What Really Sank Titanic?
Immortalized in popular culture, the sinking of the RMS Titanic has become a cautionary tale of mankind’s struggle with nature.
While the exact details of the cause of the wreckage will likely never be known, many historians point to the Titanic’s structure and material quality as the main cause, with the size of the mysterious iceberg also contributing.
These theories have a great deal of merit, as I will explain in the following essay. However, these theories alone are not enough to understand the events of that fateful night in 1912.
Attributing the sinking of the Titanic to engineering failures and force majeure wrongly perpetuates a narrative that no one was to blame for significant wrongdoing. I argue that it was more than ignorance and the hand of God that led to the tragedy which killed 1500 passengers – it was the panic and greed of Captain Smith and the White Star Line Corporation.
One cannot contemplate the cause of the sinking of the Titanic, without considering its massive engineering failures. Although at the time, the materials and structure of the ship were considered state of the art, they had significant problems. First, the steel used for the Titanic was not capable of withstanding the cold arctic water of the Atlantic which made it susceptible to damage.
The steel that was used in the hull of the Titanic was most likely created in an acid lined open-hearth furnace. In this process, sulfur and phosphorus interact with the structure of the steel, making it more brittle. Although brittle steel appears strong, when impacted, it shatters instead of deforming.
The cold temperatures exacerbated the brittle quality of the metal so that when the large ship and the iceberg made contact, the iceberg punched a hole right through the steel. Another engineering failure of the Titanic were its malfunctioning safety measures.
Although the makers of the ship implemented 16 watertight compartments in the hull of the ship to keep it afloat, they did not work as designed. The compartments were “watertight”, meaning if water got in, they would hold it all in and not allow the water to fill the other sections. As you might guess, this turned out to not be true as 6 of the compartments flooded which ultimately caused the demise of the ship.
The engineers’ mistake was in the structure of the compartments. There were large walls called bulkheads that separated each of the compartments, but they only went 10 feet above the waterline. This meant if the water did not go above that line, then the ship would be able to stay afloat.
But, since the iceberg had damaged the starboard side so drastically, as water began to rush into the compartments, the ship began to pitch. It started to lean forward and to the right, meaning that the vertical walls protecting the other compartments were approaching 45-degree angles.
Once the first compartment was completely filled, the water spilled over the wall into the next compartment. This accelerated the process of each compartment filling, and while was not the sole cause, it was the nail in the coffin for the Titanic.
It is easy to claim that no one was really to blame for the sinking of the ship. Everyone was making boats like the Titanic. It just wasn’t your everyday event that a giant iceberg would ironically appear out of nowhere and sink a 25-ton ship. The chemical properties of water easily explain this phenomenon.
Water expands when it freezes, due to its molecules forming a lattice-like structure. Salty frozen water is not just large, but also hard and heavy, with the majority of its volume resting below the waterline. Thus, the giant iceberg was mostly below the water, with a small chunk visible to the captain. The rigid structure and giant size were enough to puncture the improperly engineered ship and to cause it to sink.
The black swan event of a giant iceberg could not easily be avoided. It was huge yet hidden, creating a lot of damage without initially appearing capable of doing so.
Although the iceberg is a convenient reason for why the Titanic sank while other ships did not, it does not explain the story in full. Some more evidence has recently come to light on how the Captain’s and his employer’s motives might have contributed to the tragedy.
Researchers who came across a trove of photos from the construction of the ship noticed an interesting large black mark stretching 30 feet along the hull; suspiciously close to the area where the iceberg pierced the ship. This area is where the coal for the ship’s engines was stored.
Engineers believe that the coal was actually on fire long before the ship failed. This would have weakened the steel in the hull, which ultimately caused the downfall.
But if the ship was on fire, why did the company not cancel the trip?
This maiden voyage was marketed as the ultimate luxury trip and thus was poised to make a lot of money.
First-class suite tickets were selling for $4350 which in today’s dollars is equivalent to over $117k!
This potentially also answers a question that has puzzled historians for decades; Captain Smith’s actions that night. There were other ships in the vicinity of the Titanic that day who reported icebergs in the water. While technology at this time was not robust enough for 24-hour transmissions, it would have been prudent for the captain to heed these words and change course. Moreover, the ship contacted the iceberg at 22 knots.
This was only a few knots below its max speed. So, Captain Smith, a seasoned veteran with 40 years of sailing expertise, made the conscious decision to sail at almost max speed in the largest ship ever in pitch black in the open ocean with known threats of icebergs in the area. Perhaps it was his overconfidence that allowed him to make all these rash decisions. Or maybe it was the White Star Line, chasing profits over safety, that forced him to get to New York as fast as possible to sell another trip?
Proponents of the Titanic claimed it was unsinkable. They said that the size and quality of the ship were so technologically advanced, that nothing could ever bring it down. Even Captain Smith is quoted as saying that he could not ”imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."
This has all the makings of a black swan event, specifically the fact that no one thought it could occur. Even more interesting is the lore and mythos around it.
Why does everyone conclude that the iceberg was the main culprit?
Does anyone think that Captain Smith and White Star Line had done everything in their power to prevent a tragedy like this? If they had put out the fire, or included more lifeboats, or even slowed down when approaching the iceberg, could they have saved lives?
Was it a series of unfortunate events or did greed and negligence play a bigger role? Questions like these still plague us today, and understanding them is key to preventing human suffering.
Written by Michael Pena
Edited by Karina Thanawala, Alexander Fleiss, Xujia Ma & Qilin Guo