Is the Titanic significant to history


Dec 2, 2000
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Beware the Appeal to Numbers fallacy.

Polls are interesting as a measure of opinion, but not necesserily of reality. In short, just because a lot of people believe something to be true doesn't mean it's so. If you were to ask any of these people why Titanic was supposed to be signifigent, it's a good bet that most of the answers would speak to the mythos built up by a lot of excellant PR!

Titanic benefits from a lot of very good publicity, but an overwhelming interest doesn't mean it's really all that important in the grand scheme of things.
 
Sep 5, 2005
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Michael--We could argue about the validity of an appeal to numbers, but I don't think it would be a discussion worth having. I could cite an equal number of cases where they have/have not been a true measure of public opinion. I was just looking for a way to break the "he said/she said" tenor of this discussion.
 

Inger Sheil

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quote:

I was just looking for a way to break the "he said/she said" tenor of this discussion.
Unfortunately, subjectivity is always going to be a part of any discussion determining the historical significance of an event/personage, as history is not an exact science. It's less 'he said/she said' than opinion/counter-opinion, which is a vital componant of historiography. There is no objective, empirical, quantifiable way to answer the question - we can only offer opinion on the basis of our knowledge, experience and interpretations.

A poll such as this would, I suggest, have wildly differing results if you were to ask different groups of people from different backgrounds - e.g. a group of trained historians, a group of maritime safety experts, and a group of laypeople. A good deal depends on our terms of reference - the more you narrow the focus, the more significant the event becomes. The original post referred to 'significant to history' - this has now become refined to 'significant to 20th Century history' or 'maritime history'. I'd argue that, for example, if you narrow the forcus of your terms of reference to the importance of the Titanic to popular culture, the Titanic is tremendously significant - this is why it features strongly in a poll based on popular opinion. Bob has already to referred to my favourite comparison for the relationship the sinking has to pop culture when he refers to Jack the Ripper - the two are analogous in the impact they have on popular consciousness.

I find the event very interesting and a useful focus for my own studies in the mercantile marine at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. It provides a useful hook to making research on this period accessible and interesting to laypeople. Most of my colleagues at the maritime museum where I work find the disaster interesting and a good tool to engage the imagination of young and old alike, but I've yet to meet a professional in the field argue for its seminal importance in any over-arching historical interpretation of Western Civilisation.

Its impact on contemporary popular culture is another matter.​
 

Bob Godfrey

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Well said, Inger. And even within the realms of popular culture, memories are often short. As a specialised teacher in that area, I made the acquaintance of many a wannabe film director whose experience of the medium rarely extended far beyond his or her most recent visits to the cinema. I recall, for instance, one young hopeful who wrote a thesis on 'The Great Westerns'. His draft made no mention of directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone, of actors like John Wayne, James Stewart or even Clint Eastwood, nor of any film made earlier than the 1980s. His list of the ten greatest Westerns of all time was headed by Young Guns, which he had seen and enjoyed that same year. "John Ford? Can't say I've heard of him. John Wayne? Ah yes, I've seen him in old war films. Did he do any Westerns? I don't watch any of that old stuff in black & white."

And there you have it. When it comes to history too, the man and the woman in the street have little interest in the old stuff in black & white, only in the more colourful events which have passed into popular culture. Mention the Crimean War and you'll get a blank stare, but mention the least significant action of that conflict - the Charge of the Light Brigade - and you're in vaguely familiar territory. Not because that infamous charge did anything to change the outcome of the war, but because, like the Titanic, it became a famous disaster which provided a stirring theme for journalists, artists, poets and eventually film-makers.

The poll mentioned above may have lots to say about varying levels of penetration into popular culture, but tells us very little about history. Any poll of famous Londoners would surely include the worthless Jack the Ripper, whose contribution was a small but very newsworthy increase in the death rate. But who remembers the great civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette, whose efforts to clean up the city saved the lives of thousands. The lesson is clear - If you want to be remembered, the best strategy is to become famous for all the wrong reasons, and playing a leading role in a famous disaster is as good a way as any. :)
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Jan 28, 2003
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Well, I know about Joseph Bazalgette. And for anyone interested, can I recommend London Under London which is a fascinating introductory book to any major city's subterranean infrastructure, although it is specifically about London, of course.

The Tube construction (subways), hot and cold springs, sewers, lost rivers, IKB and tunnels under the Thames, nuclear and WW2 bunkers, pneumatic systems, modern communications - it's all there in riveting and, frankly, alarming detail. Up until the late 1990s, though it might have been updated since my copy was published.
 

Bob Godfrey

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Monica, try Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London by Anthony Clayton. It covers much the same ground, but is generally reckoned to be more accurate and more up-to-date, though a little less detailed in some areas - possibly for the sake of readability.
 

