How the Titanic Worked

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus & Kathryn Whitbourne
R.M.S. Titanic
The R.M.S. Titanic was thought to be unsinkable as it departed Southampton in England on April 10, 1912. Wikimedia Commons

We can't get enough of the Titanic. It was an epic disaster, for sure. More than 1,500 people died when the ship sank into the North Atlantic late on the night of April 14, 1912, which is tragic enough. But there are so many other aspects to this famous disaster that foster intrigue. Like the fact that life-saving efforts were focused on the elite; while more than 500 third-class passengers perished, only 123 first-class passengers did. And the fact that the accident could very well have been prevented if the crew had heeded ice warnings from other ships.

And then there's the posh sailing vessel itself, with luxuries like five grand pianos and the Grand Staircase, which is actually a collection of ornate staircases. No wonder innumerable books, poems, films and songs have been created about the it. And that one historian claimed the Titanic, along with Jesus and the Civil War, are the three most-written-about subjects of all time [source: Mendelsohn].


The idea for the Titanic was conceived over an intimate dinner in 1907 between J. Bruce Ismay, Lord William Pirrie and their wives. Ismay was the son of Thomas Ismay, who had founded the British shipping company White Star Line on the premise that people would travel farther by ship if the vessels were luxurious enough. Pirrie was chairman of Harland & Wolff, a shipbuilding company based in Belfast [source: RMS Titanic].

During dinner, the conversation centered around two new ocean liners, the Mauretania and the Lusitania, which had been built by the Cunard Line, competitor to the White Star Line. Ismay and Pirrie felt they could create bigger and better ships than those two. By the end of the evening, they'd imagined constructing a trio of sister ships: the Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic (the latter would be renamed Brittanic after the Titanic tragedy).

These three ships would be posh, fast and safe, the men determined. As we'll see, they failed on only one count.


Construction and Components of the Titanic

The Titanic is readied for launch in Belfast.
The Titanic is readied for launch in Belfast. Robert John Welch/Wikimedia Commons

The White Star Line's triumvirate of steamers included the Gigantic, Olympic and Titanic. These ships shared a design plan and a common theme: bigness. White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay and Lord William Pirrie, chairman of shipbuilders Harland & Wolff, estimated that they'd be about one-and-a-half times the size of the Cunard Line's largest ships [source: RMS Titanic]. Ismay and Pirrie's early sketches of the ships included two masts and four smokestacks — the ships would only need three to function, but a fourth was added to make the design symmetrical and was later repurposed into a ventilation system. Alexander Montgomery Carlisle was named head designer of the project, a position later handed over to Pirrie's nephew, Thomas Andrews.

To build a safe ship 882.5 feet (268.8 meters) long and 92.5 feet (28.2 meters) wide with a gross weight of 45,000 tons (40,823 metric tons), some innovative shipbuilding techniques and materials were required [source: RMS Titanic]. John Brown's shipbuilding firm obliged Ismay and Pirrie with steel and turbines. The Parson's turbine was an essential development in the construction process — it operated off the exhaust steam produced by the ship's two reciprocating engines, which were nearly four stories tall. This arrangement, combined with two three-blade propellers measuring 23.5 feet (7.2 meters) in diameter and a four-blade propeller of 17 feet (5.2 meters) located near the ship's rudder, produced enough horsepower to attain speeds up to 24 knots [source: Halpern].


The ships required an immense amount of power, and these powerhouse compartments were located in the hull of the ship. A turbine room, an engine room, six boiler rooms, 11 stokeholds and rooms for heaters and refrigeration equipment were separated by bulkheads — reinforced partitions. Another innovation aboard the ships was watertight doors that could be dropped automatically or by manual controls. Thomas Andrews' theory behind these watertight doors was that they could close off flooded compartments in case of emergency. He designed the ships to stay afloat with two of the 16 compartments flooded; the ship could even manage to sail on with up to three or four water-filled compartments. Above the machinery in the hull, decks lettered A through F contained everything from cabins and dining halls to Turkish baths. (We'll read more about those decks in the next section.)

There was a catch to these grandiose plans, however: No construction arena or launching site could accommodate the ships. So before the ships could be built, the White Star Dock and the Great Gantry were. The Great Gantry was a series of 10 cranes that could lift laborers and materials to the height of the deck to which they were assigned to build. The Olympic was built first and completed by 1911, and the Titanic was completed in 1912, after the construction efforts of nearly 11,000 men [source: RMS Titanic].

