"Modern Marvels: Titanic Tech" Questions

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30. Did the Olympic's collision with the British Royal Navy cruiser Hawke hint in any way to future problems with the Titanic? For instance, the inability of such large ships to maneuver quickly?

A large ship such as Olympic could not be expected to manoeuvre tightly within a restricted channel. The Hawke was the more manoeuvrable of the two ships and she should have kept her distance. On the other hand, Olympic was proceeding too fast down the channel. The Hawke was drawn in by the Venturi effect, which occurs when a low-pressure area is created between areas of high pressure caused by the bow wave and wake of a moving ship. For large ships, the areas of both high and low pressure are larger and have a greater differential between the two, meaning that the suction effect will be greater. Anything that wanders into this low-pressure area, like the bow of another ship, can be quickly and unexpectedly drawn into a collision. It happened with the Olympic-Hawke collision and even more recently (2000) in the USNS Yukon-USS Denver collision. Once a ship is drawn into that area, the ability of the base ship to manoeuvre becomes a moot point.

31. Was there really a fire in a coal bunker? Why was no one overly concerned?

A smouldering, low intensity fire was discovered in one of the bunkers, but it was viewed more of a nuisance than a hazard. Although it has been called a bunker fire, it was really more of an area of glowing embers caused by spontaneous combustion. Bunker fires were not uncommon and difficult to locate since the seat might be under tons of coal that would have to be moved around in a very confined space. It was customary to let them smoulder until the source of ignition was revealed by normal draw from the bunker. The seat could then be extinguished. Titanic's crew appeared to have been unusually aggressive in locating and extinguishing the seat of the fire.

32. How did the messages about ice manage to get lost between the Marconi and the Captain?

History records two messages that didn't make it to the Bridge the night of 14 April, one from M.V. Mesaba (callsign MMU) at 2150 (all times given in Titanic ship time) and one from S.S. Californian (MWL) at around 2300. Both were significant because they gave (or in Californian's case, would have given) the precise location of the ice field in Titanic's path. It has often been recorded that the Mesaba telegram was shunted aside by R/O Phillips as he worked the heavy traffic with Cape Race (MCE), but what is not as well known is that the R/O on Mesaba failed to include the prefix MSG, which stood for Masters' Service Gram, that required Phillips to return an personal acknowledgement receipt from the Captain. The field in the report used for the MSG prefix was instead filled with the words, "Ice Report". When the Californian's R/O, Cyril Evans, heard Titanic's strong signal, he figured he would warn Titanic that his ship was stopped in the ice. Unfortunately, Evans didn't listen to the exchange of signals between Titanic and Cape Race and his stronger signal stepped on the fainter acknowledgement signals from Cape Race. Phillips, who was listening closely to Cape Race, almost had his ears blasted off by the stronger signal from the Californian. Since the content of Evans' message was informal, Phillips abruptly cut him off with something to the effect of, "Shut up! Shut up! I am busy, I am working Cape Race!". Had Evans instead submitted a formal report with the MSG prefix, Phillips might still have been irritated but would have dutifully copied the message and delivered it to the Bridge.

We assume that the Mesaba message didn't make it to the Bridge, but there is no evidence that would allow us to say for certain exactly what happened to that message.

Before the Titanic disaster, the primary role of R/Os contracted to the steamship liners was to process the passengers' personal messages (for Titanic, the wireless code word to designate such traffic was ADVISELUM). There were no set procedures for message prioritisation at that time, except for those messages preceded by the MSG code (or a distress call). If, then, the R/Os were busy with paying passengers' traffic, a message without the MSG prefix would be pinned for routine delivery. Because of lessons learned from the Titanic disaster, the regulations were changed after the disaster to require (among other things) all messages regarding ship navigation to be given immediate priority over other traffic. In addition, both of Titanic's sister ships were backfit with a pneumatic message delivery tube that ran directly from the Marconi Room to the Bridge, in order to expedite the passing of emergent warnings.

33. From spotting the iceberg to impact, what happened? How long did it take?

The stock answer to this question is 37 seconds. That's the time observed during tests run in support of the BOT Enquiry that called for Olympic to turn two points to port while steaming full ahead. However, there are many factors that could affect this figure. One question that cannot be answered is exactly when the iceberg was first reacted to. I believe that Murdoch actually saw the berg and reacted before the lookouts rang the warning bell. Otherwise, given the amount of time it takes to have visual movement of the bow after the initial order is given to the helm, I can't explain how the bow could have been moving to port even as Fleet was relaying the warning over the telephone. Another is the accuracy of the eyewitness's estimation of how far the bow moved to port. Two points (about 23 degrees of the compass) is what was reported but what is the margin of error for their estimates? 37 seconds might be a workable figure, but it is by no means absolute.

