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Titanic still captures our imaginations after 85 years because her story is like a great novel that really happened. The story couldn't have been written better...the juxtaposition of rich and poor, the gender roles played out unto death (women first), the stoicism and nobility of a bygone age, the magnificence of the great ship matched in scale only by the folly of the men who drove her hell bent throughout the darkness. And above all the lesson: that life is uncertain, the future unknowable...the unthinkable possible.
2,227 souls aboard. 1522 dead. Only 705 were saved, when 1360 or more could have been. Discover what happened that fateful night, hear how Dr. Ballard discovered the ship in her final resting place, and learn how James Cameron's blockbuster movie was made. Journey back now, to TITANIC.
The Royal Mail Ship TITANIC was the last grand dream of a Guilded Age. It was designed to be the greatest achievement of an era of prosperity, confidence, and propriety (Paramount 1). Although no one knew it, the world was about to change drastically. Radio had been invented in 1901. The Wright Brothers' first successful flight was in 1903. The old presumptions about class, morals, and gender-roles were about to be shattered. If the concept of Titanic was the climax of the age, then perhaps its sinking was the curtain that marked the end of an old drama and the start of a new one (1).
The intensely competitive transatlantic steamship business had seen recent major advances in ship design, size, and speed. White Star Line, one of the leaders, was determined to focus on size and elegance rather than pure speed. In 1907, White Star Line's managing director, J. Bruce Ismay, and Lord James Pirrie, a partner in Harland & Wolff (White Star Line's ship-builder since its founding in 1869) conceived of three magnificent steam ships which would set a new standard for comfort, elegance, and safety. The first two were to be named Olympic and Titanic, the latter name chosen by Ismay to convey a sense of overwhelming size and strength (1).
Titanic was 883 feet long (1/6 of a mile), 92 feet wide, and weighed 46,328 tons. She was 104 feet tall from keel to bridge, almost 35 feet of which were below the waterline. Even so, she stood taller above the water than most urban buildings f the time.
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Moreover, she was designed to be a marvel of modern safety technology. She had a double hull of one inch thick steel plates and a (heavily publicized) system of 16 water-tight compartments, sealed by massive doors which could be instantly triggered by a single electric switch on the bridge, or even automatically by electric water sensors. The press began to call her "unsinkable" (3).
Her accommodations were the most modern and luxurious on any ocean, and included electric light and heat in every room, electric elevators, a swimming pool, a squash court (considered terribly modern), a Turkish Bath, a gymnasium with a mechanical horse and mechanical camel to keep riders fit, and staterooms and first class facilities to rival the best hotels on the continent (Nichol 5). First class passengers would glide down a six-story, glass-domed
grand staircase to enjoy haughte cuisine in the sumptuous first class dining saloon that filled the width of the ship on D Deck. For those who desired a more intimate atmosphere, Titanic also offered a stately à le carte restaurant, the chic Palm Court, and Verandah restaurant, and the festive café Parisien. She offered two musical ensembles (rather than the standard one) of the best musicians on the planet, many of them lured from rival liners. There were two libraries, first- and second-class. Even the third class (steerage) cabins were more luxurious than the first-class cabins on some lesser steam ships, and boasted amenities (like indoor toilet facilities) that some of the Titanic's emigrant passengers had not enjoyed in their own homes (Paramount 3).
The original design called for 32 lifeboats. However, White Star Management felt that the boat-deck would not look cluttered, and reduced the number to twenty, for a total lifeboat capacity of 1178. This actually exceeded the regulations of the times, even though the Titanic was capable of carrying over 3500 people (passengers and crew) (4).
The journey began at South Hampton on Wednesday, April 10, 1912 at noon. By sundown, Titanic stopped in Cherbourg, France, to pick up additional passengers. That evening she sailed for Queenstown, Ireland, and at 1:30 PM on Thursday, April 11, she headed out into the Atlantic (4).
The seasoned transatlantic passengers were deeply impressed by the new ship. She was so massive that they barely felt the movement of the sea at all. Her huge, powerful engines produced almost none of the annoying vibration common to other steamers, and their noise was barely perceptible. And she achieved this extraordinary level of comfort while traveling at 22 knots, not the fastest boat on the route, but certainly one of the top five (5).
Weather was pleasant and clear, and the water temperature was about 55 degrees. The winter of 1912 had been unusually mild, and unpredictable amounts of ice had broken loose from arctic regions. Titanic was equipped with Marconi's new wireless telegraph system and her two Marconi operators kept the wireless room running 24 hours a day. On Sunday, April 14, the fifth day at sea, Titanic received five different ice warnings, but Captain Smith was not overly
concerned. The ship steamed ahead at 22 knots, and the line's Managing Director J. Bruce Ismay relished the idea of arriving in New York a day ahead of schedule (5).
On the night of April 14, wireless operator Philips was very busy sending chatty passenger's messages to Cape Race, Newfoundland, whence they could be relayed inland to friends and relatives (Nichol 10). He received a sixth ice-warning that night, but didn't realize how close Titanic was to the position of the warning, and put that message under a paperweight at his elbow. It never reached Captain Smith or the officer on the bridge (11).
By all accounts the night was uncommonly clear and dark, moonless but faintly glowing with an incredible sky full of stars. The stars were so bright that one officer mistook the planet Jupiter (then rising just above the horizon) for a steamship light (Titanic...Dream Film).
The sea was, likewise, unusually calm and flat, "like glass" said many survivors. The lack of waves made it even more difficult to see icebergs, since there were no tell tale white water breaking at the edges of bergs (Titanic...Dream Film)
At 11:40 PM, a lookout in the crow's nest spotted an iceberg dead ahead. He notified the bridge and First Officer Murdoch ordered the ship to turn hard to port. He signaled the engine room to reverse direction, full astern (Titanic...Dream Film). The ship turned slightly, but it was much too large, moving much too fast, and the iceberg was much too close. 37 seconds later, the greatest maritime disaster in history began (Titanic...Dream Film). During the night of heroism, terror and tragedy, 705 lives were saved, 1522 lived were lost, and many legends were born (Nichol 12).
Plans to locate and even raise the Titanic began almost the moment she sank. The Astor, Guggenheim, and Widner families, all having lost family members on the Titanic, hired the Merritt-ChapmanDerrick wrecking company to investigate the possibilities of raising the Titanic. They decided, after exploring the possibilities, that the task was impossible, due to the immense depth of more than 2 1/2 miles (Nichol 23)
Since that day, companies have devised various Titanic raising schemes, ranging from filling the ship with Ping-Pong balls to float her up, to encasing the ship in liquid nitrogen, creating a giant ice cube that would float to the surface (23). All of these elaborate ideas were thrown away, due to insufficient funds, and lack of expertise and equipment (24).
The Titanic, was overall, a lesson. Her death taught us that no matter how good the technology, no matter how invinsible we think we are, Mother Nature will always win. We cannot underestimate the power of the sea, nor can we conquer it.
Ballard, Robert D. Exploring the Titanic. Ontario, Canada: Madison Press Books. 1988. 363.1 Bal
Cameron, James; Marsh, Ed W. James Cameron's TITANIC. New York, NY; Harper Collins 1997
Nichol, Mark. RMS Titanic and Other White Star Line Ships. [Internet] Available: http://www.members.aol.com/MNichol/index.html. January 3, 1997.
Paramount Pictures. Titanic. [Internet] Available: http://www.Titanicmovie.com. December 10, 1997.
Titanic: Death of a Dream. Director Renee Bishop. Writer Melissa Jo Pelter. Worldview Film, 1997.