers the ten key reasons why this remains the most celebrated, the most documented and the most discussed of all man-made disasters).
Titanic Under Construction
Basics of the Time Line
RMS Titanic was built between the years of 1909 and 1911 at the Harland and Wolff dockyards in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Launched on 31st May 1911, but at this stage unfurnished, she began sea trials on 2nd April 1912. On the very next day, Titanic sailed to Southampton on the south coast of England. Passengers began boarding on 10th April, and the maiden voyage as a passenger cruise liner would commence that same day.
There were a couple of stopovers to pick up additional passengers at the French port of Cherbourg and then Queenstown in Ireland. Then, on 12th April, RMS Titanic left its moorings for the last time and headed out into the great Atlantic Ocean for America and for New York City.
At 11.40pm on the night of 14 April 1912, Titanic struck the iceberg which would ultimately lead to her sinking less than 3 hours later. By 12.00 midnight, Captain Edward Smith had been made aware of the ship's fate, and he instructed the radio operators to call for help. Soon after this, The Carpathia - 58 miles distant - picked up a distress call and began sailing towards Titanic. Between 12.45am and 2.05am, Titanic's lifeboats were launched as the ship's hull rapidly filled with water. At around 2.20am on the morning of 15th April, RMS Titanic disappeared beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone who had not already left the boat drowned, or died of exposure in the icy cold. The Carpathia arrived on the scene at 4.10am.
What follows are the 10 key reasons why these stark facts have cast such a spell through the 100 years which have followed the sinking. For each, I will try to illustrate with reference to other disasters, just why Titanic has such a hold on the public consciousness.
(RMS = Royal Mail Steamer - any vessel commissioned to carry the Royal Mail)
1. The Loss of Life
The first and most fundamental factor which has cemented the place of Titanic in history is, of course, the sheer number of lives which were lost that fateful night in April 1912. Out of 2,228 passengers and crew, only 705 survived the sinking of the ship, 1,523 lives were lost. By any criterion, this was a huge loss of life for a disaster of this kind.
Natural disasters such as plague or famine, or tsunamis such as that caused by the Indonesian earthquake of 2004 can cause much greater devastation, and intentional human acts of war such as the holocaust in German-occupied territories in World War Two, or the atomic bombs which hit Japan in 1945, may result in a far greater loss of life, but genuine unintended accidents and disasters involving man-made structures rarely lead to the deaths of hundreds, let alone thousands.
The sinking of the Titanic was indeed one of the greatest losses of life in maritime history. There had previously been two disasters which may have matched this loss - the SS Sultana in Tennessee in 1865 (boiler explosion), and the Tek Sing junk in the South China Seas in 1822 (reef sinking). Neither, however, had the impact of Titanic. SS Sultana sank in an eventful week following the end of the American Civil War, when other events took precedence, and Tek Sing sank at a time when news reportage was hardly worldwide. Neither received as much media coverage as they would today. Subsequently, there have been a few - but not many - peacetime shipping disasters with greater losses of life (most notably the Dona Paz ferry in the Philippines in 1987 when more than 4000 died).
In other fields of human enterprise, the number of more significant death tolls could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. Two theatre fires in China in 1845 and 1893 and one in Chile in 1863, and the Benxihu Colliery explosion in China in 1942, all resulted in a comparable loss of life. In recent times, industrial accidents at a chemical plant at Bhopal in India in 1984 (several thousand fatalities), and the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in Russia in 1986 (c 4000 radiation induced cancers) have surpassed the Titanic death toll. Way back in 27 AD, an apparently hastily built wooden Roman amphitheatre in Fidenae, Italy, collapsed, possibly killing as many as 20,000 people.
However, none of these accidents, horrific though they were, possessed the special combination of circumstances which captured the public's imagination in quite the way that RMS Titanic did. These other factors are considered below.
2. Size Matters, and so Does the Ship's Name
Disasters live longest in the memory not only because of the loss of life, but also because of the nature of the human construction involved. Titanic was not merely a ship. It was the very biggest ship.
In 1912, two vessels had just been completed at the Harland and Wolff shipyards - the sister vessels RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic. The dimensions of both were very similar - 269 m (882 ft) long and 92.5 ft wide, but Titanic was slightly heavier. Fully laden, she weighed 46,000 tons, with the capacity to carry 3500 people on board on five miles of decks. This was the biggest ship ever built, and when it sailed away from the docks, it became the biggest man-made object ever to move under its own steam.