Next, we'll look at the structure and interior design of the Titanic.


A Touch of Distinction: Titanic's Design

Grand Staircase
A drawing of the Grand Staircase onboard the RMS Titanic, taken from a 1912 promotional booklet. Titanic National Museums Northern Ireland/Wikipedia

By the time the Titanic was completed in 1912, the ship's price tag hovered around £4.3 million ($7.5 million or $400 million in 2019 dollars) [source: Investopedia]. The ship reflected Ismay and Pirrie's goals of a posh, fast and safe ship. Conceptually, Titanic wasn't too different from modern cruise ships. But in the early 20th century, the comforts and amenities of this ocean liner were unlike anything travelers had ever seen before. It was more like a floating luxury hotel than a ship, and Titanic's designers put every effort into disguising or hiding equipment and cargo. Even the lifeboats were deemed eyesores on the deck, so only 16 were loaded along with four collapsible boats. (This would later prove a fatal mistake.)

From top to bottom, the ship was structured like this:


The design of the Titanic.
The design of the Titanic.
  • Boat Deck: Contained the Captain's Bridge, from which the ship was navigated, the gym and the open, pine-paneled deck
  • Promenade Deck (Deck A): Encompassed the two first-class staircases (placed between the four giant funnel stacks), reading/writing room, lounge, all-male first-class smoking room and the Verandah Café/Palm Court (an indoor area designed to look like an outdoor patio)
  • Bridge Deck (Deck B): Included first-class cabins/suites, an à la carte restaurant and Café Parisien, an all-male second-class smoking room and the third-class poop deck (a platformlike deck where third-class passengers strolled and played games among some larger cargo equipment)
  • Shelter Deck (Deck C): Site of the purser's office, third-class smoking room and the second-class library/lounge
  • Saloon Deck (Deck D): First-class reception room, first-class dining saloon (located strategically between the second and third funnels to ensure the least noise and movement disturbance possible to elegant diners), first- and second-class galleys and the second-class dining saloon
  • Upper Deck (Deck E): Contained second- and third-class cabins
  • Middle Deck (Deck F): Location of the third-class dining saloon and the Turkish baths (a hot, dry room with electric baths and tubs with cold water for soaking)
  • Lower Deck/Orlop Deck: Included the squash courts; post office; carpentry, plumbing and electrical workshops; and "refrigerated" rooms cooled by a series of miles-long copper pipes where foodstuffs and other perishables were contained. (Orlop is just a fancy term for the lower decks in sailing vessels with at least four decks.)
  • Tank Top: Housed the boiler and engine rooms

[source: RMS Titanic] (For an extensive description of all the decks and rooms, visit the Ultimate Titanic website.)

The era dictated much about the ship's design; Edwardian style ran rampant with touches of Georgian and Louis XV influences. There was an airy lightness to much of the ship's décor — wicker furniture in the casual dining areas, subtle pastel fabrics, palm trees and other lush potted plants, cheery wallpaper with simple floral or stripe motifs, and lots of glass and lighting fixtures reinforced with iron. Titanic was impossibly in vogue, and thousands of people clamored to be part of her maiden voyage. The ship could hold 3,295 people: 2,435 passengers plus 860 officers and crew members, but was not full when she set sail for New York [source: RMS Titanic].

As we've seen in the delineation of the different levels of the ship, class was an important distinction aboard the Titanic.


An Ill-fated Voyage: Truly Titanic Mistakes

Captain Smith
Edward Smith, captain of Titanic, in 1911.
Wikipedia Commons

Titanic's designers had discerning and practical taste, but they also took great care to ensure that everyone from the well-shod passengers to the poorest travelers in steerage had a grand experience. They knew that many third-class passengers were immigrating to the United States, and they intended for the passage to be a memorable one that infused these people with a hopeful sense of what was to come in their new lives [source: RMS Titanic]. To that end, even third-class rooms were private and enclosed, a modicum of luxury in their own right.

