My Articles
The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912 (Additional Details, etc.)
by Carl R. Littmann, written 7-1-2003

((This “sub-article” is inter-linked to- (and intended to be read with-) my main article--
Brief History of the World and of World War 2” (Carl R. Littmann, 7-1-2003).))

The RMS Titanic (1912) was a merchant passenger ship, but it was bigger than any U.S. battleship built before World War 2 (WW2, ~1941). During WW2, the U.S. built some battleships (the Iowa Class) just a few feet longer and few tons heavier than the RMS Titanic (( based on “empty” (i.e., “gross weight”).)) But based upon the active weights (i.e., after Titanic and an “Iowa Class” battleship were both loaded up to do their duties); the Titanic was the heavier “workhorse”. (That latter specification is known as “full-load displacement”). The “R M S” prefix to Titanic stands for Royal Merchant Ship, or Royal Mail Ship if approved as a mail carrier.

I think the U.S. (and most other countries) generally built ships no longer than a Panama Canal’s lock-space; and, perhaps, no deeper than the shallow depths of the Straits of Malacca (i.e., straits between Malaysia and Sumatra). Thus, to allow most big ships to use these “short cuts”. The Titanic used coal as its fuel. The ship used mainly two “triple-expansion engines” to power it (i.e., basically, reciprocating steam engines). But it also had one “turbine engine” to help. ((So the Titanic was a “hybrid” ship, representing an ongoing transitional period (to the turbine).))

The Titanic was just one of three similar class ships, (i.e., sister ships), built at about the same time. The Titanic’s older sister ship was the slightly smaller “SS Olympic”. (I think prefix SS stands for SteamShip). And the Titanic’s younger sister ship was the slightly larger “RMS Britannic”. The “Britannic” was originally slated to be named the “Gigantic”, but was re-designated “Britannic”, so as not to aggravate fears and sad memories. The Britannic was bigger than any U.S. battleship ever built.

These huge ships (of the White Star Line Co.) could not be “faster” than their competitors, the Lusitania and Mauretania (of the Cunard Line). But they could be and would be more luxurious and bigger, and also look bigger and more beautiful. To help Titanic look still bigger, a 4th (artificial) smokestack was added (i.e., so it would not seem smaller than “4-stacker” ships already in service). To help her decks look more spacious; the number of original lifeboats planned was reduced. (I consider that to have been very “vanity-UnFair”, to the passengers.) Again, a reminder that much of what I write is based on what I remember from other websites, etc., and may be in error. Furthermore, some websites, etc., contradict others on the most important points.

Optional: Some people believe that the Titanic should be considered an American ship even though it was of British registration. …And that is because it was owned by the White Star Line, which, in turn, was owned by the extremely wealthy and successful J. P. Morgan, (the famous banker), or his group. I have also read that the Titanic’s unusually great tragedy resulted from great recklessness. Also, that the Titanic ship, itself, was pretty well insured (for ~$5,567,000, compared to its ~$8,000,000 cost to build). So it appears that the owners were mostly compensated for its ship loss). Also, that all suits were settled “out of court”. Also, I have read that the highest settlement-payment to a victim, suing in the U.S., was for ~$5000, (perhaps for the death of some ‘important’ American?). But I don’t know how history can be sure of any single high limit, because of subtleties occurring or done in the world. But anyway, ~$5000 might have bought ~10,000 ounces of silver (or ~250 ounces of gold) in those days, so it would not be a trivial amount of money today. If each of the ~1,513 victims (i.e., “estates” or etc.) had received about that much, then the total amount paid to victims would have totaled about the value of the ship. Even assuming the previous statement; it may still seem to some readers--that the victims would have still been “under-compensated”, (especially assuming that great recklessness was involved). But it seems to me, still, that the compensation, then, would not have been trivial (i.e., if it would have been equal to the value of the ship).