And as if this was not enough, the White Star Line had chosen to emphasise this impressive record-breaking feat with the most impressive of names. The 'Olympic' had a memorable name. So did those other great rival ships, the Cunard Company's 'Lusitania' and 'Mauritania', but none could surpass the name given to White Star's second launch. The very name 'Titanic' implies great power, great size, and great force. Perhaps also great indestructibility. It was a bold name and to this day an unforgettable name and a rather ironic name, which has only contributed to the writing of the legend.
(Few other accidental disasters have involved such colossi in their field. A solitary Japanese Boeing Jumbo Jet - one of the largest passenger planes in the world - crashed in 1985 with 524 people on board. Only four survived. Perhaps more comparable to Titanic was the loss of the Hindenburg airship in 1937. The Hindenburg was the pinnacle of Zeppelin achievement, and the biggest aircraft ever to fly in terms of its length and volume - vastly bigger than any aeroplane).
3. Size Isn't Everything—Prestige Also Matters
To be big is one thing, but size alone doesn't command the attention. Oil tankers are vast, but there's nothing romantic, nothing exotic about them. Style also plays a part.
When Titanic launched, she captured the public's imagination as much for the luxurious first class passenger accommodation as for its size.
A few examples of the opulence of First Class travel will help to illustrate this. In the modern age of luxury cruise liners, it's easy to imagine that luxury would have meant something very different to people who had only just emerged from the Victorian age in Britain, or the age of cowboys and the Wild West of America. And yet, although the technology may have been much inferior, the First Class passengers on Titanic had almost everything that we might enjoy on a cruise 100 years later - a heated swimming pool, Turkish baths, a well equipped gymnasium, and squash courts, barbers shops, libraries, and a choice of four restaurants, a Parisian cafe with French waiters, and a veranda cafe with live growing palm trees for decoration. Electric elevators could take one between different decks. The Titanic even had her own onboard newspaper. Called 'The Atlantic Daily Bulletin', this was printed every day and included news and stock prices, society gossip, sports results and the day's restaurant menu. Extravagance even extended to having four funnels; the fourth was actually non-functional, but it was incorporated just because it 'looked more impressive'.
In their advertising, the White Star Line stated:
- "It is impossible to adequately describe the decorations in the passenger accommodation. They are on a scale of unprecedented magnificence. Nothing like them has ever appeared before on the ocean".
All of this opulence was reflected in the price of a first class ticket. The cheapest first class tickets would have been $2,800 (£1800) in today's money. And the most expensive? The most expensive First Class suites in 1912 cost up to $4350 (£870) in high season, which in today's money would be a cool $100,000 (£65,000).
(As in the previous section, perhaps the Hindenburg airship, pride of the German air industry in the 1930s, was the disaster most analogous to Titanic. Passengers on board enjoyed their own quarters, a lounge complete with a piano, promenade decks, and a smoking room! The supreme elegence of Concorde also contributed to a great sense of shock when an Air France jet was lost near Paris in 2000, although opulence on board was considerably less than on board Titanic or Hindenburg, and the aircraft - 30 years after its first flight - was no longer at the cutting edge of technological design, unlike Titanic).
4. A Jolt to the Empire, and a Wake-Up Call for the Limitations of Human Achievement and Power
The size and style of the ship are major factors in the lasting appeal of Titanic's story, but perhaps equally important is the psychological significance of that disaster to a nation, an empire, and perhaps to all of the world's technologies.
It would be hard to overemphasise the atmosphere of exuberant self-confidence which must have pervaded the British nation at this time. We had just come through a Victorian era in which the country had been at the forefront of the industrial revolution, when men like George Stephenson, Thomas Telford, and above all Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had transformed the nation from a rural agricultural economy to a steam, coal and iron based industrial economy of railway tracks, great bridges and tunnels, coal-driven factories, and - of course - great ships out of all proportion to the wind-driven sailing boats of old. The world had changed. Riding on the back of this age of inventiveness and development, Britain had established her empire and ruled over as much as one fifth of the world.
Of course, it wasn't just Britain. This industrialisation phenomenon had affected most of the countries of Western Europe and North America and others too and set these nations aside from the rural 'third world' economies. Such advanced nations could be forgiven a sense of arrogance about what they could achieve. They would have felt at this time that almost nothing was impossible, that innovative technology and metal working craftsmanship could achieve anything. The White Star Liners epitomised this age. They were emblematic of the might and power of the British Empire, and the liners were the pinnacle of the Empire's industrial achievements.
