How the Titanic Worked

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus & Kathryn Whitbourne  | 

The Titanic's Sinking: A Mathematical Certainty

The iceberg thought to have been hit by Titanic, photographed on the morning of April 15, 1912. Note the dark spot just along the iceberg's waterline, which was described by onlookers as a smear of red paint, indicating a recent collision with a ship. United States Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons

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 operator? "Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race." Cape Race was a wireless relay station in Newfoundland [source: Titanic Inquiry Project].

Whatever conversation the Titanic's operator was having with Cape Race (apparently he was sending messages on behalf of passengers), 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 (the Californian's wireless operator later testified that he "put the phones down, took off my clothes, and turned in") — it was the illustrious captain, too [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. Capt. 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 Second Officer Charles 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 crow's nest. Fleet was nearing the end of his shift when he spied the foretold iceberg. They sounded the alarm and called down to the bridge. It took First Officer William M. Murdoch just 37 seconds to order the engines to stop and go full speed astern, a common maneuver of the day, to attempt to miss the iceberg. Murdoch also quickly closed all the watertight doors [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 seconds, it seemed as though Murdoch's maneuver might've worked. The massive ship finally turned and appeared it might clear the iceberg. But it wasn't in time. From the surface, though, the ship seemed to miss the iceberg, but beneath the waterline, a protruding fragment of ice ripped a hole in the Titanic's hull. If the ship shuddered, it was subtle and went undetected by most passengers or excused as the heavy, groaning machinery. When Andrews and Capt. 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).

But Murdoch's training to steer the ship around the iceberg rather than hit it straight on took meant the Titanic hit where it was most vulnerable, and even the smallest gash caused catastrophic results. Andrews eventually determined 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.