Jason D. Tiller

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Mike, Inger and Bob have made some good points, so I will only add that polls are conducted all the time on issues ranging from politics to health to food issues, but they are only done to represent a group of selected people. IIRC, they are restricted to about two percent of the population.

I generally take them with a grain of salt. It's better that way.
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Dec 2, 2000
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>>Michael--We could argue about the validity of an appeal to numbers,<<

Of perhaps This Whole Laundry List of Logical Falalcies but with me at least, you'ed be going around in circles. The problem with a measure of popular opinion, even if it accurately reflects what people believe, it doesn't follow from any of this that the belief is accurate.

Jason did a wonderful job of covering the rest of the ground.

Now to make a few other points, starting with the observable fact that the Titanic is one of the most notorious, and overdocumented shipwrecks of all time, and in my opinion, one of the most consistantly misunderstood. Taken in the context of the times, it can be shown that some lessons were learned from the accident, but overall, her impact wasn't quite as great as some might suggest.

Yes, there were improvements in the provision of lifeboats and liferafts, but this was already being anticipated and the Olympic class ships had space and weight reserved for adding more boats. All the Titanic did was to hurry up something that was set to happen anyway.

Yes, the shipping lanes were shifted further south, but a lot of ships were doing that on their own hook anyway. (The owners of the Mount Temple had company regulations in effect that proscribed entering icefields for any reason!)

Yes, there were improvements in ship design, but can you show me how many ships today, short of a warship, can meet what Titanic achieved in terms of subdivision? You might be unpleasantly surprised at what you find.

Yes, quite a few wealthy people went down with the ship...even a few "Captains of Industry" but industry went on without them. Macy's survived the death of it's founder and I don't know of any steel mills that closed down.

Yes, it became obvious that high speed was a killer, but you'ed have a problem finding any ship that slows down much in adverse conditions even today. Keeping to that Holy Schedule is still king even though it's still a contributing factor in modern day casualties.

What is it that Titanic achieved that really stands out as heads and shoulders above the rest? Worst disaster of all time? In retrospect, that one doesn't survive close examination either.

If you want to get a good perspective on Titanic's impact, you might want to click on Impact of Titanic Upon International Maritime Law by Allison Lane. While some of her points are not without a bit of controversy, they're a bit closer to reality.
 
Mar 15, 2001
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The Titanic must be significant to history, teachers everywhere are teaching about the disaster. Of course, this is only after Cameron's film. The Titanic was never even mentioned when I took World History in school.
 

Mark Baber

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To follow up on Jason's message, the USA Weekend survey apparently wasn't a scientifically selected sampling; anyone who wanted could cast their votes and this at a time (1999) when the movie-inspired spike in interest was still high.

As for its conclusion that Titanic's sinking was more important than, say, the creation of the assembly-line process, take a look around whatever room you're in right now, and imagine it without any assembly-line-manufactured furniture, appliances, computers, etc. Doesn't leave much more than bare walls, does it?

And as for the proposition that the rise (#36) and fall (#21) of the Soviet Union were less important...well...
 

Bob Godfrey

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It's gratifying at least to see that the Great War (4 years of global conflict, 11 million casualties, the spur to political, economic, social and technological changes on a huge scale) came out in the voting as almost as important as Titanic (but not quite)!
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Doesn't leave much more than bare walls, does it? <<

Not really. However, if anyone wants to think of what might rank right up there as the single most important technological development of all time, you might be surprised at the top contender for the title.

The one thing above all else that civilization of any kind needs to survive is a reliable food supply. Absent that, nothing else happens. Hunter-gatherer groups at a tribal level living each day hand to mouth in the hopes of bringing down enough game scarcely develop much else beyond a decent fireplace and some good portable shelters. Agriculture changed all of that by making the reliable production of a steady food supply a possibility.

For all that we can cross oceans in a few hours, land people on the moon if we want to, and send probes out of the solar system, none of that would have happened were it not for the invention of the humble plow.

Think about it.
 

T. Eric Brown

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Humans have indeed come a long way in our history. From the time an angry caveman threw a rock against another rock to now, advancements are being made at a break-neck pace. I believe Walter Lord said it best in The Night Lives On that in this day and age, where transatlantic travel consists of being "sealed in a steel tube and shot across the sea", we often long for a slower time. A time where the grass seemed greener on the other side. Things seemed more elegant back then. Today, where you walk down the sidewalk past candy wrappers, cardboard cups, used cigarettes, and the hobo that hasn't bathed in weeks, that time seemed so much cleaner. This is of coarse a fallacy, but it's part of human psychology. We're always looking for greener grass that's always just beyond our reach. I think that's part of what the lure of the Titanic is.
 