If Titanic had been a big ship from the third world, then it would just have been a disaster with a tragic loss of life. But at this time in our history, its loss would have been a massive shock to the pride and confidence of the nation and indeed to all industrialised civilisations. In a sense, the loss of RMS Titanic could be seen as the end of an Age of Innocence - we learned overnight that even the crowning glory of the most powerful of nations could be weak and vulnerable when set against the might of the forces of nature.
(Possibly the only greater shock to a nation's sense of its own power, came not from an accidental disaster, or a force of nature, but rather from that violent act of aggression on September 11th 2001, when the people of the United States of America had to confront the harsh reality that even in the world's only super power, security of the individual could not be infallible. There was still a vulnerability).
5. This Was Not Just Any Voyage; It Was the First
This was not merely the biggest ship in the world, and not merely one of the most opulent, built by a mighty empire as a symbol of its greatness; it was also not merely any old voyage. It was the first. It was the maiden voyage, and that of course meant that the atmosphere and the publicity surrounding the transatlantic crossing could not have been more intense.
On the day of the launch, 100,000 members of the public turned out to watch, and 90 members of the press reported the events, before being treated to a lunch at Belfast's Grand Central Hotel. The bosses of the White Star Line and the Harland and Wolff Shipyards enjoyed a celebratory banquet. Every aspect of RMS Titanic's maiden voyage received publicity in the press and the loss of the ship in these circumstances would have been felt that much more intensely.
(One cannot think of a comparable situation. Concorde didn't crash on its first ever flight. Neither did the Hindenburg, or the space shuttle, or the Japanese bullet train).
6. The Passenger List
All life is of equal value, but sadly one cannot avoid the fact that the lives of the rich and famous attract more media attention than the lives of the ordinary man and woman in the street. A ship which goes down full of unknown ordinary Joes may well be just as tragic, but it's a fact of life that it won't attract the same interest from the public.
This was a maiden voyage and the cost of a First Class ticket led to a glittering array of the rich and famous boarding for the first transatlantic crossing. There were sports stars and actors, just as there would be today, One such was the highest paid actress in the world, Dorothy Gibson, who survived - just one month after the disaster she appeared in the hastily made, first ever film about the disaster, called 'Saved from the Titanic'. But most of all there were political and industrial movers and shakers. 30 millionaires (even in 1912 monetary terms) were on board. Among these were Isador Strauss, the German-born American co-owner of Macy's department store, the renouned American businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor IV, an American real estate builder and investor. All of these died on 15th April 1912. The richest passenger of all was Astor, who left a $150 million fortune ($3.45 billion in today's money).
In addition, many of the leading lights of the White Star Line itself went along for the maiden voyage, including both the Managing Director J Bruce Ismay (who survived in controversial circumstances when he took a place in a lifeboat), and the Chief Designer of the Titanic, Thomas Andrews, who went down with his ship.
(Few other disasters have taken such an array of the rich or famous with them, and this undoubtably contributes to the undying legend of this ship. One fine comparison for the British public would be the events of 6th February 1958. On that freezing cold day on an ice-bound runway in Munich, Germany, an aeroplane crashed on take-off. It was only an ordinary airliner, and only 23 people died, yet it remains possibly the best-remembered air crash in all of British history. The reason? The plane was carrying the world famous Manchester United football team home from a European match in Belgrade. Eight of the players died, including four England internationals and one Irish international. The Munich aircrash remains in the memory for the passenger list. Titanic remains in the memory for the same reason).
7. Class Issues
The next two factors are both concerned with the controversies surrounding the Titanic. Much of the continued appeal of the Titanic story has been fueled by the movies made about the event, and one of the plot lines which such films love to explore is the class issue. And what a huge descrepancy in class structure there was. The price of a first-class ticket has already been mentioned. Yet the price of a third class passage was a mere $30.
The great difference in price was reflected in the very great difference in living conditions on board, which perhaps was reasonable enough. What was not so reasonable was the effect that this had on the chances of survival of a passenger when the Titanic went down.
The stark reality is that if you were a First Class passenger, your chances of survival were 61%. If you were a Second Class passenger, you had a 42% chance of living. And if you were a Third Class passenger, your chances panned out at a mere 24%. To be fair, this was not for the most part a question of deliberately favouring the lives of the rich, as women and children of whatever class still officially took precedence over the most affluent gentlemen - it was as much to do with the practicalities of informing steerage (third class) passengers, and enabling their orderly progression in chaotic circumstances from the bowels of the ship to the lifeboats.
