Encyclopedia Titanica

The Infamous Watertight Door Indicator : Mystery Solved


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Ever since James Cameron's blockbuster movie Titanic, there has been much debate over whether or not there was a watertight door indicator panel. This panel, as seen in the movie, would have individual lights that would light up as the automatic watertight doors closed.

Watertight doors indicator

It is commonly believed, and accepted, by Titanic experts, that such a device was never installed on the Olympic, before 1913, and as such, one was never installed on the Titanic either. This belief is furthered by testimonial evidence presented during the US Inquiry into the loss of Titanic. On day four, Third Officer Pitman, would be asked about the presence of such a device.

Senator Smith: All right; I just wanted to know if you knew about it of your own knowledge. Is there any way for an officer on watch to tell whether the doors actually close when he works the lever from the bridge?
Pitman: No; I do not think there is.
Senator Smith: In order to have a perfect test, it would be necessary to have some one below, would it not?
Pitman: I can not say; I am not very well acquainted with those watertight doors. It is the first time that I have been with them
Senator Smith: Did you ever operate a lever on a door of a watertight compartment.
Pitman: From the bridge?
Senator Smith: Yes.
Pitman: No, sir; never.
Senator Smith :But it stands to reason, and your judgment as a navigator is, that operating the lever from the bridge you can not tell with exactness whether the doors have closed below or not?
Pitman: No. Anyhow, the watertight doors were of very little assistance this time.

On day seven, Quartermaster Olliver would also be questioned about the topic.

Senator Burton: Was there an instrument there to show the doors as they closed? Did you ever see one of those instruments?
Olliver: No; I never saw one.
Senator Burton: With little lights that burn up as each door closes, and then go out?
Ollliver: No, sir.
Senator Burton: There was no instrument like that on the Titanic?
Olliver: I did not see that.
Senator Burton: Would you have seen it if it had been there?
Olliver: No doubt I would, sir.

As can be seen, neither Olliver nor Pitman relate having seen such a device. Being that both men worked on the bridge, it seems reasonable that, had there been one, they would have known about it.

Research shows that after Olympic's maiden voyage, Chief Engineer Bell (who would later go on to be Chief Engineer of Titanic, and lose his life), would make the following remark, “I consider that a “tell tale” indicating on the bridge when the doors are closed would be an improvement.”i This at least suggests that Olympic did not have a light panel indicator, at least on its 'bridge', during its maiden voyage. Would Bell have made such a suggestion if there was one elsewhere? Under such suggestion would White Star have ignored it and not install one on Titanic? If Bell's suggestion did fall on deaf ears, the question would be why?

Watertight doors on TitanicIt may be because Titanic's watertight door system was state of the art back then. Titanic was fitted with twelve automatic closing watertight doors on its tank top level. The doors where, “A heavy cast iron door sliding in a heavy cast iron frame, the two being carefully machined and the frame having wedges on it so that when the door was lowered it was wedged home and the two machined faces coming together were made watertight,” and were, “arm controlled from four positions. Electrically, from the bridge, by hand, from the deck at the top of the bulkheads; by hand, adjacent to the doors, and by a float under the floors.”ii Via the bridge, there was no way to work the doors independently of one another.

These doors were designed by Harland and Wolff and constructed within the shipping yard. They were taken from a design developed by Nordeutscher Lloyd, a German company. The importance of the design was the fact that the doors not only closed with their own weight, due to the fact that they closed vertically, but they also did not need manual assistance, which in the past proved to be unreliable. Each door once activated would close in roughly twenty to thirty seconds due to oiled cataracts which governed their speed, operated by hydraulic power generated by two compressors, which worked at a constant pressure of 800psi. Edward Wilding would explain:

In order to give time after the automatic release from the bridge or by the float, so that no one coming through the door, or just passing through the door, should be injured, a hydraulic cataract cylinder, something like a gun recoil cylinder, was arranged, so that the earlier part of the drop shall be comparatively slow, depending on the leakage of a fluid back past the piston in the cylinder. To the last 18 inches or 2 feet there is a bye -pass round the piston, and the door is practically free to fall quickly just for the last 2 feet or so.iii

Due to the fact that these doors closed under their own weight, it was apparently felt that the system was fail safe, and it did not require the bridge knowing whether the doors had closed or not. Though this seems haphazard, it should be remembered that this very system lead to the belief that the ship was 'practically unsinkable'.

The location of the activation 'switch' or 'lever' (as it was referred to in the testimonies) has also been under much discussion. Olympic's switch, it is believed, was located in the chartroomiv. A 1913 notebook from a Harland and Wolff worker, has an entry dated March 1913, that states, “Closing doors also operated from Captain's Bridge. Tell-tale indicator on bridge for each door show whether closed.” The reader may have noted the mention that Olympic's doors were operated from the 'Captain's Bridge' and not the chartroom. Was the switch or lever moved? Or have historians mistaken the placement of the switch?

