Lessons from the Titanic Disaster

The Titanic as She Left Southampton, Starting on Her First and Last Voyage.

The "Titanic" as She Left Southampton, Starting on Her First and Last Voyage. This Reproduction and That of the "Carpathia," Below, Are Made to Scale, Showing the Comparative Sizes of the Ships. © American Press Association. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 803-a. GGA Image ID # 1081375cf4

The Carpathia, the Rescue Ship That Picked up 705 Survivors

The "Carpathia," the Rescue Ship That Picked up 705 Survivors. © Underwood & Underwood. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 803-b. GGA Image ID # 10819126d6

The "Titanic" catastrophe teaches no new lesson as regards the fallibility of man. It simply furnished another example of the well-established principle that if in the conduct of any enterprise, an error of human judgment or faulty working of the human senses involves disaster, sooner or later the disaster comes.

Looking backward it is easy to see that the long-established passage lanes of the Atlantic involved danger of just such an accident, and from the point of view of safety it was an error of judgment to give them such a northerly location.

Looking backward it seems an error of judgment of the captain of the "Titanic" to risk passage near the ice. That gallant officer and gentleman went down with his ship to honorable death, and his story can never be told. It seems practically certain that he did not for one moment think he was running any material risk of accident to his vessel, much less risk of destruction.

The mere fact that he was not on the bridge at the time of the collision is very strong evidence that he thought his course would have cleared the bergs whose position had been reported to him.  Picked captains of Atlantic liners cling to the bridge to the point of exhaustion whenever they consider the circumstances to involve the least danger to the ship.

If Captain Smith erred, it was the error of a captain whose record and experience were of the best. We need not expect to secure greater safety by better captains, and without speculating as regards matters involving personnel and discipline, let us now consider matters of material. The most salient fact is that if the "Titanic" had carried more boats or a number of life rafts in addition to her boats, many more lives would have been saved.

Boat-Deck Plan of the Titanic

Pig. 1—Boat-Deck Plan of the “Titanic," Showing How Lifeboats Were Located, 60 Feet above the Water. There Were 16 Large Boats, to Be 8wung out by the Davits before Lowering, and Two Sea Boats, Already Swung out and Ready for Instant Use in Case of Man Overboard or Other Emergency. It Is Obvious That There Was Room for More Boats on This and Other Decks of the Liner. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 806-a & 807-a. GGA Image ID # 1082947e52

It appears also that two more boats were carried over the officers' quarters, on« at least of which was not lowered at all but floated away when the "Titanic" sank.

There was evidently room for many more boats. The deck plan above referred to shows room between the two groups of boats where 10 more could have been carried.

Moreover, we learn from the description of the ship published in various technical papers nearly a year ago that each pair of the davits installed was fitted to handle two boats. So that as regards space there was obviously room to install some 52, instead of 16, large boats, making in all 56 instead of 20, and there is no difficulty from top heaviness in the way of carrying the larger number.

The boat equipment on board appears to have complied with the minimum requirements of the English Board of Trade, the responsible governmental authority in this connection. It seems practically certain that regulations all over the world will be promptly changed, and the boat equipment of these very large ships should certainly be increased to provide boat accommodations for every soul allowed on board.

Snapshot Taken by a Passenger on Board the RMS Carpathia Showing the Ice Field into Which the RMS Titanic Ran Causing the Greatest Marine Tragedy in History.

Snapshot Taken by a Passenger on Board the RMS Carpathia Showing the Ice Field into Which the RMS Titanic Ran Causing the Greatest Marine Tragedy in History. © 1912 Underwood & Underwood. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 797. GGA Image ID # 1080141eff

The RMS Titanic, When It Sank, Was in 41° 46 Min. N. Lat., 50° 14 Min. W. Long., Approximately the Same Latitude as New York and Madrid.

