World-Famous Ships: The Titanic

Written By: Rob Bowman

The RMS Titanic was sailing off the shores of Newfoundland when it hit an iceberg. The ship, which had about 2,240 people on board between the passengers and crew, sank into the freezing waters of the Atlantic Ocean just a short time later, early in the morning hours of April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic slipped under the ocean's surface. Since then, people have been captivated by the story of the doomed ship's maiden voyage and the people who perished when she sank.

The Building of the RMS Titanic

The White Star Line, the shipping company that owned the Titanic, had been competing against the Cunard Line for years to be the most successful and most renowned passenger shipping line operating in the Atlantic. Both companies wanted to operate the fastest, most luxurious ship capable of sailing between Great Britain and the United States. Cunard had built two of the most powerful ships of the early 20th century, the Lusitania (which later sank during World War I after a German U-boat attack) and the Mauretania. In response, White Star planned a new class of ships, known as the Olympic class. The three Olympic-class ships were the Olympic, Gigantic (better remembered by its later name, the Britannic), and, of course, the Titanic.

"Unsinkable" Titanic's Fatal Flaws

Today, many experts from the fields of ship engineering and design believe that the Titanic sank because of its design and construction issues that occurred as the ship was built in Belfast. Many of these issues were embedded in the very features that were supposed to make the ship unsinkable. White Star claimed the ship had watertight compartments which would prevent the Titanic from sinking. However, these compartments were not sealed off from each other: When one filled with water, the water would then overflow into the next compartment. Some scientists believe there were also issues with the ship's rivets. However, it was the lack of lifeboats that led to the high number of casualties. For various reasons, including the aesthetics of the decks and the belief that the ship was safe, White Star chose to only equip the ship with 16 lifeboats. Although those lifeboats only had enough capacity for about one-third of the people on board the ship, this was still more than the number of lifeboats that were required by law in 1912.

Passengers on the Titanic

The Titanic offered three classes of accommodations. The majority of the passengers traveled in third class and only paid about $20 for their passage. The second class was made up of people who worked for first-class passengers along with students, journalists, department-store buyers, and middle-class tourists. Titanic's first class had many well-known people of the era, including Isidor Straus, who had helped found Macy's, and his wife Ida. The ship's engineer, Thomas Andrews, was just one of the many people responsible for building the Titanic who chose to join the ship's maiden voyage.

Titanic Sets Sail

Experts who have studied the Titanic believe that along with issues with its design and building, the way the ship left Southampton to begin its maiden voyage to New York City also helped to doom the ship. A small coal fire broke out before the ship sailed from port. The crew thought they had the fire under control; however, many Titanic scholars believe that it smoldered as the ship sailed. Knowledge of this fire might have compelled the crew to try to make the trip across the Atlantic as quickly as possible. It was this speed that put the Titanic on a collision course with the iceberg. As the ship left port, it also almost hit a passing American liner. But for the passengers, setting sail was an exciting moment filled with fanfare.

Disaster Strikes Aboard the Titanic

Passengers in all classes enjoyed the perks of traveling on the Titanic. Some were still socializing in the ship's public spaces at around 11:30 at night on April 14 when, unbeknownst to them, a lookout warned of an iceberg ahead. Edward Smith was the ship's captain, and he ordered the ship turned so that the iceberg would hit the side of the ship. However, the iceberg tore a 300-foot hole across the hull of the ship. Water began to infiltrate the ship's compartments. Soon, the bow of the ship began to sink, and Capt. Smith ordered the passengers into the lifeboats.

Titanic's Lifeboats

The lifeboats did not have enough capacity for every person aboard the Titanic. People were going to die with the doomed ship no matter what the crew did or how the passengers behaved. However, decisions made during the first moments of evacuation led to even more deaths. Lifeboats were lowered without being completely filled. The evacuation wasn't organized, leading to chaos and more casualties. Rules stated that women and children were to board the lifeboats first, but the chaos of evacuation meant that women and children were among the casualties. And passengers traveling in third class died in greater numbers than those in first or second class.

The Titanic Sinks

A little after 2 a.m. on April 15, the Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of people perished along with the ship. Some of those people died as heroes. Thomas Andrews, the chief designer of the ship, said goodbye to his family and, according to some reports, tried to save as many people as possible. Ida Straus refused to leave her husband behind, and both were among the first-class passengers who died. The then-managing director of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, became one of the villains of the story when, after helping to load lifeboats, he claimed a seat on the last one to leave the Titanic. The Carpathia, part of the Cunard fleet, took the 705 survivors on board when it arrived in the area after the Titanic went down.

Aftermath of the Titanic Catastrophe

Even before the Carpathia arrived in New York with the Titanic's survivors, the sinking of the ship and the loss of life were making headlines in North America and Europe. Quickly, investigations on both sides of the Atlantic began as people tried to figure out what happened, assign blame, and understand how to prevent another similar tragedy in the future. However, even more than a hundred years later, people disagree over what caused the ship to sink. Was it bad design or construction flaws? Was White Star pressuring Capt. Smith to make the journey at unsafe speeds through the icy Atlantic? Or had overconfidence caused bad decision-making on every level? The mystique of the Titanic drives continuing interest and is why the ship's story has been the basis for books, movies, and even a Broadway musical.

Additional Information on the Titanic