A century has sailed by since the luxury steamship RMS Titanic met its catastrophic end in the North Atlantic, plunging two miles to the ocean floor after sideswiping an iceberg during its maiden voyage. Rather than the intended Port of New York, a deep-sea grave became the pride of the White Star Line’s final destination in the early hours of April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 people lost their lives in the disaster. In the decades since her demise, Titanic has inspired countless books and several notable films while continuing to make headlines, particularly since the 1985 discovery of her resting place off the coast of Newfoundland. Meanwhile, her story has entered the public consciousness as a powerful cautionary tale about the perils of human hubris.
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Did You Know?
Passengers traveling first class on Titanic were roughly 44 percent more likely to survive than other passengers.
The Making of Titanic
The Royal Mail Steamer Titanic was the product of intense competition among rival shipping lines in the first half of the 20th century. In particular, the White Star Line found itself in a battle for steamship primacy with Cunard, a venerable British firm with two standout ships that ranked among the most sophisticated and luxurious of their time. Cunard’s Mauretania began service in 1907 and immediately set a speed record for the fastest transatlantic crossing that it held for 22 years. Cunard’s other masterpiece, Lusitania, launched the same year and was lauded for its spectacular interiors. It met its tragic end–and entered the annals of world history–on May 7, 1915, when a torpedo fired by a German U-boat sunk the ship, killing nearly 1,200 of the 1,959 people on board and precipitating the United States’ entry into World War I.
The same year that Cunard unveiled its two magnificent liners, J. Bruce Ismay, chief executive of White Star, discussed the construction of three large ships with William J. Pirrie, chairman of the Belfast-based shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff. Part of a new “Olympic” class of liners, they would each measure 882 feet in length and 92.5 feet at their broadest point, making them the largest of their time. In March 1909, work began in the massive Harland and Wolff yard on the second of these ships, Titanic, and continued nonstop until the spring of 1911.
On May 31, 1911, Titanic’s immense hull–at the time, the largest movable manmade object in the world–made its way down the slipways and into the River Lagan in Belfast. More than 100,000 people attended the launching, which took just over a minute and went off without a hitch. The hull was immediately towed to a mammoth fitting-out dock where thousands of workers would spend most of the next year building the ship’s decks, constructing her lavish interiors and installing the 29 giant boilers that would power her two main steam engines.
Titanic's Fatal Flaws
According to some hypotheses, Titanic was doomed from the start by the design so many lauded as state-of-the-art. The Olympic-class ships featured a double bottom and 15 watertight bulkheads equipped with electric watertight doors which could be operated individually or simultaneously by a switch on the bridge. It was these watertight bulkheads that inspired Shipbuilder magazine, in a special issue devoted to the Olympic liners, to deem them “practically unsinkable.” But the watertight compartment design contained a flaw that may have been a critical factor in Titanic’s sinking: While the individual bulkheads were indeed watertight, water could spill from one compartment into another. Several of Titanic’s Cunard-owned contemporaries, by contrast, already boasted innovative safety features devised to avoid this very situation. Had White Star taken a cue from its competitor, it might have saved Titanic from disaster.
The second critical safety lapse that contributed to the loss of so many lives was the number of lifeboats carried on Titanic. Those 16 boats, along with four Engelhardt “collapsibles,” could accommodate 1,178 people. Titanic when full could carry 2,435 passengers, and a crew of approximately 900 brought her capacity to more than 3,300 people. As a result, even if the lifeboats were loaded to full capacity during an emergency evacuation, there were available seats for only one-third of those on board. While unthinkably inadequate by today’s standards, Titanic’s supply of lifeboats actually exceeded the British Board of Trade’s regulations.
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