The RMS Titanic, When It Sank, Was in 41° 46 Min. N. Lat., 50° 14 Min. W. Long., Approximately the Same Latitude as New York and Madrid. The Distances of Other Vessels in the Vicinity from the Ill-Fated Ship at the Time She First Flashed Distress Signals Were: SS California, about 10 Miles; SS Mt. Temple, 20 Miles; SS Frankfort, 40 Miles; SS Carpathia, 58 Miles: SS Niagara, 75 Miles: SS Virginian, 120 Miles; SS Baltic, 100 Miles; And SS Olympic, about 250 Miles. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 799. GGA Image ID # 1080c2bc2d

There is a great opportunity here for international, and it is very desirable that not only requirements for safety of passengers, but tonnage rules, berthing requirements of steerage passengers, etc., should be internationally standardized.

The facts that under the circumstances more boats would have saved many more lives from the “Titanic,” and that she could have carried about three times as many boats as she had should not blind our eyes to the fact that lifeboats are, after all, a very inefficient device for saving life from a sinking vessel.

If the “Titanic” had actually carried 56 boats, it does not seem at all likely that nearly all of them would have been launched. One of the 20 she did carry was not launched at all, being inconveniently stowed.

The crew was new to the ship and apparently had been given no adequate boat drill, but on the other hand, the conditions were exceptionally favorable, there being apparently an unusually smooth sea and a little list of the vessel at any time.

Had there been any seaworthy of the name, the roll of survivors would have been short indeed. The difficulty of launching lifeboats is enormously increased by a very moderate sea and the chance of living in them after launching very much reduced.

Properly built boats with air tanks would not sink, but if overloaded and inadequately manned, the majority of the passengers would succumb very soon. A boat which would carry 50 or 60 persons in smooth water could not carry nearly so many in rough water.

The area in plan of the large lifeboats of the "Titanic" was somewhere near 200 sq. ft. Imagine some (60 persons crowded upon a rectangular platform of this area, say 12 by 18 ft., and some idea can be formed of the conditions existing in a "Titanic" lifeboat loaded to capacity.

Lifeboats, no matter how much improved, will probably always be inefficient as lifesaving appliances for the mammoth steamers of today. Something different is needed. Twenty years ago it was important that a lifesaving appliance should not only keep afloat but be able to make progress to port.

It was not sufficient to rely upon the chance of being picked up. Thanks to the wireless, that is all changed now. Even if a large Atlantic steamer were sunk without reporting her distress by wireless, the survivors could rely upon prompt search for them.

After the loss of the "Bourgoyne" from a collision, in 1898, there was a  prize offered by the heirs of one of those lost for the best device for lifesaving, resulting in many suggestions, though nothing that appealed to steamship owners as commercially practicable.

The Ocean Passengers by John T. McCutcheon

The Ocean Passengers by John T. McCutcheon in the Chicago Tribune. The Men Who Used to Be First to Rush down to Have the Purser Assign Them Good Seats at the Tables Will Hereafter First Rush up and Have the Boat Steward Assign Them Their Seats in the Lifeboats. © 1912 by John T. McCutcheon. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 807-a. GGA Image ID # 108385a363

There will be a flood of suggestions as a result of the "Titanic" disaster. A favorite idea is a refuge deck or similar device to which all hands repair when the ship begins to sink, and which floats cheerfully away as the ship takes her last plunge.

The idea is not so easy to carry out as to conceive, but there seem no insuperable mechanical difficulties in the way.  The bug-a-boo that there is an irresistible suction when a ship goes down has been pretty well disposed of for the present by the stories of the "Titanic" survivors.

Steamship companies would be loath to go to any great expense in this connection not forced upon them. Not that the companies are inhuman—far from it. But they are engaged in a business where competition is keen, and when the very human managers have satisfied the requirements of the governmental authorities and the insurance companies, they feel they have done all that can be expected.

