An Unsinkable Titanic/Chapter 1

 
CHAPTER I

INTRODUCTORY

Among the many questions which have arisen out of the loss of the Titanic there is one, which, in its importance as affecting the safety of ocean travel, stands out preeminent:

"Why did this ship, the latest, the largest, and supposedly the safest of ocean liners, go to the bottom so soon after collision with an iceberg?"

The question is one to which, as yet, no answer that is perfectly clear to the lay mind has been made. We know that the collision was the result of daring navigation; that the wholesale loss of life was due to the lack of lifeboats and the failure to fill completely the few that were available; and that, had it not been for the amazing indifference or stupidity of the captain of a nearby steamer, who failed to answer the distress signals of the sinking vessel, the whole of the ship's complement might have been saved.

But the ship itself—why did she so quickly go to the bottom after meeting with an accident, which, in spite of its stupendous results, must be reckoned as merely one among the many risks of transatlantic travel?

So far as the loss of the ship itself was concerned, it is certain that the stupefaction with which the news of her sinking was received was due to the belief that her vast size was a guarantee against disaster—that the ever-increasing dimensions of length, breadth, and tonnage had conferred upon the modern ocean liner a certain immunity against the dangers of travel by sea. The fetish of mere size seems, indeed, to have affected even the officers in command of these modern leviathans. Surely it must have thrown its spell over the captain of the ill-fated Titanic, who, in spite of an oft-repeated warning that there was a large field of ice ahead, followed the usual practice, if the night is clear, and ran his ship at full speed into the zone of danger, as though, forsooth, he expected the Titanic to brush the ice floes aside, and split asunder any iceberg that might stand in her way.

Confidence in the indestructibility of the Titanic, moreover, was stimulated by the fact
 

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Courtesy of Scientific American

Rivetting the Outer Skin on the Frames of a 65,000-Ton Ocean Liner

 

that she was supposed to be the "last word" in first-class steamship construction, the culmination of three-quarters of a century of experience in building safe and stanch vessels. In the official descriptions of the ship, widely distributed at the time of her launching, the safety elements of her construction were freely dwelt upon. This literature rang the changes on stout bulkheads, watertight compartments, automatic, self-closing bulkhead doors, etc.,—and honestly so. There is every reason to believe that the celebrated firm who built the ship, renowned the world over for the high character of their work; the powerful company whose flag she carried; aye, and even her talented designer, who was the first to pronounce the Titanic a doomed vessel and went down with the ship, were united in the belief that the size of the Titanic and her construction were such that she was unsinkable by any of the ordinary accidents to which the transatlantic liner is liable.

How comes it, then, that this noble vessel lies to-day at the bottom of the Atlantic in two thousand fathoms of water!

A review of the progress of those constructive arts which affect the safety of human life seems to show that it needs the spur of great disasters, such as this, to concentrate the attention of the engineer and the architect upon the all-important question of safety. More important than considerations of convenience, economy, speed of construction, or even revenue-earning capacity, are those of the value and sanctity of human life. Too frequently these considerations are the last to receive attention. This is due less to indifference than to inadvertence—a failure to remember that an accident which may be insignificant in its effect on steel and stone, may be fatal to frail flesh and blood. Furthermore, the monumental disasters, and particularly those occurring in this age of great constructive works, are frequently traceable to hidden or unsuspected causes, the existence and potentialities of which are revealed only when the mischief has been done. A faulty method of construction, containing in itself huge possibilities of disaster, may be persisted in for years without revealing its lurking menace. Here and there, now and then, some minor mischance will direct the attention of the few to the peril; but the excitement will
 

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Courtesy of Scientific American

Note how far the Great Eastern was ahead of her time. She was not exceeded until the advent of the Oceanic in 1899.

Growth of the Transatlantic Steamer from 1840 to 1912

 

be local and passing. It takes a "horror"—a "holocaust" of human life, with all its attendant exploitation in the press and the monthly magazine, to awaken a busy and preoccupied world to the danger and beget those stringent laws and improved constructions which are the earmarks of progress towards an ideal civilisation.

