How the Titanic Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: Jane, I don't think that there's anything as big and posh and attention catching in the annals of Naval history as the Titanic.

Jane McGrath: That is true. I don't think many people would deny that.

Candace Gibson: Or I guess, I should say marine history, rather than Naval history. So it was a seagoing vessel. And it was almost like a hotel on the water. And the idea behind it was precisely that. J. Bruce Ismay and Lord Pirie of Harland and Wolff Shipbuilders, they were at dinner one night. And they were talking about the Cunard Lines' newest liners, the Mauritania and Lusitania. And they said to themselves, "We can make one - or three, even - with their plan." They were going to have a triumvirate of ships that were even bigger and better, The Olympic, the Gigantic, and the Titanic.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And they not only wanted to make these fast like the Cunard Line, but luxurious and attractive for the aristocratic passengers that spend a pretty penny to go on.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. The idea being that the more comfortable and luxurious the ship, the longer distance people would be willing to travel. So they weren't just selling a couple dollars worth of tickets to people, we're talking about a first class ticket that, in today's dollars, is equivalent to about $43,000-$80,000 - which is a ton of money. I don't even know people who spend that on airfare flying halfway across the world.

Jane McGrath: That's a good point.

Candace Gibson: Maybe you do. If you do, write me because I want to travel with you. So what made the Titanic so special?

Jane McGrath: Well, it's interesting because it was so incredibly lush and the first class passengers, they were used to being treated nicely, but not as nicely as on this ship. They had a squash court, I think, that you mention in the article. What else did they have?

Candace Gibson: There was a gym. There were Turkish baths.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's true.

Candace Gibson: And these were amenities that people had to pay a little bit extra for, but you bring up an important point about the first class and what they had access to. And I'm sure that all of you know this, but there were three distinct classes on board the Titanic - first, second, and steerage. And so it's really important to go ahead in your mind, as you're picturing the Titanic, and the nine different deck levels of it, it was very stratified. There were places that first class were permitted to go. They could go anywhere they wanted, really, because they paid that much, but they weren't going to wander down to steerage cabins. But then the third class pretty much restricted to the bottom of the boat, second class in the middle. And this was such a gigantic ship that it required some really special engineering to make it go. And I'm not going to lie to you. I'm no engineer. I'm not going to profess to know everything about horsepower, etcetera. But I do know that it had two giant engines that were about four stories tall, and these two three-blade propellers that were 23 feet across. So, that's big. And it enabled the ship to go about 24 knots. And that may sound slow to us today, but back then it was really fast.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And that put it in the running against the Cunard line, which was the ships they wanted to compete against.

Candace Gibson: And it was faster than them, but it broke down in the process. But we'll get to that in a minute.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's interesting. You mentioned with the class distinctions - that might strike our modern sensibilities as classism, which yeah it is. But what's interesting to note is that the third class were even treated better than other ships of the time, because they had their own enclosed rooms. And that was a luxury in itself.

Candace Gibson: It was. A lot of them didn't even have that where they were coming from. And the White Star Line, which was the manufacturer of these three ships knew that many of the steerage members were European immigrants who were going to New York to start a new life. And they approached this with a delicate sensibility, and they wanted to make this a very special and memorable passage for them. And to that end, the quarters they had aboard the Titanic were so much nicer than anything they would've seen on any other ship. For instance, there were real mattresses - whereas on other ships steerage would've had straw filled sacks to sleep on. Now that's not to say that it compared to the private and semi-private baths of the upper class decks, but there was a continuous design and feeling that pervaded the entirety of the ship. But it wasn't just the third class that had top of the line. It was everyone.

Jane McGrath: That's true. If you look at the china and everything, the whole ship had this sort of airy design to it with palm trees. Everything was lush. They wanted to promote this luxurious atmosphere so much, that if you look at the decks, they didn't want to clutter them up too much with even safety equipment for instance.

Candace Gibson: Fatal mistake.

