The History of the Titanic

The Titanic was an Olympic Class ocean liner owned and operated by White Star Lines. She hit an iceberg two days into her maiden voyage and foundered on the morning of April 15, 1912. The Titanic carried the number of lifeboats required by law, but that was only enough for roughly a third of her 2200 passengers and crew. The remaining 1500 passengers and crew that stayed on the ship perished, making in one of the deadliest peacetime, maritime disasters in history. Note that getting an exact person count in disasters such as these are difficult. Different sources give slightly differing numbers, so these numbers are rounded.

Olympic Class Ocean Liners
White Star Lines found itself in an intensely competitive situation at the turn of the century. Ocean liner was the only reliable method of transatlantic transportation. The European nations were all entering the competitive marketplace with their own offerings, and the German company Norddeutscher Lloyd had crossed the Atlantic with the highest rate of speed in 1898 with their ship, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. In order to outdo do the Germans, Cunard ordered the twin ships Mauretania and Lusitania from British shipbuilders Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson. Lauched in 1906, the Mauretania was simultaneously the largest and fastest ocean liner in the world.

In order to achieve these speeds, these newer ocean liners had two propellors (or “screws”) instead of the traditional one. This allowed the ships to go faster, but presented engineering problems. If the propellors were not perfectly timed and weighted, the stern of the ship would develop a vibration that would increase with speed. Thus, while the Mauretania was fast, she could not utilize her full speed in servicing passengers because of the vibration problems.

JP Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Company (IMM) acquired the White Star Lines in 1902, and JP Morgan together with President of White Star Line’s J. Bruce Ismay, had an ambitious plan to monopolize the transatlantic ferry trade. As you would expect from the most famous financier in the world, JP Morgan’s plan involved borrowing a good deal of money. With that fortune, he sought to acquire three sister ships which would represent the most elegant, opulent, and technologically advanced ocean liners of the day. JP Morgan did not seek to compete on speed, no doubt weary of the technological and vibration issues that came with it, but instead compete on quality and service.

The striving for quality and service did not just extend to the first class passengers, but also down to steerage, or third-class. Customary at the time was for all steerage passengers to be boarded together in a dormitory housed in the lower portion of the bow area. Obviously, if the ship ran into anything, the steerage passengers would take the worst of the casualties. In addition, these passengers suffered notoriously poor conditions during their voyages which included sexual harassment by the crew, lack of medical care, poor food, and dirty surroundings.

The White Star Lines were different, however. They divided their steerage passengers into two categories: single men in one category, and women or families in another. Single men were housed together in the dormitory in the front of the ship, whilst families were housed in a separate two, four or six-berth cabins towards the rear of the vessel. An American journalist, Anna Herkner, did an undercover expose on the conditions of steerage class by posing as a Bohemian immigrant and booked passage on three competing lines: White Star, Cunard, and Norddeutscher Lloyd. She found the conditions of the later two deplorable, whilst the White Star Lines conditions she praised as having better amenities, being cleaner, and experiencing far better treatment.

The Olympic Class ocean liners were the realization of JP Morgan’s vision. Built by Harland & Wolff, there were designed to sacrifice a bit of speed for size and to be every bit as opulent as JP Morgan wished. The introduced a third screw allowed their speed to be just under the Mauretania, but with greatly reduced vibration. Safety was also, ironically, a focus of the Olympic class. The class was designed with 15 transverse bulkheads separating the ships into 16 watertight compartments. In essence, the Olympic class ocean liners were designed to be, as Ship Builder magazine put it, “practically unsinkable.”

The RMS Olympic, the first and eponymous member of the class, collided with the British warship HMS Hawke during 1911, it’s first year of operation. Despite extensive damage to the Olympic, it was still able to steam to port under it’s own power. This further enhanced the reputation of the Olympic line as being the safest ships afloat. It would later leave Captain Smith, who commanded the Olympic during this incident as well as the Titanic during her maiden voyage, with a legacy of being overly reckless with his ships and allowing them to experience catastrophic collisions.

