Titanic's Achilles Heel History Channel

  • Thread starter Parks Stephenson
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Parks and/or David,

Are you briefed well enough on the model to know if they had an explicit failure criterion, and what it was (critical stress, critical deviatoric strain, J-integral, etc)?

Hi Sam, how are you? I hope that your trip is going well.

You wrote:
"Tad, you said: "Was the vessel safe? In hindsight that answer is a resounding no." How you define safe? I can argue that safe is a vessel that will keep its passengers free from harm under any and all situations imaginable. Vessels can always be built safer, but you need to define the situation that sets the standard to which they are built for. Colliding with an iceberg along the side that would open the first 5 compartments was not part of the design equations."

Very good point about defining safe. I guess my own definition would have to be similar, "safe" being the passengers being reasonably free from harm even in the event of a worst-case scenario. I was speaking more to modern criticisms (and bare in mind that I have not seen this special yet, and am not pre-judging any information presented in it, just so there's no misunderstanding) such as the brittle steel theory, the watertight bulkheads not extending far enough up, etc. that brand the ship as inadequate or even unseaworthy at the time of its maiden voyage, when in fact it met and surpassed requirements of the day.

Compared to modern ships and regulations, it's safety features may lack, but that wasn't the case by 1912 standards and laws. In hindsight, it is easy to say the vessel wasn't "safe" using our definition of the word, because the passengers were not kept from harm, but the accident was the result of a scenario never imagined, rather than from negligence on the part of the design engineers or inadequate construction. All in all, I guess my point was that people have to be careful about judging how seaworthy Titanic was by comparing against modern standards and finding weaknesses that way than by judging it by the contemporary standards and technological abilities that were in place and available when she was actually built and at sea.

I agree with your point about safe being defined as all passengers being safe in any possible scenario, which unfortunately, we all know is never 100% true. Vessels are safer then they ever have been, but accidents show their is always room for improvement, which is why requirements and laws have evolved in an attempt to make things safer. Unfortunately, it often takes a major incident before it is realized that there is a design flaw, such as the unlikely collision and spread of damage on Titanic, the wooden decks on world war two American aircraft carriers, hatch covers on ore carriers on the great lakes, etc.

Your post got me thinking about how a modern vessel would stand up compared to Titanic in a similar collision with the current hull construction and bulkheads, but that is a topic for another thread I suppose.

By the way, congrats on the excellent Commutator article!

All my best,
By the way Sam, I agree with your assessment of Hichens testimony. He is one of several members of the crew who were inconsistent, and who appears to have intentionally avoided volunteering information, which is unfortunate, given that he was in a prime location to give a highly detailed account of all the manuevers and helm orders that were given.

I have often wondered if the crew were instructed by the WSL to keep certain things quiet, or at the very least not give information unless directly asked about something during the inquiries, particularly in light of the reported "press blackout" and several anonymous crewmembers indicating in pre-inquiry press interviews that they were told not to talk about the sinking to anyone.

I can't answer your questions. The JMS survey was commissioned by Roger Long and I was invited only to the on-camera debrief. There was not enough time for me to learn much about the survey or the architects' methodology, just their initial conclusions which you saw in the programme.

I am hoping that their final conclusions will be published in a paper, but I know nothing of their plans.


There is a separate Britannic show that will be broadcast later this year, I believe around October/November.

>>There is a separate Britannic show that will be broadcast later this year, I believe around October/November.<<
Sweet, thanks for the info Parks. I'll be watching for it.

Too bad the Britannic rests on its side. The Britannic looks to be in great condition when compared to Titanic.

As for how high in the air the Titanic was when she split in two, I figure that Titanic's Achilles Heel and Roger Long made a good argument for how high it was when it split. I'll have to watch it again though to draw more detailed conclusions about that argument.
Steve-- Regarding the water pipes, anything is possible. What we have to deal with is probabilities. The strains on the hull as early as the flooding of boiler room #4 do not seem in my eye to have been enough to cause damage to the internal plumbing. So, I view the possibility of broken/damaged/stretched plumbing as rather high on the improbable side.