The ship set sail from its launching site in Belfast to Southampton, England, on April 3, 1912. On April 10, Titanic picked up its passengers from Southampton, then moved along to Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland, to collect the rest. The numbers of passengers and crew onboard vary depending on the source. But it appears that there were around 1,324 passengers and 884 officers and crew members. Of these passengers, there were 329 first-class travelers, 285 second-class travelers and 710 third-class travelers [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. First-class consisted primarily of wealthy industrialists and their families, among them John Jacob Astor IV (J.P. Morgan was supposed to be on board but he had to cancel his trip due to business conflicts). Among the second-class passengers were businessmen and members of the clergy (even a teacher and chauffeur are recorded to have been traveling second-class). Third class, or steerage, was comprised mostly of European immigrants.


There are some discrepancies in passenger records due to canceled trips, transfers to other ships and some passengers and crew simply being left behind. Some passengers traded or sold their boarding passes, and the names of the alternate passengers were never recorded. Now-legendary accounts of people like the three Slade brothers, who, after imbibing at Southampton pubs, were refused boarding privileges, or Mrs. Edward W. Bill, who refused to board after having a nightmare of the Titanic sinking, inspired the creation of a "Just Missed It" Club [source: Eaton]. According to an April 1912 report in the Milwaukee Journal, nearly 6,000 people were fatefully saved from the Titanic disaster after missing the boat or changing their travel plans. The fact that the ship could only accommodate about 2,500 passengers pokes holes in some of these flimsy just-missed-it stories.

Titanic Facts
Fast facts about the Titanic.
HowStuffWorks 2008/2020

But those who did board the Titanic boarded at great expense. First-class tickets cost anywhere from $2,500 to $4,500 (that's $66,525 to $119,744 in 2020 dollars); third-class passages could be obtained for around $35 ($931 in 2020 dollars) [source: engines could be felt and heard.

Aside from these disturbances, the Titanic's crew worked to ensure that everyone enjoyed a comfortable voyage. In addition to the band and members of the deck, engine and victualling (culinary) departments were the captain of the ship, Edward John Smith and Thomas Andrews, the ship's head designer. Despite Smith's distinctive record of seamanship and Andrews' so-called unsinkable ship, the Titanic's maiden voyage was doomed.


An Ill-fated Voyage: Truly Titanic Mistakes

The size of the Titanic sparked a fiery debate. Some said a ship of that size couldn't be safe; others said that a ship as large as Titanic was virtually impenetrable.

But there were many problems with the general bigness of the Titanic. For one, the Board of Trade had no safety regulations in place for a ship that size. According to the board's 1894 Merchant Shipping Act, the number of lifeboats required onboard a ship was in direct proportion to the ship's gross tonnage. But the act stopped calculating at a ship of 10,000 tons (9,071 metric tons), which was beholden to carry 16 lifeboats. Titanic, which had about 35,000 tons (31,751 metric tons) on that figure, carried precisely 16 lifeboats [source: RMS Titanic].


Other big problems? Titanic underwent only about six or seven hours of testing. During this time, the ship's turning radius and equipment were observed, but Titanic was never even driven at its maximum speed. What's more, emergency drills required some crew members to practice lowering lifeboats, but they lowered only two of the 16, rendering an inaccurate estimation of time for evacuation procedures. One reason for these abbreviated tests and drills may have been that the full crew wasn't even onboard yet — many didn't board until a few hours before Titanic took off from Southampton, and most of the crew weren't assigned official jobs or posts until they neared Cherbourg the following day [source: Titanic Inquiry Project].

telegraph from Titanic
This Marconi wireless message was sent from Titanic after it had hit the iceberg.
Matt Campbell/AFP/Getty Images

The ship was short on safety supplies, too. As we've seen, there were too few lifeboats, but the crew lacked binoculars and searchlights as well. And while the Marconi wireless telegraphy system onboard the Titanic was innovative, it was probably too cutting-edge to be effective: Not many people knew yet how to operate and receive Marconi messages.

Titanic was also an inadvertent bully. The churning waters left in the ship's wake were violent enough to suck a smaller steamer, the New York, into its propeller. This accident left Titanic unscathed, but the New York wasn't as lucky — its moorings were virtually ripped off and had to be recovered. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to many passengers onboard, the Titanic was actually on fire in one of its coal bunkers. Fire wasn't enough to detain the giant ship; Titanic sailed on, and the fire was eventually extinguished. (Good thing, too, because Titanic needed all the coal it had stored on board. The ship required nearly 600 tons [544 metric tons] per day to operate.)