Jane McGrath: Yes.

Candace Gibson: So we have these wide-open swaths of gleaming wood decks. And Thomas Andrews, who was the ship's designer, he designed this ship to be unsinkable.

Jane McGrath: And it's interesting, too. Both the engineers and the passengers aboard were pretty confident. Just the sheer size of the Titanic, it was so gigantic that they felt comfortable that it was safe ride.

Candace Gibson: Sort of like when you're in a Volvo station wagon. Nothing can harm you, it's just so large.

Jane McGrath: That's true.

Candace Gibson: And it wasn't just the size of the ship that made people think it was unsinkable. The ship's designer, Thomas Andrews, designed watertight doors to drop down between each of the 16 compartments in the bottom of the ship, the idea being that if something happened to the ship, up to three of those compartments could flood and the ship wouldn't sink. And even in a stretch, four could take on some water and the ship would still take afloat.

Jane McGrath: I know it'd make me feel pretty secure. And we go back to the idea that they didn't have a lot of safety equipment on the decks. That leads me to my question, actually, that I have for you. A lot of people say that if they did have enough lifeboats, they would've been able to save a lot more people from the sinking.

Candace Gibson: That sadly is fiction.

Jane McGrath: Really?

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and it's funny because that's a point that people really harp on and attach to it, is that there were not enough lifeboats to save everyone on the Titanic. I think people really latch onto this idea, because we would like to think that history could be changed if there were more precautions. But the fact of the matter is, there were so many things that went wrong with the Titanic, even before it picked up passengers, that I think it was doomed to sink from the start.

Jane McGrath: That's right. Even if you look as far back as the construction of it, people say that the constructors used substandard iron even in the materials to make the ship. And even the technology, the Marconi wireless telegraphy - it was seen as too cutting edge. A lot of people out there on the boats didn't know how to use it or decipher it.

Candace Gibson: Right. So when the Titanic was sinking and it sent out it's distress calls, people couldn't interpret it. It was like speaking a totally different language. And there's some information out there about there not being enough rivets in the ship, or the rivets weren't tightened properly. And we know for a fact that it only underwent about six or seven hours worth of testing. And it turned once or twice, but it was never even sailed at its top speed. And what's more, a lot of the crew didn't get on board until an hour or so before the passengers did. And they weren't even told what their jobs were until after they got on the ship. So how can you be a proper lookout for a ship when you haven't been trained in that post?

Jane McGrath: That s ure doesn't leave a lot of time for training. And also, if you look at the design of the ship, I read that the rudder was an old-fashioned design. And it was smaller than the competitions rudders, so this made it so that the ship itself was a little less maneuverable. And they couldn't shift out of an emergency situation as fast as they should have.

Candace Gibson: So when you have something that large, it's like if you're driving an RV and all of a sudden you're nearing a stop sign. You need to know ahead of time that you need to go ahead and start breaking slowly. You can't just slam on the brakes and expect things to be okay. It's not like my itty bitty Honda Civic where I have enough time to do that. The Titanic was the same way. If they saw something in the water that they needed to avoid, an iceberg, they had to think about it a couple of miles ahead. And the same goes for turning. You still need a bigger radius to turn something that large. And one of my favorite points about how ill prepared the Titanic was for this voyage - and this just smacks of conspiracy - is that JP Morgan was one of the big financial backers. And there's some recent evidence lately that he kept encouraging the ship builders to use cheaper and cheaper materials because he wanted as much bang for his buck as he could get.

Jane McGrath: Scandalous.

Candace Gibson: Scandalous. So here's where it gets even juicier. He was supposed to be on the maiden voyage. And then just a couple of hours beforehand some business came up and he didn't ride.

Jane McGrath: A little suspicious.

