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.

Construction and Components of the Titanic

A view of the Titanic, docked in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard.
A view of the Titanic, docked in Belfast at the Harland and Wolff shipyard.
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

The White Star Line's triumvirate of giants included the Gigantic, Olympic and Titanic. These ships shared a design plan and a common theme: bigness. J. Bruce Ismay, White Star chairman, and Lord Pirrie, chairman of shipbuilders Harland and Wolff of Dublin, estimated that they'd be about one-and-a-half times the size of the Cunard Line's largest ships [source: RMS Titanic]. Ismay and Pirrie's early sketches of the ships included two masts and four smokestacks -- the ships would only need three to function, but a fourth was added to make the design symmetrical and was later repurposed into a ventilation system. Alexander Montgomery Carlisle was named head designer of the project, a position later handed over to Pirrie's nephew Thomas Andrews.

To build a safe ship 882.5 feet (268.8 meters) long and 92.5 feet (28.2 meters) wide with a gross weight of nearly 45,000 tons (40,824 metric tons), some innovative shipbuilding techniques and materials were required [source: RMS Titanic]. John Brown's shipbuilding firm obliged Ismay and Pirrie with steel and turbines. The Parson's turbine was an essential development in the construction process -- it operated off the exhaust steam produced by the ship's two reciprocating engines, which were nearly four stories tall. This arrangement, combined with two three-blade propellers measuring 23.5 feet (7.2 meters) in diameter and a four-blade propeller of 17 feet (5.2 meters) located near the ship's rudder, produced enough horsepower to attain speeds up to 24 knots [source: Halpern].


Lord Pirrie and Captain Edward J. Smith on the deck of the Olympic.
Lord Pirrie and Captain Edward J. Smith on the deck of the Olympic.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The ships required an immense amount of power, and these powerhouse compartments were located in the hull of the ship. A turbine room, an engine room, six boiler rooms, 11 stokeholds and rooms for heaters and refrigeration equipment were separated by bulkheads -- reinforced partitions. Another innovation aboard the ships was watertight doors that could be dropped automatically or by manual controls. Thomas Andrews' theory behind these watertight doors was that they could close off flooded compartments in case of emergency. He designed the ships to stay afloat with two of the 16 compartments flooded; the ship could even manage to sail on with up to three or four water-filled compartments. Above the machinery in the hull, decks lettered A through F contained everything from cabins and dining halls to Turkish baths. (We'll read more about those decks in the next section.)

There was a catch to these grandiose plans, however: No construction arena or launching site could accommodate the ships. So before the ships could be built, the White Star Dock and the Great Gantry were. The Great Gantry was a series of 10 cranes that could lift laborers and materials to the height of the deck to which they were assigned to build. The Olympic was built first and completed by 1911, and the Titanic was completed in 1912, after the construction efforts of nearly 11,000 men [source: RMS Titanic].

Next, we'll look at the structure and interior design of the Titanic.


A Touch of Distinction: Titanic's Design

By the time the Titanic was completed in 1912, the ship's price tag hovered around $7.5 million (about £4.3 million) [source: History Channel]. The ship reflected Ismay and Pirrie's goals of a posh, fast and safe ship. Conceptually, Titanic wasn't too different from modern cruise ships. But in the early 20th century, the comforts and amenities of this ocean liner were unlike anything travelers had ever seen before. It was more like a floating luxury hotel than a ship, and Titanic's designers put every effort into disguising or hiding equipment and cargo. Even the lifeboats were deemed eyesores on the deck, so only 16 were loaded along with four collapsible boats. (This would later prove a fatal mistake.)

