Titanic Facts

25 Fascinating Facts about the Titanic Disaster

A titanic ship … titanic facts and bizarre coincidences … a ship carrying some of the wealthiest people in the world, and some of the poorest … a cold, clear night … a maiden voyage doomed from the very start … a huge, looming iceberg …

The Titanic disaster has caught the imagination of the public more than practically any other event in modern history. The immense ship, thought to be literally unsinkable, was actually the largest movable object that had ever been created up to that time, and it epitomised modern technology and man’s growing ability to ‘conquer’ Nature.

Those lucky enough to travel first class on the Titanic enjoyed the very best of everything in the most luxurious surroundings. Even those who could only afford to travel third class enjoyed a level of luxury beyond anything most of them had ever seen before. But, rich or poor, they all suffered the same fate. And some saw the sinking of Titanic as Nature’s way of letting us know who’s really in charge.

The enduring lure of the Titanic disaster

Even now, more than a hundred years after the tragic event, stories are still being told about it, films are still being made about it, and arguments still rage about who was to blame. The facts of the matter are fairly well known by now.

  • There were many more icebergs than usual in the area due to the weather, and very unusual celestial conditions
  • the radio operators didn’t pay enough attention to the iceberg warnings (passengers’ messages simply had to be sent!)
  • the lookout in the crow’s nest wasn’t equipped with binoculars (unbelievably)
  • the number of lifeboats had been reduced to make the decks clearer (astonishingly)
  • the weather made it difficult to spot icebergs (very still water, no breakers, no moon)
  • the speed of the ship was probably too great in an attempt to make the maiden voyage record-breakingly fast
  • a ship close enough to help didn’t respond, etc.

Additionally, the water was actually below freezing point, making survival beyond about 15-30 minutes after immersion highly unlikely. The watertight doors didn’t go high enough to stop water slopping over them. The rivets in some sections were not of the right material, recent tests have shown.

Even when the iceberg had been spotted, if the ship had held its course it might well have survived the collision. Turning to one side caused the iceberg to buckle the metal plates of the hull and ‘pop’ the rivets loose in a long series of small areas of damage. The effect was almost like the ship had been set about with a giant can opener.

Warnings and premonitions

Not that there weren’t warnings, even long before Titanic sailed. At least a couple of passengers had premonitions and changed their plans, but I suppose that could be expected of any group of well over 1,000 would-be passengers. More convincingly, a writer actually penned a short novel about a disaster at sea that almost exactly mirrored the Titanic disaster, and he did it 14 years before the event! I’ve read the book and it’s a fascinating read.

Today the wreck of the Titanic lies 12,600 feet below the surface of the Atlantic, rusting and slowly disappearing as the ocean takes its slow but inexorable toll. Not content with sinking the Titanic, it is now well on the way to completely disintegrating what’s left of it. But the story will linger a lot longer than the wreck itself.

More than fifteen hundred souls perished in the Titanic disaster and the story of that terrible night will be told and retold for generations to come. There is something compelling, something chilling, something almost mythic about such a total and horrific disaster as this. Never before had there even been such a ship. And for it to founder on its very first voyage, with some of the wealthiest people in the world aboard, together with the huddled masses in steerage … Is it any wonder we can’t get enough of this story?

Here are some of the many fascinating facts surrounding that truly terrible disaster. Actually, there are a lot more Titanic facts than the numbers would indicate, but I’ve grouped them for convenience, and to aid memorisation.


Fact 01 – The size of the ship

Titanic was 882ft 9in long (269m), 92ft wide( 28m), and 175ft high (53.3m), measured from the top of the funnels to the keel It weighed 46,328 tons and displaced 66,000 tons of water.

titanic-funnels-375

RMS Titanic


Fact 02 – The power source

29 boilers powered the ship, fuelled by 159 coal-burning furnaces. 825 tonnes of coal were needed every day to fuel the furnaces, all shovelled in by hand. The output of the engines was 46,000 horse power.


Fact 03 – The anchors 

There were two anchors, weighing 15 tonnes each. It took 20 horses to transport each anchor.

