A century ago in 1911 the world's largest steamship was launched. But her career was cut short when tragedy struck the following year.
Of all classic engineering projects perhaps none has attracted as much controversy as RMS Titanic. While there is hardly a single fact relating to the British ocean liner that hasn't been debated or challenged, we can be sure that Titanic was built for transatlantic passenger and mail service – hence RMS, 'Royal Mail Ship' – between Southampton and New York. The Olympic class vessel was constructed at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. On her maiden voyage, Titanic was the largest man-made moving object on the planet.
On 10 April 1912, the Titanic sailed from Southampton with 2,223 passengers and crew. Four days later she collided with an iceberg and sank. There were only 706 survivors. The exact figures vary, but all sources agree that the 20 lifeboats fitted on Titanic were woefully insufficient to effect a full evacuation. Most losses were due to hypothermia, with death in the sub-zero water occurring in as little as 15 minutes.
A ship that had taken three years to build was sunk in less than three hours. Many factors contributed to the rapidity of her demise. These include design, assignation of lifeboats and disrupted chains of command. Conspiracy theories surround the disaster, but most commentators agree that the underlying reason was simply the combination of iceberg collision and bad luck. Although according to one, it was because 'the workforce cursed the Pope with every rivet that was hammered into the hull'.
On board Titanic were engineers from the ship's maker, their job to remedy any flaws, report on her handling and deal with technical issues. All eight Harland and Wolff engineers went down with the ship.
To build the world's biggest ships, the Olympic class RMS Titanic, alongside Olympic and Gigantic, later to be renamed Britannic. Commissioned by the White Star Line to secure the transatlantic luxury passenger trade. Overall length 269.1m, breadth 28m, tonnage 46,328 GRT. To be equipped with two reciprocating 4-cylinder, triple expansion steam engines and one low-pressure Parsons turbine, each driving a propeller. To carry a maximum compliment of 3,547 passengers and crew.
Cost and personnel
It cost $7.5m (then £1.5m) to build the Titanic. Today it would cost at least £250m. More than 3,000 men were employed in its construction over three years, with only one fatal accident. A first class suite in 1912 would have set you back about £40,000 in today's money. But you could travel in third class for as little as £300.
Titanic was designed by Lord Pirrie (a director of Harland and Wolff and White Star Line) and naval architect Thomas Andrews. Its design included steel doors that could separate the ship into 16 sections in the event of taking on water. These could be operated in 25 seconds or less, enclosing any water. The White Star Line claimed the Titanic was 'designed to be unsinkable.'
On 14 April 1912, 400 miles from land, Titanic struck an iceberg at 11.40pm and sank 160 minutes later. Six of the forward compartments were ruptured. After surveying the damage Thomas Andrews concluded that the ship would sink. At 4:10am, RMS Carpathia arrived to pick up survivors from the lifeboats.
Titanic sank because she hit an iceberg in the dark, having received at least six ice warnings. Some experts think that she was going too fast to respond. There were in fact 37 seconds between the sighting and the collision. Matters were made worse by the blow being glancing rather than head-on, which the ship would almost certainly have survived. Many potential causes for the disaster have been analysed: from corporate arrogance to the sulphur content of the steel used to construct the hull. But the top-line cause was that Captain Smith was travelling too fast to avoid the collision.
Although there were four funnels on Titanic only three were functional. The fourth rearmost funnel was added for cosmetic reasons. Titanic was the fourth known vessel to use the SOS call. One of the thousands of myths is that as the ship went down the band played 'Nearer Thy God To Thee'. As the ship was tilting at 90° it's hardly likely they were playing anything, and there is evidence to suggest the last song was 'Songe d'Automne'.
Explorers Jean-Louis Michel and Robert Ballard rediscovered Titanic in 1985. We now know that Titanic lies on the seabed under 3,925m of water, 1,000 miles due east of Boston, Massachusetts and 375 miles south-east of St. John's, Newfoundland. Because of her fragile condition it is unlikely that she will be raised. Ballard says tourism visits to the wreck and the recovery of artefacts are leading to the decay of Titanic. Earlier this year there was a ceremony at Harland and Wolff to mark the centenary of the launch.