In 1911 Shipbuilder magazine featured an ocean liner under construction in Belfast, Ireland. It was called Titanic and it was the largest moveable object ever built. With new state of the art technology, the magazine claimed Titanic was “practically unsinkable,” a reputation that stuck… until April of 1912 when the RMS Titanic began its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York harbor. Four days later, the ship lay at the bottom of the North Atlantic, its massive hull ripped in two and 1,500 passengers dead. Few stories have captivated our minds like the sinking of Titanic. And no, of course it wasn’t actually unsinkable. But did you know, it really shouldn’t have sunk? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. I know Titanic isn’t necessarily a lesser known story. I mean, James Cameron’s 1997 film “Titanic” was the highest grossing film of all time and it held that record for 12 years. But I think few people know about the collection of events leading up to the disaster and just how much the sinking of Titanic truly defied all odds. Plus the “you won’t be able to stop thinking about it” part is honestly an understatement.
This story has absolutely possessed my mind. I mean I pick a topic each week and do a pretty thorough deep dive. I end up in all kinds of worm holes. But this is different. I cannot stop thinking about Titanic. I can’t focus on my real job, which is a problem. So, I’m hoping by recording this, I can finally exorcize my mind of this story and pass it on to you all like a demon or a virus. So, enjoy thinking about Titanic for the foreseeable future. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Titanic was the brainchild of Bruce Ismay, director of the White Star Line, a British shipping company. White Star was in competition with a rival shipping company called Cunard. Cunard had the fastest ships, so I guess they were kind of winning the competition. Cunard’s new steamships Mauretania and Lusitania were breaking speed records left and right.
Yes you’ve probably heard of Lusitania. It was actually sunk by a torpedo from a German U boat in 1915 killing over half of its almost 2,000 passengers and launching the US into World War I. But that’s a whole nother story.
We’re still in 1907 so that hasn’t happened yet. Mauretania and Lusitania are queens of the sea and Ismay is desperate to pull ahead of Cunard. He goes to a shipbuilding company called Harland and Wolff in Belfast, Ireland. Harland and Wolff is the largest shipyard in the world. It is Belfast’s economy. Ismay presents them with this grand scheme of his to build 3 massive steamships in what he calls White Star’s “Olympic” class of ocean liners - Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic. So Titanic is the second of these ships built. It’s 883 feet long, 93 feet wide, and sits 60 feet above the waterline. This is smaller than the average cruise ship today. They’re typically about 1,000 feet long. But at the time, Titanic’s size was unheard of. It was 100 feet longer than the Mauretania and Lusitania. It was truly… well, titanic.
It took 3 years to build and when it was finished in 1912 it was spectacular. Titanic was all about luxury. First class passengers enjoyed spacious and lavishly decorated suites, an indoor heated swimming pool, squash courts (which is basically racquetball), a gymnasium, and elegant lounges and cafes. Actually the plans for Titanic were so over the top, they had to make some budget cuts during construction. For example, it was supposed to have more swimming pools and more elevators but those plans were cut to save money. They also made budget cuts when it came to the actual construction of the ship, which turned out to be a problem.
The ship's designer, Thomas Andrews was the head of the drafting department for Harland and Wolff. He came up with a new state of the art design for the Olympic class ships. They had a double bottom, so like an extra level down below that was separated into 16 separate watertight compartments. These had watertight doors that could be opened and closed electronically. It was designed so that the middle two compartments or the front four compartments could be completely flooded with water and the ship would still stay afloat. So basically, if there’s a leak, they’ll just seal off that compartment and everything’s fine.
This design is what prompted Shipbuilder magazine to refer to Titanic as “practically unsinkable.” Although, Harland and Wolff never made or backed up those claims. But, remember those budget cuts? Well they impacted this “unsinkable” design in ways that made it quite sinkable. The walls separating the 16 compartments were watertight as advertised but they only actually reached a few feet above the water line, not all the way to the ceiling. So it was possible for water to pour over from one compartment into another if the ship tilted too far. I guess they were like “eh, no one will ever know, just stop it there.”