(Class issues on the Titanic created an atmosphere of 'them' and 'us', 'rich' and 'poor', 'haves' and 'have-nots', which may in some cases have determined who lived, and who died. Such issues have since nurtured myths and stories such as that of rich Rose DeWitt Bukater and poor Jack Dawkins in the 1997 movie 'Titanic'. These have romanticised the legend and kept it fresh in the mind, in a manner which is quite unmatched by any other disaster).
8. Decisions & Mistakes
If class issues have fed the myth of RMS Titanic and the controversies surrounding the hardships faced by steerage passengers, then many many decisions taken before the launch, during the cruise and even as the great ship was sinking, have fueled the continuing debates about her demise. On this page, only the briefest of lists of these decisions will be included to illustrate these issues. The references at the end contain many more details.
- During the construction of Titanic, three million rivets were used to fasten the metal plates of the hull together, and these were not of the very highest quality. Wrought iron rivets, rather than stronger steel rivets, were used, and these broke free during the collision, allowing the hull plates to buckle.
- A lifeboat drill on the day of the disaster was cancelled, and during that day no less than 6 iceberg warnings were received by the radio operators. The Titanic's crew, however, ignored these warnings and the ship ploughed straight ahead.
- When the lookouts spotted the fateful iceberg, the ship was thrown into reverse and turned hard to port to try to avoid impact. This caused a series of glancing, scraping gashes to the hull. It is now believed it might have been better if Titanic had hit the iceberg head on.
- The lifeboats and how they were used have spread endless speculation. Although equipped to carry 64 lifeboats, only 20 were on board when she sailed. This paucity of lifeboats was deliberate - the White Star Line wanted to leave more deck space for the promenaders. It was also entirely legal - Board of Trade requirements for the number of lifeboats carried was bizarrely related to the ship's tonnage, rather than the number of personnel on board.
- Of the 20 boats on board, only 16 actually got launched. And of these 16, many left Titanic not filled to capacity. The first to launch was built for 65 people, yet left with only 24 on board. Another smaller lifeboat with the capacity for 40 passengers, carried only 12 to safety. In all, 472 lifeboat spaces went unfilled, whether due to panic or confusion or blind adherence to the 'women and children first' policy.
- And during the sinking, the nearest ship to the disaster scene was not the Carpathia, which later picked up the survivors - it was the Californian. But when Titanic radioed for help the Californian's radio operator had gone to bed, so the message wasn't received. (this again was not seen as a show of criminal irresponsibility - the benefits of the new radio service was seen more as a way of communicating personal messages from passengers, than as a potential life-saver). When the light from the Titanic's flares was seen in the sky, it was not appreciated this was a sign of a ship in distress.
(Today, of course, investigations into every major disaster, be it an air crash, a space shuttle disaster, or a train crash, are carried out in meticulous detail. Such is the sophistication of modern technology that usually some small error or a chain of unlikely mistakes is quickly identified, and the aura of mystery about the disaster is lost. In the case of Titanic, no one identifying fault could be singled out. Instead, the records and blueprints of the engineers and builders, the known decisions of the crews of Titanic and other ships involved, and the recollections of survivors, have allowed many different issues to surface, and feed a continuing fascination with the timeline of events. Such a rich source of controversy, plus the long passage of time, mean that the whole truth may never be known, yet will be endlessly discussed).
9. The 'Unsinkable' Tag
If you believe a disaster may happen, and then it does, then it's tragic, but one can accept it. If you believe a disaster is well-nigh impossible, then comprehension becomes so much more difficult. The tag of 'unsinkable' as applied to Titanic, (linked to a faith in the brilliance of modern technology and engineering) was one more factor which made its loss so much more shocking to all involved.
To be fair, the White Star Line never claimed in quite such blatant and arrogant terms that the ship was unsinkable, but they did skate around that idea and hint at the possibility. They had said that it 'could almost be unsinkable', and it was reported before the ship left for America that she was 'practically unsinkable'. The press exaggerated the claim. The actual boast nevertheless was an unfortunate statement and one which would haunt both builder and owner for years.
(There is, I think no modern day comparison. With the benefit of the example of Titanic, nobody would be so bold or foolhardy as to claim that their creation - however magnificent - might be indestructible. Yet even today our unshakable belief in the magnificence of our own works mean that when an airliner comes down, or indeed a luxury cruise liner such as the recent Costa Concordia founders, the immediate reaction is 'how can this be possible?')