Candace Gibson: I know. I know. But all that aside, back to the life boats in question. So I'm going to give you guys some numbers just so you can visualize it. And I want to clarify, too, that there are so many numbers out there when it comes to the Titanic because Parliament conducted an inquiry since it set sail from England. But the U.S. Senate also conducted an inquiry. And that may sound kind of funny, and it kind of is. Senator William Smith knew the captain of the Titanic, John Smith, and he'd sailed with him before and thought he was such a good captain. How could this have happened? So the Senate go involved, too, again.

Jane McGrath: So did the different investigations come up with different results?

Candace Gibson: No, just about the same thing. But the numbers are a little bit different. So we know that there were enough lifeboats to hold 1,176 passengers - and that's only if they were filled to capacity. So on board - again, numbers from the U.S. Senate - we know there were 2,208 people and 899 crewmembers. So even if you're doing the math that fast, you know that's not enough. You get all those people into boats. And the reason why they had so few lifeboats on board, 16 - is that the board of trade was the governing body that set the rules for ocean liners at this time. And the number of requisite lifeboats for ships up to 10,000 tons was 16. Well, the Titanic was 45,000 tons, but no one had bothered to sit down and do the math and say, "We need this many more lifeboats to accommodate that difference."

Jane McGrath: So the board of trade's regulations went up to - it was an old-fashioned maximum. They weren't expecting something as big as the Titanic needing a regulation?

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And you hit on the point earlier, Jane, when you were talking about not wanting to clutter up the decks. I think that Titanic's builders and designers conveniently misinterpreted the guidelines. They could have filled in the number they needed, but they didn't because the wanted their decks to look shiny, open, and clean. Okay, so you asked, "Could everyone have been saved if there had been enough life boats?"

Jane McGrath: Yeah, did it matter?

Candace Gibson: No, not really. Because when I was talking about how inefficient the crew was and how ill prepared they were and how little testing this ship had undergone, I think they only practiced lowering 2-4 lifeboats. Is that right?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I think I remember hearing that stat. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: So they didn't have an accurate time estimation for how long it would take to get that many people overboard.

Jane McGrath: Um-hum. And if you look at the survivors talk about it, you'll notice that not even all of the lifeboats - they weren't filled to capacity, some of them. And that's pretty scandalous. There's one survivor who wrote that passengers saw that these lifeboats would have to take a 50-foot drop and that scared them. And they thought, "Well, I'm going to stick on the unsinkable Titanic. You guys go ahead." And this one survivor claims that he asked to be on this unfilled lifeboat and they said, "Women and children first. See you later." And they lowered the boat. So it's a testament to, they didn't know what they were doing when they were lowering these boats.

Candace Gibson: No one did. And there were two evacuations on either side of the ship. And one of the people conducting the investigation on one side said, "Women and children first." The guy on the other side was letting anyone who could get in, get in. But when we say anyone, we mean first class and then second class. Third class wasn't even told that the ship was sinking until well after the fact. And it was such a quiet disaster. When the ship scraped the iceberg, it happened so quickly and so quietly that no one really realized any damage had been done until Thomas Andrews inspected and said, "Yeah, it's certain. It's going to sink." And it's scary to think about the panic that must've ensued down in the steerage decks. Even if people saw water filling up their cabins, like we said, they weren't allows free roam of the ship like the other class passengers were. Can you imagine them just getting lost in the bottom as -

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I imagine there'd be riots and fights all over the place.

Candace Gibson: It was crazy. It was essentially struggle to survive. And later on, when White Star Line sent out rescue craft to search for the bodies or any survivors, they got really confused because they saw so many corpses wearing garments of first class passengers. But essentially crew and steerage had raided the cabins and put on whatever they could to stay warm.

Jane McGrath: That's terrible. It sounds like they went through a lot of havoc and panic -

Candace Gibson: They did.

Jane McGrath: - those last few moments.

Candace Gibson: I can't even imagine how scary it was. And the recovery efforts were disastrous, too. When the news broke that the Titanic had sunk, the world was stunned. This was the unsinkable ship. And I think it took nearly a week to even compile a list of all the survivors and all the deceased.