The materials used to build Titanic were a problem too. Pieces of steel recovered from the wreck were tested in 1988 and determined to be 10 times more brittle than steel used for shipbuilding today. This especially affected the metal rivets that held the steel plates together. They had a high concentration of slag which is a smelting residue that weakens the metal and makes it more likely to break. Although, that’s not necessarily due to budget cuts. It’s possible this was the highest quality steel available at the time. Steel has just come a long way since then.
So the Titanic is ready to go. I mean, I guess. It’s docked at Southampton, England on April 10th, 1912 and around 900 crew members are getting it ready for departure later that day. Captain Edward Smith is in charge. He’s worked for the White Star Line for 30 years and he’s one of their most popular officers. He’s called “the millionaire’s captain” because of how well he schmoozes with the elite first class passengers. I have a photo of Smith standing on Titanic the morning of departure on my instagram @historyfixpodcast… actually I have quite a few Titanic photos on there that are… chilling. So be sure to check those out. He looks exactly like the Captain in the movie Titanic with the white hair and beard, very grandfatherly, prim, and proper.
The morning of April 10th, there is a safety inspection. A Board of Trade representative named Maurice Clarke is there to inspect the ship. Which, I don’t know the morning of departure seems a little last minute for a safety inspection but here we are. He watches as 2 lifeboats are lowered into the water and he’s satisfied that the mechanism for lowering the lifeboats works. They pass the inspection. Titanic only has 20 lifeboats though, which is above the legal minimum but not enough to save every passenger on board. Each lifeboat holds around 60 people so 20 times 60 that’s 1,200 and Titanic had 2,200 some people onboard. So enough lifeboats for roughly half of the passengers and crew. But that’s legally okay, at the time.
In his official report, Clarke passed Titanic but suggested 50% more lifeboats. So, 10 more lifeboats. Still not enough for everyone but whatever. Smith is like “uhh, sorry, not going to happen. We’re leaving in 4 hours and we still have to board 1,300 passengers.” Plus in their minds, there’s no way they’re ever going to need the lifeboats. The ship is unsinkable. The lifeboats are practically ornamental. Later, hidden in some of Clarke’s handwritten notes, it comes to light that he felt his job would be threatened if he didn’t give Titanic the go ahead to depart. So there’s that.
The passengers begin to board, starting with the third class. Most of the passengers on Titanic, over 700, were in this group. These were mostly poor immigrants seeking a new life in America. So this isn’t a vacation for them. They’re leaving behind their homes, their families, and friends. While I’m sure there was some excitement at the prospect of a better life, I’m sure there was also sadness and trepidation. The third class passengers stayed in cramped bunks in steerage, way down in the belly of the ship. They had their own separate decks so they weren’t able to mingle with the second and first class passengers. They were also subjected to medical checks before boarding. American immigration didn’t want sick people showing up at Ellis Island so this process took some time.
Next the second class passengers board. These were academics, tourists, journalists. Many of them were servants, employees of first class passengers. There were only 285 second class passengers, so this is the smallest group.
Then, just 30 minutes before departure, 324 first class passengers board. Among them are some notable names. Bruce Ismay, the director of White Star and Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s designer, are both on board. Benjamin Gugenheim, a wealthy businessman, Ida and Isador Strauss, husband and wife owners of Macy’s department store, and John Jacob Astor IV, one of the richest men in the world. Astor was a financier which I guess is just like rich people making money with money. I don’t know. So, some notable folks in first class.