The governmental authorities are supposed to look out for the lives of passengers, and the insurance companies, who stand to lose if a ship is lost, are supposed to insist upon requirements that will reduce to a minimum the chance of such loss.

As illustrating the conservatism of managers of Atlantic lines, it may be recalled that vessels carrying cattle from America to England were fitted with bilge keels to reduce rolling long before the practice became common upon passenger vessels.

One of the Electrically Operated, Double-Cylinder, Watertight Doors

One of the Electrically Operated, Double-Cylinder, Watertight Doors in the Forward Bulkheads of the "Titanic," Which Were Closed from the Bridge. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 798. GGA Image ID # 1080a486c9

Money is lost when cattle are damaged by heavy rolling, but when passengers lose their appetites from the same cause, the expense of the line is lessened.

When the rumors of the "Titanic's" sinking were yet unconfirmed, the officials of the company came out boldly with the statement that she was unsinkable.

Since then, there have been claims substantially to the effect that no pains or expense were spared to make her safe, that the naval architect can produce no safer vessel, and the only safety lies in avoiding the possibility of collision with- icebergs.

It is perfectly true that steamer lanes from the United States should avoid the vicinity of icebergs, but there are important ports which cannot be reached without some risk of encountering bergs.

Moreover, derelicts, though not nearly so numerous as formerly, are not unknown, and a collision with a derelict may well be as dangerous as one with an iceberg.

Finally, there is the danger of collision with another vessel, especially in a fog. So it seems worthwhile to consider whether the resources of the naval architect, as regards safety in connection with collision, were really exhausted in the "Titanic."

The broadside elevation of the vessel, on pages 80G and 807, indicating positions of decks and watertight bulkheads, shows that she had an enormous reserve buoyancy or volume above the water line.

Incidentally it will be noticed that the "upper deck" is not the highest deck and the fourth smokestack is not a smokestack at all, but apparently a ventilator from the engine rooms.

The watertight bulkheads are all transverse, and all join the outer skin. It is an elementary principle of safety with such an arrangement that bulkheads must be so close together that two adjacent compartments may be flooded at the same time without danger to the vessel.

This is a minimum requirement, and its obvious reason is that a colliding vessel may strike just at a bulkhead and throw open two compartments at once to the sea.

Midship Section of the Titanic, Showing Single Skin above Double Bottom, and Absence of Longitudinal Bulkheads

Midship Section of the "Titanic," Showing Single Skin above Double Bottom, and Absence of Longitudinal Bulkheads. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 804-a. GGA Image ID # 10819412ed

The "Titanic" had, on her sides above the double bottom, a single skin only. Experience with large steel vessels colliding with the bottom has demonstrated conclusively the great protective value of the double bottom fitted on such vessels.

There is no doubt that if the inner bottom skin had been carried up on the sides of the "Titanic," the protection against collision with icebergs would have been much improved.

The best practicable protection along this line would probably have been obtained by carrying the coal in fore and aft bunkers against the side of the ship, with watertight longitudinal wing bulkheads separating the bunkers from the boiler rooms.

Longitudinal bulkheads have been adopted on the fastest vessels crossing the Atlantic today. The additional protection afforded against collisions penetrating the outer skin is obvious. The same idea is readily applied forward of the boiler space where protection is most needed.

Longitudinal wing bulkheads have some objections of their own as ships having them will list when damaged, but with vessels having great freeboard the list need not be dangerous. A bulkhead does not confine the water after a collision because it is marked "W. T." (water-tight) on the plans.

Section of Large Liner with Longitudinal Bulkheads

Section of Large Liner with Longitudinal Bulkheads. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 804-b. GGA Image ID # 1081fb580b

To fulfill its purpose, it must be built so that it holds up against the pressure of the water without serious leakage and it must have no holes in it. If it has doors, they must be closed.

At the bottom of the "Titanic" there were doors in practically every bulkhead. They were ordinarily worked by hand, but in an emergency a magnet energized by pressing a button on the bridge released a friction clutch and allowed the door to drop, thus closing by its own weight.