Should these incidents have postponed the maiden voyage across the Atlantic? Perhaps. But captain, crew and passengers alike put their faith in the sturdy giantess. The ship's brute strength and size could forestall any disaster, and that might explain why Capt. Smith discounted the ice warnings he received on the night of April 14, 1912, and instead forged ahead — full throttle — at the record-breaking speed of 22.5 knots.


The Titanic's Collision With the Iceberg

The iceberg thought to have been hit by Titanic, photographed on the morning of April 15, 1912. Note the dark spot just along the iceberg's waterline, which was described by onlookers as a smear of red paint, indicating a recent collision with a ship. United States Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons

The night of April 14, 1912, the third day of the Titanic's maiden voyage, was numbingly cold — the water's temperature hovered at 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2.2 degrees Celsius). Around noon that day, the Titanic's Marconi wireless operators received the first of at least four cautionary messages about large ice floes just ahead. A second message came in at 5:35 p.m. (EST) from a ship that reported three icebergs just 19 miles (30.5 kilometers) north of the Titanic's path. And just one hour before the Titanic's collision at 11:40 p.m., a vessel named the Californian messaged to the Titanic, "We are stopped and surrounded by ice." The response from operator? "Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race." Cape Race was a wireless relay station in Newfoundland [source: Titanic Inquiry Project].

Whatever conversation the Titanic's operator was having with Cape Race (apparently he was sending messages on behalf of passengers), it couldn't have been as pressing as the Californian's warning. Yet, the threat of ice was brushed off. It wasn't just the operator who discounted the danger (the Californian's wireless operator later testified that he "put the phones down, took off my clothes, and turned in") — it was the illustrious captain, too [source: steel behemoth. His concern was shattering speed records set by other steamers. He told Second Officer Charles Lightoller, who was stationed on the Captain's Bridge, that if the night became too hazy, he should be alerted immediately and would slow down the ship's speed.


But the night was clear, and Titanic sped on. Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were in the crow's nest. Fleet was nearing the end of his shift when he spied the foretold iceberg. They sounded the alarm and called down to the bridge. It took First Officer William M. Murdoch just 37 seconds to order the engines to stop and go full speed astern, a common maneuver of the day, to attempt to miss the iceberg. Murdoch also quickly closed all the watertight doors [source: RMS Titanic, Titanic Inquiry Project]. Murdoch reacted as well as he could in the face of danger: Titanic didn't have enough time to make a complete stop or to turn away from the iceberg. Stopping the ship would've required a half mile (804.7 meters). The iceberg loomed closely at only 900 feet (274 meters) from the ship.

For a few seconds, it seemed as though Murdoch's maneuver might've worked. The massive ship finally turned and appeared it might clear the iceberg. But it wasn't in time. From the surface, though, the ship seemed to miss the iceberg, but beneath the waterline, a protruding fragment of ice ripped a hole in the Titanic's hull. If the ship shuddered, it was subtle and went undetected by most passengers or excused as the heavy, groaning machinery. When Andrews and Capt. Smith surveyed the resulting flood damage, they surmised that the hole must be nearly 300 feet (91.4 meters) wide. In reality, the tear was quite modest — six slim lacerations measuring about 3.2 square feet (around 0.3 square meters).

But Murdoch's training to steer the ship around the iceberg rather than hit it straight on took meant the Titanic hit where it was most vulnerable, and even the smallest gash caused catastrophic results. Andrews eventually determined that five of the ship's compartments had already begun to flood, and he made the grim announcement that the ship would sink — no question about it. He predicted that there was an hour or an hour and a half left before the giantess would slip to the watery bottom of the Atlantic.


The Titanic's Sinking: A Mathematical Certainty

As we've seen, the Titanic captured people's confidence. Ismay and Pirrie were confident that it would be the biggest and most luxurious ship in the world, thousands of passengers were confident that it would transport them to New York faster than any other ship could, and Capt. Smith was confident that the ship could withstand any of the innocuous ice floes he'd been warned of.

Now, Andrews, the ship's chief designer, was confident that the unsinkable Titanic would sink.


Titanic had earned the title of unsinkable from the watertight compartments in the ship's hull. We learned that doors between the bulkheads could be dropped to prevent flooding from spreading across all 16 compartments in the hull. The ship was designed to take on water in any two of the compartments and still sail on — Andrews said that Titanic could even tolerate flooding in a fourth compartment if necessary. But five flooded compartments mathematically guaranteed that Titanic would sink [source: RMS Titanic].