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From top to bottom, the ship was structured like this:


  • Boat Deck - contained the Captain's Bridge, from which the ship was navigated, the gym and the open, pine-paneled deck
  • Promenade Deck (Deck A) - encompassed the two first-class staircases (placed between the four giant funnel stacks), reading/writing room, lounge, all-male first-class smoking room and the Verandah Café/Palm Court (an indoor area designed to look like an outdoor patio)
  • Bridge Deck (Deck B) - included first-class cabins/suites, an à la carte restaurant and Café Parisien, all-male second-class smoking room and the third-class poop deck (a platformlike deck where third-class passengers strolled and played games among some larger cargo equipment)
  • Shelter Deck (Deck C) - site of the purser's office, third-class smoking room and the second-class library/lounge
  • Saloon Deck (Deck D) - first-class reception room, first-class dining saloon (located strategically between the second and third funnels to ensure the least noise and movement disturbance possible to elegant diners), first- and second-class galleys and the second-class dining saloon
  • Upper Deck (Deck E) - contained second- and third-class cabins
  • Middle Deck (Deck F) - location of the third-class dining saloon and the Turkish baths (a hot, dry room with electric baths and tubs with cold water for soaking)
  • Lower Deck/Orlop Deck - included the squash courts; post office; carpentry, plumbing and electrical workshops; and "refrigerated" rooms cooled by a series of miles-long copper pipes where foodstuffs and other perishables were contained. (Orlop is just a fancy term for the lower decks in sailing vessels with at least four decks.)
  • Tank Top - housed the boiler and engine rooms

[source: RMS Titanic; RMS Titanic, Inc.] (For an extensive description of all the decks and rooms, visit the RMS Titanic, Inc. web site.)

The era dictated much about the ship's design; Edwardian style ran rampant with touches of Georgian and Louis XV influences. There was an airy lightness to much of the ship's décor -- wicker furniture in the casual dining areas, subtle pastel fabrics, palm trees and other lush potted plants, cheery wallpaper with simple floral or stripe motifs, and lots of glass and lighting fixtures reinforced with iron. Titanic was impossibly in vogue, and thousands of people clamored to be part of her maiden voyage. The ship could hold 2,599 passengers (plus 903 officers and crew members), and 2,208 passengers were on board when she set sail for New York [source: Titanic Inquiry Project].

As we've seen in the delineation of the different levels of the ship, class was an important distinction aboard the Titanic. Next, we'll take a closer look at the Titanic's passengers and crew.


Titanic Passengers and Crew

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Titanic's designers had discerning and practical taste, but they also took great care to ensure that everyone from the well-shod passengers to the poorest travelers in steerage had a grand experience. They knew that many third-class passengers were immigrating to the United States, and they intended for the passage to be a memorable one that infused these people with a hopeful sense of what was to come in their new lives [source: RMS Titanic]. To that end, even third-class rooms were private and enclosed, a modicum of luxury in their own right.

The ship set sail from its launching site in Belfast to Southampton, England, on April 3, 1911. Titanic picked up its passengers from Southampton, then moved along to Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, to collect the rest. Collectively, there were 2,208 passengers and 899 officers and crew members. Of these passengers, there were 329 first-class travelers, 285 second-class travelers and 710 third-class travelers [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. First class consisted primarily of wealthy industrialists and their families, among them John Jacob Astor IV and even J.P. Morgan -- who was forced to cancel his passage due to business conflicts. Among the second-class passengers were businessmen and members of the clergy (even a teacher and chauffeur are recorded to have been traveling second-class). Third class, or steerage, was comprised mostly of European immigrants.


There are some discrepancies in passenger records due to cancelled trips, transfers to other ships and some passengers and crew simply being left behind. Some passengers traded or sold their boarding passes, and the names of the alternate passengers were never recorded. Now-legendary accounts of people like the three Slade brothers, who, after imbibing at Southampton pubs, were refused boarding privileges, or Mrs. Edward W. Bill, who refused to board after having a nightmare of the Titanic sinking, inspired the creation of a "Just Missed It" Club [source: Eaton]. According to an April 1912 report in the Milwaukee Journal, nearly 6,000 people were fatefully saved from the Titanic disaster after missing the boat or changing their travel plans. The fact that the ship could only accommodate about 2,500 passengers pokes holes in some of these flimsy just-missed-it stories.

