The Fair Society

Human nature and the pursuit of a more just political system

Lessons of the Titanic

A tragic tale of hubris and human errors, and a litany of “what ifs.”

Everyone thinks they know the Titanic story. Indeed, it seems that almost everyone has seen the famous movie, where a reenactment of this great maritime tragedy, in April 1912, provided a vehicle for a doomed Hollywood love story. 

The real story, which was overshadowed in the movie and in various superficial historical accounts of the Titanic disaster, is that it provides a morality tale for the ages.  The many “what ifs”—circumstances that could easily have been altered—make it an enduring object lesson.  At least eight and perhaps more mistakes (human errors) contributed to what might have resulted in a very different outcome, though some uncontrollable “external” factors also contributed.

The ship itself performed magnificently.  In its time it was a great technological achievement—the largest and most luxurious passenger ship ever built.  It was (mainly) the human failings—by the managing director of the White Star Line, the builder of the huge ship, and crucial decisions that were made as the disaster unfolded, as well as some “bad luck,” that doomed this grand ocean liner and some 1500 of her more than 2200 passengers and crew.

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A major contributing factor was hubris—an exalted conviction, especially on the part of the managing director J. Bruce Ismay, the chief designer/builder, Thomas Andrews, of Harland and Wolff, and the crew, that the ship was unsinkable because of the watertight compartments that divided it into some sixteeen isolated sections. As Andrews put it, the ship was its own lifeboat. Unfortunately, the water tight bulkheads were open at their tops and if too many of them in the bow (five or more) were breached, they would fill up and force the bow down, eventually flooding all of the other compartments one by one.  This is exactly what happened.

The supreme over-confidence in the integrity of the ship helps to explain many of the other “what if” mistakes that were made.  Perhaps the single most important human culprit was the ambitious, autocratic White Star director Bruce Ismay, who was aboard the Titanic for its maiden voyage and who ordered the experienced senior captain, Edward Smith, to abandon caution and race to reach New York in record time.  A surviving witness documented a key conversation in the café in which Ismay pressured Smith to beat the record of a sister ship.

Absent this pressure from the boss for speed, some of the other “what ifs” might have had different outcomes.  There were repeated wireless radio warning messages about icebergs from other ships in the area, most of which inexplicably never reached the bridge. A final one, just two hours before the disaster, was from a ship that was directly ahead of the Titanic and warned of a large ice field and many icebergs. The officers on the bridge never received it

Then there was the cavalier disregard of unusually dangerous environmental conditions—a flat calm and a moonless night that made icebergs very hard to spot at any distance, along with a careless, even negligent failure to ensure that the lookouts had binoculars. These essential, age-old shipboard tools had mysteriously gone missing or were never brought aboard during the fitting out of the brand new ship.

Hubris also accounted for the astounding revelation after the fact that there were only half as many lifeboats as were needed for all of the passengers and crew. These had been constructed but were removed at the last minute to reduce the “clutter” on the first class promenade deck. It was presumed they would never be needed.

Some of the other “what ifs” fall into such categories as operators' errors, bystander’s confusion (or perhaps selfish risk-avoidance), and production pressures on the builder. The biggest mistake happened on the bridge.  When the lookouts and deck officers belatedly spotted the deadly iceberg (at 11:40 PM), the officer in charge, first officer William Murdoch, instinctively ordered the engines to be thrown into full reverse while the rudder was put hard over.  However, the engine reversal had the tragic consequence of reducing the ability of the ship to respond to its relatively small rudder.  A difference of only a few feet would likely have prevented or minimized the collision with the iceberg.

As for the bystander’s role in the tragedy, most if not all of the passengers and crew would very likely have been rescued if another, smaller commercial vessel—a “mystery ship” whose lights could be seen in the dark and was only about 19 miles away—had responded to the Titanic’s radio distress calls and its highly visible distress flares.  At the inquest following the sinking, the captain and other crew members from the Californian testified that they thought the flares were much farther away, and when the Titanic’s lights disappeared they assumed that it had in fact sailed away.  The Californian did not receive the radio distress calls, it was claimed, because its Marconi wireless radios had been shut down for the night.  It also happened that the Californian had shut down its engines and was dead in the water because of the captain's apprehension about the extreme  iceberg hazard.

We will never know whether there was more to the story of the Californian’s failure to respond. What we do know is that it could have reached the Titanic in plenty of time to save everyone.  The ultimate rescue ship, the Carpathia, risked the icebergs to race to the scene, but it took four hours. By then, only those in the lifeboats were still alive.  Most of the 1500 men, women, and children who perished  froze to death in the icy waters (one degree above freezing) in less than an hour.

A final “what if” was a problem, recently discovered, with the ship’s rivets.  Given the tight production schedule while the ship was being built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the builder had to scramble to procure the millions of rivets that were required to tie the ship’s steel plates together.  Many small suppliers received contracts and many of the rivets were evidently of inferior quality. Later, when the Titanic hit the iceberg, it was not the steel plates but the rivets that gave way, opening up a seam that ran for more than 300 feet.  What if the rivets had been of higher quality? Perhaps fewer compartments would have been breached and we would be remembering only the anniversary of a near-tragedy. 

There have been many other man-made disasters before and since the Titanic, but none has illustrated more compellingly what we can learn from our past mistakes. The real Titanic story was a tale of ambition, over confidence, denial, self-dealing, cowardice, bravery, perhaps lethal production compromises, simple human errors, and, of course, “bad luck” (unexpected and uncontrollable conditions) that conspired to turn a great human achievement into a great human tragedy.

If there is an ultimate epitaph for the Titanic and its ill-fated passengers and crew, it is that they were the victims of human errors. We can honor this sad legacy by learning from it.     

 

 

Peter Corning, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Complex Systems. He taught for many years at Stanford University, and is the author of several books on biology and society.

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