Let's recap now. Ships — even those made of materials as heavy as steel — float on the surface of water because buoyancy pushes them upward and gravity pulls them downward. These two forces balance each other out, allowing a ship to steadily float along.

In the case of the Titanic's compartments that we've been reading so much about, the air inside of them rendered the ship less dense than the surrounding water. But when the ship struck the iceberg, the lightweight air was quickly replaced by the dense water pouring into the damaged compartments. As a result, the ship's front (bow) became much heavier than the back (stern) and began a slow and steady descent downward.

The Titanic didn't just sink — eyewitness reports testify that it broke in half. Science supports these accounts. In the middle of the ship, the stress of bearing the heavy weight of the water-filled front compartments overwhelmed the steel structure. As the bow dipped beneath the waterline, the keel began to rise high out of the water and the steel plates holding this portion of the ship together started buckling under the pressure. This stress reached 35,000 pounds (15,876 kilograms) per square inch on the boat deck; that's nearly 50 percent more stress than the Titanic was designed to withstand. At last, the plates gave way. The bow plunged downward, and the ship snapped in two. When it severed, the flickering electricity was finally extinguished, and passengers and crew were left in the darkness of a moonless night.

Less than half would live to see the sunrise.


The Titanic Disaster: Women and Children First

An artist's impression of the sinking of the Titanic.
An artist's impression of the sinking of the Titanic. Willy Stöwer/Wikimedia

Capt. Smith accepted that his rockets fired every five minutes) were not answered [sources: RMS Titanic, Titanic Inquiry Project]. Still any vessels that saw the flares couldn't traverse the dangerous ice floes to aid the sinking ship.

Because the collision with the iceberg had been so slight, scarcely any passengers were aware that the ship was in trouble. They continued their nightly rituals — some socialized in the lounges, others relaxed in their cabins and some were fast asleep. Crew members were mobilized for action, but no formal shipwide announcement had been made that Titanic was sinking. People who heard murmurs of an emergency dismissed them; after all, the ship was unsinkable. Instead, a hushed and dire situation gradually gave way to chaos as it became clear that the ship was not equipped with enough lifeboats to convey everyone to safety.


While there were plenty of cork life jackets to go around, there was room for only 1,176 passengers in the lifeboats — and there were 2,208 passengers and crew members onboard. At 12:25 a.m., the captain gave his crew orders to start lowering the first lifeboats and leading first-class passengers to the boat deck. There were 14 lifeboats capable of carrying 65 people (910 total), two emergency sea boats capable of carrying 35 people (70 total) and four collapsible boats capable of carrying 49 people (total 196) [source: Titanic Inquiry Project]. The first lifeboat wasn't even filled to capacity — it held 27 people when it had room for 65. The crew was worried it could not hold the weight of a full load.

scene from James Cameron's Titanic
A scene from James Cameron's "Titanic" shows the chaotic atmosphere as passengers scramble for lifeboats.
Merie Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

As ocean water rose higher and higher in the ship, first- and second-class passengers were directed in droves to the highest deck. Third-class passengers were detained in the bottom decks and permitted to ascend to the boat deck only after the first and second classes were accounted for (about 20 minutes later). Third-class steward John Hart took it upon himself to direct them toward the proper evacuation route. Many members of the third class had never ventured far past their cabins, and they got lost in the labyrinthine hallways of the ship.

While First Officer Murdoch and Second Officer Lightoller both loaded passengers in lifeboats, their strategies were a little different. Murdoch ushered as many people as possible into his boats; Lightoller permitted only women and children. By 2:00 a.m., all the lifeboats had been lowered, and half the ship's passengers and crew still remained. They strapped on their life vests as the band stoically played on. According to sources, their last song was likely either "Autumn" or "Nearer My God to Thee" [source: Tikkanen].

At this point, the ship's stern had risen dramatically out of the water as the bow plunged forward. It loomed dramatically at the height of a 25-story building. Thirty-one thousand tons (28,122 metric tons) of water had poured into the ship, and Capt. Smith officially dismissed his crew members from duty so that they could choose how to accept their fates. Flickering lights finally gave way to darkness, and radio wires were severed as the second smokestack broke and tumbled onto the deck. At 2:20 a.m., the ship sank into the North Atlantic.