On the other hand, mis-use of the bilge dewatering system has been documented as a cause of sinkings. So, I view this possibility as higher on the probable side.

In the end, this is a point-of-view argument that can only be resolved by finding either a broken pipe or a suction valve in the wrong position. And, for that to happen we need money, a research ship, more money, a super-responsive ROV, even more money, good weather over the wreck, and a lot more money. Research vessels exists, as do ROVs. Good weather happens. That still leaves the problem of lots more money.

One final thought, always be humble. Titanic likes to teach painful lessons. This is not an either/or question. It may not have been internal water plumbing or the bilge eduction system that allowed water into places like boiler room #4. We may not yet have stumbled onto the real cause, and so the possibility exists that both points of view are wrong.

The same humble approach should be made in studying the breakup. Yes, the engine rooms were big caverns. However, creating those spaces was an engineering problem, not a flaw in the design. The same goes for the expansion joints. They were not design flaws per se, even if the execution of the joints was not up to modern standards.

I favor the expansion joints as a factor in the breakup over the cavernous engine room spaces for several reasons. The number one reason is the fact that naval architects had been familiar with creating large, open spaces in steel and iron ships for more than half a century when Titanic was built. They knew how to carry the bending strains on the hull around these spaces.

Expansion joints, on the other hand were relatively knew to ship construction. The ones fitted to Titanic--if the blueprints are correct--formed a sort of "notch" in the bulwark which by way of its installation was really an upward flange of the hull girder. This created what is often called a "stress riser" where forces could concentrate. This means the forces at the joints could have been much greater than on the overall structure supporting the engine spaces.

However, whatever happened during the breakup was of no significance to the outcome of Titanic. By that time the ship was too full of water to be saved. Perhaps the breakup took some time off the life of the ship. Or, perhaps not. We do not know. All that can be said with certainty is that it was not a living ship that broke apart, but one that had already expired.

-- David G. Brown
>>...This ever increasing forward weight has been trying to compress the keel...<<

Will, the really massive problem with this lies in the sections of double bottom which were found and studied, which do not show any evidence whatever of the sort of compression damage that one would expect in such an event. No matter how you argue it, it's just not there!

Personally, I don't think it comes close to being a top-down or bottom-up sort of break, and it doesn't have to be as simplistic as "If it's not one way, it has to be the other." It doesn't have to be anything of the kind. For whatever it's worth, I think the reality was a lot more complex, though not so much in cause as in effect.

The base cause is straightforward enough: The hull was stressed beyond it's design limits and it broke. That's the one thing everyone here appears to agree upon and understand, and it's not rocket science. The effect was that once the breakup began, the structure failed in a manner that was as random as it was rapid with the midesection of the ship basically disintigrating.

>>I have often wondered if the crew were instructed by the WSL to keep certain things quiet, or at the very least not give information unless directly asked about something during the inquiries<<

Tad, as a little aside, I don't think the crew needed a whole lot of motivation to be as uncooperative as possible with the investigators. White Star's lawyers would almost certainly have had a word with them about it but it wouldn't have been completey necessery. At the very least, the guys who were on watch at the time of the accident knew that their careers were on the line, and that anyone of them could be singled out to take the blame. When you're in a position like that, you try to do everything possible to make sure you're not a target.

>>Tarn, I'd put my last dollar on that being the reason. Forget all these 'big-thinking' ideas.<<

