Use of electricity for heating

Francis Simonite

Former Member
I wonder if anyone can explain the reason why the Titanic made such extensive use of electricity for space heating in its passenger areas when there was all that steam available from the boilers which could have been used instead?

Was the choice influenced by the fact that electricity was still something of a novelty in 1912, or are there technical reasons for favoring electricity over steam heat?

Was the heating of passenger areas all done with electricity, or was steam (or other means) used in certain areas?

PS: Sorry to raise so many questions on my first posting!
Hi Francis, here's the nickel tour on heating and ventilating.

As you guessed the selection of how to heat a compartment depended on economy and prestige.

Exposed Steam Radiators: In ordinary store and work rooms that needed to be heated (especially in remote parts of the ship like the water tank rooms) ordinary domestic steam radiators were used.

Hot Air Tanks: In second and third class accommodation, the radiators were placed in air tight drums called "hot air tanks" and a fan blew fresh air over them to warm it up. This comparatively hot air was taken by duct work to the various cabins and public rooms and discharged through louvers.

The advantages here are that the floor space for radiators is eliminated, you get a fairly uniform temperature throughout the ship and "forgotten" radiators don't run the temperature of a room up to 80 or 90 degrees. The bad news is there is no flexibility. The temperature is the temperature, you can only lower it by shutting off the louver (if you can) and wait for the room to cool off. But when you shut the louver off you also stop the supply of fresh air. So in First Class they a composite system of heat regulation.

Warm Air Tanks: These are exactly like the Hot Air Tanks used in 2nd and 3rd with one exception ... they put out air at a lower temperature, about 65 degrees in a typical British ship for the period. This air is distributed throughout the ship and forms the "base" temperature in first class.

There was a large percentage of Americans traveling in first class and while 65 degrees is very comfortable to someone from England, it is absolutely freezing for a Texan, which leads us to "Supplementary heating."

Concealed Steam Radiators: If you look closely at the baseboards of the first class public rooms (especially the gymnasium under the glass signs inboard) you will see that the baseboards are metal with slots cut in them. If passengers were complaining that the Lounge or Smoking Room were too cold, stewards could turn the steam on in these "hidden radiators" and spike the temperature that way.

Supplementary Electrical Heating: The Titanic was supplied with over 500 electric heaters. In the first class baths, private lavatories (750 watts). and first class staterooms (generally 1000 watts), a portable electric heater provided a further boost in the room. Since bathroom and cabin heaters must be portable and throw heat quickly, these electric units were selected as a matter of necessity.

Space Heaters: The last set of electric radiators, the big 3500 and 6000 watt units in the first class entrances, fall into a category of their own. For reasons that are not clear, White Star chose not to have any warm air ducts or baseboard radiators in the stairway foyers, and so the electric units represent the sole source of heat for the entrances.

Had White Star used the warm air and concealed steam radiator system in these areas, it could have done so for virtually no expense of installation and no little operational expense. Instead, White Star decided to install the expensive to purchase operate electrical heaters.

At this point in time, we will never know the logic behind it, but it seams reasonable that it was done simply to impress the first class passengers with the modernity of a ship heated by clean, futuristic electricity in a world still largely warmed by sooty, old-fashioned coal. I don't think it was an accident that they pretty much only appear in an area that every first class passenger will see and yet, because nobody really spends too much time in a stairway foyer, their uneven heating might go unnoticed.

Bill Sauder

Tom Bates

Was the steam pressure redued or was it at boiler pressure(215 psi) and ware did all the waste steam go from Radiators and the Air Tanks? nice post bill

Francis Simonite

Former Member
Thank you Bill for your very informative post.

The concept of using portable electric heaters as a supplement to low level steam heat hadn't occured to me!

I'm not too familiar with Fareinheit values, but I think that 65 degrees would seem a bit chilly by the standards we are used to today (18-20 degrees Celcius, which is, I believe roughly 70(ish) on the Farenheit scale?).

(Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong)

However, I would imagine that in 1912 people were accustomed to wearing a lot more clothes than now (I can't quite imagine Astor, Ismay or Andrews wandering around in a t-shirt and shorts somehow, even in the privacy of their own staterooms!)


