Common Misconceptions About the Sinking of the Titanic
It's really not surprising that there are so many myths surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. It was a tragedy at the time, and is still compelling today. There was the hubris of the White Star Line, the fame of the ship before she had even left Southampton, the premonitions of tragedy that should have warned all passengers before they had even boarded. All these things are known by those that know the legend. The question you have to ask is how much of that is actually true, and how much has been woven into the story in retrospect? It is these questions that this article will attempt to answer.
Specifically, it will look at legends surrounding her building, asking the question: Was she really famous before her maiden voyage and was she really advertised as unsinkable? These are, perhaps the two biggest myths surrounding the ship, but not the only ones.
This is a lot of ground to cover. In fact, I'm sure that someone could make a great book on just this subject. This article won't be as exhaustive as that, for certain, but instead will attempt to look at the Titanic in a slightly different way, and perhaps question some of the 'known facts' you've always relied on as part of the Titanic's legacy.
Titanic and Olympic
RMS Olympic - Construction
Was the Titanic Really Famous Before Her Maiden Voyage?
It is true to say that the citizens of Belfast looked on with awe as the Titanic was built, but they also looked on with awe and even more anticipation at her sister ship Olympic. She would be the first ship of the class to sail, and would be the largest ship afloat.
The RMS Olympic was almost identical to the RMS Titanic. In the picture beside this section you can see the ships side by side on their slipways. The Titanic is the black ship, but her sister, Olympic is painted in white, as she was to be the flagship of the fleet, and the ship that would blaze the way for those that followed.
Today we would call it branding, and it was in its way just that. The ships were meant to be instantly recognisable as sisters, in the same way that the Luthsitania and Mauretania were almost identical. The third ship of the trio was, likewise, planned to look similar. All the ships would have similar names, all ending in the characteristic 'ic' of the White Star Line: Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic. All named after Greek mythology, further differentiating the 'brand' of ships.
Olympic's shakedown cruise, which lasted several days, was timed to coincide with Titanic's hull being launched for fitting out. Needless to say, Olympic's maiden voyage was almost completely booked out, unlike Titanic's eight months later. Perhaps curiosity had been sated by the first of her class to be launched, and now that they had sailed aboard the largest ship to sail on the seas, Titanic wasn't as novel. Who knows? The blaze of publicity at her first sailing and continued service was enough to get people excited, that's for sure. Certainly publicity for the Titanic did reach fever-pitch just before her sailing, but no more than for her earlier sister. After her sailing, though, it would be a different story.
Eventually, the Olympic would be known as the 'Old Reliable'. The first, and only ship of her class to survive the heady days before World War 1 and beyond.
The Titanic was Advertised as Unsinkable
"The Captain, may, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable ," gushed The Shipbuilder magazine about the Titanic and her sister ship Olympic . They were already well under construction, and looked magnificent on their slipways. They had sixteen compartments, all of which could be sealed up with the flick of a switch. Add to this a double bottom, and the ability to remain afloat with four of her compartments full of water, they did seem almost invincible.
To date, none of these large ships had been put to the test. When, with a similar design, the SS Florida and the SS Republic collided in thick fog in 1909, both remained afloat long enough to evacuate all the passengers. Wasn't this proof enough that, despite the loss of the Republic, that the ships themselves were their very own lifeboats? There was further proof to be had when, in the first year of operation, the Olympic collided with the RMS Hawke , punching a large hole in the ship. It was barely felt in some parts of the ship, and eventually returned to drydock in Belfast under her own steam for repairs. Heady on the success of the bigger and bigger ships coming out of the shipyards, it seemed that The Shipbuilder was right.
Needless to say, when other papers and magazines picked up on the story and repeated the claim, the White Star Line did nothing to suppress the story or claim that they were wrong. Perhaps they believed their ships were practically unsinkable as well. And, after all, any publicity is good publicity.
The fact of the matter is, that none of these modern ships held a candle to the SS Great Eastern , the ship built by Brunel almost fifty years before. The safety features built into that ship had made it commercially non-viable. The Great Eastern had survived a 50 foot long gash in her side, and limped back to port under her own steam. She was very much her own lifeboat. The Titanic was not. But, commercially, she was more viable. And never advertised as unsinkable.
This misconception has proved to be the most unsinkable of them all, despite all evidence to the contrary. They were, though, the "Largest and Finest Steamers in the World," or so the White Star Line advertised them.
Conclusion, or just the beginning?
The amount of misconceptions regarding the sinking of the Titanic have grown over the years, and there are many more I could have covered in this article. In fact, there were many more I considered covering, such as was Ismay really a coward? Could the SS Californian have made it, even if they'd acted on the first signal? Was there really low grade steel used in the construction of the ship, and was this the real reason why she sank? Were the prophesies of her sinking well known, and is this why people stayed away? There are as many questions as there are myths about the ship. Truly, if they were to be covered in the amount of depth they deserve, it would take a book or two to cover them all.
What I do hope is that in reading this, you may want to find out more, and make up your own mind about some of the stories which have been handed down through the generations about the Titanic, those that sailed on her, those that built her, and those that came to the rescue of her passengers.
- snopes.com: The Unsinkable Titanic
Was the Titanic ever advertised using the word 'unsinkable'? Snopes debunks the Unsinkable claim.