This is important, as Mr. Boyle, Surveyor in Chief, of the Board of Trade, when asked to give evidence for the bulkhead committee, would, in his draft of suggestions on shipbuilding, write:

Indicators: Indicators for showing when the doors are closed are most desirable. Some arrangements provide for the indicator being placed in the chartroom. v

Scribbled, as a side note, next to the suggestion, it reads: 'Central Control Gears do this'. This reference to 'central control' is in reference to the type of watertight doors that can be activated from a central location (i.e. the bridge) .

Such panels being located in the chart room is also suggested in the 1912 publication, Popular Electricity and the World's Advance, Vol. 5, issue 1-6. In issue five, published in September, 1912, is the article, Electricity's Part in Safeguarding Sea-Travel, which talks about the Titanic disaster. It states:

Of the services performed by electricity incident to safeguarding life at sea, there is none more important, perhaps, than the operation of the watertight bulkhead doors which may be operated individually or collectively from the bridge of the vessel. In this connection it may be mentioned that there has lately been inaugurated an agitation in favor of making these doors smaller in order that they may be more easily operated. In the latest approved system of electrically operated bulkhead door an electric bell sounds in each compartment that is to be closed for some seconds before the doors close, in order to allow time for the egress of any persons who may be in the compartments. Electric indicators in the chart house or on the bridge also indicate at all times just which doors are closed and which are open.

Though this in no way determines rather or not Titanic had such a device, it does suggest a possibility that, if anything, such a device was located in the chartroom if not on the bridge. As mentioned, Olympic's watertight door lever may have been located in it's chartroom. Could the suggestion for improvement, made by Chief Engineer Bell, actually have been to have a light indicator panel moved, and not necessarily have one installed?

Unfortunately, suggestions and indications seems to be all that we have. That is until now! In this debate it was once stated, “I can't prove ... that a system didn't exist, because I can't dig up proof of something's non-existence, short of having a witness or publication specifically state that the system wasn't there.”vi However, finally there is evidence that one did exist!

While researching into a question posted on the Encyclopedia Titanica forumvii, this author stumbled upon the publication, Popular Electricity and the World's Advance, Volume 4, Issues 1-6viii. In issue three, dated July, 1911, is the article The Latest Leviathan and Its Electrical Equipment, by C.B. Edwards. Though published after Olympic's maiden voyage, on June 14, 1911, the article is clearly written before Olympic left Belfast on March 31, 1911, as it reads, “The Olympic, the largest vessel in the world is almost ready to leave her berth at Belfast.”

Popular Electricity

The four page article goes on to talk about all the electrical marvels of the Olympic. The one in which is of interest to this paper reads as such:

Attached to the wall of the navigating room a most important piece of apparatus is the electric indicator for the watertight bulkhead doors. This provides means of observing the closing of all the doors and stopping the inflow of water in case of collision. The doors are closed by hydraulic pressure and as they swing too, tiny electric lights within the indicator show exactly which doors are closed or open.

This, quite possibly, is the definitive answer, as to whether or not Olympic had a watertight door indicator panel before 1913. Of course this article only speaks of the Olympic, and not the Titanic; but, would Harland & Wolff have installed one on Olympic, and not Titanic? This seems doubtful. So even though there is testimonial evidence that Titanic did not have an indicator panelix, this above article clearly suggests otherwise.


i Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board : Watertight Door Activation Switch
ii Edward Wilding L&L May 13, 1905
iii Q20442
iv Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board : Watertight Door Activation Switch - Parks Stephenson April 6, 2002
v MT15-173 pg. 24
vi Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board : Watertight Door Activation Switch - Parks Stephenson, 14th April, 2002, #post223623
vii Offical Designation of the “Olympic Class”?
viii books.google.com
ix Quatermaster Olliver US Inquiry Day 7, Third Officer Pitman US Inquiry Day 4


Brad Payne


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Comment and discuss

  1. pafan pafan

    Very skeptical about this one. I have heard the article quoted has many errors. (A HR version would be nice) I seriously doubt Titanic had a watertight door indicator. Testimony from crew members on Olympic & Titanic seems clear on that. I think they would remember such a display.

  2. B-rad

    I am not one to beat a dead horse, as I have nothing to gain by either convincing people ornot convincing people, rather there was a light indicator on board,but merely out of research and respect, I feel it is meaningful toall to present all data. Since my article was published, I have found two other articles that state such devices was aboard.The first being 'The American Marine Engineer', Vol. 5, January, 1910, which states:Each steamer will be divided into upward of 30 steel compartments separated by heavy bulkheads. An automatic device on the bridge will control all these heavy steel doors, making it possible for a single hand to close them all in almost an instant in case of danger. Each of these doors will be electrically connected with a chart on the bridge, where each door will be represented by a small electric light, and when on of these doors closes, the light will burn red, but while it remains open the disk will be quite dark. The officer on the bridge will thus be able

  3. danwat1234 danwat1234

    No clear zoomed in picture of the Popular Electricity Magazine May 1911?

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2015) The Infamous Watertight Door Indicator : Mystery Solved (Titanica!, ref: #20154, published 2 September 2015, generated 21st March 2023 08:43:42 AM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/the-infamous-watertight-door-indicator-mystery-solved-20154.html