Steve, if I may, that may be the sensible approach, but there are a lot of people out there who aren't all that sensible about this sort of thing. The mythos surrounding the Titanic has in no small part, the notion that som,ething absolutely incredible must have occured to cause the ship to go down. Bringing up these ideas and subjecting them to serious study goes a long way towards shooting down some of these notions. Whatever else "Titanic's Achilles Heel" did, it certainly accomplished that much.
I think you know me Mike.
I like to rev things up a little and give the average person some food for thought.
Regarding the recent 'Achilles Heel' doco I'm all for programs like this.
I like to see people bring up ideas and suggestions.
I'm all for people like Parks and others putting forward ideas of how the ship may have broken up or any other theory.
One of the reasons I did the conspiracy book and this later Titanic, The Ship Magnificent (with Bruce, Scott and Daniel) is to get information out there for people to read, form opinions and get involved in researching Titanic.
Titanic is such a great subject. It brings people from all walks of life together.
Long after we have all gone the way of the Dodo, it's things people do today, talk about, research and these expeditions that add to the knowledge for the future generations to pickup ( and draw from) where we leave off.
Did anyone dig into the scientific and engineering literature and/or textbooks of the time to see what these guys knew or should have been hearing about? Looking through my collection of dusty books, and based on my own knowledge in the field of fracture of steels, there was a developing knowledge that sharp corners in steel structures caused problems, starting approximately 1900. It is entirely likely that the design changes were due to evolving engineering practice, and happened to coincide with the time between the two ships. I would guess that if you looked at hatch openings and strake junctions you would see smoothing of stress concentrations as well.

Reports of behavior that eventually led to the development of fracture mechanics in the late 40's was being reported at the time Titanic went down.

Quick answer, then I have to do real (i.e., paid) work...yes. I can list the contemporary texts later, if you like. The one I referred to most was a 1909 copy of White's Manual of Naval Architecture. Engineering magazine also had relevant articles.

Simon Mills also dug up many relevant memos and surveys out of the National Archives. In so doing, he found the cracking diagrams for the Comet jet that was used as a comparative example in the show. He had the cracking diagrams for Olympic, too, and copies of the modifications and repairs made to Olympic before Titanic sailed.

Parks in regard to your earlier post about having to retool the show. I liked it myself. I also liked the idea of using the Britannic and an investigation aid. I thought you all did a great job on the show considering all you had to put up with. My Brother has less then zero interest in Titanic especially after growing up listening to me blather on about it but he enjoyed it and got interested enough to ask me some questions. I'm not that interested in the technical aspects myself. I'm more into people on the Titanic, but I found the technical information interesting and informative and more importantly coherent. In other words I could follow it so I just wanted to say great job to you and all the others who contributed to the show. So what will the show on Britannic focus on? Have any info Parks that you could share.

Thanks for your comments. As far as I know, the Britannic show will concentrate more on the Britannic story. Most of the Titanic-Britannic comparisons (including the expansion joint theory) were meant to be covered in TAH. Again, technical and political issues at the wrecksite kept us from getting all the wreck imagery that we wanted, but there should be some new material shown. I won't know for sure until I've seen the show for myself.

Parks you answered my question. So the new special will concentrate on Britannic. It's about time the Britannic story was told. I remember watching only one show on PBS about the Britannic and that was it. I also saw a TV movie about it but that was just entertainment. I wonder if John Chatterton and Richie Kohler will do another show about Titanic or if all that footage you mentioned Parks will just go to wast. I for one hope not. Thanks for answering my question.


Thanks for the overview of what the HC and the HC team went through to create TAH. Nothing like having the proverbial rug pulled out from under your feet to make for some stressful and creative moments, eh?! Well, the program you collectively came up with was a good one in the end. I just hope you've taken notes about all these kinds of experiences so that, someday, you can include them in your memoirs! ;-)

Do you think any of the video and technical data that was gathered/produced to create TFM:MP and TAH will ever be made available to anyone outside the HC? Too much technical information about the ship has been locked away--hoarded--over the years, never again to see the light of day. It's been a sad, unproductive state of affairs for decades, and it needs to change. Hopefully, it will with this production.

Do you expect technical papers to be written and published by any of the HC team? If so, I hope they will be made available not only in society journals such as Commutator and Voyage, but also on forums like ET and TRMA, or even websites such as yours or others. I say--the more widely available, the better!

Congratulations to you and the entire HC team for a job well done! You are right--the Titanic community can be (and often is) brutal when it comes to criticism of projects like this. Just look at how some ripped the show to shreds, or consigned it to the trash heap, before it ever aired! Now that's playing to a rough crowd!