Transporting one of Titanic’s immense anchors


Fact 04 – The cost of building Titanic

Titanic bore the flag of the White Star Line

The famous White Star flag of the Titanic

Titanic cost about $7.5million, or about £1.5million. About 3,000 men were employed in the building of Titanic, at a weekly wage of about £2 (unskilled labourers earned £1) . The company that built Titanic was Harland and Wolff.
She was the second of three Olympic class ocean liners built by Harland and Wolff. The three ships were named Olympic, Titanic,and Britannic.

17 men died during the building of Titanic. This was fewer than might have been expected, considering the usual rate of deaths per thousand workers.


Fact 05 – The time to build Titanic

Titanic took nearly 3 years to build, beginning 31 March 1909, in Belfast. It was the largest movable object ever created.


 Fact 06 – Number of rivets

The construction of the hull required about three million rivets! A four-man rivetting crew could usually hammer home 200 rivets in a working day.


Fact 07 – Titanic’s funnels

One of Titanic's huge funnels. Only 3 were functional, the other one was just for show.There were only three functioning funnels. The fourth was just for show, to make the ship look even more impressive, although it did play a part in aiding ventilation.

The funnels towered more than 80 feet above the boat deck.


 Fact 08 – The designation, RMS

RMS – Titanic was a Royal Mail Steamer, i.e. it was officially responsible for delivering mail for the British postal service. On board Titanic was a Sea Post Office with five mail clerks (two British and three American). These mail clerks were responsible for the 3,423 sacks of mail (seven million individual pieces of mail) on board the Titanic.


Fact 09 – Launching of Titanic

titanic-launch-ticket-375Titanic was launched on 31 May 1911, down Slipway No. 3 at the Queen’s Yard of Harland and Wolff, Belfast. At that time she was the largest vessel ever built.

Over 100,000 spectators watched the huge ship slide down the slipway at about 12.15pm. The slipway was greased with over 20 tons of tallow, train oil, and soft soapLaunching of Titanic

Launching of Titanic

At this stage, it was hardly recognisable as the Titanic we’re used to seeing. It wasn’t much more than an empty hull. It still had no funnels, no engines or boilers, and inside it had no fittings or furnishings. There was still much work to be done.

A shipwright was seriously injured during the launching. He died from his injuries in hospital the following day.


 Fact 10 – Facilities aboard Titanic

The first class accommodation provided for 905 passengers in 416 cabins, staterooms, and private suites of the highest standard. Second class was also well catered for, equivalent to first class on any other ship. Even third class passengers enjoyed unheard of luxury for the time.

Titanic was the first ship to offer running water in practically every cabin, as well as heat and electric lighting.

There was a 30ft swimming pool, which you could use for the fee of one shilling, as well as aTurkish bath. Titanic was the first ship ever to have such facilities.

Swimming pool on Titanic

Titanic’s heated, salt water swimming pool


Fact 11 – The Titanic daily newspaper

The Titanic even had its own onboard daily newspaper, The Atlantic Daily Bulletin, and it contained ads, stock prices, news, horse racing results, society gossip, and the day’s menus.

As a guest on board, you could send Marconi telegrams, a brand new way of communicating while at sea. More than 250 were sent by passengers during the ill-fated voyage.


Fact 12 – The cost of a ticket

A first class passage on Titanic would have cost you about $4,350 (£875).

A second class passage cost $1,750 (£350).

A third class, or steerage, ticket would cost between $15-$40 (£3-£8).

titanic-ticket-450

Third class ticket for Titanic

By the standars of the day, third class accommodation was very good. It was said that third class on Titanic was as good as second class on any other ship. For most poor emigrants, the accommodation was better than anything they had been used to at home.


Fact 13 – Liverpool links

TedsWoodworking Plans and Projects

The ship was conceived, planned, and owned in Liverpool, although it never actually visited the city.

Titanic’s maiden voyage was organised in the city, and about 90 members of the crew (about 1 in10) were from Liverpool and the surrounding area (now known as Merseyside).

Fred Fleet, the lookout who first spotted the iceberg, was from Liverpool. He said the outcome might have been different if he’d been supplied with binoculars, although considering the weather conditions this is doubtful (see Fact 19).