Jane McGrath: It captures the imagination, even today. People are obsessed with knowing what actually happened. They have deferring historical accounts, who is to blame. And it's a pretty intense debate all around the board. And people are obsessed with the story of the Titanic.

Candace Gibson: And that's because there were so many passengers on board, and everyone had a different story and everyone had a different eyewitness account. There were people who said that the ship broke in half before it sank. There were people who didn't report that. And later on, people called it a litigation nightmare because, like we said, Parliament and the Senate conducted investigations. But any lawsuits that were brought on the White Star Line were brought on by families of the individual passengers for either people lost or property lost. How could you even prove anything with all the different testimonies?

Jane McGrath: That's right. And one scandal that people disagree on is about the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line. His name Bruce Ismay, as you said. And he actually jumped on one of these not quite filled lifeboats. And people say, "Oh, what a coward," like he took someone else's space. When really it would not have been taken by another person? Some organizations, like the Titanic Historical Society, tried to defend him and say he had a wife and kids and no one else was around and he just took his opportunity to save his life. Otherwise, he would've been sunk with the ship. And it was sad, because after he survived and got to America, he was ridiculed by William Randolph Hurst and his newspapers. And England, they accepted him - but America, he got maligned.

Candace Gibson: I'm sure he did. And if you look at the other two, arguably - other important figures on board, like Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer, and the captain of the ship, Captain Smith. They both quietly waited on board and went down with the ship. And Thomas Andrews in particular, even if you think about James Cameron's Titanic, that really poignant scene where he says, "I wish I could've built you a better ship, Miss Rose." That really is sort of how it happened. Not with Rose, necessarily, but he didn't put on a life vest. And he sat in one of the first class lounges and just quietly waited. And it's so eerie. Even today, if you go and you look at pictures of artifacts that have been photographed underneath the surface of the water or artifacts that have been brought up - one of the most haunting things I saw, there's a traveling Titanic exhibit called Titanic Aquatic. And you can see all these things that RMS Titanic has recovered, that particular society - and they have sole ownership over the shipwreck. And one of them is a china hutch that went down and was made of wood. It had these porcelain au gratin dishes in it. And over time, the wood from the china cabinet disintegrated, but the au gratin dishes were left perfectly stacked in neat little rows. And that's how they are right now in the display. They're stacked in neat little rows. And it's so creepy.

Jane McGrath: That is fascinating because the rest of the Titanic, when you see the exterior of the ship under water, it's really creepy to see because of what the pressure and the water has done to it. But to see something that has survived that, that's really weird.

Candace Gibson: It is. And I know what you're talking about. If you see pictures of it and you see this sort of weird seaweed thing waving in the water off the ship's rails, archeologists have word for them. They're called rusticles, because essentially all these little tiny microbes under water are just feasting on the ship. And they suspect that in another 50-90 years' time, the ship's just going to collapse and implode in on itself and it's going to be over. So there's a lot of argument right now about whether or not we should actually raise what's left of the hull.

Jane McGrath: That's really interesting. As someone who's fascinated with the story, I want to be in support of bringing it up because I don't want to see such an interesting artifact of history destroyed just by nature.

Candace Gibson: And I think I'm going to take a stand on the other side, and not even just to play devil's advocate.

Jane McGrath: Really?

Candace Gibson: I really feel that that's where it belongs because, even in the recovery efforts of those bodies, not all of them were brought up. And a lot of the steerage and crewmembers that were recovered, their bodies were actually tied to iron rods and thrown beneath the water. So they were, in essence, buried at sea. And so I think that that's where the ship belongs, too, as sort of a -

Jane McGrath: That's a good argument.

Candace Gibson: - homage to them.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's true.

Candace Gibson: There's so much history about the Titanic and there's so much that we haven't covered. And you can learn even more when you read, How Titanic Worked on howstuffworks.com.

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