Smith's comments regarding the unsinkable ship


Mar 3, 1998
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People love quoting Captain Smith in regards to the myth of Titanic's "unsinkability." Unlike many that see such comments as indicative of boasting or overconfidence by Titanic's future Master, I view them rather as public assurance by a senior and well-entrenched representative of the Line.

Actually, that's how I view a lot of articles written about Titanic before the disaster, even in supposedly-dispassio nate engineering articles. I read an undercurrent of an almost desperate need by the Line, their publicists and their representatives (Smith being a popular one) to assure the public of the safety of their ships. These types of statements are also not restricted to the White Star Line.

In my view, this interpretation fits within the context of the times. In 1911, ships still disappeared without a trace. Emigrants, especially, were asked to blindly trust their lives to a technology of which most had absolutely no experience. Even if it appeared that the transatlantic steamship industry had enjoyed a relatively impressive safety record during the preceding half-century, there were many who could still remember the days when crossing the ocean was an extremely arduous and hazardous journey. The business of shipping people across the ocean required healthy booking rates, and bookings were affected by public confidence. Adherence to schedule, personal luxuries, ever-decreasing times for crossings...these are all trappings of a safe and secure form of transport, ones which it made good business sense playing to. People talk of the arrogance of the age about Mankind's technological advancements, but I believe that along with optimistic progress there lay an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty. In this context, I would see Smith's supposedly-overconfi dent statements as being soothing public relations in the name of his employer.

The oft-unstated assumption behind Smith's "unsinkable" quotes is that he drove his ship as though she was unsinkable. I'm certain this was not the case. Had Titanic limped into New York or Halifax with shell plating damaged by a collision with an iceberg, the Line's publicists would have no doubt "spun" mishap into vindication by emphasising the life-saving qualities of their ships (re: the Republic disaster), but I would wager that Smith would have been quietly, but firmly, forced into retirement. No mariner of Smith's experience or calibre would drive his ship recklessly just because he thought the hull could stand the abuse. No, I believe Smith acted more within the attitude of the times, which was expressed quite well at the BOT Enquiry by Capt. Pritchard, previous Master of the Mauretania:

25172. I believe for 18 years you have commanded Cunard steamships sailing between Liverpool and New York? - Yes.
25173. Have you heard the evidence in this case with regard to the weather conditions which existed when the "Titanic" struck? - Yes.
25174. You know them? - Yes.
25175. Now what practice did you follow with regard to maintaining your full speed or reducing your speed, assuming similar conditions, and assuming you had information that there was a probability of your meeting ice on your course? - As long as the weather is clear I always go full speed.
25176. You always have done so? - Yes.
25177. What was the speed of the "Mauretania"? - 26 knots.
[...]
25187. If it was a flat calm and you expected ice - you were warned of ice and knew you would meet ice in the course of the night - would you double the look-out? - No, as long as the weather is clear.
[...]
25196. (The Commissioner.) You followed the same course, as I understand, on the "Mauretania" as the "Titanic" took? - Yes.
[...]
25211. For the last two years I think you have retired from the sea? - Yes.
25212. For the 18 years before that you were in command of Cunard boats? - Yes.
25213. And you have been at sea altogether 30 years? - More, 51 years at sea.
25214. You have been at sea for 51 years, or had been before you retired? - Yes.
25215. (The Commissioner.) What age are you? - 67, my Lord.
25216. (Sir Robert Finlay.) And you have had, I think, a Master's certificate for 37 years? - Yes.
25217. You told us your practice as to speed when ice was reported or you were in an ice region; did you also hold your course? - Always, if it is clear weather.
25218. You have kept your course in clear weather, and maintained full speed? - Yes.
25219. And was that the universal practice in your experience? - Yes.

Here was one of Smith's peers (and there were others who expressed similar sentiments during the Enquiry) summing up the rationale that must have been behind Smith's Night Steaming Orders for April 14/15th. Smith's motivation to maintain speed had nothing to do with "unsinkability" but rather with the largely-accepted procedure for maintaining schedule while transiting the unpredictable Atlantic. Others, like Sir Shackleton, disagreed with this attitude, but by and large their opinions derived from experiences outside (and alien to) the fiercely-competitive Mail Boat business.