But those who did board the Titanic boarded at great expense. First-class tickets cost anywhere from $2,500 to $4,500 (that's about $43,860 to $78,950 in today's market); third-class passages could be obtained for around $35 ($620) [source: Titanic Aquatic]. If you shelled out the big bucks, you got a private room and semi-private baths. Third-class accommodations were still a relative steal with sophisticated plumbing fixtures (even if there were two bathtubs to be shared among 700 third-class passengers) and real mattresses instead of the straw-stuffed pallets found on most ships. Third-class rooms could hold up to four people, and in most cases, strangers shared the accommodations. In these rooms, vibrations from the ship's massive engines could be felt and heard.

Aside from these disturbances, the Titanic's crew worked to ensure that everyone enjoyed a comfortable voyage. In addition to the band and members of the deck, engine and victualling (culinary) departments were the captain of the ship, Edward John Smith, and Thomas Andrews, the ship's head designer. Despite Smith's distinctive record of seamanship and Andrews' so-called unsinkable ship, the Titanic's maiden voyage was doomed.

An Ill-fated Voyage: Truly Titanic Mistakes

Compared to other contemporary ships, Titanic was a giant.
Compared to other contemporary ships, Titanic was a giant.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The size of the Titanic sparked a fiery debate. Some said a ship of that size couldn't be safe; others said that a ship as large as Titanic was virtually impenetrable.

But there were many problems with the general bigness of the Titanic. For one, the Board of Trade had no safety regulations in place for a ship that size. According to the board's 1894 Merchant Shipping Act, the number of lifeboats required onboard a ship was in direct proportion to the ship's gross tonnage. But the act stopped calculating at a ship of 10,000 tons, which was beholden to carry 16 lifeboats. Titanic, which had about 35,000 tons on that figure, carried precisely 16 lifeboats [source: RMS Titanic].


Other big problems? Titanic underwent only about six or seven hours of testing. During this time, the ship's turning radius and equipment were observed, but Titanic was never even driven at its maximum speed. What's more, emergency drills required some crew members to practice lowering lifeboats, but they lowered only two of the sixteen, rendering an inaccurate estimation of time for evacuation procedures. One reason for these abbreviated tests and drills may have been that the full crew wasn't even onboard yet -- many didn't board until a few hours before Titanic took off from Southampton, and most of the crew weren't assigned official jobs or posts until they neared Cherbourg the following day [source: Titanic Inquiry Project].

This Marconi wireless message was sent from Titanic after it had hit the iceberg.
This Marconi wireless message was sent from Titanic after it had hit the iceberg.
Matt Campbell/AFP/Getty Images

The ship was short on safety supplies, too. As we've seen, there were too few lifeboats, but the crew lacked binoculars and searchlights as well. And while the Marconi wireless telegraphy system onboard the Titanic was innovative, it was probably too cutting-edge to be effective: Not many people knew yet how to operate and receive Marconi messages.

Titanic was also an inadvertent bully. The churning waters left in the ship's wake were violent enough to suck a smaller steamer, the New York, into its propeller. This accident left Titanic unscathed, but the New York wasn't as lucky -- its moorings were virtually ripped off and had to be recovered. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to many passengers onboard, the Titanic was actually on fire in one of its coal bunkers. Fire wasn't enough to detain the giant ship; Titanic sailed on, and the fire was eventually extinguished. (Good thing, too, because Titanic needed all the coal it had stored on board. The ship required nearly 600 tons (544 metric tons) per day to operate.)

Should these incidents have postponed the maiden voyage across the Atlantic? Perhaps. But captain, crew and passengers alike put their faith in the sturdy giantess. The ship's brute strength and size could forestall any disaster, and that might explain why Capt. Smith discounted the ice warnings he received on the night of April 14, 1912, and instead forged ahead -- full throttle -- at the record-breaking speed of 22.5 knots.