34. How did these actions (or lack thereof) impact the seriousness of the incident? Could the crew have taken different action and saved the ship?

I believe that the accident began when Captain Smith first charted a course through the ice while preparing his Night Orders. Given that perspective, the most effective action that could have been taken to save the ship would have been to reduce speed through the region. However, Captain Smith's decision was shaped by the general attitude of the industry during that period, which was that it was much better to retain maximum manouevring ability by running full speed when conditions were clear than to slow down. It was a trade-off that appeared to be effective until the Titanic disaster publicly highlighted the fatal flaw in the logic. How many ships had already learned this lesson before 1912, but lacked a wireless station that would have allowed them to share the lesson with the world? There are quite a few ships that simply disappeared on the North Atlantic in the years before the Titanic disaster...could they have warned the public about the dangers of running full speed through reported regions of ice before Titanic sailed? Maybe. Then again, without a huge loss of life (including celebrities), would anybody have listened?

35. What happened to the hull of the ship? How do we know what happened? Is there evidence to suggest the ship "rode up" on the iceberg?

See below.

36. How strong is an iceberg? How big might this one have been? Where did it come from?

This is a question better answered by the other interviewees. Obviously, the iceberg was at least large and strong enough to ruin Titanic's day.

37. What distress signals were sent? Who responded?

Captain Smith instructed the wireless operators to send out a call for assistance sometime shortly after midnight. Phillips immediately sent out a CQD to all ships within range. Frankfurt was the first to respond verbally, Carpathia was the first and only effective respondent. Talk to specific messages, if need be.

38. Please describe the sinking process and break-up of the ship structurally? How long did it take? What happened?

(Note: The following scenario is one that I believed in until late 2005, at which time new evidence came to light that caused me to re-assess the manner in which Titanic broke apart and sank. Please see *****)

The exact nature of the collision is controversial, but it is my opinion that the ship briefly grounded on an underwater projection or shelf of the iceberg. This strike was hard enough to open portions of the hull's double bottom to the sea and transmit shock damage up supporting members so that watertight integrity of the Fireman's Passage was compromised. In addition, as the ship's momentum carried the starboard side of the hull up farther onto the shelf, racking damage distorted shell plating on the starboard turn of the bilge, shearing wrought-iron rivets, breaking caulking and allowing the parting of strakes deep below the waterline, resulting in an inrush of water into Boiler Rooms Nos. 6 and 5. The transverse bulkhead between Boiler Rooms Nos. 5 and 6 was weakened slightly as supporting longitudinals were distorted. The influx of water from multiple openings eventually overwhelmed the capacity of Titanic's pumps. The rate of flooding actually decreased from a high of approximately 400 tons per minute during the first hour of flooding, as the pressure began to equalise. The ship attained near equilibrium during the second hour of flooding, but as the loss of buoyancy in the flooded bow began to pull hull openings and non-watertight decks under the surface, flooding increased once again. The Titanic was doomed by this time, as Thomas Andrews had calculated.

At around 0200, events began to escalate. At this point, approximately 35,000 tons of water filled the submerged bow section. The bending moment on the forward portion of the hull opened the forward expansion joint. The forecastle was pulled under and Boiler No. 4 filled with seawater. There were now a loss of buoyancy forward equivalent to the 40,000 tons of water filling the bow, opposed to the weight of about 250 feet of unsupported hull as the stern rose clear of the surface. The stresses accumulated in the area abaft the third funnel, which happens to be a structurally weak spot, as the combination there of the engine casing and the after staircase created large discontinuities in the structure. The hull girder, already subjected to stresses well beyond the yield point of the steel, began to buckle. Ductile tearing of the shell plating was aided by increasing crack propagation along rivet holes and hull openings. The bow and stern sections began to separate, collapsing the two main transverse bulkheads framing Boiler Room No. 1. The deck structures subsequently failed, due to the lack of bulkhead support. The hull girder compressed further, destroying the inner bottom structure beneath the ship's machinery spaces. The cabling carrying electrical power was cut, along with the piping supplying steam to the dynamos. At some point under the surface, the double bottom structure finally gave way to compressive stresses and the hull broke into three major pieces. Freed from the dead weight of the flooded bow section, the stern settled back down onto the surface. Flooding began in the damaged lower compartments, upsetting the equilibrium of the stern and tipping it into a near-vertical position. The remaining buoyancy in the stern temporarily counteracted the advance of the flooding, until the trapped air was forced out through apertures in the hull. Tearing of the port-side shell plating or the manner of flooding caused the stern section to rotate counterclockwise about the vertical axis. Hydrostatic pressure systematically imploded damaged compartments in the stern section as it flooded and sank, which accelerated the rate of sinking towards the end.

In short, the impurities in her steel, the failure to ream the rivet holes prior to driving the rivets, the lower ductility of the steel due to the coldness of the water and the coarser grain structure of the shell plating would only serve to hasten the demise of Titanic. It was the depth and longitudinal extent of the impact damage that spelled doom for the ship, for it induced massive flooding that overcame the internal subdivision. The flooding itself created an estimated maximum bending moment of over 5 million foot-tons that grossly exceeded the yield strength of the steel. No ship, even a modern one employing A 36 steel and welded construction, could have withstood such excessive stresses.

39. Can you tell us about hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a condition that comes about when the body's heat regulating mechanism can't cope with the conditions it's working in. The metabolic rate slows, the body temperature drops, and the sufferer becomes drowsy, confused and moves unsteadily. Hypothermia is defined as a body core temperature less than 95° F. Decreased consciousness occurs when the core temperature falls to approximately 89° F. Heart failure is the usual cause of death when the core temperature cools to below 86° F. The body loses heat to the water about 30 times faster than in air. Swimming is an option but this leads to faster heat loss (35-50% faster) and exhaustion...even a strong swimmer would not be able to swim more than one mile in calm water. Cramp and hypothermia develop more quickly when a person tries to swim, which leads to semiconscious. In 28° F water, a person has maybe an hour to live. Never assume that a hypothermia casualty is dead, even if breathing and heartbeat appear absent.

Everyone has heard the story about Baker Charles Joughin and how his consumption of alcohol probably insulated him from the cold. Alcohol in the bloodstream doesn't insulate one from the effects of hypothermia. If anything, it lowers the body's metabolic rate, which reduces heat loss. As I read Joughin's account, I see that he seemed to be pretty calm throughout his stay in the water. That, combined with the calming effect of the alcohol, were factors that contributed to his resistance to the effects of hypothermia. His physical condition could also have contributed to his ability to survive. One thing that Joughin didn't do was lose his cool and flail about in the water.

40. Did Titanic sink because of a design flaw? Were subsequent ships designed to eliminate the danger Titanic faced? Or was it simply a fluke?

I believe that Titanic was well engineered for her role as an emigrant ship. I maintain that what killed the ship was not any shortcomings in her design, but rather the manner in which she was navigated. All the safety features in the world cannot save a ship that is driven too fast through a known ice region.

There are, however, two specific design characteristics of the Olympic-class ships that might have played a significant role in the sinking of both Titanic and Britannic. One was the design of the watertight door assemblies. The fact that the guides for the watertight doors were mounted directly on the bulkhead, instead of being mounted on a separate baseplate, meant that the guides could be warped if the bulkhead suffered any deformation, thereby increasing the risk of a door jamming open while being lowered. The other design characteristic was the watertight Fireman's Passage that was allowed to penetrate two watertight bulkheads. Any compromise of that tunnel could allow water to enter the watertight compartments aft of Bulkhead "D."

41. How did the proliferation of newspapers and wire services impact the effect of the Titanic story on the public?

This is a question better answered by the other interviewees.

42. How does the "myth" of the Titanic represent the "reality?" Does the "myth" of the Titanic in some ways convey a greater truth about the time and the people?

I believe that the myth that has grown around the Titanic story distances us from the true lessons to be learned from the disaster. Just as one example, I believe that claims about Edwardian arrogance obscures the real lesson of the Titanic tragedy...that too much focus on schedule can cause a string of well-intentioned decisions that can ultimately lead to disaster. The one guiding principle that I try to follow during my research is to try and evaluate the history through a 1912 perspective, no matter how alien it might seem to us today. Out of this, the most startling conclusion is that despite all the advances in safety technology since Titanic sank, a disaster of equal magnitude could still happen today. I see the recent Challenger and Columbia tragedies as collaborative proof of this.

43. What prompted your interest in the Titanic? What is so captivating about it?

To the best of my recollection, my interest in Titanic began in front of the TV, watching either the 1953 feature film, Titanic, or the Titanic episode of the Time Tunnel series. Either way, the story of the doomed liner captured my attention at a relatively early age. Talk to the rest.

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