Friday, January 20, 2012
RMS Titanic: A Short History
April 14-15, 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic striking an iceberg and sinking in the North Atlantic. Has it really been that long? My interest (obsession) with the Titanic began when I was really, really young and I happened to watch the National Geographic special on the discovery of the ship by Robert Ballard which my grandparents had on VHS tape. I was hooked. Why I could not tell you! Even now I have no idea how such a show on such a subject appealed to my child's mind. I got my first book on the Titanic in the fourth grade (its actually still at my parents'!). I was thrilled when the James Cameron film came out in 1997; not for the "love story" but for the sets that were created. I was so excited to "see" the interior of the ship which I had only seen in a few black and white photos. I've been wanting to write something about the Titanic and I thought the weeks leading up to the actual anniversary would be a good time to post about my first historical interest. I'll start with the basic story (history) of the ship and we'll see what later posts are about!
Titanic's story begins several years before that fateful April night.
Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century transatlantic travel was becoming a big business. Companies were competing for the fastest passenger ships and the most luxurious passenger ships. This came at a time when the fabulously wealthy loved to show off their wealth and there was no better way to do this than on a transatlantic cruise which could take a week (from England to New York). According to legend, in 1907 Lord Pirrie, owner of Harland and Wolff, and Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, gave birth to the idea of creating several massive, super luxurious steam liners, the "Olympic class,"of which Titanic would be the second and biggest (behind the Olympic and the Gigantic [later renamed Brittanic]). They decided that instead of going for the fastest liners in the world, they were going to go for the most comfortable and the safest; they were really going to cater to the most elite passengers and no expense would be spared. They put Thomas Andrews in charge of designing the massive ships.
Construction on the Titanic did not begin until March 31,1909 when her keel was laid. All three ships were built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland. This new class of ships was so big that a special gantry and slipway had to be built in the shipyard to house them...before construction on the actual ships could even begin! (New docks also had to be built in Southampton because none of the existing ones were near big enough to house these behemoths!) Her construction lasted 3 years and thousands were employed to put her together. The company also wanted to have the safest ships afloat along with the most luxurious and Titanic's design included numerous state-of-the-art safety features. Leading up to her maiden voyage in 1912, White Star published many claims that the ship was "virtually unsinkable." While Titanic would carry passengers from all walks of life, it was in the first class cabins and public rooms where Titanic's true purpose was crystal clear. Besides sumptuous state rooms, first class passengers would have a swimming pool (the first on any ship), Turkish bath, gymnasium, and squash court in which to get exercise while at sea. There was also a writing room (for the ladies), smoking room (men only!), lounge, reception room, palm courts and cafes, and a restaurant. Titanic really was like a floating 4 star hotel. The opulance of Titanic's first class state rooms and public rooms really outclassed all other ships of the time. Second, and even third, class on the Titanic was better than some first class on other ships. She was launched on May 31, 1911 to begin her "fitting out" (interior painting, decorating, moving in furniture, etc) and to prepare for her maiden voyage.
Titanic was supposed to begin her maiden voyage on March 20, 1912 but her sister ship Olympic collided with another vessel towards the end of 1911 and White Star wanted her repaired and operational before Titanic sailed, thus (fatefully) pushing her maiden voyage back to April 10. Captain Edward J. Smith was in charge and this was to be his last command before retiring from an impressive career as a sea captain. She left the dock at Southampton at noon on April 10, narrowly escaping being hit in the side by a smaller vessel, and sailed across the Channel, docking at Cherbourg, France, after 6 pm. The next day she arrived in Queenstown, Ireland, took on more steerage passengers, and then headed out into the North Atlantic. The voyage was uneventful, with clear skies and calm waters, and Cpt. Smith increased her speed each day despite the fact that she began receiving ice warnings after only two days at sea. There have been reports that he was ordered by Bruce Ismay (who was on board for the maiden voyage) to speed up in order to break the Atlantic crossing record.
The night of April 14 was extremely cold, below freezing by dark, and the sea was unusually calm. The lookouts are advised to watch for icebergs and at 11:40 Titanic collides with her destiny. The berg is spotted directly in front of the ship, the lookouts sound the alarm bell three times, and phone the bridge with the alarming message: "Iceberg right ahead!" First Officer Murdoch is in charge at the time and ordered a "hard-a-starboard" to the man at the wheel, ordered the engines to stop and then full astern, and activated the watertight doors (all that basically means is he told the helmsman to turn the wheel hard to starboard, the engines to stop, and then to put them in reverse, trying to get the ship to turn and slow down). She did begin to turn but it was too late and the iceberg scrapped along her starboard side under the waterline. By 11:50, only 10 minutes after the collision, there is already water 14 feet above the keel in the very forepeak (very front) of the ship and the supposedly "watertight" compartments were beginning to flood. Cpt. Smith returned to the bridge and ordered designer Thomas Andrews (also on board for the maiden voyage) to survey the ship and the damage. He had bad news for the Captain when he returned: the ship was designed to stay afloat with any three of the watertight compartments flooded...five already were. He calculates the ship has about an hour and a half to live. Cpt. Smith orders the lifeboats uncovered, woman and children to be loaded first, and gave orders to the Marconi radio operators to begin sending out distress signals.
The first lifeboat was lowered at 12:45...with only 28 people (it could hold 68). Most of the passengers weren't aware of the trouble they were in for quite a while after the initial collision (they ship was supposed to be unsinkable, right?) and weren't keen on the idea of leaving the brightly lit, warm ship. Even if all the lifeboats had been lowered filled to capacity, they still only had room for about 1,100 of the 2,200 people on board. By about 1:15 Titanic's deck is starting to tilt much more noticeably and the lifeboats begin to leave more fully loaded. The only ship to respond to the distress calls, Carpathia, is on her way but she is over 50 miles away and will not make it to the Titanic in time. At 1:40 most of the lifeboats are away, Ismay makes his famous escape from the sinking ship, and the remaining passengers begin making their way to the stern of the ship which is slowly rising out of the water. The ship's lights finally went out at 2:20, sending the people left on board into a further panic. Cpt. Smith is last seen headed towards the bridge of the ship; Thomas Andrews was last seen staring into space in the smoking room. Titanic slipped beneath the waters of the North Atlantic just after 2:20 am, taking over half the passengers and crew down with her. The 705 survivors in the lifeboats waited in the freezing cold until the Carpathia arrived after 4 am in the morning. The Titanic survivors finally arrived in New York on April 18.
After the sinking there were inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, trying to determine what happened and who was to blame. As a result of the sinking, new maritime laws were put in place to keep such a disaster from happening again.
Sorry for the lengthy post but there was a lot of information and I can be rather long winded when it comes to something I find interesting. Please be on the look out for further posts about the Titanic covering various topics.