Titanic’s Sinking : Dispelling Common Myths & Theories

Titanic’s Sinking : Dispelling Common Myths & Theories

The idea that Titanic was built with inferior materials which led to her sinking is false. In fact,  there are numerous conspiracy theories that have flooded the internet on why Titanic failed so many years ago. We will do our best to present a logical explanation of her sinking. 

To begin, famed shipbuilding firm Harland and Wolff didn’t cut corners with Titanic’s design, nor did they use inferior materials for the time. 

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The steel used to build the Olympic-class liners wouldn’t be of the same quality used today, but it was of high quality for the time. Pieces of the steel used to build Olympic are still in existence and were tested in the early 2000s and found to be fine. These tests took into account the temperature differences on each side of the plate. That’s a non-starter. 

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Interior view of the mast sheds at Harland & Wolff 

The WSL and H&W were not cut-rate outfits, but it had been specified that the Olympic-class ships were to be built to very high standards. The quality of the ship has been consistently backed by thorough discussion and research. 

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While there was a coal bunker fire, not uncommon for the time, it was largely extinguished by April 12-13. These fires aren’t raging infernos and are closer to smoldering hot-spots. As the coal is consumed, the fires are discovered and extinguished. The “smudge” on the photo in question doesn’t appear in other photos taken around the same time. 

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In hindsight, we can discuss the original design of the Olympic class compartmentalization. Titanic was designed to float with any 2 compartments flooded, any 3 of the first 5, or the first 4 compartments flooded. This holds up, and the math works. 

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However, what tends to be forgotten is that the iceberg opened the first 6 compartments to the sea. This simply isn’t survivable damage. It still wouldn’t be survivable had the watertight bulkheads extended higher. It simply didn’t matter. Even the most modern ships would have a very rough time surviving that, and likely wouldn’t. Titanic was built to survive some pretty devastating damage, but what she encountered that night was simply too much. 

The explanation for Titanic plowing on above 20 knots through the ice is a bit more complex and nuanced than just negligence.

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Titanic’s Captain

It was noted in the inquiries held afterward that Titanic had just entered an area of a temperature inversion. Logbooks from nearby ships on that night all clear state in the weather remark “refraction”. 

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Refraction causes some pretty interesting optical illusions.

In a nutshell, this refraction made the horizon appear higher than it was, so the bridge crew and the lookouts in the crow’s nest were looking far higher than they should have been.

They were looking up into the sky instead of at the sea in front of them. Basically, they were looking over the berg. That’s why it snuck up on them as it did. The sea was flat calm that night, and visibility appeared to be unlimited. The crew had no reason to doubt that they couldn’t spot an object directly in front of them. Refraction is an interesting phenomenon and you can google image search “refraction at sea” and you’ll see what I’m on about. 

TITANIC: History's Most Famous Ship: A Closer Look: The Iceberg That Sank  the Titanic

Additionally, the temperature inversion was also noted by survivors in the inquiry. They stated that the sudden chill in the air and the formation of ice crystals indicated a cold temperature inversion. The takeaway here is that the crew didn’t realize the atmospheric optical illusion taking place around them in time to avoid the iceberg. They were simply looking into the sky, and the berg was hidden by the fuzzy reflection of the horizon until it was too late.

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The results from the British and American inquiries after the catastrophe support this argument. One interesting fact is that Titanic did not reverse her engines before the collision. The order of events from the surviving crew is very clear. Testimony after testimony, who was where and when etc.

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The court was very interested in the series of events over the 35 seconds leading up to the collision and they spent a lot of time cross-referencing everything. Besides, there is absolutely no way the engines could have been brought down, the dampers closed, the reversing engine engaged, and the whole system brought back up to power in under 30 seconds. Steam power plants on ships don’t work like that. Sworn testimony from the surviving crew allowed for accurately discerning the timeline of events.

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Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon at the British Wreck Commissioner’s inquiry into the sinking of the RMS Titanic

Couple that with a crew that was not ready for that order in the dead of night, and it’s understandable why the reaction time was so delayed. This was a commercial ocean liner, not a warship in battle expecting rapid speed changes and maneuvers. Unlike sailors on warships, the crews for commercial liners are not expected to perform sudden and drastic ship maneuvers in the dead of night. Titanic simply turned to port then back to starboard in order to keep her stern from striking. After proceeding a short distance she stopped. The interesting part is that it is agreed upon by many at the inquest that she did start engines again and proceed a short distance. 

So much is in the inquiry transcripts and I’m not sure why historians don’t seem to read them. The investigators had a good idea of events that night, and it’s all written down and easily accessed. The whole “engines astern” thing has been around for nearly a century it seems and doesn’t really have any evidence to support it. I built a model of Titanic’s port reciprocating engine, and in doing the research became very familiar with how the hybrid power plant worked. The general consensus is that the engines couldn’t have been reversed that quickly even if they wanted to, it just wasn’t possible.

Titanic's Engines - Titanic-Titanic.com

This likely didn’t do her any favors as far as the flooding went. Not very dramatic for movies either.

Titanic did have a few major flaws though. Firstly, the lifeboat situation was a serious Edwardian hubris moment. You can see their line of thinking though, Titanic was surrounded by other ships, and it wasn’t conceived that she could sink before a rescue ship arrived. She was designed to carry enough lifeboats, but they didn’t want to clutter the decks as the story goes. A lack of imagination on the part of the WSL. 

My other criticism is Captain EJ Smith. As a captain with no previous experience solving emergencies at sea, he suffered a nervous breakdown when Titanic first hit the iceberg. There is no other way to put it. From the moment he realized the ship would sink, Titanic had no functioning captain. 

A little more imagination on the part of the officers and crew might have saved more lives too. For example, the lifeboats were criminally under capacity. 

The Olympic-class liners were not badly built or run by maniacs; they were fine for their time. What caused the disaster was a lack of imagination and some odd weather phenomena.

Titanic’s Sinking : Dispelling Common Myths & Theories Written by Joseph Lavender

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Titanic’s Sinking : Dispelling Common Myths & Theories

Edited by Jimei Shen, Ryan Cunningham, Paul Griessel & Tia Williams

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