Titanic, Sinking of the

views updated


TITANIC, SINKING OF THE. On 12 April 1912 the White Star Line's royal mail steamer Titanic, a ship many considered unsinkable, set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, with stops at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland. On board were many of the most wealthy and influential people in early twentieth-century society and hundreds of emigrants. On 14 April, at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic, some four hundred miles from the coast of Newfoundland, hit an iceberg on its starboard side. Shortly after midnight the crew was instructed to prepare the lifeboats and to alert the passengers. The lifeboats had capacity for one-half of the passengers, and some of the boats left not fully loaded. At 2:20 a.m. the Titanic disappeared.

Although the Titanic sent out distress calls, few vessels carried wireless radios, and those that did staffed them only during daytime hours. The eastbound liner Carpathia, some fifty miles away, responded to the Titanic's signals and began taking on survivors. The Carpathia rescued 705 people, but 1,523 died.

Five days after the sinking, the White Star Line chartered a commercial cable company vessel, the Mackay-Bennett, to search the crash area for bodies. Ultimately three other ships joined the search, and 328 bodies were recovered. To aid in identification, hair color, weight, age, birthmarks, jewelry, clothing, and pocket contents were recorded. Nevertheless 128 bodies remained unidentified.

Amid calls for an investigation of the tragedy, hearings began in the United States and in England. Neither inquiry blamed the White Star Line, but both issued a series of recommendations, including lifeboats for all passengers, lifeboat drills, a twenty-four-hour wireless, and an international ice patrol to track icebergs.

The Titanic story evolved into a major cultural phenomenon. The fascination began with the initial newspaper reports, which, while exaggerating stories of supposed heroism, led to the erection of countless memorial plaques, statues, fountains, and buildings in both England and the United States.

After this initial outpouring of grief, interest in the Titanic lagged, but following the publication in 1955 of Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, additional books and films about the tragedy appeared. Robert Ballard's discovery of the wrecked Titanic in 1985 and the subsequent publication in 1987 of his book, The Discovery of the Titanic, brought a deluge of Titanica. Included in this flood were video games, CD-ROMs, classical music scores, documentaries, and traveling exhibits of artifacts, mementos, and memorabilia from the ship. In 1997 a Broadway musical was staged, and in 1999 James Cameron directed an epic film. The discovery also revealed new information that it was not a long gash but a strategically placed hull puncture that sank the ship. This information in turn raised speculation about the strength and reliability of the steel and rivets used in its construction and renewed questions about the vessel's speed, iceberg warnings, the conduct of the crew and certain first-class passengers, treatment of third-class passengers, and the ship on the horizon.

The Titanic saga seems unending. It continually fascinates as a microcosm of the Edwardian world of the early twentieth century. The wealth and status of its passengers, like John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isadore and Ida Straus, and Charles Thayer, represent the equivalents of rock music, entertainment, and sports figures. The Titanic story has something for everyone—the ultimate shipwreck, strictures against overconfidence in technology, the results of greed and rampant capitalism, and what-ifs and might-have-beens. The Titanic, if sinkable in reality, remains unsinkable in cultural memory and imagination.


Ballard, Robert D., with Rick Archbold. The Discovery of the "Titanic." New York: Warner, 1987.

Biel, Steven. Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the "Titanic" Disaster. New York: Norton, 1996.

Eaton, John P., and Charles A. Hass. "Titanic": Destination Disaster. New York: Norton, 1987

———. "Titanic": Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Norton, 1995.

Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember. New York: Holt, 1955.

———. The Night Lives On. New York: Morrow, 1986.

Lynch, Don, and Ken Marschall. "Titanic": An Illustrated History. Toronto: Madison Press, 1992.


See alsoDisasters ; Shipbuilding ; Transportation and Travel .