How the Titanic Worked

A scene from James Cameron's "Titanic" shows the chaotic atmosphere as passengers scramble for lifeboats.
A scene from James Cameron's "Titanic" shows the chaotic atmosphere as passengers scramble for lifeboats.
Merie Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

When Hollywood brings history to the silver screen, you can guarantee a few things. For one, the actors and actresses who portray historical figures are typically more attractive than their characters ought to be. Glamorous Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra in 1963 -- and Cleopatra is noted in the annals of history as a decidedly homely woman. Historical films also include a fair share of anachronistic details. Case in point, "10,000 BC," in which toothy, frightening creatures abound a couple thousand years past their dates of extinction [source: Choi]. Perhaps most troublingly for the scholarly purists among us is that these movies embellish stories that already pack a pretty dramatic wallop.

Maybe you like your version of the Titanic disaster with a plaintive Celine Dion score, but the facts of this maritime tragedy speak for themselves. And if you're looking for an overview that's more succinct than James Cameron's 194-minute version, author Joseph Conrad's is pretty straightforward: "We know what happened. The ship scraped her side against a piece of ice, and sank after floating for two hours and a half, taking a lot of people down with her" [source: Conrad].

It's truly that simple. But when you factor in the death count (about 1,513), the overt classism in life-saving efforts (123 first-class passengers died while nearly 527 third-class passengers perished), and the fact that the accident could very well have been prevented if the crew had heeded ice warnings from other ships, you can understand why the world wasn't just saddened by the headlines -- it was outraged [source: Titanic Aquatic].

Titanic was conceived of over an intimate dinner in 1907. J. Bruce Ismay, son of Thomas Ismay (who'd founded the White Star Line of ocean liners on the premise that people would travel farther by ship if the vessels were luxurious enough) and Lord Pirrie, chairman of Harland and Wolff shipbuilders, couldn't stop talking about the Mauretania and the Lusitania, the Cunard Line's newest vessels. Ismay and Pirrie knew that they could create bigger and better ships. By the end of the evening, they'd imagined a trio of giants: the Gigantic (later renamed Brittanic), Olympic and Titanic. These ships would be posh, fast and safe.

As we'll see, they failed on only one count.