How did they operate the reciprocating engine

Dec 23, 2005
HI, so i was wondering in james cameron's titanic you see chief engineer bell turning some wheel in the full ahead full scene of the movie. is this supposed to be the wheel that operated the main stop valve on the side of the reciprocating engine?
also in the movie isn't the wheel in the wrong spot, in reality wasn't it located on some sort of starting platform on the side on the engine?
Jul 9, 2000
Easley South Carolina
What we can tell you is that everything was all manual. In order to start the engines, valves had to be opened to admit steam, and they had to be opened or closed as needed to stop or reverse them.

Unfortunately, we just don't have any working drawings of the engine room which identify the controls which had to be worked to make things happen. Either they haven't survived or they're buried in a dusty archive somewhere.

Dieter Klimow

Sep 24, 2006
Have you read Samuel Halpern's excellent article Titanic's Prime Mover?
It may contain information related to your question.

Some engine room scenes in James Cameron's 1997 movie were filmed aboard the WWII ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien, so the layout may be different.
Jun 11, 2006
I’ve often chuckled about that scene myself. The engineer would have been opening the throttle valve to admit more steam to the HP cylinder. The throttle is universally mounted on the side of the HP valve chest with an extended handle down to within reach of the floor plates, as shown in this photo from the Dock Museum.


The throttle valve in this photo is at the upper left of the cylinder block with an extension rod down to the hand wheel which would be at about shoulder height. The steam is drawn off the top of the boilers, and is admitted to the top of the engine, so there is no reason for the throttle valve to be located in the bilge as depicted in the movie.

The large hand wheel in the center of the engine is the manual reverse for this engine, a backup for the reversing engine.
Apr 27, 2014
Portland, Oregon, USA
There are some excellent videos on YouTube of ships in operation with reciprocating steam engines. A few of them show the engines changing speed and reversing several times, all manually, (I'm guessing the ship is being docked...?)

Did Olympic Class ships (and any others at the time with similar engines) use reverse to "slow down" while docking? Or did they just "coast" in to the dock and let all the tug-boats do all the work? It must have been a busy time for those who operated the engines as opposed to during the actual "cruise" part of a voyage. With modern ships being more automated and such, inputs to the engines are instantaneous.


Mar 28, 2012
I don't know if this will help anyone here as this is a old post but I have this in my fav list on youtube really like how the creator did this to show the function of the propulsion system.

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