Steamship Sunday – The Sinking of the “Unsinkable” Titanic

Steamship Sunday


RMS Titanic: the most storied ship sinking in history.

RMS Titanic was the second of the trio of Olympic-class ships ordered by White Star Lines to compete with Cunard on the North American route during the height of European – and especially Irish – immigration to the U.S.

While Olympic is generally well-known, the third ship of the trio, Brittanic is hardly remembered. Britannic originally was to be christened Gigantic, but her name was changed and her construction delayed after the loss of Titanic.

When we think of these White Star liners, we think of them in terms of the opulence of their First Class accommodations. White Star, arch-rival Cunard and other steamship companies wanted it that way. The fact of the matter, however, was their “bread and butter” was not the First Class cabin customers, but the far less well-headed immigrants who bought up the Steerage Class tickets in seeking a better life in the U.S.

Titanic and Olympic

Olympic and Titanic together at the yards of their builders, Harland and Wolff.

Olympic went into service first, in 1911, while Titanic was being completed. In September of 1911, Olympic was in a collision with the Royal Navy cruiser Hawke off the Isle of Wight. Olympic sustained some structural damage but was not in danger of sinking. The collision left her with a 2º list to her port side. The collision also sparked a spontaneous combustion fire of coal dust in one of her coal bunkers. One of her propellers was damaged. Olympic returned to Belfast and the yards of Harland and Wolff for repairs. She was and berthed next to her sister, Titanic. More about this further below.

While Olympic and Titanic were sister ships (with Brittanic to follow later), the ships were not identical. Among other differences, Olympic was not as long as Titanic. Olympic had largely been designed by Alexander Carlisle. Carlisle left Harland and Wolff over a dispute with Harland and Wolff’s chairman, Lord William Pirrie, over the number of lifeboats the Olympic-class ships should have – an ominous portent of things to come with Titanic. When Carlisle left as chief naval architect at Harland and Wolff, his position was assumed by Thomas Andrews, Jr., nephew of Lord Pirrie. Titanic was Andrews’ effort from start to finish.


This sepia-tone print of Titanic was taken the day before she sailed on her maiden voyage. Details in the photo (not visible at this size) show workers cleaning windows and touching up paint on the ship. 

Andrews was coming to the top of his game when the Olympic-class liner deal was struck. Andrews had worked on the “big four” leading up to Olympic. The liners Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic were seen as rehearsals for what Harland and Wolff were about to build. When Carlisle stepped aside as chief designer, Andrews took over and saw Olympic to completion. He kept a notebook about the design and building of Olympic.

Andrews’ Olympic notebook still exists and is in the collection of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum just outside Belfast. It was carried in Andrew’s top pocket and was annotated as ideas, problems and solutions occurred to him. Andrews was aboard Titanic on her maiden voyage. He kept a notebook similar to his Olympic notebook for Titanic’s construction. This notebook was still with him in his last hours aboard Titanic. Olympic’s notebook shows a diligent attention to detail which manifested itself so clearly when Andrews was called upon to assess the damage to Titanic after the collision with the iceberg.

Titanic‘s hull was divided into 16 compartments that were presumed to be watertight. Because four of these compartments could be flooded without causing a critical loss of buoyancy, Titanic was considered to be unsinkable. On its first journey across the highly competitive Atlantic ferry route, the ship carried some 2,200 passengers and crew.


Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith

After stopping at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, to pick up some final passengers, Titanic set out at full speed for New York City. Just before midnight on 14 April, she hit an iceberg, and five of her compartments were ruptured along her starboard side. When Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40 p.m., Andrews was dispatched below by Captain Edward Smith to assess the extent of the damage and to calculate the ship’s fate. Knowing the ship as well as he did, it did not take Andrews long to ascertain that the damage was fatal to the ship and that at most they had two and a half hours before sinking. At about 2:20 a.m. on the morning of 15 April, the massive vessel sank into the North Atlantic.



Titanic had not been fitted with enough lifeboats to carry everyone on board. With the doomed ship listing heavily to her starboard side, it became impossible to load and launch the lifeboats on her port side. The error of not having enough lifeboats to begin with combined with the inability of the crew to launch lifeboats on the ship’s port side combined to cost some 1,500 lives.