The whole journey is supposed to take less than a week and there are definitely time pressures. Ismay, remember, is competing with Cunard’s Mauretania and Lusitania which are the fastest ships out. He wants to make the crossing in record time. There is another possible reason Titanic was in such a hurry too, though. Apparently right before departure a coal fire was discovered in one of the bunkers, which is not uncommon for steamships but potentially problematic. Workers were ordered to continue controlling the fire at sea but there is a theory that it became uncontrollable after departure which forced them to attempt a full speed crossing to basically get to New York before the fire could cause any serious damage. That’s just a theory, but a plausible one. Whatever the reason, Titanic was in a hurry traveling at top speeds of 22 knots (which is like 25 miles per hourish)
They get all the passengers boarded and it’s go time. Tugboats pull Titanic along for a while and then Smith orders the crew to fire up the engines. But, this does not go as planned. Suction created by the propellers snaps the mooring of a nearby American ship called the S.S. New York. It starts drifting towards Titanic. It looks like there’s going to be a collision before they even get out of Southampton. This is not good. Smith reverses the propellers and the tugboats throw a line to New York and get it under control, so it’s all good. But, it’s not a great start. And considering the ship was called New York, and that’s Titanic’s destination. It kind of seems like a bad omen.
But whatever, they’re off, they’re on their way and the passengers are having a great time. It’s like a big party on Titanic, especially for the first class passengers. The first four days are relatively uneventful.
Now we come to the morning of Sunday, April 14th. And, this is kind of crazy but I’m actually recording this on April 14th and that was completely unplanned. So, yeah, crazy. I must be right on schedule. Alright, the morning of April 14th, there’s supposed to be a lifeboat safety drill but Smith cancels it so they can have a longer church service. They just really did not foresee needing the lifeboats. That morning, Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic is waltzing about proclaiming that the ship is quote “nearly as perfect as human brains can make her.” Mmkay. We already know about some glaring issues. Not enough lifeboats, the so called watertight compartments not actually being watertight, and the coal fire blazing down below.
That same morning, Captain Smith gets a warning via telegram from a Cunard ship called Caronia which read “westbound steamers report bergs, growlers, and field ice.” At noon he gets a second warning. This time from the RMS Baltic which read “passing icebergs and large quantities of field ice today. Wish you and Titanic all success.”
Two hours later, he shows the Baltic’s message to Bruce Ismay. Really not sure why he waited 2 hours but that just goes to show how unconcerned they were about these warnings. Ismay puts the paper in his pocket. That afternoon, he pulls it out and cheerfully reads it aloud to some ladies on deck, obviously not taking it seriously. Smith and Ismay make no effort to slow down despite the warnings. Titanic is still traveling at full speed.
That night, Smith goes to a dinner party thrown in his honor by some of the more elite first class passengers. There’s a reason he’s the “millionaire’s captain.” Then he goes to bed around 9:30, leaving first officer William Murdoch in charge. Sometime after that, another warning comes in from a nearby ship called the Californian which had been stopped by dense ice fields. But the wireless operator completely ignores the message. It hadn’t begun with the letters MSG which stands for “Master’s Service Gram.” If this code had been used, the captain would have to directly acknowledge receiving the message. But it wasn’t there and the wireless operator decided the message wasn’t urgent enough to pass it along, and he doesn’t have to because it doesn’t say MSG so he just doesn’t.
At 11:30 a lookout named Frederick Fleet spots something dead ahead in the mist. But, he’s not sure what it is at first because, you see, the lookouts on Titanic didn’t have binoculars. Um, why? Well, second officer David Blair had the key to Titanic’s store of binoculars in his pocket. But he was transferred off the ship before it left Southampton and forgot to hand over the key to his replacement. So there were binoculars, they just couldn’t get to them. By the way, Blair kept that key and it was auctioned off in 2007 for over 100,000 dollars. So no binoculars. It takes Fleet a minute to figure out what he’s seeing and as they get closer, he finally realizes it’s an iceberg. He rings the warning bell. Three rings. That’s not good. Then he telephones the bridge which is like the captain's command station. Murdoch is in charge right now, remember. Smith’s sleeping off his dinner party booze, I’m sure. Fleet tells Murdoch “iceberg right ahead!” or at least that’s what he says in the movie, I don’t know what he actually said but let’s go with that.