The long passageway connecting crew quarters deep in the bowels of Titanic was called ‘Scotland Road’ by the crew, probably after the famous Scotland Road in Liverpool.

The Carpathia, the ship that rescued Titanic’s survivors, was a Liverpool-based ship.

Fred Clarke, violinist on Titanic, of Liverpool

Fred Clarke of Liverpool, violinist on Titanic

The ship’s bell and portholes were made by Utley’s, the St Helen’s foundry firm. Her huge kitchen ranges were made by Henry Wilson & Co, at Cornhill Works, Liverpool, and much of the crockery and tableware was provided by Stonier’s, another Liverpool firm.

The eight musicians in Titanic’s band were recruited through CW and FN Black, music agents, of Castle Street, Liverpool. The bass violinist with the band was Fred Clarke of Tunstall Street, off Smithdown Rd (among several streets only very recently demolished to make way for redevelopment). Legend has it that he carried on playing as the ship went down.

J Bruce Ismay, Chairman and MD of White Star Line, owners of Titanic

J Bruce Ismay, Chairman
and MD of White Star Line

Titanic’s master, Capt. Edward John Smith, was based in the Liverpool area for 40 years. In 1908 he returned to Southampton.

Fred Fleet, the lookout who spotted the iceberg, was from Liverpool, and he always maintained that if the binoculars had not been missing from the crow’s nest the outcome would have been very different.

J Bruce Ismay, the chairman and Managing Director of White Star Line, had one of his residences at Mossley Hill, Liverpool.


Fact 14 – The ‘streaky bacon’ building

Albion House, former home of the White Star Line, owners of Titanic

The building that formerly housed the White Star Line Head Office, Liverpool, aka ‘the streaky-bacon building’

Albion House, a Grade II listed building, housed the White Star Line Head Office. It was constructed between 1896 and 1898and still stands at the corner of The Strandand James Street in Liverpool, just a short walk from the Pier Head.

Because of its distinctive design, it’s often referred to locally as ‘the streaky bacon building’.

J Bruce Ismay’s private office was at the lower part of the turret-like projection in the middle of the picture. The company’s headquarters remained at this building until1927.

The morning after the tragedy, the building was besieged by the press and distraught relatives, eager for any news they could get. White Star Line employees were afraid to leave the safety of the building and instead called down news from the balconies as it came in.

The architects who designed the building closely followed the design of their earlier project,New Scotland Yard, in London, which it closely resembles. The building was damaged during the Liverpool Blitz. The darker brickwork at the top section (looking at the gable end) shows where rebuilding took place.


Fact 15 – Lifeboats

Titanic was equipped to carry 64 lifeboats, but at the time of the voyage she was only carrying 20. The number had been reduced to make the decks less cluttered and more spacious!

Due to outdated maritime regulations, she carried only sufficient lifeboats for 1,178 people, just about half the number of passengers. When you include the crew, that figure becomes just one third of the total.

Survivors in one of the Titanic lifeboats

Survivors in one of the Titanic lifeboats

On the day of the collision, a lifeboat drill had been cancelled, though no-one knows exactly why. In fact, no lifeboat drills were ever carried out on Titanic. It was, after all, supposed to be unsinkable!

Such was the confidence that people had in Titanic that they were reluctant to take to the boats when the time came, preferring to stay in the ‘safety’ of the ‘unsinkable’ ship.

Almost a month after the disaster, one of the lifeboats was found adrift with three bodies still in it.

The lifeboats were designed to hold 65 people each. The first one launched with only about 25 people on board. This was probably due to the general belief that the ship simply could not sink. Everyone assumed things would somehow ‘sort themselves out’.

In the chaos and confusion, a few of the lifeboats drifted off empty before they could be properly deployed.

Many recovered corpses were so badly damaged as to make recognition impossible. Consequently they were buried at sea. Out of 328 found, 119 were buried at sea.


Fact 16 – The Captain

Captain Edward John Smith, of Titanic

Captain Edward John Smith

Capt. Edward J Smith was 62 years old and was a very experienced seaman. He was on a monthly salary of £105. He had served for forty years at sea, with 27 of them in command. He had intended this to be the last trip of his career – he aimed to retire on completion of the voyage. It did indeed prove to be his final trip; he went down with his ship.

