What time was “midnight,” April 14th for Titanic? Be careful, it’s a trick question. Although there were four “12 o’clocks” in Titanic’s day, there was only one “midnight.”

TRUE MIDNIGHT: As Ioannis indicated above, there were several different o’clock times called “midnight” by various survivors. However, there would have been only one true “midnight” in Titanic and thereby hangs a tale of confusion. Most land-bound historians have assumed that the simplicity of “midnight” ashore translates directly to a ship at sea. It does not. And, this is especially true of a westbound ship like Titanic. (Eastbound, too, but we’re looking at one ship on one voyage.)

For various reasons the path of the Sun through the sky is not absolutely precise and one day is not exactly the same length as another. The solution has been to create a fictitious “mean Sun” and a “mean solar day.” Mean time avoids the nuisance of pesky minor adjustments to our everyday clocks by in effect averaging out solar variations. By definition, “midnight” is the moment when the Sun is opposite to the next day’s noon meridian. On land, this normally means the sun is directly on the opposite side of the planet to the observer taking into account standard time zones. We are all familiar with this in our daily lives ashore. It is always noon the next day in our homes after the passage of a fixed 12 hour duration.

Ship’s are different from buildings and cities ashore because they are in motion. To know midnight at sea it is necessary to predict the next day’s noon meridian of the vessel. It should be noted that there is no way to determine “midnight” through solar or celestial means because the sun is hidden by our planet. And, without a horizon it is not possible to “shoot the stars” for a midnight fix. This is why the next day’s noon longitude must be predicted in order that “true midnight” occurs 12 hours before the next local apparent noon (LAN). Although Titanic’s navigators did their best, they weren’t perfect and there was often a small correction to make noon correspond exactly to the ship’s meridian.

MIDNIGHT DEFINED: Midnight is defined as exactly 12 hours before noon, it is effectively the instant when the previous day becomes the current day. In Titanic’s case, true midnight would have been the instant April 14th would have become April 15th.

Difficulty computing midnight is why ships traditionally reckoned time from noon to noon. A navigator equipped with the proper tools (tables, sextant, chronometer, etc.) could “shoot the sun” at noon and fix his ship’s latitude and longitude. Hence the importance of the noon sight in navigation. This was done using d “astronomical time” which counts hours in a continuous series of 0 to 24.

On land, “civil time” has been more popular. The civil day is measured midnight-to-midnight and the hours are counted from 0 to 12 in two series. The first runs from midnight to noon (A.M.), while the second runs from noon to midnight (P.M.). The civil day, therefore, begins 12 hours earlier than the astronomical day.

EXTRA TIME CREATED: Titanic’s westward passage was “with the sun.” This westward motion caused each day to grow longer than 24 hours. The number of extra minutes in any given day was determined by a function of the ship’s velocity made good (VMG) toward the west. (VMG is not the same as the ship’s speed through the water, but let’s let that rest for now to avoid unnecessary complexity.) What’s important is that Titanic made sufficient westing that the day of April 14th was not just 24 hours long as on land, but 24 hours plus an extra 47 minutes. Keep in mind these extra 47 minutes did not occur outside April 14th, but were an integral part of that day. With regard to the crew, fairness demanded the extra minutes be shared equally by both watches. Dividing 47 exactly in half becomes cumbersome, so I normally give the on-duty Starboard Watch 24 minutes of extra duty and the oncoming Port Watch 23 minutes. You could flop that around and it would make no significant difference in this discussion.

The critical factor in understanding the time of day when Titanic’s accident took place is “true midnight.” It would not have occurred 12 hours after noon nor when the hands of any shipboard clock pointed at the “12" on the dial. By definition true midnight would have occurred 47 minutes after 12 o’clock that night when the ship was exactly 12 hours of steaming from the next day’s (April 15th) predicted noon longitude. The term “midnight” was used in different ways aboard ship, but the one that counted, “true midnight,” was not at 12 o’clock.

True midnight April 14th – when Saturday, April 13th became Sunday, April 14th.

12:00 o’clock April 14th – 47 minutes before true midnight.

Crew Midnight – Halfway through the extra 47 minutes added to April 14th

True midnight April 15th – 2447 hours April 14th or 0000 hours April 15th. Day & date changed.

