Saturday, April 14, 2012

100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic

Tonight marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage.

We all know the story: At 11:40 p.m. ship time, she struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. 2 hours and 40 minutes later, at 2:20 a.m. ship time, she slipped beneath the waves, and now lies over 12,500 feet down in the deep. Of the 2,224 people on board, only 710 survived. Among the dead were some of the richest people in the world.

I admit it… I’m a Titanic buff. The story of the Titanic has always been of interest to me. I first read Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember while in high school. Then, in 1985, when Robert Ballard found the Titanic, I remember watching the National Geographic Special, Secrets of the Titanic, that documented the discovery with rapt fascination.

I was born in 1965, the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. To me, the Civil War seems almost like ancient history. Yet, as I rapidly approach 50 years old, 100 years doesn’t seem nearly as long any more, and events of 100 years ago seem much more recent.

As an amateur historian, I could not allow this date to pass without making a few comments – Musings, really – regarding the events of 100 years ago and also the place that the Titanic still has in popular culture and myth.

Safety: The Ship & Her Operation

The Titanic really was the pinnacle of coal-fired steam technology. A lot of people mock the safety features that were incorporated into her design – after all, she did sink – yet she really was the safest thing afloat at the time and she was built to the highest standards of the day. By all accounts, Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilders who designed and built Titanic were not innovators. Titanic was not designed to be cutting edge new technology, but was the culmination of 51 years experience at shipbuilding, most of it building iron and steel steamships for the White Star Line. All of that knowledge and experience went in to building Titanic. She wasn't up to our modern design standards, but neither was she a flawed design. Nor were her materials substandard. Her sister ship, RMS Olympic, the identical design, built by the same workmen with the same iron and steel, served faithfully from 1911 until retired in 1935. (Sadly, she was scrapped in 1937.)

While they had received ice warnings, Titanic’s officers were certain that any ice in her path was insignificant. None had ever seen ice that far south, and, even with the warnings she’d received, considered it highly unlikely that they were in any danger of collision. They had lookouts posted, and that was considered sufficient by all. Captain Smith even delayed his turn westward by almost an hour, taking an even more southerly path, confident that he was skirting the ice that had been reported. Radar, which would have been able to detect the iceberg ahead, would not be invented for another twenty-nine years.

There was a certain complacency to the lack of precaution, but, according to Daniel Butler’s ”Unsinkable”: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic, travel had never been safer than in the 40 years before the Titanic’s sinking.

Mr. Butler wrote:

”If the passengers believed that the Titanic was indeed unsinkable, it wasn’t because they had succumbed to the blandishments of the shipping line’s advertisements or the pronouncements of the experts: in the forty years prior to the Titanic’s maiden voyage, only four lives had been lost on passenger ships on the North Atlantic trade. Imagine how blithely air travel would be regarded by present-day travelers, who usually express little trepidation about the hazards of commercial flying, if the major airlines possessed a similar safety record. Never had any form of transportation been so save and hazard free.”

With such a history of safety, it is no surprise that people recognized the dangers involved in modern sea travel only in hindsight. They were not blithely ignoring the dangers; they were just not cognizant of the dangers at all. To the people who built, crewed, and sailed on these vessels, such an accident was simply unimaginable; therefore they didn’t plan for what they never imagined would happen. The post-Titanic changes in safety regulations were certainly needed, especially the requirement that a passenger ship have enough lifeboat capacity for the total number of people aboard, but to say there was a callous disregard for the lives of the passengers by the owners and crew of the RMS Titanic is just untrue.

The Wreck Site

It is my belief that the looting of the wreck site for artifacts is a problem. The problem is that the wreck is just too recent. 500 years from now, it’d be different, but the last survivor of the Titanic only died 3 years ago. Titanic has passed from memory into history, but it is still recent history. The raising of the cannons from Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, which sank in 1718, does not cause near the same visceral reaction that bringing up artifacts from the Titanic invokes. Also, Queen Ann’s Revenge ran aground and was abandoned, she didn’t go down with 1,500 people at the dawn of the age of modern media.

The Titanic is a gravesite, but she’s also a scientific, historic, and archaeological site. Surveying the sight, taking photographs, and collecting scientific samples are certainly acceptable, but large-scale looting of the site for artifacts for collectors is not. I understand that a large collection of artifacts brought up from the wreck are being auctioned off on Sunday. I hope they end up in museums.

Cameron’s Film

Beautiful sets, impeccable costumes, peerless cinematography, stunning special effects… and an insipid story. What’s the matter, Mr. Cameron? Not enough drama in the real events? You thought the story could be improved upon by adding cheap romance with a plot more shallow than those contained within the pages of most old Harlequin Romances?

The setting makes the story more than it is. Still, it's a beautiful production, and it gives you a pretty darned good look at the ship.

Some Final Thoughts

In many ways, the 20th Century didn’t begin on January 1, 1901, but on April 15, 2012. The sinking of the Titanic marked the end of an era of unbridled optimism. It was followed, in quick succession, by World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. There was a certain innocence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was forever shattered when the Titanic hit that iceberg. It wasn’t a perfect time, but it was one of those almost mythical “Golden Times” when life seemed especially good and hopeful. But, like other times which we tend to romanticize and idolize from the distance – the High Middle Ages, the Old West, etc. – the reality was, no doubt, not nearly as idyllic as we imagine.

Another reason why the Titanic story is so compelling is the senselessness of it. The ship wasn’t sunk in some grand battle for a cause deemed worthy of such sacrifice. These were just people traveling from one place to another, totally unaware of the great risk that they were taking. We all, individually and collectively, still take such risks today. How often do you think about what might happen every time you walk across the street or drive to the corner store?

Tracking the Events of Today

If you wish to note the exact times of the events that took place 100 years ago, you need to know a bit about ship time. Ship time is based on the ship’s exact position east to west, and not on what “time zone” the ship may be in. Therefore, when the Titanic struck the iceberg, it was 11:40 p.m. ship time, which would make it 11:07 p.m. on April 14 in New York and 3:07 a.m. on April 15 in London. She sank 2 hours and 40 minutes later, at 2:20 a.m. ship time, or 1:47 a.m. in New York and 5:47 in London. For the more technically minded, Titanic’s ship time was GMT/UTC -3:27.

As I said at the beginning, this has been just some random musings, things I've been thinking about as we mark the anniversary of this tragic but historic occasion.

Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep Its own appointed limits keep; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!

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