Survivor's times

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Paul Lee

Aug 11, 2003
Hi all,
I started off a thread a few months ago about the possibility, pro or con, whether the Titanic's clocks were retarded 24, 23 or 47 minutes that night. Now, I'd like to start another dicussion. Most of the survivors only gave an estimate of times; understandable as they were preoccupied with getting saved and were in semi-darkness that night. However, some witnesses did have access to timepieces and did give their times, for instance; Mrs Spedden writing that she was in a lifeboat at 12.30am (she put it in her diary), Hichens saying that he was relieved at 12:23am; and Pitman putting the time of the foundering at 2.20am. How many others are there?

Best wishes



George Huck

Mar 4, 2008
Were nt there some watches found on victims later, that stopped upon immersion in the water. Perhaps their times tally and if so would that not show what time the Titanic was set to.

Jul 9, 2000
Easley South Carolina
>>Perhaps their times tally and if so would that not show what time the Titanic was set to.<<

Only if they were set to agree with the Titanic's clocks and only if they all stopped at the same time. This wasn't always the case. If you can, get a hold of the article Samuel wrote for The Commutator as it does an excellant job of covering these questions.
Oct 28, 2000
Note: In this posting the word “watch” will refer only to the men assigned to be on duty, or to the period of time they were on duty. “Watch” will not refer to a pocket timepiece.

Many research papers posted here and elsewhere rely upon time, and in particular the o’clock time of day for certain key events. One primary mistake made by most Titanic researchers over the years is to assume that the o’clock time of every event is given in the same time reference. This is a natural error to make because in everyday life we only occasionally convert equivalent times. The obvious exception to “one time for all events” comes when crossing time zones.

On land, time zones are arbitrarily drawn and the dividing lines are absolute and instantaneous. One side of the line is always exactly an hour later than the other.

Things were different at sea in 1912. As a westbound ship, Titanic created its own private time zones. April 14th time was 47 minutes ahead of April 15th. But, the dividing line between these two zones was not a single, instantaneous line. It was a transition period during which the 47 extra minutes were shared between the two crew watches. Because of this, each event on Titanic that night could have been given in time based on: 1.) noon, April 14; noon, April 15; and what I call either “crew time” or “bridge time” halfway between these first two references. In addition at least one person was carrying April 13th time. And, there is also Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) by which events could be measured.

Before trying to untangle all of these “times,” it is best to examine some of the horological conventions observed on Titanic.

1. As noted, the total setback of the clocks that night was to be 47 minutes. This was to be split evenly between the Port and Starboard Watches.

2. Whatever procedure was followed, all of the clocks aboard ship (excepting the chronometers which always kept GMT) were to read the same at “midnight.” (Per Lightoller who thus corroborated #3 below was observed).

3. By navigational and astronomical convention, “midnight” is the start of a new day and not the end of the old. This means that the 47 extra minutes created by the setback were tacked onto the end of the old day. They were part of April 14 and not April 15.

By IMM/White Star regulations, the changing of clocks could not begin prior to 10 p.m. This means that whatever changes were to be made, they were to be done during the 2 hour 47 minute period between 10 p.m. and midnight marking the start of April 15th.

Per Scarrott, we know impact came after 7-bells (11:30 p.m.). There was general consensus that the accident took place at 11:40 p.m., be it slightly more or less. Many of the crew mentioned that the ship struck just before the bell which normally sounded to call out the new watch. This was done about 15 minutes prior to the change of watch. While this seems straight-forward, keep in mind that none of these times are qualified by a reference. They could be in any of the references cited above, or even Mountain Standard Time. It is necessary to qualify all o’clock times with a reference to get an understanding of what took place and when.

The bulk of the evidence shows that the accident occurred around 11:40 p.m. just before the Port Watch would have been awakened for the crew’s midnight change of watch.

Members of the Starboard Watch which was on duty and the Port Watch which was below agreed that their midnight change of watch was to come about 20 minutes after the iceberg. Applying logic tells us that what the crew called its “midnight change” did not occur at real midnight marking the start of April 15th.

If the “midnight change” came at true midnight starting April 15th, then all 47 minutes of the setback would have been served by the Starboard Watch prior to when the Port Watch came on deck at midnight because it’s quite impossible for any of the extra minutes belonging to April 14th to have been served during April 15th.

Nor could the “midnight change” for the crew have taken place at 12 o’clock in April 14th hours. This would have given all of the extra minutes to the Port Watch and the Starboard Watch would have escaped its half of the setback.

So, logic dictates that the “midnight change” for the crew came halfway between 12 o’clock in April 14th hours and midnight marking the start of April 15th. Splitting 47 minutes in half means that crew midnight would have come at 12:23:30 o’clock in April 14th time reference. That’s the same as 11:36:30 o’clock in April 15th hours. And, both correspond to 0322 GMT.

