Saturday, June 24, 2023

The misplaced fascination with the RMS Titanic

The Titanic leaving Belfast on April 2, 1912

The sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 has been in the news again and the US Coast Guard has announced that a “catastrophic implosion” of the submersible, known as “Titan,” killed the 5 people on board. The front cone and other debris were located by a remotely operated vehicle 1,600 feet (487 metres) from the bow of the Titanic, which rests in 13,000 feet (4 kilometres) deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was about 400 miles (348 knots; 644 km) off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

In 1985, it took Robert Ballard (born 1942), a former US naval officer, eight days to be the first person to locate the wreck of the RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Titanic.

“A Night to Remember” (1958), a British film directed by Roy Ward Baker, was acclaimed for its accuracy on the sinking of the Titanic and had been based on Walter Lord’s 1955 book. "Titanic" (1997) which was directed by Hollywood film director James Cameron, brought the story to another generation. It's reported that Cameron has completed 33 dives to the wreck of the Titanic.

Harland and Wolff Ltd was founded in Belfast, north-east Ireland, in 1861. It had in the first decade of the 20th century won orders for 3 giant 'Olympic Class' liners from the White Star Line. Employing about 15,000 people on a 300-acre site, the nearby Belfast College of Technology provided vocational education for the firm's apprentices.

Catholics comprised 24% of Belfast's population in 1911 and a small number worked at the shipyard in East Belfast. There was a myth that the Titanic's hull number "3909 04" flipped over, read "No Pope."

The chairman of Harland and Wolff in 1895-1924 was a leading Liberal peer, Lord Pirrie, and on April 11 1912, the British Liberal Party government introduced the Third Home Rule Bill which would grant Ireland self-government.

Research by Andy Bielenberg, senior lecturer at University College Cork (UCC), shows that by 1907, the 6 counties of the north-east accounted for two-thirds of Irish industrial output and two-thirds of industrial exports originated in Belfast, Ireland's biggest city in 1911.

The "practically unsinkable" RMS Titanic — then the largest ship in the world — was launched in May 1911 from one of the Queen's Island slipways, as about 100,000 people cheered.

It was assumed that the ship had 16 major watertight compartments in the lower section that could easily be sealed off in the event of a punctured hull.

However, the ship had significant design flaws.

"Titanic's hull and upper works were also enlarged versions of designs refined over several decades. Her stern, with its high graceful counter and long thin rudder, was an exact copy of an 18th-century sailing ship, wrought in steel, a perfect example of the lack of technical development. Compared with the rudder design of the Cunarders, Titanic's was a fraction of the size. No account was made for advances in scale and little thought was given to how a ship, 852 feet (260 metres) in length, might turn in an emergency or avoid collision with an iceberg. This was Titanic's Achilles heel."

The capacity of the ship was 3,320 people but there were only 20 lifeboats on board, which would have held a capacity of 1,178 people.

The remains of the Titanic are shown at the bottom of the North Atlantic (Image: © NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island)

The maiden voyage left Southhampton, England, on April 10, 1912, and its destination was New York City. Passengers were picked up in Cherbourg, France, including John Jacob Astor IV (1864–1912,) who was one of the richest passengers aboard the RMS Titanic. On April 11, 1912, at 11.30 AM RMS Titanic dropped anchor by Roches Point, near Queenstown (the name was changed to Cobh in 1920: Cobh is Gaelic for Cove) in Cork Harbour on the south coast of Ireland. The population of the town was 8,209 according to the 1911 British census.

Passengers boarding from Queenstown comprised only 7 in Second Class and 113 were Third Class ticket-holders.

There were 2,229 on board as the ship headed to New York City from Ireland: 1316 passengers and 913 crew.

The total number of passengers who survived was 498 and crew 215 = 713; deaths were at 1,516

National Geographic says multiple mistakes and miscalculations led to the sinking of the 'unsinkable' RMS Titanic.