As is obvious, the day of April 14th had already experience its true midnight 24 hours earlier when Saturday the 13th became Sunday the 14th. No day can have two midnights, so the next true midnight would have marked the start of April 15th. Of course, the second 12 o’clock in ship’s time came at LAN that day, so was called “noon.” Then there was the 12 o’clock which came 12 hours after noon in April 14th time which would have been “midnight” ashore to an observer at a fixed location. And, we know that both the ship’s crew and passengers expected another 12 o’clock to occur just 20 minutes after the iceberg accident. This would have been the fourth time during April 14th that the clock hands pointed to the “12" marker, but it would not have been “true midnight,” either. It would simply have marked the crew’s “midnight change of watch.”

True midnight could only have taken place 47 minutes after 12 o’clock that night measured in April 14th ship’s time. Let’s all these 12 o’clocks into chronological order:

12:00 True Midnight – Saturday 13th becomes Sunday 14th.

12:00 Noon (ship on time longitude for April 14th).

12:00 April 14th. By definition, not “midnight.”

12:00 Crew Time – retarded 24 minutes from April 14th time.

EXTRA TIME NOT “A.M.” OR “P.M.”: For a moment imagine that each moment in the 12-hour system of timekeeping has two names. The first is its numerical value. The second (A.M. or P.M.) defines whether the time was observed before or after noon. Using this two name system, what would the last name be – A.M or P.M. – for one minute later that 12 o’clock at night when the clock hands point to 12:01 o’clock? By definition it would not have been “A.M.” because that designator had already been applied to the duration from previous true midnight to noon April 14th. Nor was it “P.M.” because that designator had also been used from noon until 12 o’clock that evening. For the time after that we have no “A.M.” or “P.M.” equivalent name other than to say those were the extra time caused by the ship’s westward passage.

Rather than try to explain all this whenever a time of day is quoted, it’s much simpler to use the 24-hour time notation which does not require “A.M.” or “P.M.” In this notation you can quite easily have times greater than 12 o’clock without confusion. For instance, the notation 2430 is obviously 24 hours and 30 minutes after the previous true midnight. In Titanic on the evening of April 14th, true midnight would have taken place at 2447 hours

which would have been the same instant as 0000 hours April 15th.

2400 + 47 Extra Minutes = 2447 hrs April 14th.

2447 hrs April 14th = 0000 hrs April 15th “True Midnight.”

Orson Wells notwithstanding, we experience our world in the present. The arrow of time always flies into the future. There is no physical way we can borrow time from tomorrow. Nor can we save up minutes to be spent tomorrow. Time must be accounted for as it happens. For Titanic’s crew reality required that the extra 47 minutes of April 14th had to be worked prior to 2447 hours. And, fairness demanded that the two crew watches work nearly equal portions of those extra 47 minutes. The need to spend time during the day it was earned required the creation of a fictional midnight which I have dubbed “crew midnight.” It came 23 minutes prior to true midnight at 2424 hours in April 14th ship’s time. The men of the on-duty Starboard Watch were to serve their extra time from 2400 to 2424 hours, while the Port Watch would have served its extra duty from 2424 to 2447 hours. After all 47 extra minutes had been served, April 14th would have ended and April 15th begun at true midnight. Here’s how the extra time would have been served by the ship’s crew:

2400 + 24 extra minutes = 2424 hrs April 14th (Starboard Watch)

2424 + 23 extra minutes = 2447 hrs April 14th (Port Watch)

2447 April 14th = 0000 April 15th (True Midnight)

SETBACK PRIOR TO ACCIDENT: To make all of the above come true, it was necessary to set back the Starboard Watch crew clocks by 24 minutes sometime during the 8-to-12 watch. The exact moment of this setback is irrelevant to this discussion. The only critical factor is that the time must have been retarded before the accident. Otherwise, there would have been only 20 minutes from 11:40 to 12 o’clock while the setback was 24 minutes long. You can’t squeeze 24 minutes into a 20 minute span in the real world. The arrow of time is not made out of rubber. Nor can you tack on extra time after the end of a crew watch.

(continued)