Note that the crew’s midnight change of watch must occur at 12:23 o’clock in April 14th hours if the two watches are to share the extra time evenly. Confirmation of this comes from quartermaster Hichens who testified this was the time when he was relieved at the ship’s steering wheel — right on time at “crew midnight.”

Now to get to the time of the accident. By consensus, the accident took place about 20 minutes prior to the crew’s “midnight change.” This duration must be subtracted from both April 14th and the April 15th o’clock hours, and GMT hours to get the time of the accident in those references:

April 14th 12:23:30 — 20 minutes = 12:03:30 a.m.
April 15th 11:36:30 — 20 “ = 11:16:30 p.m.
GMT 0322 — 20 minutes = 0302 hrs.

An often-observed convention among navigators is to round up to an even number, but not to an odd. Using this convention, the time of the accident becomes 12:04 a.m. in April 14th, and 11:17 in April 15th reference. The GMT does not change. In papers other than this posting I have used 12:04 a.m. for simplicity and will do so from here on.

IMM/White Star regulations required that incidents such as bowling over an iceberg be logged. The event was to be recorded in both ship’s o’clock time and GMT. Company rules did not specify how the ship’s time was to be reckoned. Logic dictates that the o’clock time used that night should have been based on the crew’s midnight change of watch at 11:40 p.m.

Lots of people gave times for events, particularly the accident. There was a collection of stopped timepieces as well to consider. Over the years the various times in the testimonies and on those timepieces have seemed to be an incomprehensible jumble. And, they are impossible to understand if approached with the mistaken assumption there was only one time being kept on Titanic at the moment of the accident. The chronological confusion can be cleared up by accepting the fact that the crew necessarily use a “midnight” halfway between 12:00 o’clock in April 14th hours and true midnight starting April 15th for their midnight change of watch. Once this fundamental truth is acknowledged it becomes possible to determine the time reference of the particular testimony or stopped timepiece.

For instance, quartermaster Rowe said his timepiece clocked the accident at 11:40 p.m. If so, then he was keeping crew time — quite a logical thing to do because the important time-related event to Rowe would have been the "midnight change" when he could go below. He would likely have set his timepiece so that “midnight” meant relief from the cold poop deck and a chance to enjoy his warm bed.

Twenty minutes after the accident,At midnight on Rowe’s timepiece, quartermaster Bright relieved Rowe at the crew’s midnight change of watch. In the wheelhouse, Hichens was also being relieved, but he measured that event as 12:23 a.m. on a clock still showing April 14th o’clock time. It was the same instant in time (0321 hrs GMT) for both men, just the clock hands were different.

Bright and Rowe spent a few minutes talking about the nearness of the iceberg, the ship’s stopping, etc. At about 12:25 a.m. on Rowe’s watch they saw the first lifeboat, probably #7 on the water. This event took place at 12:49 a.m. in April 14th hours or 0347 hours GMT. (Source: my personal chronology.) There really is no discrepancy between the “early” or “late” times for the launching of boat #7. The problem is an “apples versus oranges” comparison — April 14th hours versus crew time. When both of these times are reduced to GMT it becomes obvious they represent the same moment in the history of the world.

Many passengers said they were awakened at 11:40 p.m. by the iceberg. Undoubtedly, some were. But not all. Allow me a digression. My grandfather was a railroad man who came of age in the era of Titanic. His practice was to re-set his watch before going to bed on the nights when the United States changed to or from Daylight Savings Time. I would imagine many passengers did likewise with regard to the setback of the time from April 14th to April 15th. By making the setback before going to sleep they would have avoided the embarrassment of arriving early for breakfast.

It was about 20 minutes after the accident that Titanic finally stopped and the crew began preparing the lifeboats in earnest. At the same time, the stewards were roused out and a short while later began waking their passengers.

11:40 p.m. + 20 minutes = Crew Midnight
Crew Midnight = 11:37 p.m. April 15th hours

Note the similarity between the 11:37 p.m. of crew midnight in April 15th hours and the generally-accepted 11:40 p.m. time of the accident. It is really not surprising that so many people honestly believed they were awakened by the iceberg, or immediately afterwards.

The bottom line of all this is that preconceived notions about timekeeping must be discarded prior to serious forensic study of events during the sinking. A statement that something happened “at midnight,” or “11:40 p.m.” provides an inadequate amount of information to establish chronological order. The serious researcher must dig deeper, find the internal connections among events, and thereby determine whether the underlying reference of each o’clock time.

-- David G. Brown

Timothy Trower

Not to throw cold water on your post, David, but Sam Halpern did a wonderful job of exploring this very subject in his recent two-part article in "The Titanic Commutator". Maybe you should read it.
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