Carpathia Cometh: Titanic Survivors, Casualties and Ensuing Lawsuits

newsboy Ned Parfett
Newsboy Ned Parfett holds a large newspaper banner advertisement about the sinking while standing outside the White Star Line offices in London, April 16, 1912.
Wikimedia Commons

When the Carpathia arrived at the disaster site at 4:30 a.m. on April 15, 1912, it was a bleak scene. The lifeboats were adrift with no compasses or lights, and the shivering passengers in them huddled together to protect against the frigid air. Carpathia recovered 14 lifeboats and 712 survivors — though one of them died later en route to New York, the maiden voyage's final destination. By then, the world was waking up to the news that the unsinkable ship had sunk. Families with loved ones aboard the vessel were desperate for a list of survivors; it wouldn't be compiled until a week after the accident.

After it had gathered survivors, the Carpathia asked the Californian to look for bodies. The vessel reported that it found none. Historians today believe that the Californian didn't count for factors like drift and force of impact that might've carried bodies away from the site where Titanic sank. These results were unsatisfactory for the White Star Line. White Star commissioned search vessels to conduct further investigation of the area. Of these vessels, the Mackay-Bennett recovered 306 bodies, Mina found 15 and the Montmagny and Algerine came away with four and one, respectively. The crews of these ships were privy to a macabre sight — frozen, bloated corpses. The dead were so heavily waterlogged that it took a small group of men to heave each one over the side of the boats.


The recovered first-class passengers were embalmed and placed in coffins. In many instances, their frozen limbs had to be forcibly broken to fit inside. Second- and third-class passengers were swaddled in canvas bags, and some crew members were laid in the ice holds of the vessels while others were strapped to 28-pound (12-kilogram) iron rods and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Recovered corpses were taken to a nearby port at Nova Scotia, where they were identified and buried. Identifying the bodies proved difficult; some crew members had raided cabins for furs and warm clothing, and their identities were mistaken as first- and second-class passengers. The White Star Line agreed to ship bodies back to Southampton, England, for a cargo rate; no one took the company up on its offer.

New York Times Titanic headline
On April 16, 1912, the New York Times announced the Titanic shipwreck. The disaster impacted people the world over.
Blank Archives/Getty Images

England's King George V issued a public statement of condolence after the tragedy, and Parliament conducted the inquiry into the accident. The U.S. Senate also conducted an investigation on the basis that Sen. William A. Smith had sailed with Capt. Smith before and wanted to know how a ship under his care had sunk. Both England and the United States reached similar conclusions: The ship had inadequate life-saving apparatuses onboard, and its designers and inspectors had been negligent and cursory in their evaluations [source: RMS Titanic]. Because there were so many inconsistencies in the survivors' accounts and the witnesses' testimonies, it was nearly impossible to draw firm conclusions about the disaster. But here are some of the conclusions from the U.S. Senate's inquiry at the time:

There was no system adopted for loading the boats; there was great indecision as to the deck from which boats were to be loaded; there was wide diversity of opinion as to the number of the crew necessary to man each boat; there was no direction whatever as to the number of passengers to be carried by each boat, and no uniformity in loading them. On one side only women and children were put in the boats, while on the other side there was almost an equal proportion of men and women put into the boats, the women and children being given the preference in all cases. The failure to utilize all lifeboats to their recognized capacity for safety unquestionably resulted in the needless sacrifice of several hundred lives which might otherwise have been saved.

The Board of Trade later argued that the 26 requisite lifeboats determined to have been needed onboard a ship the Titanic's size couldn't have been lowered and filled in the amount of time the crew had to evacuate passengers. Individual cases were brought against the White Star Line for personal losses of loved ones and property; the verdicts of these are wide and varied. Some lawyers called the Titanic cases a litigation nightmare, given the discrepancies and holes in the story.

Recovery emphasis was placed on Titanic's passengers and crew; for nearly a century, the ship itself sat rusting on the bottom of the Atlantic. In the late 20th century, scientists became determined to locate the shipwreck.