The assumption that Smith proceeded recklessly because he didn't think the ship would sink suffers from an additional flaw in logic. Let's say the ship was unsinkable, that no collision could cause the ship to founder and the safety of those aboard could be assured. That wouldn't be the Master's only concern, would it? As I alluded to above, if Titanic were to have become damaged in a collision, the Line would suffer in many ways...the finely-tuned schedule would be thrown off (costly), ship rotations would have to be changed (costly), material repairs would have to be made (costly), the public might lose confidence and book with another Line (costly), etc. Given this situation, I cannot imagine any condition that would cause Smith to be anything less than vigilant in his navigation. His fatal flaw was not in his personal arrogance, but in his trust in a commonly-held attitude among Mail Boat crews that he had always prospered by. Titanic would prove to be the precedent that invalidated that attitude, but Smith cannot be faulted for not being able to foresee the example the death of his ship would make. This is not to say that Smith did not hold ultimate responsibility for the disaster, but rather to point out that some people's accusations or assumptions regarding Smith's motives are, in my opinion, misplaced.

Therefore, whenever I see anyone quote Smith's "overconfident" remarks in any discussion about the collision, I have to ask, "Why is that important, or even relevant?"

This my opinion, and I don't expect anyone else to agree with me. I wanted to set this down, though, so that whenever I feel compelled to ask the question I put forward in the preceding paragraph, you will at least know where I'm coming from.

Parks
 
Jan 5, 2001
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[Copy of initial post.]

Hi!

Dave:All this is a long way from singling out Titanic as the unsinkable wonder ship of the legend and trumpeting it far and wide.

That point has been made many times, but I don't think that anyone on this thread is 'trumpeting it far and wide.' Rather, what many opinions (and mine certainly) in my interpretation are saying is that not only were all such large liners considered 'unsinkable,' but that especially the largest. Olympic's collision I am sure strengthened Captain Smith's confidence and while I am sure he knew that the ship was not purely and technically unsinkable, I still believe that he thought she was faced in all weathers, and all but the very worst collisions/icebergs.

Press coverage of Olympic's collision should be compared with that of her sister Titanic in the British press:

quote:

[Franklin]...states that the Titanic is unsinkable.

-- Daily Mirror, April 16th 1912, page 2.
quote:

...the unsinkable ship builded [sic] by all the resources of science withstood the shock.'

-- Daily Mirror, April 16th 1912, page 3.
quote:

Though she smashed into an iceberg, a collision that would have meant the foundering of any liner a few years ago, the Titanic still afloats. She is indeed practically unsinkable. [my emphasis]

-- Daily Mirror, April 16th 1912
These reports can only be classed as pre-disaster as the British press was somewhat behind America's due to the time zone. News was in that she had had a collision, but not that she had sunk. Thus rather than sensationalism (which some language does indeed lean to), I feel it should be viewed with that of Olympic's collision the previous year. I didn't even look that hard for these, just scanned a few papers in my collection. Anyone looking harder could unearth far more.

Smith's remarks at his final dinner seem authentic to me -- if the ship were cut in two, theoretically one watertight compartment amidships would be flooded, allowing the ship to float. (Theoretically, I know that the bulkheads' exact bearing capability can be calculated and may prove this wrong.) Indeed, it seems reasonable to suppose that the Captain of the largest ship then in service, attending a special party in his honour, might well be talking about aspects of the liner. Similar thoughts apply to those diner table conversations, which I feel must have had *some* basis in fact, whether over-emphasized by the press for effect or not.

I still agree with John generally, particularly when he opines:
quote:

But that having been said, the words *were* said (and obviously taken to heart by some); the hype was propagated. And that observation squarely puts to rest any generalized notion that allegations of unsinkabilty were strictly a latter-day contrivance.
In concluding this post I would like to offer my condolences on Walter's death. He is an enormous loss to the world, and I am sure to those people who had the fortunate to know him.

Best regards,

Mark.​
 
Jan 5, 2001
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Hi Parks!

I am answering for myself, I can't speak for John now of course. I will go into your other thread and post my last post there, along with this one, so we can continue our discussion in the right place. I hope Noel, the two Daves, Mike and John will follow. (I was unaware of the other thread.)

