Titanic Myths

The Titanic disaster is a classic tale and now has become a modern folk story, but like all folk stories our understanding of what really happened has been clouded by the way the disaster has been recounted over the years following that terrible night in April 1912. As soon as the waves of the North Atlantic closed over her stern the myths began.

It was said that the builders and owners of Titanic claimed she was unsinkable. Actually, the claim made was that she was “practically unsinkable.” Close enough, but nevertheless an unfortunate statement and one which would haunt both the builder and owner for years.

Titanic, the largest vessel in the world when she entered service in 1912, was not the finest nor the most technically advanced of her day. Size is seldom an indication that something is better and that was the only record she held… and only for five weeks when a larger liner, Hamburg-America’s Imperator was launched on May 23rd.

Titanic and her slightly older sister Olympic were designed to compete with the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania which entered service in 1907. Designed and built as record breakers, both held the coveted “Blue Riband” for the fastest Atlantic crossing. The sisters were built principally from lessons learned from advances in warship construction, but most importantly both were powered by steam turbines driving quadruple screws, each fitted with a large balanced rudder, making them faster than their competition and easier to maneuver — a giant leap forward in marine engineering that is comparable to the advances made in 1969 with the introduction of the Concorde supersonic aircraft.

Titanic and her sister should best be described as the 747s of their day. Massive people carriers, traveling at moderate speed, with space for large cargos, which meant the new ships posed a great commercial threat to the smaller and more expensive Cunarders to operate.Building ships this large lead to inevitable compromises. Being identical in almost every respect to her sister, constructing Titanic meant adopting tried and true methods for her design and construction. No risks were taken with the choice of engines which actually were enlarged versions of the propulsion system first used experimentally in Laurentic in 1909, another White Star liner. That triple screw vessel proved that two expansion engines feeding exhaust steam into a low pressure turbine was more economical than vessels using expansion engines or turbines alone.

Titanic‘s hull and upper works were also enlarged versions of designs of previous White Star vessels only they had been refined over several decades. There was nothing custom made that was new or cutting edge. As stated, no risks were taken with the design and inside the ships were traditional Edwardian and conservative. If you take the time to look at photographs of the bridge, crow’s nest and superstructure on previous White Star ships, there is a similar look. As with the exterior, the interiors followed a similar theme from public rooms to furnishings.

Her stern, with its high graceful counter and long thin rudder was, in fact, a copy of an 18th century steel sailing ship, a perfect example of the lack of technical development. Compared with the modern rudder design of the Mauretania or LusitaniaTitanic‘s was a fraction of the size. Apparently no account was made for advances in scale and little thought given to how a ship 852 feet in length, might turn in an emergency or avoid a collision with an iceberg. This was Titanic‘s Achilles heel.

Naturally these design differences meant that she would never be able to challenge the speed or maneuverability of the Cunarders but this did not matter. White Star had given up all thought of speed records more than a decade before, in 1899, with the introduction of Oceanic, a ship that was given the title “Crowning Glory of the 19th Century.” It was justly deserved for it was said that her interiors were the finest ever created by Harland & Wolff. But Oceanic was relatively small compared with Titanic and White Star could not afford to lavish the same scale of expense on their new ship. Titanic, nevertheless, was a first-rate vessel, well built, with large and spacious public rooms and finely appointed suites for those traveling in first class. There also were many other ocean liners built in Britain, France and Germany that were technically superior with interiors best described as magnificent and stunning.

Speed plays a major part in the continuing story of Titanic. It is often said she was trying to make a record on her maiden voyage, attempting to arrive ahead of schedule in New York. That is not true. In actuality, she was following the pattern of her sister’s first crossing the previous year and, like Olympic, not all of Titanic‘s boilers had been lit. Also she was sailing on the longer southern route across the Atlantic in order to avoid the very threat which caused her eventual loss. Even if all boilers had been lit, her maximum speed was 21 knots, a far cry from the 26 knots the Cunarders regularly recorded. The most important reasons why Titanic did not attempt a full speed crossing was the risk of potential engine damage. If, as the some speculate, she arrived Tuesday evening, her passengers would have been very much inconvenienced. By arriving a day before their hotel, train bookings, etc., were in effect, there would be a mad scramble to rearrange schedules and likely miss people enroute for pickup at the pier. Not a good way to make your customers happy.

Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, was a passenger onboard. Married with three young children and contrary to perception, this was only his third maiden voyage since becoming the chairman in 1899. At the age of 39 he was also president of the International Mercantile Marine Company, J. Pierpont Morgan’s giant American combine that was owner and operator of several transatlantic businesses, at the head of which was White Star. The myths surrounding Ismay are many but almost all center on allegations of cowardice by escaping the sinking ship while fellow passengers, notably women and children, were left to fend for themselves. Claims made at the time and repeated today that he “saved his own skin” while others died is very harsh. The truth was Ismay helped with loading and lowering several lifeboats and acquitted himself better than the behavior of many of the crew and passengers. He only entered a half-filled lifeboat when that boat was actually being lowered and no other passengers were in the vicinity. Witnesses like Mr. A. H. Weikman, Titanic’s barber, stated he was ordered into the lifeboat, but whatever happened, Lord Mersey said at the British Inquiry into the loss of Titanic, “Had he not jumped in he would simply have added one more life, namely his own, to the number of those lost.”

