A 1902 advertisement for field glasses
(Catalogue of Riggs & Brother, Philadelphia, 1902, p. 137)
At sea with a normal watch on the Bridge, only one pair was normally required and in use at any given
time. This was the pair carried by the officer of the watch, this being either the Chief Officer, First Officer or
Second Officer. No other officer on duty would have needed them.8 But what should perhaps be obvious here
is that there was no pair specifically designated for the use of the lookouts or for the crow’s nest.
Much was also made of a box in the crow’s nest – a small box in the port after corner (B11325) that could
be used to hold binoculars. One of the enduring misconceptions in Titanic history is that this proves that
binoculars were intended for the crow’s nest. In fact, they were not. The question was put to Charles
Bartlett, Marine Superintendent of the White Star Line, at the British Inquiry:
21715. (Mr. Scanlan.) Why have you a bag or a box in the crow’s nest to hold binoculars if you do
not think they are required?
That was not always for binoculars; that was for anything the men used in the look-out.
21716. It was not always for binoculars, but it was for anything a man might use on the look-out,
21717. What do you mean by that?
His muffler, his clothes, and his oilskin coat and that sort of thing. There is generally a canvas bag put up there.
In order to understand why binoculars were not provided as standard equipment, we need to delve into
some of the post-sinking testimony as to how the utility of binoculars by lookouts was regarded in 1912. When
we do so, we find that there appears to be a great difference of opinion. Not a single captain voiced an
opinion in favor of them, and some were quite outspoken against them:
Do you think it is desirable to have them?
No, I do not.
Captain Richard Jones, Master, S.S. Canada (B23712)
We have never had them.
Captain Frederick Passow, Master, S.S. St. Paul (B21877)
I would never think of giving a man in the lookout a pair of glasses.
Captain Stanley Lord, Master, S.S. Californian (U. S. Day 8)
I have never believed in them. – Captain Benjamin Steele, Marine Superintendent at Southampton
for the White Star Line (B21975)
Even the famed Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, presumably called to testify because of his
extensive knowledge of ice and icebergs, said that he “did not believe in any look-out man having any glasses
at all.” (B25058)
Why should this be? Surely a set of binoculars would be a useful asset if one’s job requires spotting things
at a distance, as binoculars magnify things and bring them closer to view. The testimony of Captain Bertram
Hayes, Master of the White Star Line’s Adriatic, points us to the answer:
21846. They are a source of danger, Sir. They spoil the look-out.
21847. How is that?
The look-out man when he sees a light if he has glasses is more liable to look at it and see what kind of a ship it is. That is the officer’s business. The look-out man’s business is to look out for other lights.
Having a set of binoculars in hand, then, might inadvertently take a lookout’s attention away from the “big picture” – scanning a large area ahead and to either side – or worse, causing him to delay a report while he examined the object more closely.
Second Officer Lightoller indicated much the same sentiment when he was asked if binoculars would not have helped the lookouts identify what they saw as an iceberg sooner: “He might be able to identify it, but we do not wish him to identify it. All we want him to do is to strike the bells.” (B14293) He was referring to the bell in Titanic’s crow’s nest, which the lookouts were required to strike upon sighting an object: one gong of the bell called the Bridge Officer’s attention to something off the port bow, two gongs meant something
off the starboard bow, and three gongs indicated something ahead. It must be emphasized that the Senior Officer on the Bridge would be keeping his own watch, not relying entirely on the lookout. If the lookout did see something that the officer had not seen already with his own eyes, he would then observe it – using his own set of binoculars if necessary – and decide on what action to take.
Third Officer Herbert Pitman and Second Officer Charles Lightoller
Lightoller was asked if the requirement to sound a warning before an object was identified might not cause the lookouts to hesitate for fear of making a false report. Lightoller assured his questioner that this would not be the case:
14294. (Mr. Scanlan) I will put this to you: Supposing a man on the look-out fancies he sees something and strikes the bell, and it turns out not to be anything, I should think he would be reprimanded?
He is in every case commended.
14295. (The Commissioner.) I do not understand that. Is he commended when he signals that there
is something ahead when there is nothing ahead?
Yes, your Lordship.
14296. (Mr. Scanlan.) If he did it frequently in a journey would not the commendation take the form at the end of the voyage of paying him off and dispensing with his services?
Not at all. The man is not an absolute fool; he knows that if he is trying to keep a good look-out, particularly amongst ice, and he suspects he sees anything, he will strike the bell; if it turns out to be nothing he may come on the Bridge and say, “I am sorry that I struck the bell when there was nothing;” but he is invariably told, “Never you mind; if you suspect that you see anything strike the bell, no matter how often.”
And yet binoculars were provided to lookouts in some cases. Lookout George Hogg testified that he had used them on the White Star Line’s Adriatic. (B17515) Frederick Fleet said that he had them available for use during his entire four-year period aboard the White Star’s Oceanic; Archie Jewell also stated he used them on that ship.9 (B218) Able Seaman Thomas Jones stated that he had used them when he worked as a lookout on other ships, although it is not known to what ship(s) he was referring. (U.S. Day 7) And it will be recalled that
lookout George Symons’ request for binoculars from Titanic’s officers was not dismissed out-of-hand. Were exceptions made aboard some White Star ships? The answer is “yes.” Lightoller stated that, “It is a matter of opinion for the officer on watch. Some officers may prefer the man to have glasses and another may not; it is not the general opinion.” (B14315)
The White Star Line was unique in that it employed men just for the job of lookouts, whereas on other ships a seaman who might be washing the decks on one watch might find himself in the crow’s nest on another. At the U. S. Inquiry (Day 5), Lightoller explained this practice:
Senator SMITH. Are experienced men usually selected for the lookouts?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. Speaking for myself, I always select old lookout men that I know; and as a rule, the lookout men run perhaps a year in the crow’s nest in one ship. For instance the men I had with me on the Titanic had been with me on the Oceanic for years, doing nothing but keeping a lookout. They have their other special duties at other times, as well.
Senator SMITH. Do they get to be expert in detecting objects on the horizon?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER. They do. They are very smart at it, indeed. There is one man here, who has been subpoenaed, who is the smartest man I know at it.10
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Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Saturday 19th November 2011, last updated Friday 31st October 2014.