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 ...

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