Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Centenary of the Sinking of RMS Titanic

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic, pride of the White Star Line, departed Southampton, England, bound for the City of New York. As all the world knows, she never arrived at her destination. At 11:40 P.M. (ship's time, three hours behind GMT) on the evening of April 14, 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet called out "Iceberg right ahead." Less than a minute later, as the crew scrambled to alter course, the infamous collision took place. At 2:20 A.M. the next morning, the lumbering hulk of the Titanic slipped beneath the waters of the North Atlantic, claiming the lives of an estimated 1,514 individuals. Over a thousand of those were still aboard when she went down. The remainder succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid waters. There were only 710 survivors in all.

It is no understatement that the sinking of the Titanic marked something of an end to an age of innocence. Coming at the end of the Second Industrial Revolution, the launch of the Titanic carried with it an air of hubris, a seemingly unbreakable faith in mankind's mastery over Nature via steel and steam. The technology of Industry reigned supreme. Until Titanic. And it is no small irony that among those who lost their lives in the disaster were among the leading industrial magnates of the era, including Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim (a fact which tends to overshadow the deaths of throngs of poor and working class passengers trapped below decks in steerage). That night, the human race was given a lesson in humility.

To be fair, neither White Star nor the ship's builders claimed the ship to be unsinkable. That label was applied by the press (and largely after the sinking). But neither the line nor the builders really made an effort to disabuse the public of the notion that the Titanic was unsinkable. After all, it was great advertising. And, to exacerbate the situation, Titanic carried only a third of the lifeboats needed to accommodate her maximum crew and passenger complement, and the crew was inadequately trained in emergency procedures. Coupled with the skipper, Edward Smith, driving her forward at full speed that night, despite having received wireless warnings of icebergs in the vicinity, the end result was almost inevitable.

In retrospect, it was simple for maritime engineers to spot the design flaw which permitted Titanic's unthinkable fate. The superstructure of the ship was divided into sixteen "watertight" compartments. However, these compartments were not sealed at the top. The collision opened five of these compartments to the sea. As they filled, the bow was lowered by the weight of the seawater being taken aboard, until that seawater was able to start spilling over into each adjacent compartment, setting up a chain reaction of flooding compartments which eventually doomed the vessel. Eventually, the sinking bow lifted the stern out of the water, which resulted in the stern section breaking off under its own weight, accelerating the sinking of the behemoth.

Furthermore, metallurgical analysis of the iron rivets retrieved from the wreckage suggests that they were manufactured with an unacceptably high slag content, rendering them more brittle than they should have been. Had stronger rivets been used in the construction, damage from the collision might have more localized, potentially to the point of only four of the watertight compartments being exposed to the sea, a condition which she could have conceivably survived. (Of course, this is pure speculation. It is difficult to say with certainty, as the portion of the hull which came into contact with the iceberg is buried under the silt of the sea floor, rendering direct examination of the damage impossible at this time.)

As with most catastrophic engineering disasters, error compounded error, setting up a cascade of failures. And, sadly, the elimination of any one of those errors could have made a tremendous difference in the outcome. But hindsight cannot save those already lost.

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