107 #3: Titanic was genuinely believed to be unsinkable

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TRUE. As White Star Chairman and Titanic survivor Joseph Bruce Ismay confirmed at the British enquiry:

18755: ‘I think the position was taken up that the ship was looked upon as practically unsinkable; she was looked upon as being a lifeboat in herself.’

This belief stemmed from Titanic being designed to float with any two of her watertight compartments flooded, or all of her forward three, as no-one could imagine anything worse than a breach of two compartments through a collision on a bulkhead, as happened in the Olympic/Hawke collision. The fact that no-one anticipated the glancing blow such as Titanic received from the iceberg, a blow which damaged the hull along a 300ft area and breached six watertight compartments, is not surprising, as this type of side-swipe disaster had never occurred before in recorded maritime history.

This design feature led not only the White Star Line but also the well-respected trade journal The Shipbuilder to call Titanic ‘practically unsinkable’, a term also used to describe other large liners with watertight subdivisions, including Cunard’s Mauretania. In this extract from The Shipbuilder, the marvels of the Olympic-class’s watertight doors are extolled:

‘…so that in the event of accident, or at any time when it may be considered advisable, the captain can, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.’

It is often said that no-one seriously believed the Titanic was unsinkable, and that the press created this myth in the aftermath of the disaster to highlight the ‘hubris’ of such reliance on man-made technology, but they really did believe that she was ‘practically unsinkable’. For example, Titanic survivor Elmer Taylor, heard Captain Smith explaining on Titanic’s maiden voyage that the ship could be ‘cut crosswise into three pieces and each piece would float’, a remark which confirmed Taylor’s belief in the safety of the ship. Captain Smith probably got this information from Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Titanic’s builders. Andrews was travelling on Titanic on her maiden voyage and, as was reported on April 29th, 1912:

‘Mrs. Eleanor Cassebeer declared this afternoon that Thomas Andrews of the firm of Harlan and Wolf [sic], builders of the ship, sat next to her at the table and frequently told her that the steamer had been started before it was finished, but that even though it should be cut into three pieces it would still float.’
Thomas Andrews was correct, but instead of the iceberg safely cutting Titanic into three pieces, it punctured all of her first six watertight compartments. Such freak damage was not considered a ‘practical’ possibility before the Titanic disaster.

Captain Smith’s belief in the safety of modern shipbuilding was recalled in the aftermath of the disaster by the New York Times, on April 16th, 1912, when they quoted the following interview which Captain Smith had given in 1907, after his successful completion of the maiden voyage of the Adriatic:

‘Capt. Smith maintained that shipbuilding was such a perfect art nowadays that absolute disaster, involving the passengers on a great modern liner, was quite unthinkable. Whatever happened, he contended, there would be time before the vessel sank to save the lives of every person on board. “I will go a bit further,” he said. “I will say that I cannot imagine any condition which could cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”’

It is similarly telling that, when James Bisset, Second Officer of the rescue ship Carpathia, visited the Olympic after her maiden voyage in New York, a year before the Titanic sank, her officers informed him that she was unsinkable.

As reports of the disaster began to come in on 15th April, 1912, Philip Franklin, Vice-President of the White Star Line told the public:

‘We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable.’

Titanic’s passengers thought the same and, even when the ship was sinking, many were reluctant to get into her lifeboats because they couldn’t believe that she would really sink and that a lifeboat would be safer.
In Walter Lord’s famous account, A Night to Remember, he tells the story of Louis Ogden, a passenger on the rescue ship Carpathia. On inquiring about the reasons for the crew’s sudden activity, he was told that the Titanic was sinking and that he was to stay in his cabin. Nonetheless, he got his family up and told them to put on their warmest clothes and get ready to evacuate. He couldn’t believe that the Titanic was sinking, concluding it was more likely that his own ship was on fire! It took what happened to the Titanic, one of the worst maritime disasters in peacetime, to convince people that no ship could ever be truly unsinkable.

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

One comment

  1. Dear Sir,

    Firstly,congratulations on your well researched theory regarding the unusual atmospheric situation which faced the Titanic that night. It was logical; credible and supported by scientifically tested evidence. You successfully answered the query posed by Lawrence Beesley back in 1912, about there being an unknown factor at work that fateful night.

    Secondly, with regards to belief in Titanic being unsinkable. Olympic and Titanic were almost identical in their design; construction; arrangements and fitting out. Accordingly, they were dealt with as being identical’ in the edition of the ‘Shipbuilder Magazine’ (where the infamous ‘practially unsinkable’ comment originated), Therefore, (prior to the loss of her sister), why wasn’t Olympic considered / commented upon as being unsinkable?

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