Sunday, April 14, 1912: "By 7:30 PM, the Titanic had received five warnings (on icebergs) from nearby ships. Marconi wireless operator Jack Phillips took down a detailed ship’s message pinpointing the location of “heavy pack ice and a great number of bergs,” but Phillips, busy sending First Class passengers’ personal messages, apparently did not show it to any officer.

At 10:55 PM, another ship, the British steamer, SS Californian, radioed to say it had stopped amidst dense field ice. Neither of these messages began with the crucial code that would have required Phillips to show it to Captain Edward J Smith, and Phillips was not in the mood for interruptions.

The Californian’s electric signal was so close it nearly deafened Phillips. “Shut up, shut up!” he radioed back. “I am busy!” A while later, the Californian’s radio operator shut down for the night."

Phillips, the Chief Telegraphist, was 25 on Sunday, April 14.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, the ship struck a North Atlantic iceberg at 11:40 PM on the evening of 14 April 1912 at 20.5 knots (23.6 MPH). The berg scraped along the starboard or right side of the hull below the waterline, slicing open the hull between five of the adjacent watertight compartments. If only one or two of the compartments had been opened, Titanic might have stayed afloat, but when so many were sliced open, the watertight integrity of the entire forward section of the hull was fatally breached. Titanic slipped below the waves at 2:20 AM on 15 April."

Senan Molony, an Irish journalist, who has written about the Titanic over the years, contributed to a documentary, "Titanic: The New Evidence," in 2017. Molony called a set of photographs that had been with the family of a director of Harland and Wolff “the Titanic equivalent of Tutankhamen’s tomb,” because of the richness of historical detail they conveyed, including a smudge mark on the hull which apparently highlighted the extent of the damage caused by a fire in a coal bunker before the Titanic left Belfast for Southampton on April 2, 1912.

Other evidence shows that photographs taken from different angles at the same time do not show smudge marks. TITANIC FIRE & ICE (Or What You Will).
The Titanic at Southhampton on April 10, 1912


The sinking of the Titanic resulted from colossal human failures. Seven warnings from other ships about icebergs across ice fields were ignored and the senior wireless operato Jack Phillips was busy sending messages from First Class passengers. Captain Edward Smith, on his last voyage before retirement, kept full speed and believed the crew could react in time if icebergs were sighted. Just before 11:40 PM, a lookout phoned the bridge “What did you see?” came the voice through the receiver, “Iceberg, right ahead,” was the response.

The iceberg was about 500 metres away and despite swift efforts to slow the ship and turn to port, the bulky ship tore into 105 metres (350ft) of the stern below the waterline.

British National Archives:"Just before midnight on; April 14, Harold Bride (he survived the disaster) had woken up to take over from Phillips when Captain Smith came into the wireless room and told Phillips to send out a distress signal. Shortly after midnight he told them to send out the call for assistance and gave them Titanic's estimated position."

Phillips went down with the ship.

Arthur Henry Rostron, the captain of the RMS Carpathia ordered it to the Titanic's position, which was about 58 miles (107 km) away. Despite the many icebergs, it arrived at approximately 3:30 AM, just over one hour from the sinking. 

All of the Titanic's 713 survivors were in 13 lifeboats, that left the stricken ship, picked up. 

An epic failure of leadership resulted in the Titanic disaster. Why is it an obsession in particular for Americans?
Captain Edward J Smith (1850-1912) with Chief Purser Hugh W McElroy (1874-1912) outside the door to the Officer Quarters while the Titanic lay at anchor off Roches Point, near Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, on April 11, 1912. This is the last known photograph of Smith.

First Class accounted for 25% of the 1,317 paying customers on the Titanic and Americans seem to be obsessed with the story. The Titanic had 39 suites in the First Class area that cost £870 in 1912 and in 2023 would be £82,650 according to the Bank of England.