Ismay’s fault was that he survived and, as a consequence laid himself open to the somewhat dubious moral code of the press in the United States, especially through Anglophobe, William Randolph Hearst, whose syndicated newspapers were sold across the country. Hearst was the first man to syndicate so it was his newspapers that were mainly responsible for spreading vicious articles and editorials. The 1912 book “Sinking of the Titanic” consisted mainly of stories from newspapers and was sold door-to-door by the hundreds of thousands. Through these books and newspapers, Hearst’s version became “fact” that persists to this day.

Almost universally condemned in America, when Ismay finally arrived home he was cheered and applauded as he descended the gangway at Liverpool. The British press treated the whole episode in a far less judgmental way.

A second and more serious allegation was the claim that he ordered Captain Edward J. Smith, Titanic‘s commander, to “make a record crossing” thus indirectly causing the collision with the iceberg. It is unlikely that an experienced ship master like Smith, on his last voyage before retirement, and the highest paid commander in the mercantile marine, would defer to Ismay on matters of navigation. No firm evidence has ever come to light to suggest that Ismay interfered with the navigation of Titanic and, other than talking with the various heads of departments onboard, he conducted himself like many other passengers. Yet the opposite image of him exists today. Where did all these stories come from?

On Olympic‘s maiden voyage to New York less than a year previously, Ismay’s quotes are from an interview by a New York Times reporter. (Excerpts are from Ray Lepiens, “Olympic’s Maiden Voyage” in The Titanic Commutator, No 162):

“Captain Smith and Mr. Ismay chatted to the reporters assembled; he was in excellent spirits. If he had any reservations about talking to the Press, he put them aside. One newspaperman asked, ‘What did she cost?’ (Eight to nine million dollars; with furniture, fittings and such, 10 million.) ‘How much the ship was insured?’ (White Star carried a $500,000.00 risk; the remainder was covered by the underwriters.) ‘How much did it cost to run the ship for one voyage?’ ($175,000.00.)

“When Ismay was asked if he thought the combination of reciprocating engines with a center low-pressure turbine was the best method of propulsion for big liners, he replied, ‘Well, we think so, and that is why we have ordered engines on the same principle for our big Australian steamship [Ceramic] now building. †In addition to the ship’s steadiness, this method of having two reciprocating engines with one turbine in the center is the more economical, as the turbine is fed by the exhaust steam from the reciprocating engines which would be otherwise wasted.’ ‘She had done all that was expected and behaved splendidly,’ said Captain Smith. Another question asked, ‘Will she ever dock on Tuesday?’ ‘No,’ Smith said emphatically, ‘and there will be no attempt to bring her in on Tuesday. She was built for a Wednesday ship and her run this first voyage has demonstrated that she will fulfill the expectations of the builders.’ Mr. Ismay said, ‘…that on her return trip she would steam at 21 knots the first day then gradually work her speed to see what her engines could do.’ †At this time, no one implied Ismay was a acting like a ‘super captain’ who told Captain Smith how to run the ship as some passengers charged on Titanic‘s voyage. Confirming Smith and Ismay’s remarks, White Star Line officials said the ship will maintain an average speed of 21 knots and will make her landing here on Wednesdays.”

All of the negative stereotypes of the ruthless businessman can be tracked back to the American press and, in particular, to the newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst one of the most powerful and influential men in America. Hearst and Ismay had met years before when Ismay was agent for his company working at the New York office. Ismay married an American woman from Philadelphia society which did not go over well with the likes of Hearst. Besides, Ismay had a retiring personality and valued his privacy. He disliked press attention. The two men did not get along and, as a consequence of his refusal to cooperate with the newspaperman, Hearst never forgot and in April 1912, his syndicated newspapers prosecuted a smear campaign against him even giving him the nickname “J. Brute Ismay.” Ismay was defenseless in the eye of the hurricane. Stories were invented and witnesses, wishing to strengthen large insurance claims for lost baggage against the company, declared he had in fact ordered Smith to make a record crossing. The heart of all these allegations was that he was one of the first to leave the sinking.

Reading the social history of the Edwardian era, the popular press in 1912 expected men to be heroes and die like heroes. After all, Captain Smith had done just that, or had he? In a strange quirk of history the man directly responsible for the loss of Titanic is remembered as hero, with a bronze statue erected in his honor, yet the man who tried to save lives has been labeled a coward.

