Everyone knows the story of the Titanic. The jaw-dropping size of the ship, the opulent style of the interior and, of course, the catastrophe that occurred just four days into the maiden voyage when it collided with an iceberg and more than 1,500 passengers died.
In the greatest literary tragedies, it is the very traits that are most admirable in the hero that bring about his downfall. And it’s this same tragic irony that makes the story of the Titanic so compelling: it was the desire to build bigger, better, faster and more competitive ships that led to the Titanic setting out across the Atlantic with insufficient lifeboats, a single-skin hull, bulkheads up to only 10 feet above the waterline, and a rudder and propeller configuration incapable of emergency manoeuvres.
Building a ship to withstand the worst of the North Atlantic was of less immediate interest to the White Star Line in 1911 than competing with the latest ships of its arch-rival, Cunard. The Lusitania and Mauritania, both entering service in 1906, were built for speed in the hopes of winning the coveted Blue Riband, awarded to the ocean liner that completed the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.
The White Star Line decided to compete on luxury rather than speed, with the three Olympic-class ships – the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic – taking their inspiration from the most glamorous hotels of the Belle Epoque. The aim was to provide passengers with an atmosphere of classic elegance, and to insulate them from the potential fears of ocean travel by using architecture as close to that found on land as possible.
Make no mistake: these Olympic-class ships were among the most innovative and technologically advanced creations of the Edwardian period. The White Star line worked closely with the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and both were keen to try new ideas. The yard launched its first ship for the White Star Line, the Oceanic, in 1871, with the first-class accommodation shifted radically from the stern to the centre of the ship, to avoid vibration from the propellers. Other lines were quick to follow suit.
But the Olympic-class ships were the yard’s biggest challenge yet. New slipways, an enormous gantry, a huge crane and the biggest drydock in the world had to be constructed to build ships on this scale. The yard at this time employed 15,000 people, in roles from drawing up the ship’s plans to hand-riveting the steel hull; from sewing the upholstery and building the wooden furnishings to creating exquisite stained glass for the interior.
A contemporary observer described the hull of the Titanic, shortly before its launch in May 1911, as “like the naves of a dozen cathedrals laid end to end.” The enormous ship sliding majestically into the water down a slipway greased with 20 tonnes of tallow and grease, a movement that took a full minute to accomplish, must have been a sight to behold. But even then, the ship was far from finished. A full year of fitting out to the highest of standards was to follow before the Titanic’s maiden voyage in April 1912.
After a day of sea trials just off Belfast, the Titanic headed to Southampton, ready for embarkation on 10 April. After calling at Cherbourg in Normandy and Queenstown in Country Cork, the ship set off across the North Atlantic with 1,317 passengers and 891 crewmembers on board.
Part of the glamour of the Titanic story is that the ship happened to be carrying a significant number of the rich and famous on its maiden voyage. Passengers included John Jacob Astor IV; Benjamin Guggenheim, fifth son of the mining magnate; socialite and dressmaker Lady Duff Gordon; Thomas Andrews, co-designer of the Olympic-class liners; and J Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line.
And of course the ship was designed to keep such distinguished guests in the manner to which they were accustomed. There was an à la carte restaurant as well as the first class dining saloon, seating 554 people; a library; a smoking room for the gentlemen; deck chairs and rugs available on the boat and promenade decks; and a Turkish bath, swimming pool, gymnasium and squash court. The grand, sweeping first-class forward staircase boasted a glass dome, wrought ironwork and carved wood panels.
Compared to the entertainment facilities on board today’s cruise ships, the Titanic was positively spartan; but then ocean-going in the Edwardian period was a very different activity to cruising today. Passengers were content to entertain themselves, whether through the art of conversation, letter or diary writing in the library, or taking the air on the promenade deck. Concerts and musical events also took place on the Titanic though the musical entertainment was often left to the passengers, many of whom – particularly the ladies – were accomplished musicians in their own right.
All went well for the first few days of the trip. Apart, that is, from a succession of messages from ships ahead of the Titanic warning of ice in the area, and the desire of the managing director J Bruce Ismay to put the engines through their paces and drive the ship at full speed. At just after 11.30 pm on 14 April these two facts caused the unthinkable: a collision with an iceberg, sighted dead ahead when it was already too late for the ship to turn hard enough away.
“If I had a brimful glass of water in my hand,” said passenger Jack Thayer, of the collision, “not a drop would have spilled.” Most passengers remained unaware of the incident, and certainly of its severity, until the water that was flooding the lower compartments of the ship, and rising easily over the too-low bulkheads, caused the ship to start listing ominously.
Distress signals, including the newly invented SOS call, were sent out by the Marconi wireless operators, and almost an hour after the initial collision the lifeboats finally began to be launched – though by now it was clear both that the ship would not survive, and that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone. Stories from that night range from panic-striken passengers who leapt desperately into already-full lifeboats to the band who kept on playing on deck as the ship went down.
The Carpathia, responding to the Titanic’s distress signals, arrived at the site just as the sun was rising the next morning, and picked up a total of 705 survivors from the lifeboats, leaving the death toll at just over 1,500 people. Afterwards, there were official inquiries into the sinking held in both the US and UK, resulting in a number of changes to ocean liner regulations and design, in the hopes that no such tragedy could occur again. Deeper bulkheads were incorporated, double-hull technology became the norm and, perhaps most significantly, the requisite number of lifeboats was changed.
Today, as the 100th anniversary of that ill-fated maiden voyage approaches, the story of the ship billed as “unsinkable” is still very much alive – thanks in no small part of course to a certain blockbuster made by James Cameron. After all, stories of engineering triumph and tragic over-reaching do not come any greater than this.
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