Kevin Perez

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Just decided to post here through the school computer since I'm still having a hard time posting through the one at home. Again, thanks guys for your well-thought posts. These posts sure beat the crap out of the fools who only say stuff like this just to discredit are interest in Titanic!
 
Jul 21, 2008
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Kevin,

I know how you feel. I just came across a slightly old list ranking it as one of the most overrated events of the 20th century, thus ushering me here to this very thread. Lunkheads who denigrate the ship in regards to the movie aside (that's a whole other camp for me), I'm a bit tired of the historians who disregard Titanic because it didn't influence anything in the grand scheme of things for history. That IS true, but, if I may make my case (even though it's probably all been said by everyone above me) as one who has been fascinated by the sinking for a decade and will be 'til death:

The sinking of the Titanic IS important to history because it effectively represents the end of the Edwardian era. The extreme class distinctions aboard the ship soon disappeared as WWI set in. The ship was also a record-setting achievement of engineering and design. From stern to bow, it would be taller than any other man-made monument at the time. The entire world paid attention to its construction, and it came to represent the blind faith man had in machinery at the time. They were wrapped up in the belief that this superior ship would effectively conquer nature. And in that vein, you all know the drill.

And even though there are arguments above that the maritime safety advances would have occurred anyway (not denigrating any of you or your views, for the matter), the Titanic's loss then at least sped up some or all of those processes, particularly the lifeboat requirement. Also, the ship is regularly noted for its tremendous loss of life, particularly as a peacetime maritime disaster.

Lastly, for a bit of self-trumpeting: As an overall history buff who constantly searches for the importance of past events, Titanic always stands as my number one historical fascination. I'd like to think this speaks of the event's incredible, unique intrigue, and that historians who shoot for the overrated label perhaps blow things out of proportion. Like I said, I know it didn't really change anything, and I wouldn't put it in the importance legion of presidential assassinations, wars, rights movements, etc. But the Titanic and its sinking are still a great portal into the Gilded Age, and always will be.

Hope I didn't ramble too much here and made my case well. In the end all that matters is that you stick with your interest in the disaster, and it's that attitude that keeps the legend alive. But in one way or another, interest aside, I truly believe it maintains an importance to history as an indelible hallmark of its time.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>The sinking of the Titanic IS important to history because it effectively represents the end of the Edwardian era. The extreme class distinctions aboard the ship soon disappeared as WWI set in.<<

I'm afraid the 1st isn't true at all. The end points of "eras" are seldom all that cut and dried. The notion that Titanic ended the Edwardian era would certainly have come as a surprise to the people of the time. The Titanic was the big media event of 1912 but it faded away almost as quickly as it came up and things were pretty much business as usual up until World War I.

As to class destinctions ending, that would come as quite a shock to people who traveled on liners for up to 60 or 70 years past that. The destinctions changed because the massive immigrant market was killed off by the curbs on immigration which were made into law in the United States. The shipping lines responded to that by making changes in the accomadations to appeal to the emerging trade of budget minded tourists. The class destinctions changed but they didn't go away. Not by a long shot.

>>The ship was also a record-setting achievement of engineering and design. From stern to bow, it would be taller than any other man-made monument at the time. The entire world paid attention to its construction, and it came to represent the blind faith man had in machinery at the time. <<

That's the legend. Now the reality: The ship which attracted the bulk of the attention at the time was the Olympic. The Titanic was the second sister and recieved the usual indifferent treatment by both the press and the public. Take a look at actual photos of her sailing from Southampton and what's noteworthy is just how few people were on the dock to see her off.

As to record breaking in terms of size, little is as fleeting and ephemeral as that. The German "Imperator" was already in the water and fitting out, and she was a larger vessel then any of the Olympics.

>>And even though there are arguments above that the maritime safety advances would have occurred anyway (not denigrating any of you or your views, for the matter), the Titanic's loss then at least sped up some or all of those processes, particularly the lifeboat requirement.<<

Not to the degree you may be thinking and if you think that ships, particularly passenger vessels have lifeboats for all today, start counting boats and seats. You're going to be in for a shock.
 
May 1, 2004
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Maybe the Titanic as a great ship and its sinking as a historical event are overrated; but there are things about the sinking that hits the nerves (and the heart)and makes it 'significant'.

It was thought to be a sign of human progress: the "practically unsinkable ship", "the largest ship in the world", "setting a higher standard of luxury at sea" by stocking Vinolia Otto Toilet Soap amongst other delights. Hype, yes; but who can see the pictures of the huge boiler, or of the length of the ship compared to the height of the Eiffel Tower and not be impressed.

