How the Titanic Worked

RMS Titanic and Robert Ballard: Rediscovering the Steel Giantess

Titanic replica
A replica of the upper section of the fourth funnel of the Titanic is towed along the River Thames toward Tower Bridge on Nov. 3, 2010 in London. Oli Scarff/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 [source: RMS Titanic].

In 1994, after some scuffling over who had salvage rights to the newly discovered shipwreck, RMS Titanic, Inc. became salvor-in-possession, which meant it was the only entity that could collect artifacts. Rules were set in place specifying how artifacts would be conserved and curated [source: NOAA]. To date, RMS Titanic, Inc. has collected more than 5,500 artifacts, including a 17-ton section of the hull [source: Godin]. It also runs exhibits of these Titanic artifacts that the public can pay to see. James Cameron used photos from these expeditions to the wreckage when designing his 1997 masterpiece film "Titanic."

But RMS Titanic, Inc. is hardly the only group that has visited the wreckage since its 1985 discovery. Many scientists and historians have explored the site, which lies in international waters about 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland. And from 1998 to 2012, diving companies offered trips down to the Titanic to anyone able to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege [source: Godin].

Soon, all trips to the Titanic may cease. That's because researchers believe the ship could disappear by 2030, thanks to the fact that it's being eaten alive by "Halomonas titanicae," a voracious, iron-loving bacteria discovered in 2010. As the bacteria eats away at the ship, "rusticles" form – rusty, icicle-like formations that hang off the wreckage. Over time, these rusticles dissolve into the sea, effectively taking the Titanic with them [source: Keegan].

In 2020, after RMS Titanic, Inc. announced it was planning to remove one of the Titanic's roofs to recover more items, the U.S. and U.K. governments signed a treaty that they claim allows them to grant or deny licenses to remove items from the Titanic. RMS Titanic, Inc. contests that, saying it has control of the ship [source: Perraudin]. And RMST won a court case in 2020 allowing them, for the first time, to cut into the ship and remove the Marconi telegraph.

What happens down the road is anyone's guess. But memories of the Titanic and its flawed majesty will always remain a vibrant part of history.

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