Like many others, I have been fascinated by the buzz surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Some have commented that this maritime disaster was one of the most memorable events of the 20th century. Memorable, perhaps, because it symbolized a fin de siècle, the end of an era which had been characterized by an unbridled optimism that human history would know only smooth sailing ahead.
When the Titanic was launched from the Belfast ship yards, the world was just acclimating to electricity, the radio, and the automobile. The Wright brothers had demonstrated the possibility of fixed-wing flight just nine years before. And now here was one more mind-boggling innovation: a glorious ship that was speedy and unsinkable. What an appropriate name, Titanic (meaning great force or power), for a ship designed to triumph over nature. But as everyone who has seen the movie knows, the unsinkable sank one dark night on its first time out in the ocean.
One of the more recent and interesting Titanic-themed books is Andrew Wilson's Shadow of the Titanic which focuses less on the ship itself and more on the people who were aboard for that maiden voyage to New York. How did they handle themselves when the abandon-ship order was given? And what happened to them in the years that followed?
Among the many stories Wilson tells, I found myself drawn most to three men who had at least one thing in common. Each of them—at a given moment—might have been able to do something that would have averted the sinking of the Titanic.
The first of the three is Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Lines which had built the Titanic. In testimony before a congressional committee investigating the sinking, he identified himself as the ship-owner.
On the day of the disaster, Bruce Ismay walked the first class deck of the ship engaging in conversation with fellow passengers. In his pocket was a "wire" (telegram) passed on to him by the ship's captain. The wire spoke of icebergs in the area ("Greek steamer 'Athenai' reports passing icebergs and large quantity of field ice today in latitude 41.51 N, longitude 49.52 W."
According to witnesses, Ismay enjoyed showing the wire to others because—as one witness later testified—"Mr. Ismay's manner was that of one in authority and the owner of the ship and what he said was law."
Proud and overconfident
The second man worth noting is the Titanic's captain, Edward Smith. Ironically, this voyage was to be his last as a ship's captain. Smith planned to go into retirement when he reached New York.
Captain Smith was well aware of the icebergs which lay ahead of him because he had heard one warning after another from passing ships that day. He was aware that, as night began to fall, most ships in the area were choosing to drop anchor and remain in place until the next morning.
But stopping was not a choice Smith was willing to make. Rather, he set a course ten miles south of the normal shipping lanes and, throughout the evening, maintained a speed of 22 knots, just a knot or two lower than the Titanic's top speed capability.
Why did Smith choose to do this? Perhaps it had to do with his confidence in his own experience, in the perceived "unsinkability" of this new ship, and the notoriety that might come to him if the Titanic, under his command, set a new trans-ocean speed record.
I said there were three men who played pivotal roles in what happened to the Titanic that night. The third is radioman, Jack Phillips, one of two men in the communication room whose job it was to monitor radio traffic coming from other ships in the area.