Some accounts paint a picture of a crushed man, totally bewildered at what had happened. It seems he may well have had a catastrophic mental breakdown on the night of the disaster.

The vast majority of the crew who served under Capt. Smith were not experienced sailors. Many of them were engineers, firemen or stokers, almost solely concerned with tending the engines. Many others were stewards and galley staff – in effect, hotel staff. Six watch officers and 39 able-bodied seamen made up just 5 percent of the crew. Furthermore, most of them had joined Titanic at Southampton, so they hadn’t had time to get to know the ship.

By a strange coincidence, Capt. Smith lived, at one time, at Marine Crescent, Waterloo, Liverpool, only yards from the boyhood home of J Bruce Ismay, his future employer.


Fact 17 – The moment of collision

Titanic was only four days into her maiden voyage when disaster struck, and she was just 400 miles from land.

When the iceberg was spotted, the collision happened within about 30 seconds. It was a very clear, calm night, with no wind. The unusually still conditions meant that there were no breakers hitting the iceberg, so it must have been very difficult to see.

There were binoculars in a locker used by Second Officer David Blair. He had sailed on Titanic from Belfast to Southampton. He wasn’t on the maiden voyage, however, and when he left the ship he didn’t inform anyone of the binoculars’ location. Consequently, the lookout in the crow’s nest had no access to binoculars. Even so, in the conditions that prevailed on that fateful night, it is said that binoculars probably wouldn’t have made that much difference anyway.

The distress call CQD was sent out by wireless.


Fact 18 – The sinking of Titanic

Titanic struck the iceberg at 11.40pm on Sunday, 14 April 1912. About two hours and forty minutes later she split apart and sank to the ocean floor.

At 12.30am, Capt. Smith ordered the lifeboats filled, and specified women and children first. Although this drill has no basis in maritime law, it is most often associated with the Titanic disaster. Some authorities state that he did not in fact give any clear orders and was paralysed by indecision, such was the enormity of the situation he found himself in. Any orders he did give were apparently unclear and ambiguous. As a very experienced seaman he would have known full well that even with all lifeboats filled, a thousand people would still perish. It must have been a terrible and shocking realisation.

About 60% of the first-class passengers survived.
About 42% of the second-class passengers aboard survived.
About 25% of the third-class passengers survived.

Clearly, your chances of survival depended largely on your wealth and social status.

When the Titanic sank, it took with it approximately 1,517 lives.

After the collision, the launching of the first lifeboat was delayed by about an hour.

Once Titanic hit the iceberg it was taking on water at a rate of about 400 tonnes per minute.

The ship probably sank at about 10 mph, and took about 15 minutes to reach its final resting place.

If the ship had hit the berg head on, Titanic probably would have survived because of the strength of its bulkheads. The gash in the side of the ship (or the multiple punctures) caused six watertight compartments to be breached. Four would have been survivable.

News of the sinking was met with shock and grief, with reports of grown men openly weeping in the streets of Belfast at the news. They had been there at Titanic’s ‘birth’, and her launch. They were proud of their work, and rightly so. It must have been hard news to take.


Fact 19 – The iceberg

Due to a mild winter, a large number of icebergs had begun to shift off the west coast of Greenland and into the shipping lanes. Additionally, very unusual celestial conditions caused unusually high tides that may have also contributed to the large number of bergs in the shipping lanes. The night of the disaster was exceptionally calm and clear. There was no moon, so, together with no wind, the result was that there were no breakers hitting the iceberg, which made it very difficult to see.

Due to the very mild weather, the iceberg that dealt death and destruction to Titanic was undergoing continuous melting and therefore was not actually white but relatively clear. The dark night sky (remember, there was no moon that night) was reflected off the iceberg’s surface making it what is termed a ‘blackberg’, similar to black ice found on cold, icy roads. As a blackberg it was almost impossible to see until it was very close to the Titanic.

Considering that about nine-tenths of the mass of an iceberg lies below the waterline, this accounts for the fact that they are virtually impossible to budge, even when struck with the considerable mass of a huge steamship.