Murdoch gives the order “hard-a-starboard” which means turn the ship to the left. He also tells the engine room to apply reverse thrust to slow the ship down, I’m assuming so they aren’t going as fast if they hit the iceberg. But this actually makes things worse because the slower speed reduces the maneuverability so they can’t turn fast enough to avoid a collision. Also, turning the ship to the left, I’m sure he was hoping to avoid a head on collision with the iceberg and possibly avoid hitting it altogether but there just wasn’t enough time for that and what ended up happening was way worse than a head on collision.
The iceberg scrapes along the starboard or right side of the ship as they pass by to its left. Survivor accounts describe this as like a giant fingernail scraping down the side of the ship. But, most of the damage happens below the water line. I’m sure you’ve seen a diagram of an iceberg, you know what sticks out above the water is only like a tiny part of the iceberg. Underwater, it’s massive. So, up on deck it seems like they’ve just barely scraped it. Chunks of ice break off and litter the third class deck. Snowball fights actually break out among the third class passengers. Everyone thinks it's a near miss. They’re like “phew, that was a close call.”
Smith wakes up from his drunken slumber… sorry, I don’t know if he was drunk. He probably wasn’t drunk. He wakes up and starts assessing the damage with Thomas Andrews who’s like the Titanic expert cause he designed it. They go down to the lower decks to look for leaks. This is 10 minutes after the collision with the iceberg and already several compartments are under 14 feet of water. So, leaks is kind of an understatement. The iceberg has basically ripped a bunch of holes in the starboard side of the ship.
The mailroom is flooded, there’s mail floating around everywhere. And this is kind of ironic because the RMS in RMS Titanic actually stands for “Royal Mail Ship.” SS stands for “Steamship,” and Titanic is a steamship but it’s also carrying mail so it gets the distinction RMS. Hope those letters weren’t important.
Smith and Andrews book it back to the bridge and Andrews breaks the news. Five of Titanic’s 16 compartments are flooding. If you remember earlier, I said Titanic could stay afloat even if 4 compartments were completely flooded. But 5 are flooding, and there’s no stopping that. At this point, the question isn’t if Titanic will sink… it’s when. How long do they have?
Just after midnight, Smith orders the crew to prepare the lifeboats and get all the passengers up on deck. But the passengers kind of take their time, they don’t believe the ship can sink so they don’t take this as seriously as they should. Many passengers are hesitant to get in the lifeboats. They’re on a massive, comfortable, unsinkable ship and they’re being asked to get in a tiny row boat and be lowered 60 feet down into black, frigid water. They’re like, “no thanks, I’ll just wait here to be rescued. I’m sure there’s another ship coming.” But the problem is, there’s not another ship coming. Titanic sends off distress rockets which are seen by the SS Californian. It’s only 20 miles away but they mistake the flares as fireworks and ignore them. Titanic’s wireless operator sends out an SOS signal but the Californian’s operator has already gone to bed and no one hears them. They’re on their own and they’re sinking fast.
The whole boarding the lifeboats thing is chaos. They skipped the lifeboat safety drill that morning after all. At first it’s just women and children but then men start jumping in, one man even disguises himself as a woman to get on a lifeboat. Others are still refusing to board. Ida Strauss refuses to abandon her husband Isador - this is the couple that owns Macy’s - and she insists that they die together, which is just so tragic. Benjamin Gugenheim, the rich businessman arrives on deck wearing his best evening clothes proclaiming he’s prepared to die like a gentleman. John Jacob Astor holds back as well, letting the women and children get on lifeboats.
But not everyone is as noble as Gugenheim and Astor. Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, you know the one who was practically giggling about the iceberg warnings just a few hours ago, he finds his way onto a lifeboat. It’s all such a mess, they end up lowering lifeboats that aren’t even full. And this kills me. They already only have half as many lifeboats as they need and they aren’t even filling them up. One lifeboat only has 12 people on it, and it could hold 60. When the lifeboats are gone, there are still 1,600 people on board.
