WHAT kind of ship was the Titanic? What caused it to sink? A visit to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, near Belfast in Northern Ireland, helps to provide answers to those questions.
The Titanic—Why Special?
According to Michael McCaughan, former curator of the Folk and Transport Museum, the Titanic is “the most famous ship in history.” But the Titanic was not unique. It was the second of three huge vessels constructed in the shipbuilding yards of Harland and Wolff in Belfast.* The Titanic was one of the largest ships of its day, measuring 882.8 feet (269 m) in length and 92.5 feet (28 m) in width.
The White Star shipping line commissioned those huge liners to gain dominance in the lucrative North Atlantic shipping routes. The White Star Line could not compete with its rival, the Cunard Line, for speed. So it concentrated on building bigger and more luxurious vessels to attract the rich and famous.
But the Titanic had potential to serve another purpose as well. “Nearly 900,000 immigrants entered the United States each year between 1900 and 1914,” says William Blair, head of National Museums Northern Ireland. Carrying them from Europe to the United States provided transatlantic shipping companies with their largest source of income, and the Titanic was to be used for that purpose.
The captain of the Titanic, E. J. Smith, knew the dangers posed by ice in the North Atlantic. He had often sailed this route in the Olympic. Several warnings of icebergs were sent by other ships, but some of these were overlooked or apparently not received.
Suddenly the Titanic’s lookouts warned of an iceberg ahead—but too late! The officer on duty managed to avoid a head-on collision but could not prevent the Titanic from scraping along the edge of the iceberg. That damaged the ship’s hull—and the sea flooded into a number of its forward compartments. Captain Smith soon learned that his ship was doomed. He sent out SOS messages and ordered that the lifeboats be lowered.
The Titanic had 16 lifeboats and four other collapsible boats. At full capacity, they could hold about 1,170 people. But there were some 2,200 passengers and crew on board! To make matters worse, many of the boats pulled away before being fully loaded. And most of them made no attempt to search for possible survivors who had leaped into the sea. In the end, only 705 people were saved!
After the Titanic disaster, maritime authorities enacted regulations that improved safety at sea. One such regulation ensured that there would be enough lifeboats on future voyages for everyone on board a ship.
For years people believed that the Titanic sank so quickly because it sustained a huge gash in its hull at the time of its ill-fated collision. In 1985, however, after the discovery of the Titanic on the ocean floor, investigators reached a different conclusion—that the icy waters had compromised the ship’s steel, causing it to become brittle and to fracture. Less than three hours after the collision, the ship broke in two and sank, earning its place as one of the greatest disasters in nautical history.
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