"Imperator" was not yet ready to steam, and Olympic and Titanic were British/American - two of 'ours', not a "Teutonic" tonner - one of 'those foreigners'.
I know there were a lot of German North Americans - I come from that stock - but Canada was 'officially' English, and Americans were Anglophile in taste.

The Titanic's sinking is an easily recognizable symbol of hubris: the luxury ship that nothing could sink (and therefore had no need to slow speed or take care) scraped along an iceberg and sank. So many political cartoons use the Titanic - with the politician portraied as Mr. Ismay in the lifeboat or Captain Smith on the bridge.

The sinking is a great story: all those movies and books about it. I just finished watching 'The Tudors'. Henry VIII's and Anne Boleyn's love affair is also a great story - and it did more than the Titanic did to shape us - but that was 500 years ago, and no immigrants were involved in it. In the Titanic story, you get captains of industry, middle-class families and teachers, stearage passengers speaking so many European and Asian languages. For us North Americans, they were people like our ancestors. And it happened less than 100 years ago - within living memory of people we knew. We can identify with the victims and survivors because of that, and because of the pictures and newspaper articles we can still read from microfilm reels in large libraries.

The Titanic is still significant because we descended from that time. It's a social history textbook. Race: "Were there black people on-board? If not, why not?" "Why was Mr. Lowe so down on Italians?" "Why were there few, if any, interperetors or multi-lingual signage?" Class: "Were Third Class discouraged from seeking lifeboats?" "Why were the musicians paying passengers when they were hired by the line to work?" Perspectives of gender: "Why women and children only allowed in [some of] the boats?"
Safety issues: "Did the Titanic's officers take due care or didn't they?" "Were there a reasonable number of lifeboats, or should there have been boats for all?" Rescue ethics: "Was the captain of the Californian obliged to risk his ship through the ice when his officer reported rockets?" "Was the captain of the Carpathia heroic or reckless to attempt a rescue?" "Why did the Titanic's wireless man tell the Frankfort's to 'keep out' when Frankfort wanted to know what was happening?" News reporting: "Why were so many news tidbits wrong? Especially the item that Titanic was being towed to Halifax?" "Why didn't Bride and Cottam communicate with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter?" "Was there a conspiracy to black out the news until White Star got Mr. Ismay and the Titanic's crew out of American territory?"
 
Jul 21, 2008
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Ah, well-argued Michael. I know my points aren't invincible, probably not as cogent and thorough as I could have made them (wrote it in the wee hours of the morning during finals!). For the record I don't mean to make the sinking as the "end of an era" too cut and dried, I just think it does stand well as that in retrospect even if it wasn't realized at the time (a great documentary, I believe the History Channel one, made the same point). Things may have continued as usual but as the sinking occurred in 1912 and WWI started only two years later, the "end of an era" tag holds well IMO.

The class divisions and realities of rich and poor definitely did not disappear. I think it's the extremes of those levels of society that changed soon afterwards, although I could be wrong. The famous notion of the ship's extremely rich and the utterly neglected third class/immigrants is what I'm getting at. The aforementioned documentary specifically noted the introduction of Income Tax as an example, and says it was a tremendous blow to the outrageously wealthy.

Of course one can't forget the Titanic was not the "one-of-a-kind" legend, as it was part of a grand sister ship plan after all. Still, its legend holds up to this day with its incredible marriage of size and luxury, far more known than the Olympic by a long shot (not to discredit that ship or its popularity at the time).

I think Marilyn above brings up good points as well. It was seen as a signpost of tremendous progress, which makes it all the more shocking when it sunk and was likely the end of such overwhelming faith in machinery, that it was "impossible" for a significant creation to be destroyed and that safety could be arrogantly ignored. Even if it didn't usher in a complete, flawless era of enough lifeboats for every ship, it still galvanized that movement significantly.

Without going into the well-covered realm of Titanic's standing as a metaphor and whatnot, I do believe it works excellently as a portal into the Edwardian Era, particularly in observing the famous class distinctions. That's part of what makes it a huge event in history. Not an important one that changed the grand scheme of things, but one that anyone can observe and get a compelling view of those times.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>It was seen as a signpost of tremendous progress<<

The problem with all of that is that the same claims were made for every one of the Atlantic liners and a number of other passenger vessels as well. Titanic was, if anything, atypical of the game of one-upmanship which was going on before the accident and which continued apace long afterwards. Check the adverts, publicity material and period technical journals of the age and the decades which followed and you'll see what I mean.

A lot of the signifigance seen in Titanic didn't come about until long after her demise, thanks in no small part to a young lawyer named Walter Lord who penned A Night To Remember in 1955, and the legend has been building ever since.

At the time Titanic made a pretty big splash. In a lot of respects, it was the first really big media event which played out practically in real time. But after she made her splash in the headlines, it all went away.
 

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