I can not even speculate about whether many victims were trivially compensated. It seems often a part of legal settlements--that the settlements will not be disclosed. So perhaps only the families know if circumstances tended to force them to settle for a trivial amount, compared to what they thought was really “fair”. Some 3rd class passengers survived; but in many cases everything they owned was packed in their suitcases and lost. I have read that the company gave them something for temporary provisions when they arrived in New York, but that was all.

There was a “long” ~2-1/2 hours, after the ship hit the iceberg--but before it sank ‘under’. That seems to me evidence that the ship was, indeed, very resistant to sinking. And we should note, that in WW2, such long-time staying afloat was generally sufficient for all (or almost all) sailors (injured or not) to abandon very large ships successfully. (Sometimes taking their pet mascot with them). So, I think it was mainly the unwillingness to provide an adequate number of workable lifeboats that caused the excessive tragedy in the case of Titanic. ((And it seems to me “consistent” that the White Star Line (which would speed through a dangerous icefield and do other unsafe things) would also direct the “builders” to reduce the number of lifeboats from what the builders originally planned)).

But nearly as harmful, was also the Titanic’s poor evacuation scheme (or mindset). Although mechanically, the launching of the lifeboats went rather well; many lifeboats could have carried many more people than were loaded into them. (The Chairman of the White Star Line boarded a lifeboat and was saved.) Over 92% of the 1st & 2nd class women and children (passengers) were saved, but only ~ 42% of the 3rd class ones. I wish that the 3rd class passengers had been advised that many lifeboats were about to leave with only half of their spaces occupied! I think the vacancies arose because of the loading crew’s initial poor judgement, and/or maybe the loading crew was poorly briefed. Secondarily, perhaps some the 1st and 2nd class passengers hesitated to get into lifeboats, perhaps feeling that the ship was still somewhat viable, and/or other reasons. In that case, if only the 3rd class passengers had been properly advised--many would have likely volunteered to fill vacancies (if allowed to by the crew). Then the majority of all passengers could have been saved, instead of the great majority lost! And even after the lifeboats were launched, most of the lifeboats passed up the opportunity to rescue freezing swimmers.

Only ~25% of the 3rd class passengers survived, versus only ~24% of the crew. But perhaps sadder, was that in the 3rd class were many women and kids. Only ~34% of the 3rd class kids were saved. (That compares to ~97% of 1st & 2nd class kids saved). The majority of passengers were 3rd class. ((Many of these were likely immigrants going to New York, a very important source of profit for the steamship lines. And later, when immigration was reduced by law (during the depression); many steamship companies failed, downsized, or merged. The White Star Line and Cunard Line merged in 1934, near the height of the depression.))

The Titanic sank April 14 to April 15, 1912, with the loss of ~1513 people out of somewhat over 2200 people. The Captain (and/or person “pulling his strings”) behaved like he was trying to quickly escape the hazardous ice-field risk by going at full speed, and/or trying to complete the voyage in an impressive time! After the closest ship to Titanic (the Californian) cautioned Titanic (by “wireless”) for the second time; Californian got “scolded” by Titanic (for being over-bothersome). The Californian had cautiously halted its own motion for the night, so it could drift slowly. Its wireless operator/receiver went to bed shortly after the scolding. Despite Californian’s and others’ warning, Titanic (regrettably) continued at its high speed (even though that was slower than some competitive ships were capable of).

Titanic did see the iceberg about a mile away; but even that seems not to have been enough time to fully halt the ship or for it to evade the iceberg. Titanic turned its rudder hard and soon threw its main propellers into reverse. But unfortunately, the reverse-propeller thrust partly defeated the turning efficiency of the rudder--it seems. ((In WW2, most warships tried to evade bombs and torpedoes by turning at top speed (i.e., without reversing gears and slowing down). In WW1, Titanic’s older sister ship (Olympia) once purposely turned and headed straight toward an enemy U-boat, ran it over, and destroyed it. Some people think that the Titanic would have fared better to just hit the iceberg “straight-on”, after slowing down as much as possible (i.e., rather than side-swiping it and slitting open a long length of her side).)) Of course, military ships have much tighter turning radii.