The term "American Dream" was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931, saying that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone." In practice for the mass of people, it was an aspiration. It still survives as the adulation that the corrupt Donald Trump can get from a significant number.

The Gilded Age was the name for the era in the US that gave this remarkable era its name. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, in their 1873 novel which includes unscrupulous politicians, colourful plutocrats, and blindly optimistic speculators caught up in a frenzy of romance, murder, and surefire deals gone bust.

The Gilded Age ended soon after the sinking of the Titanic.

According to the US committee investigating the sinking, 1,517 lives were lost, and its British counterpart put the number at 1,503 died. 

The Crew and Third Class passengers had similar survival rates at 24% and 25%.

“It’s one of the few disasters that had time to develop the full drama of human choices,” said Stephen Cox, a retired professor of literature at the University of California at San Diego and author of “The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions.” “Usually if a ship is going to sink, it sinks pretty quickly. Titanic lasted for two hours and 40 minutes, which is as long as a Shakespeare play,” he said to The Washington Post.

He says in a CNN piece that "the Titanic disaster has never faded from the world’s imagination."

That is not true: Northern Ireland; the US and Britain yes but not the world. For example, the people of the Netherlands in every generation since the devastating floods of 1953, know that 1,836 people died as sea dykes in the south of the country broke, and large parts of Zeeland, the Zuid-Holland islands and western Brabant were overwhelmed. The Titanic would not be an obsession.

Three years after the sinking of the Titanic, on May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, a Cunard liner, was torpedoed by a German U-boat 21 km off the Old Head of Kinsale, west of Cork Harbour on the south coast of Ireland. The liner, once the largest passenger ship in the world, was making one of its regular transatlantic cruises from New York to Liverpool.

Almost 1,200 people were killed. The ship sank within 18 minutes. Most of the 764 people who were saved landed in Queenstown (Cobh.) Only 289 bodies were recovered and 169 of these are buried in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh in three mass graves and 20 individual plots. There were more than 100 Americans on board and President Wilson came under pressure to send troops to Europe.

Gregg Bemis, the American businessman who has owned the salvage rights to the wreck since 1982, signed the donation agreement with the Old Head of Kinsale Museum on May 7, 2015 — the anniversary of the tragedy.

The greatest number of deaths on one ship in maritime history was on the German MV Wilhelm Gustloff, in the icy Baltic Sea.

The ship was to be known as MV Adolf Hitler but he had it named for the head of the Swiss Nazi Party, who had been assassinated in Davos in 1936, by a Croatian Jewish medical student. On May 17, 1945 — shortly after V-E Day — David Frankfurter (1909–1982) was pardoned by a Swiss court.

MV Wilhelm Gustloff was launched in 1937 as a cruise liner and could accommodate about 1,900 people, including some 400 crew members.

In January 1945, as the Third Reich was imploding, Admiral Karl Dönitz began preparations for the evacuation of military personnel and civilian refugees from ports in East Prussia as the Red Army was moving west. The port of Pillau for example was crammed with up to 100,000 refugees.

On January 29 there was a count of 7,956 on the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. There were thousands of children on board in Gotenhafen (Gdynia, in occupied Poland). About 2,000 more people packed onto the ship on Tuesday, January 30, 1945.

On board were about 1,000 naval personnel, along with a number of anti-aircraft guns.

At about 9 PM, a Soviet submarine fired four torpedoes. Three of them hit the ship and it sank in 70 minutes. There were about 1,200 survivors and likely over 9,000 deaths.

Paying $250,000 for viewing a shipwreck may be a risk to take after seeing the world's most important archaeological finds such as Pompeii; the Terracotta Army and more.

According to court documents, at least 28 people visited the wreck on the Titan last year.


OceanGate the owner of the Titan submersible, said that dives lasted about eight hours, including the estimated 2.5 hours each way it took to descend and ascend. There was one porthole on the craft and a rudimentary toilet, shielded by a curtain, for the 5 people on board. The Titan’s passengers were required to sign a waiver that lists “physical injury, disability, emotional trauma or death.”

