Historical Background

Diving into History to the Legendary “Unsinkable” Titanic

Titanic'
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Author: F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923). Public Domain This image is copyrighted
Titanic at Sea
The RMS Titanic ready for launch. This work is from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress. Public Domain This image is copyrighted

Construction

It took a year to design and another ten months to complete construction of the ship, including the fitting out of the interior and the installation of the massive state-of-the-art engines, boilers and mechanical equipment. Upon completion, Titanic and her great sister ships Olympic and Britannic weighed 46,000 tons and measured 882 feet (268 meters) in length.

Maiden Voyage

On April 10, 1912, passengers arrived at the White Star docks in Southampton, England to board the grand liner before the crew cast off her lines and Titanic departed with suitable fanfare. She made two port calls, in Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland before departing for New York.

It was at the second port of call in Queenstown that Henry Wilde, Titanic’s chief officer sent a letter to his sister expressing his misgivings and saying, “I still don’t like this ship, I have a queer feeling about it”. Henry Wilde died three days later.

White Starline insignia'
White Starline insignia. Creative Commons, Author Whistlerpro
Titanic's Maiden Voyage'
The iceberg suspected of having sunk the RMS Titanic. Source: How Large Was The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic. Navigation Center, United States Coast Guard. Public Domain.

Icebergs

In 1912, ship-to-shore wireless was in its infancy and although used by many ships it was still considered a convenience rather than a necessity. On the second day of the voyage, Titanic’s wireless operators began to receive iceberg warnings from other ships in the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Tragically not all the ice warnings reached the bridge and many that were received were ignored by the busy radio operators. Meanwhile Titanic’s Captain Smith steamed ahead using the full strength of Titanic’s mighty 30,000 horsepower engines

To spot icebergs at night, lookouts often relied on moonlight to illuminate the white foam of waves breaking against the bergs. Unluckily, April 14th was a beautiful, clear night with a moonless sky. The unusually calm seas meant there were no waves to spot at the base of the icebergs. To make matters more difficult, the binoculars in the crow’s nest were missing.

Lookout Frederick Fleet first saw that fatal iceberg as a small mass in the distance. He immediately rang the three-bell alarm and telephoned the bridge. First Officer Murdoch ordered, “Hard a’ starboard. Stop all engines.”


The Sinking

Titanic'
Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic. Public Domain. Source: Magazine Die Gartenlaube, en:Die Gartenlaube and de:Die Gartenlaube

At 11:40 p.m. ship’s time on April 14, 1912, four days into the crossing, Titanic’s hit an iceberg. The collision caused the ship’s hull plates to buckle inwards along her starboard side and opened six of her sixteen watertight compartments to the sea, filling the ship with water. Over the next two hours and forty minutes, Titanic’s would break apart and sink beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean – eventually coming to rest on the seabed at a depth of 3,800 meters (12,500 feet).

The next morning, the liner Carpathia rescued 712 survivors. Tragically, 1,496 passengers and crew were lost. Subsequent inquiries attributed the high loss of life to the insufficient number of lifeboats and inadequate training in their use. For many, the tragic fate that befell Titanic’s would come to mark the passing of the opulence and hubris of the Edwardian era.

Titanic Survivors
Titanic survivors picked up by the Carpathia (photographed April 15, 1912).