The RMS Titanic is the most famous ship in history due to its tragic fate of sinking on its maiden voyage. On April 14, 1912, and close to midnight, the ship collided with an iceberg and with over 2200 people aboard almost 70% would perish. Ironically, too, the Titanic was also described as being unsinkable. But how and where did this idea originate?
Titanic’s origins can be traced back to a business decision. At the turn of the twentieth century, transatlantic trips between England and America were extremely competitive but profitable. Knowing it would be impractical to try and keep up with the speed of ships from rival companies, Titanic’s owners, the White Star Line, instead focused on their ship’s size and luxury. The result were three superliners almost identical in every aspect: Olympic, Titanic and Britannic.
There was nothing ground breaking about Titanic; it was designed with proven technology readily available. But its splendours and comforts were cutting edge, such as its Grand Staircase, elevators, gym, Turkish bath and squash court. It was these that The White Star Line singled out in their advertising campaigns. It was the media that took hold of the notion that Titanic was unsinkable and twisted it out of proportion.
The earliest mention of the word came in an article in Shipbuilder magazine when the Titanic and its sister ships were still under construction. The writers marvelled at the new and advanced safety features being included and noted that the ship was “practically unsinkable”.
One of Titanic’s highlighted features was its 16 watertight compartments. If the ship started taking on water, the compartments could be closed—manually or from a switch on the bridge—and, in theory, the ship could survive. Unfortunately, when the Titanic hit the iceberg, five compartments were breeched, one extra than could be sustained.
Another tragic aspect of the disaster was Titanic’s lack of lifeboats. It was equipped with 16 lifeboats and four “collapsible” versions—exactly enough for about a third of everyone. Safety regulations, which were written in 1894, stated that a ship of 10,000 Gross tons, the largest on the oceans at the time, must have 16 lifeboats onboard. Titanic was 46,000 Gross tons and the law was horribly out of date.
In Titanic’s design phase, engineers had actually suggested 64 lifeboats could have been installed. The proposal was rejected because there was concerns their inclusion would make the outdoor walkways look too cluttered to passengers.
After the 706 survivors arrived in New York on the Carpathia four days after the sinking, two investigations into the incident were held, one in England and another in America. A lot of hard questions were asked but some good did come out of the aftermath: lifeboat complements on ships were upgraded so there were enough for everyone aboard and the International Ice Patrol was created to monitor iceberg movements across the Atlantic. Ships also had to maintain a 24-hour radio watch so their position could be pinpointed easier in case of an emergency.
It wasn’t until after the Titanic sank that the idea of the unsinkable ship began to gain widespread attention. As time has gone on, it’s engrained itself into popular culture and it’s now become a modern-day folk tale in its own right.
Photo Credit: Public Domain
Did Anyone Really Think the Titanic was Unsinkable? (https://www.britannica.com/story/did-anyone-really-think-the-titanic-was-unsinkable)
How Did the ‘Unsinkable’ Titanic End Up at the Bottom of the Ocean? | National Geographic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pywFRpEcZA)
Olympic Titanic Britannic Documentary from 1985 (very rare film) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8ZuP9oLUtI)
The Extraordinary Story of the White Star Liner Titanic (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-extraordinary-story-of-the-titanic/)
The Sinking of RMS Titanic (https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/RMS-Titanic-the-unsinkable-ship/)
The Titanic: Facts About the ‘Unsinkable’ Ship (https://www.livescience.com/38102-titanic-facts.html)
Titanic: Sinking the Myths (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/titanic_01.shtml)
Titanic sinks (https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/titanic-sinks)
Why Did the Titanic Sink? (https://www.history.com/news/why-did-the-titanic-sink)