The story of Titanic, one of the most famous and fateful shipwrecks in history, is well known. James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster movie highlights the arrogance and ignorance that led to the disaster, but it also provides a deeper understanding of the design of the ship and why it failed. In this article, we will take a closer look at the ship’s design, how it was supposed to stay afloat, and what went wrong on the fateful night of April 14, 1912.
The Titanic’s Lifeboats: Adequate by Law but Not Enough in Reality
In the movie, Kate Winslet’s character Rose notices that there are not enough lifeboats for everyone aboard the Titanic. To which Victor Garber, who played Titanic’s architect Thomas Andrews, responds with “I have built a good ship, strong and true. She’s all the lifeboat you need.” This line comes off as either tragic arrogance or a bad joke, but it highlights a central issue with the Titanic’s design.
The Titanic actually had more lifeboats than was required by British law. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 required that big ships weighing over 10,000 tons have at least 16 lifeboats that could hold 990 people. When the Titanic first launched in 1911, it weighed over 45,000 tons but still only needed 16 lifeboats by law. Titanic had 20, which, if filled to maximum capacity, could carry a total of 1,178 people. This was nowhere near enough to accommodate the approximate 2,240 passengers and crew on board when the ship sank.
The Titanic’s Design: The Safest Passenger Ship in the World
From a design perspective, the builders of the Titanic had every reason to believe that they had constructed the safest passenger ship the world had ever seen. The Titanic was designed to stay afloat even after taking on serious damage. The bottom of the ship was divided into 16 compartments by bulkheads, which could be sealed off from each other with the flick of a switch that closed watertight doors connecting them. The idea was that even after taking on water, the Titanic would still be the safest place to wait as lifeboats methodically ferried passengers to a rescue ship.
The Republic Incident: A Successful Bulkhead Plus Lifeboat Strategy
Just a couple of years before the sinking of the Titanic, a ship accidentally rammed straight into the side of the RMS Republic. The Republic was ripped wide open and was taking on water, but the crew remained calm and didn’t evacuate the ship right away. Their confidence was due in large part to a brand new piece of technology they had on board: the Marconi Wireless Telegraph system. The Republic made use of a wireless distress signal, and a few hours later, a rescue ship arrived and transferred everyone off the Republic in small groups using lifeboats. The Republic eventually sank, but except for 6 people killed in the initial collision, every single person on board was saved.
The Triumph of Wireless: The Optimism of the Time
This incident seemed to prove that on the busy North Atlantic route, with other ships always nearby, a combination of careful ship design and this miraculous piece of new technology had made disasters at sea a thing of the past. A 1909 news article, “The Triumph of Wireless,” pretty much sums up the optimism of the time: “The passenger on a well-equipped transatlantic liner is safer than anywhere else in the world.”
What Went Wrong on the Titanic
Despite the Titanic’s impressive design, its fatal flaw was not considering the potential for a catastrophic breach in multiple compartments. On April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg and the resulting damage to the hull breached five of its watertight compartments. The bulkheads were only designed to withstand water up to a certain height, and once that height was exceeded, water flowed over the tops of the partitions and into the next compartment. This caused a domino effect that filled each compartment and eventually led to the ship’s catastrophic sinking.
Another factor that contributed to the disaster was the inadequate number of lifeboats on board the Titanic. Even though the Titanic had more lifeboats than was required by law, they were still not enough to accommodate all passengers and crew. There was also confusion and panic during the evacuation, which caused the lifeboats to be launched partially empty and with fewer people than they could have carried.
The lack of proper training for crew members was also a factor in the disaster. The crew was not prepared for an emergency evacuation and many of them were unsure of how to properly launch and fill the lifeboats. This contributed to the chaos and confusion during the evacuation and resulted in the loss of many lives.
Finally, the lack of communication and coordination with other ships in the area also played a role in the disaster. The Titanic did not have a clear system in place for communicating with other ships in the event of an emergency, and when it sent out distress signals, nearby ships were slow to respond.
In conclusion, while the Titanic was considered the safest ship of its time, a combination of design flaws, inadequate lifeboats, untrained crew, and poor communication all contributed to the tragic loss of life. The disaster serves as a reminder of the importance of proper safety measures and the need to always be prepared for the worst.