The Titanic's Collision with the Iceberg

This photograph taken by another boat in mid-April 1912 shows the icy site where Titanic struck the iceberg.
This photograph taken by another boat in mid-April 1912 shows the icy site where Titanic struck the iceberg.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The night of April 14, 1912, the third day of the Titanic's maiden voyage, was numbingly cold -- the water's temperature hovered at 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2.2 degrees Celsius). Around noon that day, the Titanic's Marconi wireless operators received the first of at least four cautionary messages about large ice floes just ahead. A second message came in at 5:35 p.m. (EST) from a ship that reported three icebergs just 19 miles (30.5 kilometers) north of the Titanic's path. And just one hour before the Titanic's collision at 11:40 p.m., a vessel named the Californian messaged to the Titanic, "We are stopped and surrounded by ice." The response from the Titanic? "Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race" [source: Titanic Inquiry Project].

Whatever conversation the Titanic's operator was having with Cape Race, it couldn't have been as pressing as the Californian's warning. Yet, the threat of ice was brushed off. It wasn't just the operator who discounted the danger (though the Californian's wireless operator later testified that he heard the man "put the phones down, t[ake] off his clothes, and tur[n] in") -- it was the illustrious captain, too [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. Captain Smith was unconcerned about icebergs. After all, the Titanic was a steel behemoth. His concern was shattering speed records set by other steamers. He told an officer named Lightoller, who was stationed on the Captain's Bridge, that if the night became too hazy, he should be alerted immediately and would slow down the ship's speed.


­But the night was clear, and Titanic sped on. Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were in the observation port. Fleet was nearing the end of his shift when he espied the foretold iceberg. They sounded the alarm and called down to the bridge. A full 37 seconds elapsed before First Officer William M. Murdoch shut off all the engines, dropped the watertight doors in the bottom compartments and turned the ship away from its forward, front end so that the iceberg hit toward the side [source: RMS Titanic, Titanic Inquiry Project]. Murdoch reacted as well as he could in the face of danger: Titanic didn't have enough time to make a complete stop or to turn away from the iceberg. Stopping the ship would've required a half mile (804.7 meters). The iceberg loomed closely at only 900 feet (274 meters) from the ship.

For a few minutes, it seemed as though the maneuver might've worked. From the surface, the ship missed the iceberg by all counts, but underneath, a protruding fragment of ice ripped a hole in the Titanic's hull. If the ship shuddered, it was subtle and went undetected or excused as the heavy, groaning machinery. When Thomas Andrews and Captain Smith surveyed the resulting flood damage, they surmised that the hole must be nearly 300 feet (91.4 meters) wide. In reality, the tear was quite modest -- six slim lacerations measuring about 3.2 square feet (around 0.3 square meters).

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But Murdoch's hasty navigation had steered the ship from the sturdiest place to withstand impact to the most vulnerable, and even the smallest gash caused catastrophic results. Andrews somberly observed that five of the ship's compartments had already begun to flood, and he made the grim announcement that the ship would sink -- no question about it. He predicted that there was an hour or an hour and a half left before the giantess would slip to the watery bottom of the Atlantic.

The Titanic's Sinking: A Mathematical Certainty

As we've seen, the Titanic captured people's confidence. Ismay and Pirrie were confident that it would be the biggest and most luxurious ship in the world, thousands of passengers were confident that it would transport them to New York faster than any other ship could, and Capt. Smith was confident that the ship could withstand any of the innocuous ice floes he'd been warned of.

Now, Thomas Andrews, the ship's chief designer, was confident that the unsinkable Titanic would sink.


Titanic had earned the title of unsinkable from the watertight compartments in the ship's hull. We learned that doors between the bulkheads could be dropped to prevent flooding from spreading across all 16 compartments in the hull. The ship was designed to take on water in three of the compartments and still sail on -- Andrews said that Titanic could even tolerate flooding in a fourth compartment if necessary. But five flooded compartments mathematically guaranteed that Titanic would sink.

Let's recap now. Ships -- even those made of materials as heavy as steel -- float on the surface of water because buoyancy pushes them upward and gravity pulls them downward. These two forces balance each other out, allowing a ship to steadily float along.