RMS Titanic and Robert Ballard: Rediscovering the Steel Giantess

Titanic replica
A replica of the upper section of the fourth funnel of the Titanic is towed along the River Thames toward Tower Bridge on Nov. 3, 2010 in London. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The human aspect of the Titanic tragedy continues to resonate with people, but it wasn't until the late 20th century that scientists were emboldened to actively search for the remnants of the ship itself. This quest was more challenging than many explorers initially imagined. To begin with, no one knew for sure where the shipwreck was located — they had only records of the final coordinates of the ship from the distress calls it placed. Furthermore, no submersibles existed that could withstand the pressures exerted on the bottom of the Atlantic seafloor at an estimated depth of 13,000 feet (3.96 kilometers). Finding the ship was going to require a lot of luck and money.

In 1981, a wealthy Texas oil baron named Jack Grimm claimed to have located the shipwreck. His expedition, led with all the bravado of a cocky cowboy, turned up a massive propeller at the bottom of the Atlantic, but further scans of the area produced no more evidence. Dr. Robert Ballard, an oceanographer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, learned from Grimm's mistake and planned to use sonar for reconnaissance of a wide swath of the Atlantic. Ballard developed Argo, a research submersible named for the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Argo was an unmanned submersible equipped with video cameras. It was controlled by Ballard and his crew aboard a research vessel. They could observe Argo's discoveries from the video feed and sonar it transmitted. The U.S. Navy funded a three-week long test with Argo in the summer of 1985 — but the expedition failed.


Ballard re-evaluated his methods. He determined that it would be likelier to find the projected 2.5 mile- (4 kilometer) wide debris field left in the ship's wake rather than locating the ship itself. Using the Californian's logbooks, Ballard traced backward from the lifeboats' drifting trajectory to the location of the actual shipwreck. And his methodology worked: On Sept. 1, 1985, Ballard's team found one of the Titanic's boilers. Argo continued scanning the seafloor, and it at last revealed the ship's giant hull. Ballard's expeditions turned up more evidence with the development of Jason Junior, an even more sophisticated video camera [source: RMS Titanic].

In 1994, after some scuffling over who had salvage rights to the newly discovered shipwreck, RMS Titanic, Inc. became salvor-in-possession, which meant it was the only entity that could collect artifacts. Rules were set in place specifying how artifacts would be conserved and curated [source: NOAA]. To date, RMS Titanic, Inc. has collected more than 5,500 artifacts, including a 17-ton section of the hull [source: Godin]. It also runs exhibits of these Titanic artifacts that the public can pay to see. James Cameron used photos from these expeditions to the wreckage when designing his 1997 masterpiece film "Titanic."

But RMS Titanic, Inc. is hardly the only group that has visited the wreckage since its 1985 discovery. Many scientists and historians have explored the site, which lies in international waters about 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland. And from 1998 to 2012, diving companies offered trips down to the Titanic to anyone able to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege [source: Godin].

Soon, all trips to the Titanic may cease. That's because researchers believe the ship could disappear by 2030, thanks to the fact that it's being eaten alive by "Halomonas titanicae," a voracious, iron-loving bacteria discovered in 2010. As the bacteria eats away at the ship, "rusticles" form – rusty, icicle-like formations that hang off the wreckage. Over time, these rusticles dissolve into the sea, effectively taking the Titanic with them [source: Keegan].

In 2020, after RMS Titanic, Inc. announced it was planning to remove one of the Titanic's roofs to recover more items, the U.S. and U.K. governments signed a treaty that they claim allows them to grant or deny licenses to remove items from the Titanic. RMS Titanic, Inc. contests that, saying it has control of the ship [source: Perraudin]. And RMST won a court case in 2020 allowing them, for the first time, to cut into the ship and remove the Marconi telegraph.

What happens down the road is anyone's guess. But memories of the Titanic and its flawed majesty will always remain a vibrant part of history.


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More Great Links

  • Choi, Charles Q. "Are creatures in '10,000 BC' real or fake?" Live Science -MSNBC. March 5, 2008 (Oct. 6, 2008).
  • Eaton, John P. "Canceled Passages Aboard Titanic." April 6, 2008 (Sept. 26, 2008).
  • Fuhrmann, Ryan. "The Titanic Proves Its Worth." June 25, 2019 (April 22, 2020).
  • Godin, Mélissa. "The Titanic Wreck Will Now Be Protected Under a 'Momentous Agreement' With the U.S." Time. Jan. 21, 2020 (April 24, 2020)
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