Sorry for the delay, I answer these when I can. I don't have any evidence that the system used on Titanic was in fact reduced, but chances are excellent that it was.

The "thermotank" system on which Titanic's was based and the last generation of domestic radiators that I have info on show a reduced pressure.

This has the advantage of reducing the size needed for the Hot/Warm air tank radiators plus it reduces the maximum air temperature since lower pressure steam is lower temperature steam.

Whether the steam left the Hot/Warm air tanks as exhaust or condensate, I again don't know. The advantages of condensate discharge though a trap is that it permits the steam to completely give up its heat content for warming the air, rather than wasting it in an auxiliary condenser.


Yes, 65F does match 18C. By today's standards, Titanic was dimly lit and not very warm -- but then consider that most people of the period were still using, or had recently converted over from gas lighting and coal heating. The blessing of electricity was that it was clean, convenient, instant, trouble-free, and safe.

Consumerist mentality had not set in yet -- nobody thought to ask for more.

Bill Sauder

Olympic was considered too brilliant (light-wise) by some. Instead of creating a nice warm feeling, some felt that the lighting created brilliance, glitter and shine. The Reading and Writing room being white, and with all her lights was considered too light and that eyes would not be able to last long in that room.

I was just surprised by your comment that Titanic was dimly lit.


I was aware of the criticisms of the Olympic's first class illumination, specifically that the Writing room with its numerous unshaded sconces and gloss white walls created fatiguing "dazzle points" that tired the eyes.

When I commented about the illumination on Titanic, I was thinking of the ship as a whole, and how those lighting levels would be interpreted today. Typically, the ceiling fixtures had 40-60 watt bulbs in them and the problem of under-illumination is particularly acute in the cabins. Many ordinary first and second class cabins have just two bare bulbs, for a maximum wattage of 120.

Suburban homes built in the 1950s share the same problem; a single shaded fixture in the dead center of the room. Even with very high wattage bulbs put in them, the light thrown from that fixture is flat, throws strong shadows, and the room seems poorly illuminated.

Bill Sauder

I understand what you mean. I didn't mean to criticize you, I was just surprised that the ship is considered poorly illuminated. However I certainly agree with you about cabins. Other than some odd couple of bulbs and a table lamp, there was nothing else .... this of course was great in 1912, but is poor compared to today's standards.


Jake Angus

Former Member
Bill, the electric space heaters in the FC staterooms and cabins -- do you know if they were temperature sensitive or if they just kept on heating until switched off? Funny about the heat because didn't most people, if they could afford it, heat their dwellings to the point of suffocation?

I've experienced that as recently as five years ago in the UK, to the point that I had to wear shorts in pubs because of no ventilation and stultifying temps!
HI Jake,

The electric space heaters just had on/off switches ... no thermostats. So, when you were warm enough, you shut the unit off.

I get the impression from period descriptions in technical journals that thermostats were a real novelty between 1900 and 1915 because the literature goes to great lengths to explain what a "thermostat" was, how it worked and how to operate it! The problem with marketing new technology is it's hard to introduce it if the public doesn't understand what it does and why it's necessary.

The large foyer units had their elements on separate circuits so that less heat could be turned on as needed so as not to over-warm the room. The power settings were 1500, 3000, 4500, and 6000 watts.

Internally, the most interesting thing about these units is the insulation used on the wires. The electric leads are bolted directly on the heating elements, and there's really no insulation, so the wires get very hot as well -- hot enough to preclude ordinary insulation of the period.

To prevent shorts, the wires were covered in ceramic, barrel-shapped beads like a pearl necklace. This permitted flexibility while affording heat resistant and dependable electrical insulation.


Jake Angus

Former Member
Maybe that's why McGough had his porthole open at the time of the collison! A mixture of bitterly cold sea air and electric heat does sound attractive!
According to "The Shipbuilder" 1911:

64 heating and ventilation fans were located on the boat deck; of the Scirocco type by Davidson & Co.Ltd., powered by Allen motors to the design of H&W.

In addition, individual electric heaters were provided in each first class stateroom.

There was also a fan driven extractor system for removing 'vitiated' air from lavatories, pantries, galleys, bathrooms and other quarters.