The gash that the iceberg cut into the hull of the Titanic was between 220 to 245 feet long, about a quarter of the entire length of the enormous liner. It might be more accurate to say the plates of the hull were buckled and ‘popped’, rather than gashed, as new evidence suggests. So rather than a gash, the plates of the hull appear to have been damaged by several relatively small punctures.

At the time, icebergs were not thought to be particularly dangerous. Close calls were not uncommon and even head-on collisions had not been disastrous. In fact, in an interview in 1907, Capt. Smith, Titanic’s future master, uttered the fateful declaration:

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder.
Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”


Fact 20 – The Carpathia

Medal awarded to the Captain and crew of RMS Carpathia

Medal awarded to the Captain and crew of RMS Carpathia

The RMS Carpathia, a Cunard Line transatlantic passenger steamer, rescued passengers left adrift from Titanic. Once alerted, Capt. Rostron ordered Carpathia to head at full speed towards Titanic’s last known position.

Even at full speed it took Carpathia four hours to reach its goal, by which time Titanic had sunk two hours earlier. After their four-hour trip through dangerous ice fields, the crew took on 705 survivors. The captain and crew later received medals for their heroic efforts.

The Carpathia was also a Liverpool-registered ship.

Carpathia, the ship that took on survivors of the Titanic disaster

 RMS Carpathia


Fact 21 – J Bruce Ismay

Mr. J. Bruce Ismay

Mr. J. Bruce Ismay,
Chairman and Managing Director
of the White Star Line.

History has been cruel to Mr J Bruce Ismay. As Chairman and Managing Director of White Star Line, he was, by all accounts, a good businessman and there is no evidence he did anything untoward on the night of the disaster. On the contrary, he helped with the loading and lowering of several lifeboats, and only entered a half-filled lifeboat when the boat was in the process of being lowered and there were no other passengers close by. Several women testified in his favour at the inquiry, asserting that he urged them to get in the lifeboats and get themselves to safety. At least one swore later that she owed him her life.

However, every disaster story needs a villain, and he was unlucky enough to fit the bill. He was vilified for escaping the sinking ship (and why shouldn’t he?), and it was said that he had ordered (or at least encouraged) the captain to go at full speed to try to make a record crossing, although there was no evidence that he did.

In the American press (largely owned by William Randolph Hearst), he was repeatedly vilified, and called J. Brute Ismay. Hearst and Ismay had fallen out years before and Hearst made full use of this opportunity to exact revenge on Ismay.

Ismay was exonerated by the British enquiry, but the stigma of the allegations made against him dogged him for the rest of his life. The memories of that terrible night also must have haunted him.

Ismay lived a quiet life after the tragedy, and no doubt largely due to the unfair treatment meted out to him following it, and he donated huge amounts to maritime charities. In fact he set one up himself, the National Mercantile Marine Fund, to make provision for the widows and children of merchant sailors, giving preference to dependants of sailors born in Liverpool.

On the night of the sinking of Titanic, after being picked up by the Carpathia, he gave Capt. Rostron a message to send to the White Star Line’s New York office. It read simply:

“Deeply regret advise you
Titanic sank this morning
after collision with iceberg,
resulting in serious loss of life.
Full particulars later.”

He stayed in the ship’s doctor’s office for the entire journey to New York, not sleeping, not speaking and not eating. He was a broken man.


Fact 22 – Premonitions

Passenger (and fashion writer) Edith Rosenbaum cabled her secretary in Paris that she had “a premonition of trouble” about the Titanic. Although she still sailed on Titanic, she survived.

Another passenger, Dr. William Edward Minahan, from Wisconsin, had his fortune told shortly before embarking. The fortune teller warned him he would die if he went ahead. Sadly, she was proved right.


Fact 23 – A novel prediction

Morgan Robertson wrote a novel about a disaster at sea, called ‘Futility’. In it, an ocean liner named Titan collides with an iceberg on her maiden voyage, with great loss of life. The ship was almost exactly the same length as Titanic, and roughly the same weight, and very similar in many other ways.

The similarities between the disaster in Robertson’s novel and the Titanic disaster were remarkable, and chilling. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that the novel was published 14 years before Titanic headed on its final journey, towards the ocean floor.