10. Romance & Heroism
Some disasters happen so suddenly, there is almost no time for the victims to demonstrate their inner nature, be it heroic or cowardly. There is no time for characters to emerge - the stuff of legend. An aeroplane crash doesn't normally allow much time for stories to develop, except in certain unique circumstances (such as those which took place on United Flight 93 over Pennsylvania in 2001). An explosion likewise doesn't allow any time for stories to develop unless it results in the trapping of people (such as the case of workers in the Chile mine disaster of 2010). A sinking ship is different. There is time for the would-be victims to show their true colours, to exhibit real bravery and fortitude, to create controversy by their decisions, and to demonstrate their compassion or love for others. And if there are survivors, then these are the people who can give testimony to the stories of those who died.
A disaster such as the Titanic gave plenty of scope for these stories to develop, and they included tales of romance and tales of heroism.
One of the most touching stories regarding the passengers was the tale of an elderly wealthy couple, Isador Strauss (mentioned earlier on this page) and his wife Ida. When it became apparent that few male passengers on the Titanic could be allowed to board the limited lifeboats, Mrs Strauss refused to leave her husband, even though to stay with him meant certain death. She was overheard to say:
- “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.”
Isidor and Ida were last seen sitting on deckchairs holding hands before a large wave washed them into the ocean.
Benjamin Guggenheim demonstrated aristocratic fortitude as he faced his own demise. After helping some passengers to the lifeboats, he returned to his cabin with his secretary and the two men changed into evening wear. He was heard to remark:
- "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."
He also gave a survivor a message saying:
- "Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward."
Finally, and most famously, there were the Titanic musicians. Strictly speaking there were two separate bands on board - a quintet and a trio. They had not played together until on the night of the sinking all eight gathered together on deck to play. They hoped to keep the passengers calm and upbeat. They had a determination to continue playing in the freezing cold to do their duty, even as it became apparent that there was no hope for the ship, or for them. What did they play? Many varied pieces. But what was the last piece? Even that has been the subject of dispute. Band-leader Wallace Hartley had once said that if he was on a sinking ship he would want his last song to be either of the hymns, 'Nearer My God to Thee', or 'O God our Help in Ages Past'. Several survivors testified that the Titanic band played 'Nearer My God to Thee'. This is what the newspapers reported and this is the hymn ingrained in the public consciousness. None of the band members survived.
(These are just three of the many stories from the last few hours of life on board Titanic. The character shown by those who lived and those who died, provides the most poignant of reasons for the enduring legend of Titanic. Without this factor there would surely have been documentaries and analytical texts, just as there are in the aftermath of any disaster, but there would have been no romanticised stories and movies such as the 1958 classic, 'A Night to Remember', or the aforementioned 1997 blockbuster 'Titanic'. At the end of the day, nobody cares about a ship - they care about the people who went down with the ship).
Titanic shouldn't perhaps remain so prominent in our histories. Since 1912 we have witnessed the two most hideous acts of blood letting since man first fashioned a weapon out of a long stick of wood and a sharp stone, and used it on a fellow man. We have in one of those two wars witnessed the most appalling act of genocide in history. From 1918 to 1920 we also experienced an influenza epidemic which wiped out 50 million people worldwide. Hundreds of thousands have died in earthquakes, floods and famines. In terms of loss of life and world changing events, the Titanic pales into insignificance.
And yet, the story of Titanic is a story which captures the imagination for all the reasons I have given, and no other accidental disaster in history can match it for the personal adventures, the controversial actions, the melodramas, and the heroisms displayed.
I said at the beginning of this piece that Hollywood itself couldn't have created such a story and made it believable. They've had a go of course, including stories of sinking ships such as 'The Poseidon Adventure'. But perhaps they most nearly mirrored the Titanic with a movie from 1974; 'The Towering Inferno' featured the world's biggest skyscraper, a 'maiden night launch' amidst great publicity, a disaster brought about by inadequate design and cost cutting, and a victim list of the rich, famous and influential, coupled with one or two stories of romance and heroism. Sounds familiar? Yet even this work of fiction pales into ordinariness against the true life events and loss of life on Titanic (or indeed when set against the true life skyscraper tragedy to follow at the World Trade Centre buildings in 2001).
Truth can indeed be stranger, more horrific, more extraordinary, than any fiction, and that is why the story of Titanic still has the power to enthrall 100 years after it went down. Specifically, Titanic - the ship which made only one voyage - is now destined to remain the most famous ship in history, and its voyage is destined to remain the stuff of legends for as long as human beings venture out on to the deep oceans of the world and trust their lives to the ingenuity and skill of the people who design and build the boats they sail in.