Basically, I understand that there was much post-disaster hype regarding 'unsinkability,' but the point I make is that it was certainly *based on pre-disaster conceptions,* however strong. I do not think that Captain Smith would have cared whether his ship was unsinkable or not -- he would not have wanted to damage an unsinkable ship either, so I don't think it effects his navigation at all. If I have inadvertently implied that, then my apologies. Personally, I can't see that I can have done, since it isn't my opinion.

Best regards,

Mark.
 
Mar 3, 1998
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Thank you, Mark, for clarifying. I'm trying to understand the significance there might be, if any, to the continued reference to "unsinkable" comments in various forums and media, especially concerning those comments made pre-disaster. At first, I thought their significance relative to the outcome of the disaster to be negligable, but as I thought on it more, I started to get the idea that the public boasting about Titanic's "unsinkability" reveals more about the insecurity of the age, rather than the supposed arrogance. That, though, is another discussion entirely.

I pressed you and John for elaboration because you were both discussing how the "unsinkable" comments indicated confidence on Smith's part. I wanted you to carry your thought further to see what role this "confidence" might have played in the course of events. I extrapolated the thought to one possible conclusion (actually, I re-used an example read elsewhere) only by way of example. I wasn't intending to hold you to it, but rather give you something to comment on or contrast with. I understand better now where you're coming from.

Parks
 
Jan 5, 2001
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Hi Parks!

My own opinion regarding the supposed 'unsinkability' is that it was at its worst during the sinking. I know that if I was tired and in the warmth of a cabin or suite, and someone wanted me to go onto a cold, freezing boat deck, I would probably have ignored them and gone back to sleep. I still believe that some passengers thought that as late as 2 a.m. the ship was just sinking to a point, and then stopping, once forward compartments were full; but then the bow went right under and panic set in.

Out of further interest, I ran across today a source from the book 'Titanic Voices,' in the form of an advert from mid-1910 (certainly, pre-October 20th 1910); describing both vessels, it announces:

quote:

...as far as it is possible to do so, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable.
Surely that puts pre-disaster claims to rest, as there is a clear implication that the two sisters were special, and 'unsinkable.' It is pictured in the book, not quoted.

Pity Dave and Noel aren't back in this discussion.

Best regards,

Mark.​
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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I’m happy to continue this debate, but my time is limited and my typing even more limited. My contributions will be intermittent.

Let us be clear about what we are debating. The popular legend is the Titanic was generally believed, before the disaster, to be unsinkable and that this was the belief of her crew and passengers. The legend is also that this quality was unique to Titanic.

My strong belief is that there is no solid evidence that Titanic was widely believed to be unsinkable prior to the disaster, except in the sense that all the large liners of the time were considered to be unsinkable by the common kinds of marine accidents or by stress of weather. The ship was not singled out for special attention and in fact played second fiddle to Olympic. Indeed, even before Titanic was in service, the technical journals were turning their attention to the larger German ships. (See Scientific American December 1910 for an example). The legend of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic was a product of the press, produced even as Titanic sank. It was based largely on the extravagant remarks that Phillip Franklin made on the morning of April 15th, 1912 and repeated at the American inquiry. It was also created by the press seeking to add drama to the story and even by the clergy, who preached on the folly of thinking that the powers of God and/or nature could be overcome by human invention.

I’m sure we can agree on one thing. Captain Smith’s actions were not influenced by claims of ‘unsinkability’. The idea that a captain would charge heedlessly towards ice, because he was confident that his ship was invulnerable, belongs in the supermarket magazines.

We may be less in agreement on the influence of the idea of ‘unsinkability’ on {Titanic}’s passengers after the collision. Here it is difficult to separate what people thought at the time from what they said afterwards. My own belief is that at least some passengers and crew had excessive confidence in the ship. Some thought she would sink a certain distance and then reach equilibrium, floating bow down, at least long enough for help to arrive. Personally, I think this resulted more from the sense that such a large and stable ship could not sink quickly, rather than from careful consideration of her structure. Had Titanic listed 10 or 20 degrees, confidence would soon have vanished. There is also the effect of the reassurances given by the crew, the calm sea, the lighted ship and even the playing of the band. There is evidence that Thomas Andrews’ prediction that the ship would sink did not reach all the officers, let alone other crew and the passengers.

