Whether the Titanic was unsinkable was settled once and for all on April 15, 1912. A hundred years later, however, two related issues are still being debated. Did her makers, the White Star Line, claim that she was unsinkable? And did the world at large – and above all, her passengers – believe her to be unsinkable?
Only the faintest of pre-tragedy references to the Titanic’s supposed unsinkability have been discovered. Describing the system of watertight compartments used in both the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, a 1911 White Star Line brochure explained how in the event of an accident the captain could close the watertight doors, thereby “practically making the vessel unsinkable”.
In the Shipbuilder magazine, later that year, the crucial phrase was truncated to become “practically unsinkable”. Far from singling out the Titanic, however, the author referred to such watertight compartments as being “usual in White Star Lines”.
On the very day that the Titanic sank, the word “unsinkable” seemed to rise to the surface. The man largely responsible was White Star vice president Philip A.S. Franklin. When the first rumours of the sinking reached New York, he responded “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable”. He later told the New York Times “I thought her unsinkable, and I based [my] opinion on the best expert advice. I do not understand it”.
The arrogance of imagining any ship to be unsinkable tied in perfectly with the notion of the Titanic being destroyed by hubris. Early reports of the disaster were peppered with the word, and survivors swiftly started to use the term. Less than a month later, White Star’s president J. Bruce Ismay, who had himself survived the sinking, testified at the British inquiry that “I think the position was taken up that the ship was looked upon as practically unsinkable; she was looked upon as being a lifeboat in herself”. Colonel Archibald Gracie, who was on the deck of the Titanic as her fate became horribly apparent, described the male passengers as seeking to “reassure the ladies” by repeating “the much advertised fiction of ‘the unsinkable ship’”.
In his stimulating book, The Myth of the Titanic, author Richard Howells concluded that the idea was “an essentially retrospective invention”. He argued that the Olympic was all but identical to the Titanic, built in the same shipyard at the same time. The Olympic sailed on her maiden voyage less than a year before the Titanic, on the same route and even with the same captain.
At no time however was the Olympic hailed as being unsinkable; only the Titanic became known as the “unsinkable ship”, precisely because she did in fact sink. No one would dispute that the Titanic’s passengers, and for that matter her captain and crew, thought they were aboard an exceptionally safe ship. Few appreciated that she was in fact considerably less safe than such predecessors as the Great Eastern.
While that over-confidence may not have caused the collision itself – racing at breakneck speeds towards dangerous icefields was pretty much standard practice at the time – it did ultimately cost lives, because it was surely the main reason why so few passengers came forward to board the earliest lifeboats.
Only once the Titanic sank, perhaps, did people realise quite how invulnerable they had imagined themselves to be, a blind faith they then simply articulated by using that one small word – “unsinkable”.
All text © Greg Ward