In the case of the Titanic's compartments that we've been hearing so much about, the air inside of them rendered the ship less dense than the surrounding water. But when the ship struck the iceberg, the lightweight air was quickly replaced by the dense water pouring into the damaged compartments. As a result, the ship's front (bow) became much heavier than the back (stern) and began a slow and steady descent downward.

The Titanic didn't just sink -- eyewitness reports testify that it broke in half. Science supports these accounts. In the middle of the ship, the stress of bearing the heavy weight of the water-filled front compartments overwhelmed the steel structure. As the bow dipped under water, the keel began to rise high out of the water and the steel plates holding this portion of the ship together started buckling under the pressure. This stress reached 35,000 pounds per square inch on the boat deck; that's nearly 50 percent more stress than the Titanic was designed to withstand. At last, the plates gave way. The bow plunged downward, and the ship snapped in two. When it severed, the flickering electricity was finally extinguished, and passengers and crew were left in the darkness of a moonless night.

Less than half would live to see the sunrise.

The Titanic Disaster: Women and Children First

In this illustration of the Titanic disaster, Capt. Smith refuses help from passengers in a lifeboat.
In this illustration of the Titanic disaster, Capt. Smith refuses help from passengers in a lifeboat.
Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Capt. Smith accepted that his ship was sinking, and he acted quickly to save his passengers and crew. At 12:15 a.m., he marched into the Marconi Room to order a series of distress messages. One of the vessels that responded was the Carpathia, a Cunard Line steamer. Carpathia was nearly 58 miles (93 kilometers) away and wouldn't reach Titanic before it sank. The Californian was closer to the Titanic, but the ship's wireless operator couldn't decode the Marconi signal. Smith also directed rockets to be fired every five minutes [source: RMS Titanic]. But any vessels that saw the flares couldn't traverse the dangerous ice floes to aid the sinking ship.

Because the collision with the iceberg had been so slight, scarcely any passengers were aware that the ship was in trouble. They continued their nightly rituals -- some socialized in the lounges, others relaxed in their cabins and some were fast asleep. Crew members were mobilized for action, but no formal shipwide announcement had been made that Titanic was sinking. People who heard murmurs of an emergency dismissed them; after all, the ship was unsinkable. Instead, a hushed and dire situation gradually gave way to chaos as it became clear that the ship was not equipped with enough lifeboats to convey everyone to safety.


While there were plenty of cork life jackets to go around, there was room for only 1,176 passengers in the lifeboats -- and there were 2,208 passengers and 899 crew members onboard. At 12:25 a.m., the captain gave his crew orders to start lowering the first lifeboats and leading first-class passengers to the boat deck. There were 14 lifeboats capable of carrying 65 people (910 total), two emergency sea boats capable of carrying 35 people (70 total) and four collapsible boats capable of carrying 49 people (total 196) [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. The first life boat wasn't even filled to capacity -- it held 12 people.

As ocean water rose higher and higher in the ship, first- and second-class passengers were directed in droves to the highest deck. Third-class passengers were detained in the bottom decks and permitted to ascend to the Boat Deck only after the first and second classes were accounted for. Third-class steward John Hart took it upon himself to direct them toward the proper evacuation route. Many members of the third class had never ventured far past their cabins, and they got lost in the labyrinthine hallways of the ship.

While First Officer William Murdoch and Second Officer Charles Lightoller both loaded passengers in lifeboats, their strategies were a little different. Murdoch ushered as many people as possible into his boats; Lightoller permitted only women and children. By 2:00 a.m., all the lifeboats had been lowered, and half the ship's passengers and crew still remained. They strapped on their life vests as the band stoically played on: Their song of choice was "Nearer My God to Thee" [source: History Channel].