Before the disaster, there were three printed sources that described the ships as ’practically unsinkable’, or words to that effect. All may be dismissed as creators of the ‘unsinkable’ legend because none were circulated to the masses. They were:

1. The White Star leaflet from 1910 shown on page 187 of Titanic Voices. This was held in a private collection and was not brought to a wider public until 1993, when an article by Don Lynch was published in The Titanic Commutator. No other copies are known and it is possible that it was a printer’s proof that was never circulated.

2. A very elaborate 72 page White Star brochure from 1911, that was circulated in unknown numbers.

3. The special number of The Shipbuilder from 1911. A passage about the emergency doors in this publication is practically identical with a passage in the brochure. The Shipbuilder was a specialist journal that was not widely read outside the industry. It was expensive compared with contemporary newspapers and was unknown to the masses.

Numerous other White Star publicity pamphlets and posters were produced. These concentrate on the size and comfort of the Olympic ships and make no claims to special safety. The statement attributed to Captain Smith about the safety of modern ships is probably authentic but it was made in 1907, when Titanic did not exist, and can hardly have been in the minds of the general public five years later.

For me to accept that Titanic was widely believed to be unsinkable before the disaster and announced as such, I would want to see mass-circulation newspapers proclaiming the ‘fact’. Another good proof would be private letters, undoubtably written before the sinking, stating that the writer believed Titanic to be ‘unsinkable’ without qualification.

In the absence of such documentation, I will stick to my guns. The ‘unsinkable’ legend was created by the press on April 15th 1912 and perpetuated by numerous writers over many years.
 
Sep 20, 2000
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Dave Gittins wrote: "Let us be clear about what we are debating. The popular legend is the Titanic was generally believed, before the disaster, to be unsinkable and that this was the belief of her crew and passengers. The legend is also that this quality was unique to Titanic."

Dave: I basically accept your "part one" of that -- the requisite *belief*. But I don't see the necessity of your final condition. All that truly seems required to define Titanic's "myth of unsinkabilty" is that the ship was indeed falsely perceived to be "unsinkable" at some broad level. And there's abundant material in the Inquiries alone to substantiate that. [See also the prior "Ships that Stood Still" thread on this.] Am I missing something?

It is extremely satisfying to see someone attempt to pin this down precisely, since it *was* merely spawned in the original thread as "all that 'unsinkability' garbage". But I just can't embrace your *whole* definition here. If, rather than *unique* to Titanic", you'd said (or intended) "special" or "unusual", I could agree with that. But a condition of absolute uniqueness imposes an immediate paradox -- the conundrum of the sister ship -- and seems unnecessarily restrictive.

What complicates matters further, as you likely know, is that the Board of Trade had codified specific construction standards for what constituted an "unsinkable" ship. Neither Olympic nor Titanic met those criteria, according to the BoT's own testimony; but even the use of this common parlance as "jargon" introduced a potential source for public confusion in its own right.

I agree with much of what you've written (based on your *own* definition). But I don't understand your comments on the 1911 White Star brochure. Initially you stated that none of the three "proclamations" were circulated to the masses, but then you refer to that one as "circulated in unknown numbers". (But NOT to the masses? It's a bit hazy to me.)

And while I'd agree that none of those sources might be "the creator" of the myth, all were potentially contributors to a legend that presumably only arose in the aggregate. (I'm not even sure I'd blame the press too heavily for that! They had plenty of "meat" to work with from the testimony, and accurate reporting alone could have generated that "conclusion".)

Cheers,
John
 
Jan 5, 2001
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Well, here I am.

I have to say here that I am of the opinion that Titanic was widely believed to be unsinkable by her crew and passengers, but I also agree with John's argument, re.: that there is no need to say the quality was unique to Titanic. It wasn't, and the reaction following Olympic's survival of the Hawke collision the year before seemed to prove that; she only sank one-and-a-half feet at the stern with two large compartments flooded and hundreds of tons of water in a third. More evidence comes from Mauretania's reputation and the mentioned advertisement of 1906 from the other thread and that of Lusitania prior to her maiden voyage.