The buck always stops at the top. As commander, all responsibility falls on Captain Smith and he failed the passengers and crew of Titanic. He failed to heed ice warnings, he did not slow his ship when ice was reported directly in his path and he allowed lifeboats to leave the sinking ship partially filled, unnecessarily adding at least 500 names to the list of the dead.

What organization or individual was ultimately to blame? The British Government’s Board of Trade allowed Titanic to sail with insufficient lifeboat accommodation. The government simply had not kept up with advances in marine engineering and based all lifesaving regulations on ships up to 10,000 grt (gross registered tons) that were required to carry 16 lifeboats. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1864 was the first comprehensive set of rules and regulations governing ships that companies were required to follow. They had been updated in 1902 and 1906 but, typical of government even to this day, they were hopelessly always behind the curve.

Titanic was 46,329 grt. A ship designed to accommodate 3,511 passengers and crew was only required to provide lifeboat accommodation for 962. In fact, White Star provided her with four extra collapsible boats, increasing capacity to 1,178. If Smith had not failed in his duty, all these lifeboats could have been loaded to their stated capacity in time, or even with many more, for the numbered capacity reflected shipyard workers, not women and children and, in the flat calm conditions that night, the first boat to leave Titanic‘s side, with a capacity of 40, contained just 12 people!

What happened to the White Star Line? Another myth is that following the disaster the company went into terminal decline which is not true. In 1913 White Star posted record profits. Immigrants in enormous numbers crossed the Atlantic, securing the company’s future.

The British Inquiry, a 1,000 page report, full title, “Shipping Casualties, (Loss of the Steamship “Titanic”) Report of a Formal Investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering on 15th April, 1912, of the British Steamship “Titanic,” of Liverpool, after striking ice in or near Latitude 41.46 N., Longitude 50.14 W., North Atlantic Ocean, whereby loss of life ensued. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1912. The Court and Inquiry, Report Evidence, etc was reprinted by the Public Record Office. This massive report contains a number of unanswered questions, leads not properly followed up, witnesses never pressed or simply let off the hook, is staggering. RE: The Californian Incident.

This is a complicated subject and was hardly touched on in either the US Senate or Britsh Inquiries.

Company Signals are different from Distress Signals. Most people assume rockets are rockets and mean distress only. In the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 the following may help to explain the confusion people have with the idea of a ship at sea firing rockets and what this form of signaling was also used for:

Article 27 (later Art. 31). When a ship is in distress and requires assistance from other ships or from the shore, the following shall be the signals to be used or displayed by her, either together or separately; that is to say, In the daytime (Text is omitted as it’s not relevant to Titanic). At Night:

1. A gun fired at intervals of about one minute;

2. Flames on the ship (as from a burning tar barrel, oil barrel, etc.)

3. Rockets or shells, throwing stars of any colour or description, fired one at a time, at short intervals.

Titanic only fired 8 rockets out of a stock of 36. The rockets were not fired at the correct intervals (about one minute as laid down by international agreement) instead taking just over an hour to fire them at intervals ranging from 4 to 6 minutes as reported by those on board.

No adequate explanation was ever given at both Inquiries as to why Titanic failed to follow the correct procedures regarding the firing of rockets to denote distress and why so few were fired. Many ships had not yet installed wireless. (Those that had wireless did not have an operator on round the clock. The operators were a Marconi Co franchise to acquaint passengers on their convenience of sending messages.) In order to communicate at night, a ship used a display of lights or rockets fired called company signals. These were colored and each shipping company had its own designation. An officer would note the colours and details of the display and refer to a book giving an explanation.

An example of the different company signals used:

The White Star Line Company Signals were two green lights simultaneously.

Cunard, by comparison was blue light and two Roman candles each throwing six blue stars in quick succession.

The Leyland Line (owners of Californian) three red lights in quick succession.

For real style, the Company Signals the Hamburg-American Line holds the record – Roman candles at stern, throwing seven stars; white, red, blue, white, red, blue, white in quick succession.

After referring to the book it would then be relatively easy to answer the following questions; What company does that vessel belong to? And, depending on date and direction, what her name was? How else would one vessel signal another at night on the vast oceans in order for a ship to report on arrival having passed such and such vessels in position X?

Mistakes were made by Titanic and Californian but it’s too simplistic to blame one ship for not responding to another’s signals. Hindsight is a real hurdle for students of Titanic history to overcome because we know Titanic was sinking. Those officers on Californian didn’t know. No vessel in living memory had suffered such a terrible catastrophe as Titanic on that night and those men just assumed it was one steamer signaling another and following usual practice, thus confirming to those on board Californian that she was using Company Signals. If all the rockets had been fired at the intervals laid down by the Board of Trade then it’s possible those on board would have become alerted to the situation. Another of Captain Smith’s failings.

The public thinks they know the story and has an unshakable belief that Captain Smith was a hero and J. Bruce Ismay and Captain Lord were villains. There’s none so blind as those that can’t see.

Compiled by Paul Louden-Brown, Edward Kamuda and Karen Kamuda