Captain Smith releases the crew. He tells them it’s every man for himself now. People start jumping off into the water, hoping to survive with just life jackets. But the water is 35 degrees and the air is even colder. In temperatures like that, you’ve got about 30 minutes before you freeze to death. But honestly, it’s better than staying onboard.
At 2:18 the lights go out. The front of the ship is underwater, pulling the stern up into the air. It’s tilted at a 20 degree angle and debris is sliding everywhere. Finally, the pressure is too much, the ship rips in half. The bow sinks and then the stern, imploding as it goes down and it’s just gone.
So around 700 people are sitting in lifeboats watching this go down. They hear the people in the water screaming and clamoring to climb onto whatever debris they can catch hold of. Debates break out in lifeboats with empty seats. Should we go back to try to save more people? Some lifeboats do. Others refuse fearing they’ll be flipped by people desperately trying to climb in. Lifeboat 1, the one with only 12 people (and 7 of them were crewmembers by the way) They decide not to attempt to rescue people for this reason. As they sit there, waiting to be rescued, the commotion and screaming in the water starts to fade and eventually turns to silence. Over 1,500 people died, mostly from hypothermia. Among them, Captain Smith and first officer Murdoch who never left their posts as well as Thomas Andrews.
At 4:00 am, almost 2 hours after Titanic goes down, the RMS Carpathia finally shows up to rescue the people in the lifeboats. The water is full of bodies and debris. 1,500 people, can you imagine what that scene was like? They were wearing life jackets so they’re just everywhere, floating. Carpathia arrives in New York with the survivors 4 days later and there are thousands of people there when they dock, reporters everywhere, everyone gawking at the survivors.
An official investigation begins that lasts 6 weeks. Bruce Ismay is heavily scrutinized for taking up a place on a lifeboat instead of going down with the ship - his ship. He’s referred to as the “coward of the Titanic” and he gets fired by White Star.
But really, that whole “who should get a spot on a lifeboat” debate - that is really a very interesting philosophical conundrum. I mean I think all of the children should have gotten on lifeboats for sure. There were 128 children onboard and sadly only 67 of them survived. It’s also interesting when you look at the percentage breakdown by class. 62% of first class passengers survived, 41% of second class, and just 25% of third class. Yes you have your Gugenheims, Strausses, and Astors who were remarkably just, but it’s hard to look at those numbers and say that class didn’t play into who got a seat on a lifeboat.
And then you have the men in lifeboats. 325 men got into lifeboats, that’s roughly half the survivors even though it was supposed to be women and children first. And they were harshly judged just for surviving. But at the same time, who's to say men shouldn’t survive. That’s a crazy call to make. I mean, if I was in a lifeboat with my children and my husband was still on the ship I’d be like “put on a dress and get in here now.” I don’t know, does that make me a horrible person? Survival is a weird thing. It’s biologically ingrained in us to do literally anything to save ourselves. So can you really judge someone for doing what they’re biologically programmed to do in a situation like that? I think, for sure, you can applaud and admire those who gave up their spots to save others, but I’m not so sure you can judge the ones who took a seat when they were presented with the opportunity. It’s just an impossible situation.
So it’s not like the official investigation could really point a finger of blame at anyone. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, it was just a collection of freak occurrences that all added up to disaster. I mean we have the subpar quality of the steel used to build the ship, the budget cuts, this competition with Cunard or the coal fire or whatever causing them to go full speed, Titanic’s “unsinkable” reputation thanks to a magazine article which led to Smith and Ismay ignoring warnings coming in from other ships, the binoculars locked up and inaccessible, weird atmospheric conditions that night possibly causing hazy mirages and optical illusions that made the iceberg even harder to spot. Then we we have Murdoch’s call to turn the ship to the left actually causing far more damage, distress signals being mistaken as celebratory fireworks, the wireless operator of the Californian leaving his post when the SOS signal went out, and of course, of course we have the lack of lifeboats and the complete chaos and disorganization around the way the lifeboats were filled. If there ever was a perfect storm, this was it. It’s almost like Titanic was supposed to sink, like it was just destiny, fate intervening.