So, basically, I'd be debating that Titanic was belived to be safe and effectively unsinkable prior to her maiden voyage, but I'd also debate that the same applied to other ships, such as Mauretania, Lusitania and Adriatic, Olympic. (Though not the German ships of course:)

My installment of evidence will follow. I noted several other researchers who are hoping to contribute too. Now there's time I look forward to a debate.

Best regards,

Mark.
 

Dan Cherry

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Mankind naturally wants to place its utmost faith and confidence in its creations, but the reality is that despite the best of intentions, knowledge and ability in planning, those creations will sometimes fail them. The Titanic was no exception.
Thoughts turn to January 28, 1986, where the effects of ice conquered metal in the skies over Florida...
and again on September 11, 2001, when one of America's architectural accomplishments was wounded. People believed, wanted to believe, that the towers would stand, but at 9:59 a.m. and 10:28 a.m. found that they couldn't. Engineers planned for a jetliner impact in their design. When struck in a typical scenario (compared to Titanic, a collision where two compartments would be compromised), the building would hold. What the engineers didn't envision and plan for was the subsequent fuel fire and the structure compromise that conflagration caused for the outer supports, floor girders and building core. (or in Titanic's case, a glancing blow that would rupture 5 compartments).
Sure, the Olympic's stalwart survival in the Hawke collision was a superficial testament to the liner's design and safety at sea, but I cannot agree with the benefit of hindsight that the press and the people of the day knew before the media hype of April 15, 1912 that the Olympic-class vessel was "unsinkable". P.A.S. Franklin sure wasn't any help when he said that morning when he had utmost faith in her buoyancy, plus 90+ years of romanticized myth perpetuation.
 

Dave Gittins

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Apr 11, 2001
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"This selection does not even include such things as ‘impossible to sink,’ or ‘floatability,’ etcetera, just a search on ‘unsinkable.’ Numerous evidence backs up the point which I argue: that all large liners such as Lusitania, Olympic, Titanic, were regarded as unsinkable in the sense of normal service. While some elements were no doubt exaggerated by the press and hindsight, all of this evidence cannot be dismissed as exaggerated, but certainly a factual base."

My point entirely!

What I'm attacking the popular legend in which Titanic was singled out as the unique 'unsinkable' ship. I'm also attacking the idea that Titanic was one everybody's lips before the disaster as a ship without parallel.

Before the disaster, we see three sources that mention that she was practically unsinkable, or words to that effect. One, the pamphlet in Titanic voices, was probably never circulated. The 72 page brochure was probably handed out to potential passengers, mostly first class. The Shipbuilder was circulated among the trade.

In 1912, the population of Great Britain was about 45,000,000. Nobody has yet produced a mass-circulation paper that calls Titanic 'unsinkable' before the disaster. Press coverage of the ship was quite modest, as he was merely a successor to Olympic. You can see in Francis Browne's photo that only a few were on the wharf to see her leave.

On the morning of April 15th, the legend of the 'unsinkable' ship is suddenly all over the papers. What had changed? Phillip Franklin had shot his mouth off, that's what.

The press and the pulpit for different reasons than pushed the story. It was dramatic, it sold papers and it offered a moral lesson about defying God and nature. It was taken up by the $1 books in the months after the sinking and later played up by Walter Lord and others, right up to Cameron's movie.
 
Jan 5, 2001
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Well, it seems we are in agreement so there is little more to debate.

What I'm attacking the popular legend in which Titanic was singled out as the unique 'unsinkable' ship. I'm also attacking the idea that Titanic was one everybody's lips before the disaster as a ship without parallel.

I agree that Titanic wasn't considered uniquely unsinkable, but at the same time I agree that she was considered unsinkable by many people. I do think that many people believed her the most luxurious afloat in April 1912, and pre-disaster reports prove this, but I disagree that she was considered a ship without parallel; so I agree with your point. Therewas the Olympic for a start.

On the morning of April 15th, the legend of the 'unsinkable' ship is suddenly all over the papers. What had changed? Phillip Franklin had shot his mouth off, that's what.

True; it also seems to refute Noel's assertion against Walter Lord's statement that '...Titanic has proved even more unsinkable than the White Star Line claimed.' As Franklin was a notable member of the Line, whether speaking personally or not his words would have been taken by many as the Line's stance on the matter of their ship's 'unsinkability.'

