On April 14-15, 1912, the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank: this maritime disaster became infamous. In some histories, this marks the final end of the Gilded Age, as it dashed the period’s hopeful embrace of technology and immigration. The Titanic had been travelling from Southampton, England, to New York, USA, on its maiden voyage, carrying around 2,208 people: 1,503 would perish. As terrible as this event was, it did cause immense changes in maritime law across the world, making travel by ship much safer.
Made by the White Star Line, the RMS Titanic and its sister ship the RMS Olympic (alongside the later RMS Britannic) were supposed to be the lavish symbols of the modern age. The biggest ocean liners in the world, the Titanic and the Olympic were filled with luxurious rooms and amenities.
Engineers hailed the Titanic as a modern marvel, and it was proclaimed “practically unsinkable”. The press would shorten this to merely “unsinkable”, but there was a reason behind the hype. Amongst other safety measures, the ship had 16 watertight partitions, called bulkheads, in the bottom of its hull. Each bulkhead could be closed from the bridge if any water entered it; four bulkheads could flood and the ship would stay afloat.
The Titanic was viewed as being so safe that it was like a lifeboat itself. Actual lifeboats were seen as being redundant. The Titanic would eventually set sail with 16 regular lifeboats and 4 collapsible lifeboats — all of which could fit 1,178 people at the most, out of the 2,208 people onboard. This wasn’t illegal. The problem was the outdated British regulation that tallied how many lifeboats a vessel would need based on its tonnage, not on the passenger and crew count. This worked in earlier decades when ships were much smaller. But the Titanic was… titanic. The laws governing the number of lifeboats failed when applied to immense ocean liners.
The Passengers and Crew
Millionaires were eager to travel the Atlantic Ocean in style. The Titanic and the Olympic weren’t the fastest ships, but they were opulent. First class rooms for the Titanic’s maiden voyage were in high demand with elites, as were the second class cabins. They could enjoy the 7 day journey in the elegant restaurants, Turkish baths, and promenades. Every inch of the interior was raved about, including the Grand Staircase. With a hefty list of famous and influential passengers scheduled to be on board, the Titanic was the place to be seen and to make connections. Among the passengers were magnates John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Isidor and Ida Strauss.
Poorer people also clamored to ride the ocean liner. They were passengers in the less expensive third class. Many of them were immigrants moving from Europe to the United States, and some brought all of their possessions on the ship. The third class consisted of half of the passengers on board and was extremely profitable for the White Star Line. The cramped third class quarters were deep within the ship and were entirely separated from the first and second class cabins: they had different dining halls, decks, and far fewer amenities. The barriers holding the third class back would have tragic consequences.
The Titanic’s crew was highly experienced: the White Star Line didn’t want to risk anything happening on this maiden voyage. Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1912) was well known in high class society, with many choosing ships based off of if he was in charge. Smith intended on retiring after captaining this last voyage. There was a last minute change to the crew, as several officers got switched out for those originally scheduled to be on the Olympic. One of these replaced officers accidentally took a key with him off of the Titanic: the key to the safe that held the crow’s nest binoculars.
Also onboard were two wireless operators, John (Jack) Phillips and Harold Bride. They were employed by the Marconi Company rather than the White Star Line, so they got paid by telegraphing personal messages from the passengers off of the ship. They were also meant to deliver telegraphed messages to the Captain and the officers, but this was seen as less important.
The Titanic’s Voyage
The Titanic set off from Southampton on April 10, 1912, stopping at Cherbourg (France) and Queenstown/Cobh (Ireland) to pick up passengers. It then began its voyage over the Atlantic Ocean, planning to arrive in New York in a week. The first four days were uneventful. The chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, was on board; talk spread that he was urging the Captain to go faster to beat the Olympic’s trans-Atlantic record. The fast 21-22 knots pace wasn’t enough to ruin the passengers’ walks around the decks, where they could see the vast ocean without many lifeboats blocking their view.
Still, trouble brewed. The wireless operators were receiving warning of icebergs from other ships. Captain Smith took notice and turned the Titanic further south. On any usual year, their path would have been entirely clear of ice. But the messages about danger kept coming, and these sea vessels were closer to the Titanic. The wireless operators saw these ice warnings as repetitive. On the night of April 14th, the operator Jack Phillips was trying to send out all of the passengers’ messages. With the rush of work, he didn’t give all of the ice warnings to the bridge. The ones that did get through weren’t taken seriously by the officers. Smith left the Titanic’s bridge to sleep, with the ship steaming rapidly ahead in the North Atlantic.
At around 10:30 pm, the SS Californian (a few hours directly ahead of them) sent the Titanic a notice that they had stopped for the night because of the vast amount of ice (the Californian’s operator failed to mark this message as meant for the Titanic’s Captain). The distracted Phillips sent back: “Shut up, shut up! I am busy.” The Californian operator listened and turned off his wireless, heading to bed.
Ice warnings or no, the Titanic was travelling too fast into the night.
