Aspects of History: Technology and the Titanic

paperboy announces Titanic sinking

Last Updated on October 31, 2022 by ADMIN-TOM

Aspects of History: Technology and the Titanic

Ned Parfett, the young lad shown in the image above, was a 15-year-old newspaper seller in London. When he was handed copies of the Evening News to sell, he also received a large poster that he would hold up to display the headlines that evening. On that day, the headlines announced a catastrophe at sea the like of which had never been seen before. Ned’s poster announced the sinking of the Titanic. The headlines were heralding a message that was received loud and clear across the globe. Perhaps Ned realised he was part of a message, perhaps not. Either way, thanks to the technology of the time, namely the camera, Ned’s name would also be immortalised and forever associated with the saga of the Titanic.

At the time of the Titanic disaster humans were increasingly putting their trust in fledgling technologies and in some cases, this was leading to disasters where many people were losing their lives. The technology of the early part of the 20th Century was a new and wondrous experience for many people. From electric lightbulbs to early telephones, people’s lives were being transformed for the better. But the infancy of any technological expansion will inevitably lead to human error, often with catastrophic and deadly consequences. In my book, The Brittle Sea, the tragedy of the Titanic was a small aspect of the entire story. The loss of the Titanic was simply a device for fiction to introduce characters. In reality, a major aspect of the sinking of the Titanic was the pure negligence of those who should have known better.

The Titanic’s designers and engineers were, in some cases, working blind because not enough was known about the consequences of an accident outside the realm of current knowledge. Though the Titanic was considered at the time to be a modern marvel of engineering, it was in fact a death trap if a series of unexpected events occurred.

The Titanic was hailed as a technological marvel and as such an unsinkable ship, but not, as many believe, by the designer or builders, but by the press. When the Titanic struck the iceberg near midnight on 14th April 1912 nobody had foreseen such a disastrous event. Collisions with icebergs where known events in the North Atlantic, but what had not been considered was the speed of the liner, the size of the iceberg, the mass of the berg underwater and the poor engineering involved in creating watertight compartments. There were sixteen watertight compartments that were supposed to seal the lower decks in case of a leak. If these had worked, then the Titanic may never have sunk. However, the one poor engineering aspect of these compartments was their failure to reach to the ceiling. If enough water filled one of these compartments, then the water would overflow to the next compartment and the ship would then be forced lower into the water. This is exactly what happened on that fateful night as the long gash created by the collision with the berg allowed water to flow in and overcome the watertight compartments. The inevitable weight of water lowered the ship more into the icy water until the inevitable happened, the Titanic sank.

The iceberg the Titanic struck has been estimated at 150,000-300,000 tons and for 60 hours before the disaster, warnings had been transmitted by Marconi wireless. The lookouts had to contend with a moonless night and so it was not easy to spot the largest icebergs before it was too late, especially since the Titanic was cruising at 22 knots, her maximum speed. In other words, it was an accident waiting to happen.

What made the tragedy even worse was that there were originally enough lifeboats to hold all the passengers and crew. But due to an aesthetic demand, one row of lifeboats was removed. That decision alone doomed many to an icy death.

After the disaster there were two main enquiries in the UK and USA. The ship was American owned but British built. There were recriminations on either side.

There is no denying that the Titanic disaster heralded a new era of safety at sea, with lawmakers and ship builders on both sides of the Atlantic employing technological breakthroughs to increase ship’s safety. The sad conclusion is that despite modern technologies, human error is still a main contributory factor to many accidents, large or small.

Copyright © Tom Kane 2022

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