The Titanic cost ~$8 million to build (1912). At first that might seems like a small amount compared to making the big movie about it (~$200 million about 90 years later, which included building a look-a-like ship). But I imagine that ~$8 million, in 1912, would have been worth about ~ $160 million)--90 years later. (So compared to the ultra-big movie’s expense of $200 million; the actual Titanic’s cost was not trivial). Even though the luxurious Titanic cost $8 million to build, it still cost only about half as much per ton as large warships built 20 years before Titanic. (The cost of living was very stable during that 20 year span). But my main point is that excess military spending and wars are bad for the economy; and that seems evident even by comparing shipbuilding costs, in those old days.

What I said about titanic size passenger ships and huge warships taking a long time to sink--does not apply to small ships, like the Reuben James (DD245). There was usually no “2-1/2 hours long sinking time” when a “little” destroyer was hit by one torpedo. Nor when a “modest-size” cruiser (like the Indianapolis, CA35) was suddenly hit by two large torpedoes (or when an equivalent damage was done by other explosives hitting ships). Thus, when smaller ships were hit hard, there was often greater loss of life, as they usually sunk immediately. And of course, the explosions (during battle) kill many sailors instantly; and smaller ships generally have less thick reinforcement and less protective armor than larger ones. They sacrifice that for higher speeds. (Incidentally, serious accidental collisions between naval ships in WW2--was a frequent and big problem. They occurred during fast maneuvering during battle, and also on rather routine trips during occasional precautionary course changes.)

The “Sultana” Steamboat Disaster of 1865 (for Comparison)

It is interesting to note that more lives were lost in the Sultana steamboat disaster (~1700 lost) 4-27-1865; than in the Titanic disaster (~1513 lost) 4-14-1912. I gather from other websites, etc., the following: The Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat which met its end shortly after being built. It was legally registered to carry 376 people, and had life belts for only 76. It was carrying about 2500 passengers. Of those, about 2300 were former civil war prisoners in poor shape, returning home after the war. The main reason why the boat was so dangerously over-crowded was that some army officers received a $1.15 kickback for each $5.00 which the government paid to the steamboat company (i.e., $5.00 for each army-man crowded onto it).

The steamboat had a dangerously leaking boiler. But if it were docked for a half-week to repair it thoroughly; then other competing steamboats would arrive, and many troops might then prefer the less crowded boats. So the Sultana’s boiler was never repaired correctly, as it left Vicksburg in haste, and its passengers were never told of the risk. It then stopped at Memphis. And shortly after leaving Memphis that boiler blew up. That caused its other boilers to blow up also; and great shock, damage, fire, and tragedy ensued. ((I don’t know if the army victims (i.e., their “families, etc.”) got any more compensation than any other army victim would (whether killed under combative or non-combative conditions)—nor even if they got that much. If the Army paid something, but the “steamboat company” paid nothing--then in effect, the taxpayers paid the bill, instead of the company.))

Optional: A clever person once said that “the human being has two weaknesses: The simple things, they forget; and the complicated things, they cannot remember.” It seems to be a repeated theme in history--that most memories last only for about 50 years; so that similar tragedies are often repeated about every 50 years. (Sometimes, a tragic history is repeated in only 20 years--if a generation learns a twisted and stilted view of history.) Other times, history may not repeat itself for as long as ~100 years--if the lessons were well written and well learned. Sometimes, just as it appears that a society may even take longer than 100 years to repeat its historical error; an ambitious politician (or other notable) will ban or censor a movie or book. This is often done as if almost intended to make sure that a mistake is repeated or attempted again, in not much longer than 100 years! One wonders, sometimes, if that is a built-in evolved-propensity of the human being (to periodic repeat an attempt to conquer a situation previously not conquerable?) ((According to a military historian (F. F. Liu--I think); the Greek historian Thucydides also thought history likely to repeat itself; and Thucydides said that it would give him great satisfaction if future readers of his histories would recognize when that repeat was occurring. So, I think that Morgan Robertson (with his 1898 novel “The Wreck of the Titan”) was not the only person with a “feel” for what might come. And that general subject is also addressed by Spinosa.))

We will next discuss the General Slocum steamboat disaster, which occurred about 40 years after the Sultana’s. And eventually, we will discuss the administration of Woodrow Wilson—which banned a movie shortly before the U.S. entered WW1.

The “General Slocum” Steamboat Disaster of 1904 (for Comparison):

In the General Slocum steamboat disaster of 6-15-1904, about 1021 passengers died out of ~1331 passengers.

In each disaster above (Titanic, Sultana, and Slocum) between 1000 and 2000 people died. ((The reason why I usually say “approximately” (using the symbol ~ ) is that some are killed outright, some may die later but with the disaster being the main cause, (and some “previously unknown, ‘ill-fated passengers’ often ‘surface’ when Hollywood makes a major movie about it”). And there are other uncertainties too, so it “depends on what you count”.))

The Steamboat “General Slocum” was named after a Civil War General; and it would turn out to be well named, in a sense. The General Slocum (of the civil war) had only two weaknesses:

His first weakness was revealed during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg; when the general was directed to stop what he was doing, and quickly get his troops to the Gettysburg battle area. His extreme slowness, in complying, resulted in increased Union’s vulnerability during the first day. (That slowness could have hurt the Union more than it did). Thus, after Gettysburg; the civil war General “SLO-CUM” became nicknamed General “SLOW COME”. (The steamboat analogy--being that the Captain of the steamboat was very slow to believe the reports that his boat had caught-on-fire. And after that, he greatly slowed up getting the boat to a satisfactory dock, or a quiet water area where rescue boats could help. (That is, he chose, instead, a very far-away area to beach his boat). ((And that delay greatly increased the wind-fed firestorm on his boat. And he also sailed, for a long time, against the wind (increasing the effective wind-speed and the resulting firestorm). All that increased the amount of boat deterioration before his boat neared shore. And many children and mothers could not clear the boat’s side paddle wheels, by jumping far enough; nor could they swim.)).

The civil war general’s second weakness was this: He tended to prefer, for his own troops and himself, the lesser of the very dangerous assignments, and he seemed to welcome other leaders taking the more dangerous assignments. ((The Steamboat analogy--being that all the Crew of the steamboat were saved; but that an overwhelming percent of the passengers died (the passengers being mainly children and mothers who did not know how to swim).)) The passengers were on the cruise to celebrate their once-a-year festival; and it occurred during a weekday when most of the women’s husbands were at their regular place of work (i.e., most of them missed the cruise).

But probably the main “physical” reason for the magnitude of the disaster was that the lifebelts were rotted and didn’t work. Further adding to the tragedy was: that the lifeboats did not work; the boat’s fire equipment did not work; and the crew did not effectively work—partly because there had never been a fire drill. But I think the “absolute” main cause of the huge tragedy was an “at passengers’ own risk” legal clause in the excursion agreement, which the steamship company likely routinely ask groups to sign. And that greatly reduced the company’s incentive for “pro-passengers” safety decisions and behavior.

In my opinion, there was nothing that the Captain (or others like him) could have done (however stupidly or recklessly they acted), that could have set the stage for tragedy more than that “at passengers’ own risk” (anti-incentive, anti-safety) clause. ((It seems to me that the Captain (who was injured in the accident), and crew, at least had their interests “slightly” aligned with the fate of the passengers. But, consider the boat’s owners (with their “escape clause” in the contract, and with their boat partly insured). It is not clear to me that they had any interest in aligning their wellbeing with the passengers’ safety; maybe rather the opposite; and I doubt if any of them perished with the boat.))

The passengers on the ship were from the major German church community nearby, and they were on the steamboat for their once-a-year festival. The church festival committee had signed the agreement with the steamboat owners (the Knickerbocker Steamship Company), which contained a clause--that the boat carried passengers at passengers’ “own risk”. So that was used, apparently, as the excuse why the victims received no compensation from the owners, so far as I know. The steamboat company collected $70,000 insurance on their 13 year-old boat, (which sum in those days would buy ~140,000 ounces of silver or ~3500 ounces of gold). They also sold the boat’s hull for use as a coal barge, but I don’t know if or how that related to the insurance.

((The whole episode seems to me neither fair nor logical, especially when I consider that it harmed (in a sense) so many others in the city (New York). And I agree with the philosopher Mencius, who once said, “The thing I hate about you wise men are your ‘forced conclusions’.” Mencius was likely criticizing the “Legalistic School”, in China, which was too much in a hurry to find rationalizations for its convenient alignment with the powerful, narrow interests, even in Mencius’ day)).

The old and fading steamboat captain (Capt. William Van Schaick) behaved terribly, but may have, indeed, been made “too much a scapegoat”. He was the only one punished, and served some years in jail before being paroled in 1911, (and pardoned in 1912 by President Taft).

Optional: In a sense, one might wonder why the Captain should not “reason” as follows: “If I run the boat to the nearby docks, etc., etc.; that might damage the docks, etc., etc., and even hurt or kill some people there. And the Steamboat Co. would have to pay for that, since those entities have not signed an “at-one’s-own-risk” clause. But if I take the burning boat for a long ride to a less valuable spot, the company won’t have to pay a dime to the passengers, even if they are all killed. (i.e., passengers have signed the disclaimer). So why not do the latter?” In fact, I doubt if the above scheme was an actual standing order (i.e., for loss limitation). But the problem is that an “at-your-own-risk”, anything-goes paradigm--encourages just the sort of total recklessness as if it was an “intentional nasty scheme”. Indeed, like Pavlov’s dogs! And that seems to be like the conditioned behavior and attitude toward passengers’ lives and safety--that seemingly resulted! (I.e., that is--even if it was not a formalistic, conscious plot).

In WW2, we shall see, fortunately, that many able commanders sailed their severely damaged ships in such direction (relative to the wind) that the sailors would be less exposed to the smoke, flame, and heat; and often damage and casualty control would, therefore, be ‘easier’. Occasionally, a ship would be beached to protect it from total loss. Incidentally, during WW2; two coal-burning, side paddle wheel, lake excursion steamers were converted into aircraft carriers, and used for training pilots. ((The aircraft carriers were designated: the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and the USS Sable (IX-81).)) Modern warships, especially aircraft carriers, were in short supply; as was also the valuable fuel oil that they required. Thus, those “lake-residing” aircraft carriers (used for training) continued to burn coal, instead. And they maintained their side paddle wheels, hulls, and original parts where possible, to conserve materials. The IX-64 aircraft carrier was made from an excursion steamer (the Seeandbee) built in 1913, which used compound reciprocating engines. These “training” aircraft carriers were about the size as a small WW2 “Escort Carrier”.

(Incidentally, to do justice to General Slocum of the civil war; he generally served diligently throughout the long war, even though seriously wounded after the war began. And he did not risk his troops unnecessarily. After the first day of Gettysburg; he increasingly became a more effective team-player, and also served later under General Sherman, effectively.)

Closing Comments and Opinions:

A few themes seem to apply to all three disasters; the Titanic, the General Slocum steamboat, and the Sultana steamboat: The big tragic problem was not the original engineering nor that there was any faulty material, originally. The main fault (in my opinion) was that the owners, employees, or both, were not motivated by incentives to strongly factor into their decisions--the importance of passengers’ lives and safety! In some cases, they seem to have opposed reasonable passenger safety measures; and perhaps more so, as time passed. I think that sometimes overly permissive legalistic escape clauses: like--“at-passenger’s-own-risk”, likely also discouraged what could have been helpful company safety measures; and thus increased the disaster. I hate to get the government involved in issues between water transport companies (like the above) and passengers (that is--issues of “buyer beware”); but one should consider this: When many dozens of dead bodies float ashore, other people are also affected. Similarly, when large sunken vessels pollute the world.

In my opinion, the solution is not thousands of more regulations. Nor big judgements against doctors who do not harm their patients who have a condition that is hard to treat effectively--(even though they may not have helped them, either). And similarly with other professionals and their clients. Nor is the solution (as seems to have occurred more recently); a big, public-financed, government “bailout” for victims or relatives--provided the victims don’t engage in a deep legal exploration & investigation of the tragedy (i.e., such as may be associated with lawsuits), and which may bring out various surprising and long- remembered truths.

I think the partial answer would have been (and is) this: Companies, Governments, etc., should be made obligated to pay non-trivial compensation to the many victims and/or their families, etc., for death or very serious injury, where providing reasonable, “no-brainer”, simple, inexpensive, and reliable safety measures could have likely prevented it. And I’m not talking about crazy things with the propensity not to work well—like the ~1.6 gallon ‘pro-environmental’ toilet, nor what is portrayed in the funny cartoon, “the OSHA toilet”. For sure, those would have saved no passengers! So admittedly, if legislatures, judges, professionals, and regulatory bodies have already succumbed to “regulatory capture”; then my suggestions are no longer practical. And will merely be subverted into just the “Appearance of safety ‘for your well-being’.” But the reality will more likely be the “appearance of safety for the political establishment’s well-being”. I think that, where possible, people should consider avoiding ventures having an “at your own risk” clause; and at times people should get professional council, (that I am not trained to give).

((Optional, miscellaneous: My only suggestion for slowing the sinking of the Titanic (although too late and likely ineffective) would have been this: For travelers to hang lines of barely sinking weighted sheets, bedding, mattresses, etc., etc, over the leaking ship’s side; and hope it would get sucked against the leaks—(i.e., maybe something about the “1.6 gallon ‘pro-environment’ toilet principle” could have been put to a good use, after all!))

Returning to the serious subject; a large oil tanker (ship) sank near the Spanish coast, not long before this writing. The details (and background regarding that, and other things) are beyond the scope of this article. But they leave me wondering whether the worlds’ various governments can really get a good handle on the problems represented by the three tragedies discussed in this article. (Or whether they even want to!) In the U.S. financial markets; wasn’t there also a failure of a large “energy trading” company, questionable bookkeeping, etc? And that “Captain” (and maybe crewmen too) jumping off the “sinking ship”, very comfortably, on time? And leaving the others misinformed, and sort of bound to the sinking ship, to the hopeless end? And the ship also with a trail of uncorrected “greenmail” problems before that?

Of course, in financial matters; there are, presumably, no (or few) instant deaths--when people loose most of their money and security. Nevertheless; that, and other things, make me wonder how far things have really “progressed”--since the vast majority of “3rd class” passengers went down with the Titanic?

Addendum 1 (1-20-2005):  Opinion on the 2001 9-11” Victims Compensation Fund  

In principle, it is a good idea for a Nation’s citizens to compensate its innocent victims, i.e., those who were killed or injured in an unprovoked enemy attack.   

But, unfortunately, the “compensation principle”, which the President and his Congress applied, was quite different from the noble one, above.  Some killed victims were compensated 28 times more than others, since the compensation was largely based on the victim’s “personal income”, or predicted income potential.  And the compensation scheme had various other “crazy” problems.  Some of that entire affair reminds me of the old “Titanic days” or worse.  I think it was a sad spectacle for a nation whose colleges have issued millions of Degrees in Philosophy, Ethics, and/or Religion.  For a more comprehensive discussion of the subject; one can read my Addendum at the end of my article on “Political Philosophy… etc.”, Part 3.  See my homepage. 

Back to main Article: History of the World…. Year 1912

Back to: Home
Carl R. Littmann

(Readers’ comments always welcome)
For my Email and address, see my Homepage