At this point, the ship's stern had risen dramatically out of the water as the bow plunged forward. It loomed dramatically at the height of a 25-story building. Thirty-one thousand tons of water had poured into the ship, and Smith officially dismissed his crew members from duty so that they could choose how to accept their fates [source: Titanic Aquatic]. Flickering lights finally gave way to darkness, and radio wires were severed as the second smokestack broke and tumbled onto the deck. At 2:20 a.m., the ship sank into the Atlantic.

Carpathia Cometh: Titanic Survivors, Casualties and Ensuing Lawsuits

People assemble outside the White Star Line's office to inquire about their loved ones.
People assemble outside the White Star Line's office to inquire about their loved ones.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When the Carpathia arrived at the disaster site at 4:30 a.m. on April 15, it was a bleak scene. The lifeboats were adrift with no compasses or lights, and the shivering passengers in them huddled together to protect against the frigid air. Carpathia recovered 14 lifeboats and 712 survivors -- though one of them died later en route to New York, the maiden voyage's final destination. By then, the world was waking up to the news that the unsinkable ship had sunk. Families with loved ones aboard the vessel were desperate for a list of survivors; it wouldn't be compiled until a week after the accident.

After it had gathered survivors, the Carpathia asked the Californian to look for bodies. The vessel reported that it found none. Historians today believe that the Californian didn't count for factors like drift and force of impact that might've carried bodies away from the site where Titanic sank. These results were unsatisfactory for the White Star Line. White Star commissioned search vessels to conduct further investigation of the area. Of these vessels, the Mackay-Bennett recovered 306 bodies, Mina found 15 and the Montmagny and Algerine came away with four and one, respectively. The crews of these ships were privy to a macabre sight -- frozen, bloated corpses. The dead were so heavily waterlogged that it took a small group of men to heave each one over the side of the boats.


The recovered first-class passengers were embalmed and placed in coffins. In many instances, their frozen limbs had to be forcibly broken to fit inside. Second- and third-class passengers were swaddled in canvas bags, and some crew members were laid in the ice holds of the vessels while others were strapped to 28-pound (12-kilogram) iron rods and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Recovered corpses were taken to a nearby port at Nova Scotia, where they were identified and buried. Identifying the bodies proved difficult; some crew members had raided cabins for furs and warm clothing, and their identities were mistaken as first- and second-class passengers. The White Star Line agreed to ship bodies back to Southampton, England, for a cargo rate; no one took the company up on its offer.

On April 16, 1912, the New York Times announced the Titanic shipwreck. The disaster impacted people the world over.
On April 16, 1912, the New York Times announced the Titanic shipwreck. The disaster impacted people the world over.
Blank Archives/Getty Images

England's King George V issued a public statement of condolence after the tragedy, and Parliament conducted the inquiry into the accident. The U.S. Senate also conducted an investigation on the basis that Sen. William A. Smith had sailed with Capt. Smith before and wanted to know how a ship under his care had sunk. Both England and the United States reached similar conclusions: The ship had inadequate life-saving apparatuses onboard, and its designers and inspectors had been negligent and cursory in their evaluations. Because there were so many inconsistencies in the survivors' accounts and the witnesses' testimonies, it was nearly impossible to draw firm conclusions about the disaster. (With the help of modern technology, however, scientists have been able to determine how the Titanic sank -- the question of to whom fault should be attributed is still an open debate.)

The Board of Trade later argued that the 26 requisite lifeboats determined to have been needed onboard a ship the Titanic's size couldn't have been lowered and filled in the amount of time the crew had to evacuate passengers. Individual cases were brought against the White Star line for personal losses of loved ones and property; the verdicts of these are wide and varied. Some lawyers called the Titanic cases a litigation nightmare, given the discrepancies and holes in the story.

Recovery emphasis was placed on Titanic's passengers and crew; for nearly a century, the ship itself sat rusting on the bottom of the Atlantic. In the late 20th century, scientists became determined to locate the shipwreck.