One thing that came out of the Titanic tragedy was new legislation about lifeboats. After that, maritime laws were updated requiring ships to have enough lifeboats for every passenger onboard. Which, duh. But that only became a thing after Titanic. And when you really look at all the factors, the lack of lifeboats really was the biggest issue. The passengers in the lifeboats survived. If Titanic had carried enough lifeboats for all 2,000 souls onboard, it wouldn’t have been the great tragedy that it was. We probably wouldn’t be talking about it right now.
But that’s not even the end of Titanic’s story. Immediately after it sank people wanted to find the wreck. But the ship drifted quite a bit between the time it sent out its last distress call with coordinates and the time it actually sank to the bottom of the ocean. This narrowed it down to an area of hundreds of miles and the technology just did not exist to find the wreck for a long time.
By the mid 1980’s the technology exists but it’s still out of reach. Oceanographer Robert Ballard requests the help of the US Navy to fund the development of an unmanned camera that could be dragged behind a ship at depths of up to 20,000 feet. Ballard wants to use this camera to find Titanic but the Navy is like, “uh, no, why would we fund that?” But then they reconsider, they're like “actually, wait, there could be something in it for us.” They make a deal with Ballard. They’ll fund the camera as long as Ballard uses it to locate and survey the wrecks of two nuclear submarines that sank in the 1960s. This is super top secret though because of the cold war. This plan doesn’t get declassified until the year 2000, after the movie Titanic came out so this bit about the nuclear submarines and the deal with the navy - not in the movie.
Ballard does it, the camera is awesome, he finds the submarines for the navy. But after that, he only has 12 days left to find Titanic which is all he really wanted to do anyway. 12 days. That’s a tight timeline. But, Ballard noticed something while surveying the submarines. He noticed that, as they sank to the bottom, the current created a trail of debris. He realizes, instead of looking for the Titanic itself, he should look for this much larger debris trail and then follow it to the wreck.
And that’s exactly what he does. After combing the seafloor for more than a week, something finally enters the live video feed. It’s unmistakably one of Titanic’s boilers. They’ve found it. Ballard and his crew start cheering and applauding, someone busts out champagne and then they realize… it’s 2:20 am… the exact time Titanic sank 73 years ago. A hush falls over the room as the gravity of that hits them. Ballard later told 60 minutes “We were embarrassed we were celebrating and all of a sudden we realized that we should not be dancing on someone’s grave.”
They followed the debris trail and sure enough, Titanic’s bow came into view with the stern some 400 meters away. Debris littered the ocean floor - china plates, furniture, an unopened case of champagne, and leather shoes. Any bodies that had sunk with the ship were long gone. But their shoes remained, scattered on the sand.
Bad weather forced Ballard and his crew to abandon the find a few days later but he returned the next summer and explored the wreck in person using a submersible, like a tiny submarine called Alvin. Actually never before seen footage from Alvin was just released a couple months ago on YouTube. I’ll post a link to that video in the description.
Since its discovery in 1985, Ballard has been adamant that the wreck not be disturbed. In his words “The Titanic lies now in 13,000 feet of water on a gently sloping alpine-like countryside overlooking a small canyon below. There is no light at this great depth and little life can be found. It is a quiet and peaceful place—and a fitting place for the remains of this greatest of sea tragedies to rest. Forever may it remain that way.”
So there it lies, “The Ship of Dreams,” the ghost of its hull now an underwater graveyard. And yet it haunts us still, a tragic story we can’t stop thinking about, a cautionary tale for the ages, a modern day Tower of Babel.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from a Short History of podcast episode about Titanic, three History Channel articles, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, ultimatetitanic.com, and guinessworldrecords.com. Links to these sources can be found in the show notes.