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Sunday, July 11, 2004

Unsinkable by Daniel Allen Butler

“It has been said that Titanic is the third most recognized word in the world, following ‘God’ and ‘Coca-cola’ “. The story of the sinking has been told over and over from several different perspectives, but usually by those who have an axe to grind or who wish to cast aspersions on one ethnic group of the passengers or crew or another. Revisionists have tried to blame different sets of people, or absolve others, for example, holding the builders to a set of standards that were not in place until many years later. Butler has written a straight narrative history that illuminates the myths that have been surrounding the ship’s accident over the past decades without the “moralizing, social leveling, finger pointing, or myth making.

By the launch date of the Titanic transatlantic steaming had reached a level of safety unheard of with any other form of transportation. Only four people had died in the forty years prior to the Titanic’s sinking, so a level of overconfidence and complacency was perhaps not unreasonable.

Titanic was the first of a planned set of three ships. The first to be launched was the Olympic, and the Titanic was to be followed by the Gigantic. Many modifications were made to the Titanic after the seas trials of the Olympic. All were owned by the White Star line that had just been purchased by J. P. Morgan who was trying to create a transportation monopoly that would stretch all the way from Europe to California. By this time he owned all the steamship lines except Cunard that was desperately seeking government assistance to fight off his takeover bid. A massive fare war erupted. At one point steerage fares could be had to America for as little as £2. This contrasted with the one-way fare on the Titanic for the most luxurious suites of about $80,000 in 1997 dollars. The robber barons who enjoyed traveling in style could easily afford it.

One unusual feature on the Titanic was the configuration of the engines. The ship had two reciprocating engines and a low pressure steam turbine that efficiently used the excess low pressure steam from the other engines, but it could not be operated in reverse. This was not thought to be a defect, but it made emergency reverse difficult. The 162 furnaces that heated water in the 29 boilers required the services of over two hundred men around the clock and used about 600 tons of coal per day.

The ship sailed just before the end of the great coal strike that managed to hurt most those people it was intended to help. The effect on the Titanic was that because coal was in such short supply, two other White Star ships had their sailings canceled in order to fill Titanic’s bunkers. It was rushed aboard and not wet down properly causing a fire to begin that smoked and smoldered the entire abbreviated journey.

The ship itself met and, in some cases, exceeded all the Board of Trade safety regulations. In fact, the inspector, the hated Captain Clarke, was known to be the most persnickety of all the B. O. T. inspectors. He passed the ship. The ship had more than the number of required lifeboats even though they were far short of being able to carry all of the passengers and crew. The theory at the time was that lifeboats were merely to be used to transfer crew and passengers from a sinking ship to the rescue vessel. A complicated formula was used to calculate the number of lifeboats based on the cubic foot capacity. The disaster was to result in rewriting the regulations regarding lifeboat capacity.
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