RMS Titanic and Robert Ballard: Rediscovering the Steel Giantess

RMS Titanic, Inc., general counsel Allan Carlin poses with a 20-ton piece of the Titanic's hull that the company recovered from the shipwreck site.
RMS Titanic, Inc., general counsel Allan Carlin poses with a 20-ton piece of the Titanic's hull that the company recovered from the shipwreck site.
Stuart Cahill/AFP/Getty Images

The human aspect of the Titanic tragedy continues to resonate with people, but it wasn't until the late 20th century that scientists were emboldened to actively search for the remnants of the ship itself. This quest was more challenging than many explorers initially imagined. To begin with, no one knew for sure where the shipwreck was located -- they had only records of the final coordinates of the ship from the distress calls it placed. Furthermore, no submersibles existed that could withstand the pressures exerted on the bottom of the Atlantic seafloor at an estimated depth of 13,000 feet (3.96 kilometers). Finding the ship was going to require a lot of luck and money.

In 1981, a wealthy Texas oil baron named Jack Grimm claimed to have located the shipwreck. His expedition, led with all the bravado of a cocky cowboy, turned up a massive propeller at the bottom of the Atlantic, but further scans of the area produced no more evidence. Dr. Robert Ballard, an oceanographer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, learned from Grimm's mistake and planned to use sonar for reconnaissance of a wide swath of the Atlantic. Ballard developed Argo, a research submersible named for the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Argo was an unmanned submersible equipped with video cameras. It was controlled by Ballard and his crew aboard a research vessel. They could observe Argo's discoveries from the video feed and sonar it transmitted. The U.S. Navy funded a three-week long test with Argo in the summer of 1985 -- but the expedition failed.


Ballard re-evaluated his methods. He determined that it would be likelier to find the projected 2.5 mile- (4 kilometer) wide debris field left in the ship's wake rather than locating the ship itself. Using the Californian's logbooks, Ballard traced backward from the lifeboats' drifting trajectory to the location of the actual shipwreck. And his methodology worked: On Sept. 1, 1985, Ballard's team found one of the Titanic's boilers. Argo continued scanning the seafloor, and it at last revealed the ship's giant hull. Ballard's expeditions turned up more evidence with the development of Jason Junior, an even more sophisticated video camera.

These early explorations of the wreckage paved the way for future archaeologists to actual visit the shipwreck themselves. Scientists and historians alike continue to eagerly pursue and evaluate the wreckage. When they visit the site, they usually allot 12 to 15 hours -- it takes about five hours round-trip to reach and return from the ship. Most go to observe and report on the state of the Titanic. Even though the Titanic lies in international waters (about 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland), RMS Titanic, Inc., is the salvor-in-possession of the ship. RMS Titanic, Inc., has recovered nearly 5,500 artifacts from the wreck. Underwater, about 6,000 pounds of pressure per square inch are exerted upon these items, and for the sake of historical preservation, scientists have deemed it necessary to excavate them from the Atlantic [source: Titanic Aquatic].

Currently, there are debates about whether the remains of the ship itself should be brought up. There's no feasible way to preserve the Titanic underwater, where iron-ingesting microbes are virtually eating it. Scientists say that in about 40 to 90 years, the brittle remains of the Titanic will implode [source: Titanic Aquatic]. It's a question of physics and ethics. Could the ship be safely hoisted to dry ground without damaging it? And if it could, should we uproot a watery graveyard?

If the Titanic itself is to be preserved, it will have to be excavated from the Atlantic. And if it were, curious museumgoers would doubtless be shocked at its state of disrepair. It's still a massive piece of steel, but rusticles, eerie sealike icicles, have attached to the hull and sway in the ocean waters from its railings. Memories of the Titanic's flawed majesty remain a vibrant piece of history, and perhaps a century from now, these memories will have to suffice.

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More Great Links


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  • Conrad, Joseph. "Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic." 1912 (Sept. 30, 2008).
  • Eaton, John P. "Canceled Passages Aboard Titanic." April 6, 2008 (Sept. 26, 2008).
  • Halpern, Samuel. "Titanic's Prime Mover - An Examination of Propulsion and Power.: July 9, 2007 (Sept. 26, 2008).
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