The United States, Canada and France were involved in the Titan disaster and the cost may exceed $10m.

The super-rich can engage in extreme tourism while status and race can make a difference.

"Right now we have 24-hour coverage — and I understand it — of this submarine, the submersible that tragically is right now lost at the bottom of the sea," former President Barack Obama said in an interview in Athens conducted hours before the US Coast Guard confirmed the deaths of the 5 passengers."At the same time, right here, just off the coast of Greece we had 700 people dead, 700 migrants who were apparently being smuggled."

The Titan's nose cone and other debris including evidence of "presumed human remains," were recovered from the sea floor on June 28, 2023, according to the US Coast Guard. Stockton Rush co-founder and CEO of OceanGate was piloting the Titan when it imploded. Rush told Smithsonian Magazine in 2019 "I'd like to be remembered as an innovator. I think it was General [Douglas] MacArthur who said, 'You're remembered for the rules you break,'" Rush said. "And I've broken some rules to make this. I think I've broken them with logic and good engineering behind me."
Five hours to and from the wreck, and 3 hours viewing the wreck


Patrick Ryan, the 29-year-old son of a County Limerick farmer, had a steerage ticket on the Titanic and there was a job waiting for him in the New York Police Department, but he died as he couldn't get on a lifeboat and his body was never recovered. He and two friends had travelled to Queenstown to get on the ship on April 11, 1912.

Patrick's dad sued the White Star Line for damages over the death of his son, claiming that the company was negligent.

According to the BBC for seven days, in June 1913, Thomas Ryan went to the Royal Courts of Justice in London in an attempt to bring the White Star Line to account for the tragedy. The judge found that the wording on the ticket was in contravention of British Board of Trade regulations, which meant that the White Star Line's blanket disclaimer for negligence was now worthless.

Thomas Ryan was awarded £100 for his son's death  the equivalent of one year's wages (£9,483 today according to the Bank of England). In addition to bringing the White Star Line to account for the death of his son, Thomas Ryan achieved another far-reaching victory, setting a precedent in consumer contract law that protected the rights of passengers.

Disgraced and publicly shunned, Bruce Ismay (1862-1937) resigned from White Star Line in late June 1913. Ismay's father Thomas Ismay had acquired the bankrupt White Star Line in 1868.

The chairman had been on the Titanic and had of course got a place in a lifeboat. He had reduced the number of lifeboats from 48 to 16 (plus 4 smaller ‘Collapsible’ Engelhardt boats), the minimum standard required by the British Board of Trade. The capacity was 3,320 people compared with the lifeboat capacity of 1,178 (even though only 713 people could get on the lifeboats). After all, the ship was "practically unsinkable!."

It was 2 hours and 40 minutes from the time of the collision with the iceberg to the time of the sinking.

Ismay denied reports that he had encouraged Captain Smith to increase the ship’s speed — despite the iceberg warnings  — in order to get positive press coverage by arriving in New York earlier than scheduled.

This melting iceberg had a streak of red paint when it was photographed by Captain William Squares DeCarteret of the CS Minia, a ship that joined the search for bodies and wreckage at the site of the disaster. DeCarteret's ship arrived on April 26, 1912. The RMS Titanic’s antifouling paint was mainly made of red oxide and below the water line. Red oxide is an anticorrosive material, and when used directly in the paint it has a red colour.

A research paper has the question "Iceberg risk in the Titanic year of 1912: was it exceptional?"

There is a picture of an iceberg that was said to have been taken by the chief steward of the ocean liner SS Prinz Adalbert on the morning of April 15, 1912. However, the route of the vessel suggests that the picture is of another iceberg.

Irish short film on a son of a farmer who arrives in Queenstown (Cobh) on the eve of leaving Ireland for America, on the Titanic:

Uisce Beatha ('Whiskey / Water Of Life')