Best regards,

Mark.
 
Sep 20, 2000
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Mark: Well done! (I had come up with similar results, but I didn't think they'd fit here.) ;^)

One of the most poignant, albeit indirect, illustrations of the *public* perception of Titanic's unsinkability also comes by way of Maurice Farrell [U.S. Day 15]:
Mr. FARRELL. I find one here which I think would be of interest which I do not think appeared on the tape. It is headed, "Those false reports." It reads:

Uncle of Phillips, wireless operator of Titanic, solved one of the mysterious wireless messages that at first gave hope vessel was saved. He acknowledged that he sent the following messages from London to Mr. and Mr. Phillips, Godalming, Surrey, England, parents of the wireless operator, to reassure them: "Making slowly for Halifax; practically unsinkable; don't worry."​
Now, I admit it's conceivable that Jack's uncle could have been some hideously callous individual, but it certainly doesn't *seem* very likely. Barring that incredibly slim possibility, what conclusion *can* one reasonably draw regarding this hoax other than the scenario of a concerned relative, who firmly believes that the ship *is* unsinkable, seeking to comfort those naturally worried parents (one of them his own sibling). I can't imagine this being done under any *other* circumstances. The potential cruelty of a frivolous or doubtful assurance of this nature is monstrous.

Dave: I still just don't see the requisite inclusion of uniqueness in the Titanic's "unsinkabilty" myth. Maybe there's something I'm missing, but it still seems to me that all the myth necessarily entails is that a ship considered "unsinkable" turned out to be far from it.

But to clarify, let me ask you directly: Did Walter Lord and/or other authors specifically attribute uniqueness in that property to Titanic? Or did they simply attest to that perceived quality in the ship, without ruling out its possible applicability to others? That, to me, is the crux of the matter.

I'll agree with you that the physical evidence prior to the disaster is far scantier than the verbal evidence after the fact, but even the lawyers at the British Inquiry -- including the Attorney-General -- seem to confirm that public impression of Titanic.

Cheers,
John
 
Sep 20, 2000
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Just to ostensibly "beat a dead horse", there is one other section I'd located that seemed to sum up nicely the general view of things [Attorney-General Sir Rufus Isaacs, B.I., p.943]:

"The view seems to have been that as we were proceeding, and vessels were being constructed which were better equipped as regards watertight compartments, the larger vessels that were being constructed had the best provision for watertight compartments, and that, therefore, they were as unsinkable as it was possible to make vessels according to the view that was held up to that time, and it appears that with the larger vessels carrying passengers and emigrants, it was thought that the vessels were practically unsinkable."

Cheers,
John
 
J

Jonathan Craig Adcock

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The simple Fact is that she was. If you are looking to where to point your fingers.....Try the design engineers, Who had a great lack of foresight. The event of a side tear was never thought of. Also, if you look at the plans, the first bulkhead was only ten feet above the waterline. She was doomed before she ever left port.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>The simple Fact is that she was.<<

The simple fact is that she was what? Unsinkable? Better check the bottom of the North Atlantic. Seemed the ship was very sinkable.

Regarding the design engineers lack of foresight, this is an easy claim to make 91 years after the fact. The fact is that the Titanic was subjected to extremes that no ship could have survived...even today...short of a warship. In fact, can you name a commercial vessel today that could even meet much less exceed the watertight protection the Titanic had?

Oh, and what side tear?
eh.gif
The actual forensics just doesn't support that.
 

Erik Wood

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Apr 10, 2001
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I think any notion that there was a large side tear should be put to rest by the evidence sitting on the bottom, not to mention the time the ship took to sink and the manner in which she did so.

Discussions revolving around bulkhead heights should be labored under the caveat that there is no such thing as a watertight bulkhead. The bulkhead is designed to hold water back for a certain amount of time, but it will unless relieved of the pressure will fail eventually. As Titanic proved in 1912 and thousands of other ships since then, there are no unsinkable ships.

Titanic is an odd ball ship. She sank upright, a remarkable feat had she suffered a large tear down her beam. Thomas Andrews and his cadre of Naval Engineers did a wonderful job of designing a ship. They just didn't design one to run over an iceberg.
 

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