The collision of Olympic with the cruiser Hawke and the resulting damage to Olympic spawned an interesting conspiracy theory speculating that when Olympic and Titanic were last together in the yards of Harland and Wolff, that the ships were swapped out in an insurance scam by White Star Line and backed by financier J.P. Morgan, who owned controlling interest in White Star. Fueling this speculation are these facts:

• There was a spontaneous-combustion fire of coal dust on Titanic in exactly the same location of the coal bunker aboard Olympic that had a spontaneous combustion coal dust fire. Some who argue that the two ships were swapped believe that the fire in the coal bunker weakened the already brittle steel (as steel making was not as advanced at the time as it is now), contributing to the ship breaking apart as she went down.

• White Star Line did not use china and silverware specific to the ships. Instead the tableware was labelled “White Star.” Thus there would have been no need to change out the tableware of the two ships if, indeed, they were swapped out at Harland and Wolff. Only nameplates and other hull identification marks would have needed changing.

Lawrence Beesley

Lawrence Beesley, a science teacher, reported that Titanic had a list to port. Olympic had a 2º list to port after its collision with the Royal Navy cruiser Hawke.

• A second-class passenger who survived the sinking,  Lawrence Beesley, later reported that Titanic had a list to port. Beesely, a science teacher, was a reliable observer who went on to write one of the first books about the Titanic disaster.

• There was a nationwide coal strike during the launch of Titanic. This had led to thousands of firemen, boiler stokers and greasers short of work. Yet despite this Titanic struggled to find crew, with many men refusing to work on the ship at any price. Rumors were circulating among the workers at Harland and Wolff that the ships had been swapped as part of an insurance scam, and that Titanic was to be sunk. Did foreknowledge of the sinking of Titanic frighten men off from wanting to work on the ship?

• When the wreck of Titanic was found on the floor of the Atlantic by Robert Ballard in 1985, one of the propellers was found. This propeller was stamped with the hull number of Olympic (401) rather than Titanic which was hull number 402. Further, the letters “L” and “M” were visible on a portion of the hull. Moreover, Olympic‘s hull had been painted with a grey primer before being finished in black while Titanic‘s hull had been both primed and painted in black. Evidence of grey primer was found by Ballard on the wreck he found on the floor of the Atlantic.

There is other curious evidence – as well as arguments against this theory – at “Titanic, The Ship That Never Sank.”


The bow of Titanic (or is it really Olympic?) on the floor of the Atlantic.

The loss of Titanic (or, if you prefer, Olympic) sparked rules for ships that insured that there would be adequate lifeboats and lifejackets for all aboard. Patrols of the Atlantic reporting the locations and drift patterns of icebergs were increased after the Titanic tragedy.

Titanic and her sisters were marvels fitted with the most advanced technology of the time: wireless radio, huge steam engines capable of powering the massive ships through the seas at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour, and electricity for all crew and passengers – at a time when many of the immigrants aboard those ships did not have access to radio or electricity in their homes. Think about that for a moment – it was not until the late ’40s  and even into the early ’50s that many rural areas had electricity in the homes. Even as she plunged into the cold Atlantic, the crews in the engine rooms of Titanic managed to keep the electricity on. Most of the crew went down with the ship.

Titanic engine seafloor

Four stories tall: the huge reciprocating piston engines
Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic.

Technology was moving swiftly in those days. Even had she survived, Titanic would soon have been outmoded. The backbreakingly labor intensive coal-powered steam engines on ships were quickly replaced in new ship construction after the Royal Navy, encouraged by Winston Churchill, in 1913 launched the battleship Queen Elizabeth which was fueled by oil and powered by steam turbine engines rather than the massive reciprocating piston engines of the Olympic-class White Star liners. The engines aboard Titanic were four stories tall.

Today, 105 years after her sinking, Titanic remains an object of great interest around the world.



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  1. Fascinating story, I was not aware of the conspiracy theory until now

    Liked by 1 person

    • The speculation about the insurance scam has (perhaps not surprisingly) gotten more play in England than in the U.S. Once on my way to Paris with a plane change at Heathrow, I found a book about it that I’ve never found in the U.S. That book made a very strong case for the theory. Despite all the evidence that it may have been true, I’ve never wholly subscribed to the theory.

      Liked by 1 person

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