Captain Edward Smith

Captain Smith joined the White Star Line in 1880, and quickly rose through the ranks. He received his first command, the SS Republic, in 1887. He also served during this time in the Royal Navy Reserve and, in 1899, commanded the White Star Line ship SS Majestic, during two Commissions by the Royal Navy to transport troops to South Africa to fight the Boer War. In 1904, Captain Smith because White Star Line’s most senior officer and began commanding the newest ships on their maiden voyages.
During one of these maiden voyages, while captaining the RMS Adriatic in 1907, Captain Smith went on record as saying, “I cannot conceive of any vital disaster that would cause this ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding as gone beyond that…”

This overconfident attitude was, no doubt, further reinforced when the Olympic survived the collision with they Hawke as well as it did. He attitude betrays the classic hubris one one who believes that caution is unnecessary because catastrophic failure is impossible that so often accompany those to whom calamity occurs. When the unthinkable (at least, in his mind) did finally occur under his command on the Titanic, he was apparently so stunned that he was not able to effectively command the ship. He did not oversee the evacuation, did not give the order to abandon ship (who did is lost to history), and apparently gave contradictory orders to his crew regarding the prioritization of boarding the lifeboats. It seems that Captain Smith went into a state of catatonic when the ships designer, Thomas Andrews, relayed to the Captain that his “unsinkable” ship was going to be on the bottom of the ocean in roughly two hours, for he simply seems to have vanished form the scene.

The chaotic state that ensured following the loss of the ship’s captain player a role in the confusion that followed and the resulting loss of life. The initial lifeboats lowered into the water went half full because many passengers felt that staying on the Titanic was the safer choice rather than risking being put to sea on a cold morning in a small boat unprotected from the elements. Ultimately, it was not lifeboats which the crew of the Titanic ran out of, but time. At 2:15AM, the final stages of the Titanic’s sinking began as her bow sank beneath the waves and her stern was hoisted out of the water while the crew valiantly tried to launch the Titanic’s last two collapsable life boats (A & B). The onrushing water ended their efforts and washed many of them out to sea. Thus it was not lifeboats that the passengers and crew ran out of, but time.

In this regard, the blame rests soundly on Captain Smith. Had he not disappeared as the ship sank, but instead oversaw her evacuation a very different scenario could have played out. Given the order to abandon ship as early as it was known that the ship was doomed would have not only allowed for more time to launch all the lifeboats that the ship carried, but would have caused for all lifeboats launched to be filled to capacity. The crew would have not only had more of the two commodities that were in shortest supply during the sinking, time and information, they also would have had a central authority figure to disseminate this information.

This might have also allowed for all passengers to be alerted much sooner, but it would have likely promoted crews to go below decks and open all doors to allow all passengers on deck. As it actually happened, the third class passengers spent most of the duration of the sinking below decks under the illusion that the ship was not actually doomed and later dives by unmanned submersibles on the wreck showed some gates to the third class births still locked when the ship went down. In many ways, it is fitting that the Captain chose to go down with his ship as he bears more responsibility for her sinking and the resulting loss of life than anyone else.

The Titanic’s Wireless Telegraph and It’s Role in the Sinking

At the time of her sailing, Marconi and Company had installed on the Titanic the most advanced piece of naval communications equipment ever used: a 5 kW rotary spark-gap “wireless” transmitter. The transmitter used a telegraph key to close an electrical circuit to electrify a nearby antenna to relay information on a given carrier frequency. In essence, it was a large wireless telegraph, which had just been introduced in 1907 by Marconi and Company. The refinements which the Titanic’s equipment featured was that the telegraph key was hooked up to a rotary unit (rotating at a particular frequency set by the operator) to even out the signal and make it narrower in frequency (i.e. “cleaner”) and that it had 5kW of transmitting power rather than 1.5kW- the standard at that time. This extra transmitting power allowed the Olympic class ocean liners to transmit signals much farther than their competitors. At night, a 5kW transmitter could potentially send a signal up to 2000 miles away.