The dropping or "guillotine" type of door is favored today by very few naval architects as against those operated positively by hydraulic or electric power.

A very serious objection to doors that close suddenly upon distant operation appears to be based upon ineradicable characteristics of human nature.

The people who use the doors object to being cut in two and dropping doors are very apt to be wedged or propped open so they cannot be closed suddenly and unexpectedly.

While exact information as to the damage done is not available, we may speculate without much danger of exaggerating it.

A ship's officer saw water very soon after the collision in the compartment next forward of the forward boiler compartment, and firemen were driven from their quarters— two compartments forward of this— by encroaching water.  This water may have found its way from the vicinity of the boiler-room bulkhead through the firemen's tunnel.

Broadside Elevation of the Vessel, Indicating Positions of Decks and Water Tight Bulkheads

Fig. 2— Broadside Elevation of the Vessel, Indicating Positions of Decks and Water Tight Bulkheads, Illustrating the Necessity of Carrying Bulkheads to Upper Decks, and Showing How Flooding of Compartments Forward of Boiler Rooms Would Bring the Head down so That Water Would Flow over Bulkheads into Other Compartments, Sinking Being Inevitable.

The Titanic Was 882 Feet 6 Inches Long: 92 Feet 6 Inches Beam; 46,328 Tons Register and Had Accommodations for 3,500 People as Passengers and Crew. She Was the Largest and Most Luxurious Ocean Steamship Ever Built, with 11 Decks and 15 Watertight Bulkheads the Distance from the Bottom of Her Keel to the Top of the Captain's House Was 105 Feet 7 Inches. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 806-b & 807-b. GGA Image ID # 1082ea705f

Assuming that the ship was originally at the water line shown in Fig. 2 —34 ft. draft—and that all buoyancy forward of the forward boiler compartment was lost, the new line of flotation which the ship would assume would be approximately AB in Fig. 2.

It will be observed that this is above the top of the bulkhead at the forward end of the boiler room which extends to the so-called "upper deck" only. Hence the water would find its way aft on the upper deck and flood other compartments from above, the sinking of the ship from the position AB being inevitable.

There seems little doubt from statements of the survivors that all compartments forward of the for-ward boiler-room bulkhead were pierced below water.

If we assume loss of all buoyancy in the forward boiler-room compartment as well as in the compartments forward, the new line would be approximately CD in Fig. 2, or the water would be nearly 20 ft. over the top of the bulkhead next abaft the damaged

Of course, without detailed plans of the ship, the water lines after damage, in Fig. 2, have been estimated by roughly approximate methods only; but after making all allowances, it is evident that the "Titanic" would have been much safer if her watertight bulkheads forward had extended to the shelter deck, or even the saloon deck, like the bulkheads aft.

In estimating water lines AB and CD in Fig. 2, it was assumed that the water between bulkheads found its way freely up through decks. It does not appear from the description of the "Titanic" that special endeavor was made to secure horizontal watertight subdivision, and from statements of the survivors, it appears that water found its way up freely through the usual deck openings.

If the vessel had been completely flooded below, forward of the boiler rooms, but with a watertight deck at the water line so that no water could pass up, the new line of flotation would have been approximately EF in Fig. 2.

Even with the forward boiler compartment flooded in addition, the new line with a watertight deck would have been a little below AB instead of in the position CD.

This shows how beneficial horizontal watertight division forward would have been. With a tight deck at the waterline forward and tight bulkheads of adequate strength running, some to the shelter deck and some to the saloon deck, the "Titanic" could have had every compartment below the water from the bow, to and including the forward boiler room, thrown open to the sea yet would have been perfectly safe.

In war vessels horizontal, the watertight subdivision is much used, and it appears strange that so little use is made of it in passenger vessels with great freeboard, as it is particularly adapted to add to the safety of such vessels.