The iceberg that would end the Titanic was an anomaly. 1912 was a surprising year in the Atlantic Ocean, as there were many more icebergs than usual. Icebergs typically break up around the Labrador Sea by Greenland, but this year more icebergs than usual drifted south into the shipping lanes.
The part of an iceberg seen above the ocean is a small fraction of the rest of the ice hiding below: hence the phrase, ‘the tip of the iceberg’. It can be hard to spot an iceberg from above. Because of this difficulty, ship lookouts watched for waves breaking around the iceberg rather than the ice itself. The night of April 14th saw the Titanic speeding through a waveless ocean.
Up in the crow’s nest, the lookouts spotted the iceberg at just the wrong moment. They were freezing and didn’t have binoculars, so in the moonless night they only saw the immense iceberg when they were nearly on top of it. They rang the warning bell, and the First Officer in turn frantically turned the ship and reversed the engines. The Titanic swerved at the last moment, missing a direct hit (which it would have likely survived) and scraping against the iceberg. ‘Scraping’, as in large gashes ruptured the steel side of the ship, causing water to rush into at least six bulkheads. They could only stay afloat if four or fewer bulkheads were breached.
The Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 pm — 10 minutes after the SS Californian had turned off its wireless.
The Titanic’s bulkheads were quickly sealed from the bridge, but only the sides of them were watertight: the tops were open to each other. The water flew from compartment to compartment. Inspecting the massive flooding the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, realized the Titanic was going to sink: he gave them two hours at most.
After getting the wireless operators to send out distress signals, Captain Smith ordered the lifeboats to be prepared. He didn’t immediately start putting people into lifeboats, and he said one of two things: that women and children should be put into lifeboats first, or that Only women and children would be allowed in. The difference between the two cost countless lives, as officers would later block men from getting into the lifeboats (even when there was room). Smith also failed to ensure that each lifeboat was filled to capacity before they were launched.
After they hit the iceberg, the third class passengers at the bottom of the ship quickly knew that something was wrong. They saw the flooding first and tried to race to the upper decks with their possessions–only to be stopped by the barriers separating them from the other passengers. Many of those in third class didn’t speak English, so they couldn’t understand the crew and didn’t know what they should do.
Those in first and second class were initially much less alarmed. Their cabins were higher on the ship, most of them were asleep, and the hit only made a faint bang. Even when roused, many of the passengers and crew didn’t think it was possible for the Titanic to sink. Some only went to the decks out of curiosity to see the ice that had been flung onboard. When lifeboats began to be lowered, most of the first and second class passengers were hesitant to get on. Why would they leave the warmth and safety of the Titanic to go out on a rickety boat in the middle of the ocean? The first lifeboats that left were barely half full.
Meanwhile, the wireless operators sent maydays to nearby ships. They used a brand new distress signal: SOS. The closest vessel was the Californian (those on the Titanic could actually see it on the horizon), but their telegraph was still turned off and they misinterpreted the distress rockets. The RMS Carpathia did answer the distress call, though was so far away that they wouldn’t reach the Titanic until hours after it had sunk.
As the flooding continued those still on the Titanic were panicking. Many could see the water, the ship was tilting, and people finally believed that they might be in trouble. Lifeboats continued to be lowered, though only some were full. Mainly only women and children could board, with few men escaping. Some of the crew members barricaded the terrified third class passengers beneath the ship. They felt that the first and second classes should have priority to the lifeboats. Few in third class escaped.
All of the lifeboats and collapsible boats were gone by 2:15 am. The vast majority of the passengers and crew remained trapped on the Titanic. Their last hope was of another vessel coming to rescue them, but the RMS Carpathian was still hours away.
The ship tipped, its stern arching high out of the water as a huge funnel snapped. The band continued to play as the lights went out; the Titanic broke in two and sunk into the waves at 2:20 am. The Carpathia arrived at 4:00 am.
The water was icy. Few people who entered the ocean survived, and they only lived because the lifeboats hauled them up or they clung to debris. Captain Smith and much of the crew went down with the Titanic.
An estimated 1,503 people drowned. Around 705 survivors were saved by the Carpathia and made it to New York. Countless families were ripped apart, and people onshore frantically searched wired lists of survivors to see if their loved ones were among the lucky few.
Many legends of humanity and horror bloomed from the disaster. Some are tales of cowardice, such as the rumors around survivor Bruce Ismay–the man who was partly behind the lack of lifeboats and who possibly ordered the Titanic to go faster…and then jumped into a lifeboat himself. But most of the stories are of heroes who sacrificed themselves to save others.
This tragedy caused massive, positive changes in the maritime industry. Britain’s and America’s inquiries into the disaster in part protected the White Star Line, though crucial lessons were learned. Telegraphs and communications between vessels became more regulated and crucial as governments realised how life-saving this technology could be. Ice patrols were established which monitor icebergs and ice fields year long. Most importantly, policies were changed to require ships to have enough lifeboats for each person onboard.