This was remarkable at a time when most ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore communication relied on some form of visual communication such as morse lamp. At this time, ships effectively lost contact with everything in the world beyond their field of vision when they set sail, and remained unreachable until they came to port again. Consequently, the presence of a wireless telegraph onboard ship was a revolutionary leap forward in communications technology. Now a ship was able to communicate with other ships and the shore directly across vast distances. The installation of White Star Lines intended for their “wireless”, as it was called at the time, to function both as a way for the ship to better stay in touch with the shore as well as additional source of revenue in relaying customer messages to and from shore.

Given that there are relatively few important naval relays in comparison to customer messages, the two wireless telegraph officers on board the Titanic, Harold Bride and Jack Phillips, spent the vast majority of their time relaying customer messages. Which was all well and good from the point of view of White Star Lines, as every customer message sent and received represented additional revenue, whereas official ship-to-shore communications did not. This left essentially three types of messages which the two officers had to deal with: high priority dispatches which had to be immediately relayed to the crew, customer messages which were the next priority, and ship-to-ship chatter being last.

An example of ship-to-ship chatter being a message of “What’s the weather in your position?” These kinds of messages were common, but responding and dealing was not foremost in the minds of Bride and Phillips. The prefix MSG (which stood for Master Service Gram) was used to distinguish a message which was an important dispatch from simple ship-to-ship chatter. Master Service Grams were the important messages to relay immediately, all else fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, off the two ice warning messages relayed to the Titanic on April 14th, neither had the MSG prefix, and so neither was given high priority.

The wireless telegraph had gone down the previous day. Phillips apparently fixed the unit around 5AM the morning of April 14th, but, by that time, so much customer message traffic had developed that the wireless room was backlogged all day. Amongst one of the first message to be received that morning was from the Caronia, which reported “bergs, growlers and field ice” directly in the path of the Titanic. This message was delivered to Captain Edward Smith who posted it on the bridge for all to read. (

That the Titanic continued to steam at just below her cruising speed of 21 knots into a known hazardous area was not unusual. Naval thinking at the time was that a healthy rate of speed would allow the ship maximum maneuverability in dealing with obstacles. This thinking was flawed, but as the installation of wireless telegraphs was a recent event, the previous ships that feel victim to this flawed thinking were simply unable to relay the consequence of this experiences. Titanic became the first such ship to do so. (

Warnings relayed to the Titanic over the course of the day went from general to specific as two nearby ships radioed the Titanic to specifically say that there were hazards in their immediate vicinity. At 9:40, the Mesaba relayed to the Titanic that it saw “much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs, also field ice… .” Unfortunately, the Mesaba did not use the prefix MSG when sending this message and instead prefixed the message to Titanic with “ICE REPORT.” Apparently Phillips, who was working alone at the time, did not deem this message as important enough to relay to the bridge as it never was.

The second, are far more serious warning, came from the SS Californian. She had herself entered and become trapped in the ice field which would doom the Titanic later that evening. Unable to maneuver in the treacherous field, she came to a full stop for the night. Her wireless operator, Cyril Evans, could hear how close the Titanic was in his headphones because of the intensity of her signal. When the Californian was stopped for the night, her Captain, Stanley Lord, approached Evans and asked if there were any ships in the immediate area. “Only the Titanic,” replied Evans.

Captain Lord ordered Evans to relay their situation to the Titanic so that her crew would have full knowledge of how dangerous the situation was becoming. Evans then attempted to transmit his ice warning to Philips, but the close proximity of the ship caused his signal to come through painfully loud in his headphones and drown out the customer messages which Phillips was trying to copy. In addition, Evans did not use the MSG prefix for his ice warning message, which prompted Phillips to cut him off with the curt reply, “Shut up, shut up! I am busy; I am working Cape Race!”

Upon receiving this reply from Phillips, Evans went to bed. Captain Lord also ordered that the Titanic be warned by morse lamp, but was unable to get a response. ( Once the Titanic hit the iceberg, Phillips and Bridge were unable to reach the Californian as Evans had already gone to sleep. The nearest ship the Titanic was able to reach was the SS Carpathian, which replied that she would be coming to her rescue as soon as possible. Phillips and Bridge frantically continued to relay their distress signal using both the code “CQD” and the newer code “SOS.” In fact, the Titanic was one of the first instances of the newer SOS signal being used.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *