The following article was published in the Irish Titanic Historical Society White Star Journal, Vol.10, No.4, December 2002

Would a Searchlight Have Prevented the Titanic Catastrophie?

Copyright © 2002, Parks Stephenson

Recently, as it did in 1912, a debate raged about the absence of a searchlight aboard Titanic and whether or not the presence and use of such a device would have prevented the collision and subsequent disaster. Although warships of the Royal Navy in 1912 were almost universally equipped with searchlights, merchant ships seldom were. Pundits, both then and now, have publicly argued that had Titanic employed a powerful beam of light ahead of her track once she entered the expected ice region, her crew standing the watch would have spotted the berg soon enough to effect successful evasive action. It is the intention of the article to demonstrate why the presence of a searchlight aboard Titanic would not have guaranteed the ship's safety.

To the layman, especially a modern one accustomed to driving a car with headlights, the installation of a searchlight aboard a liner like Titanic would seem to make perfect sense. The scenario that emerged from the various enquiries into the Titanic disaster was that the iceberg, itself dark blue in colour against the black backdrop of the dark ocean, was invisible to the lookouts and deck officer until it was too close to be avoided. The argument ran that if the watchstanders had had a searchlight available for their use, the berg would have been picked up by the light at a great enough distance to give the crew time enough to steer the ship clear.

This is a simplistic argument that does not take into account the greatest asset available to a crewman standing watch on the bridge of a ship at night -- his night vision. To understand why the process of attaining scotopic, or night, vision is so important, the manner in which the nerve cells of the eye's retina react to various levels of light should first be briefly examined.

The retina is made up of nerve cells, or photoreceptors, of basically two types, "rods" and "cones." Rods are very good at sensing low levels of light, but can only sense black and white or shades of grey. Rods are normally found around the periphery of the retina. Cones detect colour in three sub types (Red, Blue, and Green) but require more light to function. Cones can be found more toward the centre of the retina. This explains why it is difficult to "see" an object at night when looking directly at it...the cones in the centre of the retina do not react well to poorly-lit objects. The best way to see an object at night is to look slightly off to either side of an object, so that the image stimulates the rods at the outer edge of the retina. Lookout training in the U.S. Navy today emphasises this fact, and trainees are taught to keep their eyes moving as they search so that they don't inadvertently blind themselves to a particular object. Incidentally, this characteristic of the eye also explains why the use of binoculars as a search tool at night has severe limitations.

As alluded to above, rods are more sensitive to light than cones; in fact, over 1,000 times more so. Rods also outnumber cones 20 to 1. However, to attain night vision, a chemical reaction must take place that causes the rods to react to the shorter wavelengths needed to detect small amounts of photons. The process can take up to 30 minutes, which is why crewmen coming on deck to assume the watch are usually required to report a half-hour early to allow their eyes to acclimate to the dark. Red light does not interfere with this process, as rods do not react to red. This phenomenon has led to the widespread adoption of red lights aboard ship for those areas where night vision must be maintained.

The introduction of a white light source, no matter how brief, will overwhelm the sensitive rod photoreceptors and require a full readjustment in order to regain optimal night vision. If this happens on a moonless night, the watchstander is essentially blinded until his eyes can once again acclimate to the dark. Layman often cannot comprehend just how dark the ocean can be on a moonless night, especially if the horizon is difficult to distinguish from the night sky. Stars and ship's lights can be confused for one another and hazards to navigation can be virtually invisible to the crew. The eyes looking ahead of the ship must be as sensitive to low light levels as possible, so that anomalies of any kind can be detected. Control of light emissions, therefore, is paramount to the shipboard watchstander at night. Aboard modern ships, baffles are constructed inside doorways leading into the ship's interior to restrict light within from spilling out of the superstructure. Aboard Titanic, shields were permanently mounted on the forward edge of the deckhouse lights to prohibit the light from reaching the bridge area. During the final watch, we know that First Officer Murdoch was strict about light control forward of the bridge, as evidenced by his command to Trimmer Hemming to close the fore scuttle hatch.

The use of a searchlight as an area search tool would therefore not allow anyone on the watch to develop the optimal night vision. Harold Sanderson, Vice President of the International Mercantile Marine, actually understated the case at the BOT Enquiry when he declared, "I believe if they had a searchlight and the man looked down the lane of that glare he would not see anything on either side of him for some five minutes afterwards." As mentioned above, it would take at least a half-hour before the man of Sanderson's example could see properly in conditions similar to what Titanic experienced during her final night. In addition, the use of the searchlight would affect not only the watchstanders aboard the host ship, but also all the crew standing watch aboard any other ships in the vicinity. Francis S. Miller, the Assistant Hydrographer at the Admiralty, summed up the hazards represented by the use of searchlights thus:

"The disadvantages of searchlights, with regard to searchlights on board the ship itself, are that they may dazzle the Officers and the look-out men on board the ship, and in that case specially so, if they happen to be badly placed with regard to the people who are observing. Secondly, they cause a good deal of interference with general navigation, and they would do so very much indeed in crowded waterways. If on the open sea, of course, the objection would be less. The effect of interference on other vessels would be, as is well known, to blind the Officers of the watches on board those ships, and, consequently they would make it difficult for them to detect other vessels in their vicinity, and so possibly bring about collision. Thirdly, the lights would have the effect possibly of reducing the brilliancy of the ship's navigation lights from which the searchlight was being exhibited."

Given this situation, then, it becomes apparent that a searchlight should only be used in certain conditions and even then under the strict control of the Officer of the Watch. It is reasonable to assume that this was the primary reason why Royal Navy warships, with an established chain of command conforming to a standardised set of rules and regulations, would be fitted with searchlights, while the merchant marine, which adhered to varying standards of discipline, would not be similarly equipped. Searchlights were carried by merchant ships for specific tasks -- such as transiting the Suez Canal -- but the evidence suggests that a conscious decision was made by the shipping lines to prohibit their use on the transatlantic run. As a matter of fact, the testimonies of both Vice President Sanderson and Naval Architect Edward Wilding in London revealed that the "nautical staff" at IMM were "very much opposed" to the use of searchlights for their transatlantic liners after a trial installation of one aboard the Teutonic.

Aside from this, there is additional evidence that a searchlight may not be the most advantageous of means to spot icebergs ahead of the ship. In response to a query from Captain Miller in May 1912, an officer of the HMS Brilliant responded with his own experience:

"It has never been my experience on a dark night to first detect a large or moderate-sized iceberg with a searchlight, but after having detected an iceberg with the naked eye I have on several occasions lighted the berg up with a searchlight..."

The officer goes on to state the procedure that the Brilliant used in other occasions to detect ice with their searchlight, but in doing so, another factor is brought to the fore...that of the ship's speed when transiting a known or anticipated ice region. It is this author's opinion while reading the text of the HMS Brilliant report dated 23 May 1912, entered into evidence by Francis Miller during the BOT Enquiry, that on those occasions where the Brilliant detected ice with her searchlights, she was expecting ice in the region and was therefore not steaming full ahead. This would bear out one final point to be made about why it was considered inadvisable to equip merchant ships with searchlights for use while transiting ice regions. Captain Miller described it best when he declared:

"Another thing with regard to searchlights on board ships might be that a vessel so fitted might depend too much on her searchlights, and get into dangerous proximity to the land and shoal water and buoys, trusting to her searchlights. Further, she might be induced to continue at a high rate of speed, trusting again to her searchlights when, under similar circumstances with regard to weather and so on she would - and rightly so - reduce her speed. I think, too, that the advantages of having searchlights on board ship may not be so great as the disadvantages of causing general interference with the navigation of the ships themselves, and, as I have said, leading vessels to go on at a high rate of speed when they ought to reduce speed."

It is important to note that this view was stated by a representative of the Admiralty, as opposed to one from the shipping lines. Given the fierce competition in the transatlantic trade, and especially amongst the elite Mail Boats, there was enormous pressure put on the Masters of the liners crossing the Atlantic to constantly strive to perform better than schedule. Naturally, no shipping line would declare in formal regulation that they expected their Masters to continually push the schedule, but a look at the pattern of promotion and recognition reveals that those officers who proved most adept at bringing their ships to destination ahead of schedule rose through the ranks higher and faster than their peers. In the case of Captain E.J. Smith of the Titanic, his rise to the position of senior Captain appears to have been completely unaffected by a couple of questionable mishaps; in fact, his reputation as a successful risk taker won him both the admiration of non-emigrant passengers and the privilege to introduce each new White Star Line flagship into service.

Captain Miller's statements above would never have come from Vice President Sanderson, because it highlights the dilemma that the shipping lines placed on their Masters. On the one hand, the lines would not equip their ships with searchlights because of the hazards presented by the lights when operated without stringent regulations governing their use. The obvious mitigation step for a Master to take in a situation where a searchlight might be required for use, then, would be to reduce speed to a point where the crew would have sufficient time to detect, react and avoid a hazard without aids to the eye. However, every Master knew -- without having to be explicitly told by the company's management -- that reducing speed in reaction to every encountered or anticipated hazard risked jeopardising schedule and therefore his status in the peer rankings.

It appears that most successful Masters solved this dilemma by taking calculated risks. In the case of Titanic, Captain Smith made the conscious decision to transit a known ice field at full speed, trusting in the clear weather conditions, the accuracy of the ice positions received over the wireless, his projections as to where Titanic would possibly encounter ice, and the attention of his watch team to detect ice in time to avoid it. In this situation, Smith or Murdoch probably would not have used a searchlight, even had one been available for use and the concern for other ships in the vicinity been somehow resolved. Without knowing beforehand the bearing of the hazard ahead, how does one determine where to direct the beam of light? When travelling at 21+ knots, one might be able to avoid a berg that appeared in the searchlight's beam at a maximum of 2000 yards ahead of the ship (this figure based on the reported experience of HMS Brilliant's 24-inch projector), but what hazards lay outside the field of light? When the deck officer is blinded to the world outside the searchlight's beam, what direction does he order the ship to turn when avoiding the spotlighted berg? Will he risk running into more ice? In an environment where hazards and ship alike are in constant motion, the deck officer must have an awareness of everything in his vicinity (and not just what might be illuminated in front of him) at any particular moment.

The Wreck Commissioner asked the Admiralty representative during the BOT Enquiry to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of equipping ships of the merchant marine with searchlights. Captain Miller responded in essence that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages, and it was therefore the opinion of the Admiralty that merchant ships should not be equipped with searchlights. For reasons explored in this article, and taken within the context of the times, that conclusion seems to have been entirely correct. Many ships today carry searchlights, but they also carry a host of navigational aids that were not available in Titanic's time. The modern watch officer is, in a practical sense, as dependent on surface-search radar as on his seaman's eye. On the other hand, First Officer Murdoch and Lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee had only their eyes to watch for hazards ahead of the ship and the decisions based on their ability to see into the night proved to be unreasonable. The use of a searchlight might have extended the crew's vision within the relatively narrow beam of light, but would have completely blinded them to hazards outside the light. Had the supposed searchlight not been trained directly at the fatal berg, it too might have been overlooked completely. The fate of the ship was not dependent on lack of a searchlight, but rather the speed at which the ship was running. If the safety of his ship had really been of highest priority to Captain Smith, the most effective action he could have taken would have been to reduce speed to the point where his watchstanders would have had sufficient time to detect, react and avoid ice in their path. All else obscures that basic fact.

The author would like to thank Senan Molony, editor of the White Star Journal, for soliciting this article for publication.

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