Not many years ago, there was being erected across the St. Lawrence River a huge bridge, with the largest single span in the world, which it was believed would be not only the largest but the strongest and most enduring structure of its kind in existence. It was being built under the supervision of one of the leading bridge engineers of the world; its design was of an approved type, which had long been standard in the Western Hemisphere; and the steelwork was being fabricated in one of the best equipped bridge works in the country. Nevertheless, when one great cantilever was about completed, and before any live load had been placed on it, the structure collapsed under its own weight. One of the principal members—a massive steel column, five feet square and sixty feet long—crumpled up as though it had been a boy's tin whistle, and allowed the whole bridge to fall into the St. Lawrence, carrying eighty men to their death! The disaster was traced to a very insignificant cause the failure of some small angle-bars, 3 1-2 inches in width, by which the parts of the massive member were held in place. No engineer had suspected that danger lurked in these little angle-bars. Had the accident happened to a bridge of moderate size, the lessons of the failure would have been noted by the engineers and contractors; it would have formed the subject, possibly, of a paper before some engineering society, and the warning would have had results merely local and temporary. But the failure of this monumental structure, with a loss of life so appalling, gave to the disaster a world-wide notoriety. It became the subject of a searching enquiry by a highly expert board; the unsuspected danger which lurked in the existing and generally approved methods of building up massive steel columns was acknowledged; and safer rules of construction were adopted.

It took the Baltimore conflagration to teach us the strong and weak points of our much-vaunted systems of fireproof construction. Only when San Francisco, after repeated warnings, had seen the whole of its business section shaken down and ravaged by fire, did she set about the construction of a city that would be proof against fire and earthquake. It was the spectacle of maimed and dying passengers being slowly burned to death in the wreckage of colliding wooden cars, that led to the abolition of the heating stove and the oil lamp; and it was the risk of fire, coupled with the shocking injuries due to splintering of wooden cars, that brought in the era of the electrically lighted, strong, and incombustible steel car.

The conditions attending the loss of the Titanic were so heartrending, and its appeal has been so world-wide, as to lead us to expect that the tragedy will be preeminently fruitful in those reforms which, as we have shown, usually follow a disaster of this magnitude. Had the ship been less notable and the toll of human life less terrible, the disaster might have failed to awaken that sense of distrust in present methods which is at the root of all thorough-going reform. The measure of the one compensation which can be recovered from this awful loss of life and treasure, will depend upon the care with which its lessons are learned and the fidelity with which they are carried out.

Unquestionably, public faith in the security of ocean travel has been rudely shaken. The defects, however, which are directly answerable for the sinking of this ship are fortunately of such a character that they can be easily corrected; and if certain necessary and really very simple changes in construction are made (and they can be made without any burdensome increase in the cost) we do not hesitate to say that future passenger travel on a first-class ocean-going steamship will be rendered absolutely safe.

The duty of a passenger steamer, such as the Titanic, may be regarded as threefold: She must stay afloat; she must provide a comfortable home for a small townful of people; and she must carry them to their destination with as much speed as is compatible with safety and comfort. Evidently the first condition, as to safety, should be paramount. When it has been determined to build a ship of a certain size and weight (in the case of the Titanic the weight was 60,000 tons, loaded) the designer should be permitted to appropriate to the safety elements
 

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Small dial indicates whether signals come from port or starboard.

Receiving Submarine Signals on the Bridge

 

of her construction every pound of steel that he may wish to employ. In a vessel like the Titanic, which is to be entrusted with the care of three or four thousand souls, he should be permitted to double-skin the ship, and divide and subdivide the hull with bulkheads, until he is satisfied that the vessel is unsinkable by any of the ordinary accidents of the sea. When these demands have been met, he may pile deck upon deck and crowd as big a boiler- and engine-plant into this unsinkable hull as the balance of the weights at his disposal will allow.

Unfortunately the Board of Trade requirements under which the Titanic was built—and very conscientiously built—proceed along no such common-sense lines. Instead, the Board many years ago framed a set of rules in which the safety requirements were cut down to such a low limit, that the question of a ship's surviving a serious collision was reduced to a mere gamble with Fate. The Board of Trade ship may fill two adjoining compartments, and then with the top of her bulkheads practically level with the sea, in the opinion of the Board, she will have a fighting chance to live in smooth water!

The Titanic filled at least five adjoining compartments, and hence,—thanks to these altogether inadequate and obsolete requirements, she is now at the bottom of the Atlantic; and, thanks again to the requirements of the Board as to lifeboat accommodations, over fifteen hundred of her passengers and crew went down with the ship!

 

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Water is hauled up in the canvas bucket and its temperature taken by thermometer.

Taking the Temperature of the Water