Historical Background

Diving into History to the Legendary “Unsinkable” Titanic

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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.

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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

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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).

The Wreck

Discovery and Exploration

After years of fruitless searching by many organizations, the wreck of the RMS Titanic was found by Dr. Robert Ballard in 1985. Since then, several expeditions have been launched to explore the wreck – most using remotely operated or autonomous vehicles, with relatively few expeditions utilizing manned submersibles. Most notable of these manned submersible expeditions was led by James Cameron for the production of the film “Titanic” that was released in 1997.

Over the last 30 years, Titanic dive expeditions have been conducted by some of the worlds few deep diving submersibles: Nautile (France), Alvin (USA), and the two Mir subs (Russia). These expeditions used the best technology available at the time but were unable to capture high-definition video and 3D scans of the wreck using the advanced technology available to explorers today.

In 2010, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) conducted a wide area survey of the debris field and a 2D photo mosaic of the wreck. During these expeditions, only a few hundred people have visited Titanic in a manned submersible – far fewer than have been to space or summited Mt. Everest.

About the Wreck

The wreck lies at a depth of 3,800 meters (12,800 feet) approximately 595 kilometers (380 nautical miles) from the coast of Newfoundland. The famous ship is deteriorating, overwhelmed by the relentless spread of rusticles (named on account of their icicle-like shape) which are a result of a biochemical process that is eating the manganese, iron and sulfur out of the steel and weakening the wreck.

During the sinking, the ship broke into two main sections and many objects and pieces of the hull were scattered across the sea bed. Most of the debris is concentrated near the stern section and appears to consist of thousands of objects from the interior of the ship, ranging from tons of coal spilled from ruptured bunkers to suitcases, clothes, corked wine bottles (many still intact despite the pressure), bathtubs, windows, washbasins, jugs, bowls, hand mirrors and numerous other personal effects.

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Newspaper article about the Titanic disaster.