With a complete watertight deck at the waterline, strong enough to stand a pressure from underneath of 30 ft. of water or so, and with all openings that could not be closed watertight trunked around to a suitable height, every compartment of the "Titanic" below water could have been thrown open to the sea and the vessel would have floated, the watertight deck forming a new bottom.

A vessel so constructed with suitable bulkheads might, with justice, be claimed to be unsinkable by any danger of the sea. While a watertight deck which would really possess the qualities indicated would present difficulties of design and construction, it is well within the capacities of the naval architect and shipbuilder.  We might borrow a name for it from man-of-war practice and call it a protective deck.

There is one more matter. If, in Fig. 2, the area of the rudder of the "Titanic" below the waterline is measured, it will be found to be about 1/75 of the area below the water line of the whole longitudinal section of the ship. This is, if anything, larger than the average ratio for merchant ships, which runs usually from 1/80 to 1/100.

But experience with vessels of war has shown that rudders can be made 1/40 of the longitudinal section, this being good man-of-war practice. In other words, men-of-war use rudders twice as large as fitted on merchant vessels of the same size. The turning powers of merchant ships would be enormously increased if they carried rudders twice as large.

The "Titanic," with greater turning power, might have avoided the collision, as in her case the distance between safety and destruction was apparently but a few feet.

Except for her unwieldiness, the big ship, properly built, is safer against every danger than a small ship, and with rudders as large as can be fitted, the 1,000-ft. ship of the near future need be but little more unwieldy than the 500-ft., small-ruddered ship of a few years ago.  Of course, larger rudders would involve greater first cost and greater cost of operation.

Constructing the Double Bottom of the Titanic at the Harland & Wolff Yards

Constructing the Double Bottom of the "Titanic" at the Harland & Wolff Yards, Belfast, Ireland, Looking Aft. This Steel Bottom Was Torn by the Ice as Though It Had Been Paper. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 805-a. GGA Image ID # 10823fe2c5

In conclusion, it would seem that the lessons impressed upon us by the "Titanic" disaster in seeking greater safety upon larger passenger vessels are:

  1. As an immediate measure, sufficient boats should be carried for all souls on board, but a combination of boats and large unsinkable self-launching life rafts would be better.
  2. The radio-telegraphic equipment and operation should be such that vessels near each other should always be able to communicate.
  3. Longitudinal watertight wing bulkheads, or the equivalent, should be fitted.
  4. Transverse watertight bulkheads should extend to the highest continuous deck as regards several at each end, and several that come next should extend to the next deck below.
  5. A stout and reliably watertight deck should be fitted in the vicinity of the water line or a little above it.
  6. Rudders should have about double the areas now commonly fitted on merchant vessels, with an operating gear of adequate power and speed.

The Arrival of the Carpathia in New York Harbor with Survivors of the Titanic

The Arrival of the "Carpathia," in New York Harbor, with Survivors of the "Titanic," Showing the Lifeboats of the Latter Slung from the Davits. This Photograph was Taken by from a Tug, Hundreds of Pounds of Powder Being Used. © Underwood and Underwood. Popular Mechanics Magazine (June 1912) p. 805-b. GGA Image ID # 108292d164

D. W. Taylor, "Lessons from 'Titanic' Disaster," in Popular Mechanics Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 6, June 1912, p. 797-808.

D. W. TAYLOR, Naval Constructor, U. S. Navy - Naval Constructor David Watson Taylor, U.S. N., is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on ship construction in the world. He has the unusual distinction of having been graduated by two of the greatest naval schools — the U. S. Naval Academy and the Royal College at Greenwich, England — after having made the highest marks in his examinations that had ever been attained by a student in the history of either institution.

Return to Top of Page

RMS Titanic Collection
Aftermath of the Disaster
GG Archives

Improve Your Family History Through Illustrations

Make Your Family History More Readable Through Illustrations From the GG Archives