Fact 24 – The wreck site

The wreck of Titanic lies at a depth of 12,600 feet.

It was rediscovered on 1 Sept. 1985, by underwater explorer Robert Ballard, off the coast of St John’s, Newfoundland.

The wreck site covers about 1,000 acres.

Thousands of artifacts of every description have been recovered from the site since the discover of the wreck. These range from tiny pieces of crockery to huge sections of bulkhead. Many are now on permanent display in museums round the world. While this enduring fascination with the disaster is understandable, many would argue that items from the site should be left where they fell.

Visiting the site and removing artifacts is seen by many as a desecration of a sea grave. We shouldn’t forget that over 1,500 people lost their lives on that fateful night in April 1912.


Fact 25 – Various other Titanic facts


Of 2,223 people on board Titanic, 1,517 died. There were 706 survivors.

Bodies recovered by search ships were embalmed, ready to take back to port. Although the ships left with embalming supplies, undertakers, and clergy, some of them quickly ran out of embalming supplies. A decision had to be taken on which bodies to keep and which to bury at sea, since health regulations only allowed embalmed bodies to be returned. It was decided to embalm the first class passengers. The reason given was that wealthy individuals would have to be visually identified, in case of disputes over their estates.

A first-class lunch menu from the Titanic dated April 14, 1912, sold for £76,000 on March 31, 2012.

Cyril Quigley watched the Titanic leave Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard in 1912 when he was 4 years old. 101 years later, on March 31, 2012, Quigley, age 105, was guest of honor at the opening of the Titanic Belfast museum in Northern Ireland.

They got it wrong: 

The London Daily Mail reported “Titanic Sunk, No Lives Lost,” in its initial April 16, 1912, story.

The Daily Mirror was initially optimistic, but the true horror aboard Titanic soon emerged

The Daily Mirror was initially optimistic, but the true horror soon emerged

The Daily Mirror also had a wildly optimistic report.

The body of a 2-year-old passenger was not identified until 2007. DNA evidence finally showed that the body was that of Sidney Leslie Goodwin of England.

Among the many myths surrounding the Titanic is that the champagne bottle did not break when she was launched, portending disaster. Not true – the White Star Line did not have a tradition of ‘christening’ their ships with a bottle of champagne.

One of the factors in the disaster was that random distress rockets were fired, and their message could have been interpreted as signalling “I’m having navigational problems, stand clear”, instead of a clear and distinct distress call.

The White Star Line stopped the pay of the surviving crew members from the precise time the ship went down, since there was no longer a ship to serve in. Managing Director, J Bruce Ismay did not see fit, apparently, to make any changes to company policy in this respect.

Isidor Straus, a partner in Macy’s department store, and his wife, Ida, died together on Titanic. Ida reportedly already had her foot on the edge of a lifeboat and was about to climb in. Instead, she decided to stay with her husband. She shared his inevitable fate.

At 32 degrees, the iceberg was actually warmer than the water Titanic passengers fell into that night. The ocean waters were 28 degrees, below the freezing point, and yet still not frozen due to the water’s salt content.


Changes in maritime law

In the months and years following the disaster, maritime laws and conventions were changed in the earnest hope that such a tragedy could never happen again. Amongst the changes that have taken place are …

  • Ice patrols in the North Atlantic Ocean became more frequent and more rigorous
  • Ships are now required to monitor on-board radios at all times
  • lifeboat safety drills are now mandatory
  • In 1914, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was created. This replaced various national conventions with one global maritime safety standard.

The Titanic in films

There have been many, many films about the Titanic disaster. The first Titanic film, believe it or not, was released only 29 days after the sinking! Unfortunately, it is now a lost Titanic film (sank without trace?) – there was a studio fire in which the last known prints were destroyed.

Amongst all the others (and there really have been quite a few!), the most well known are Titanic (1953), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, and A Night To Remember(1958), starring Kenneth More and Honor Blackman.

Much more recently, the tale has been retold in James Cameron’s epic, Titanic (1997), which told the tale in the light of a romance between two young lovers at different ends of the social scale. Leonardo DiCaprio played Jack Dawson, and Kate Winslet played Rose DeWitt Bukater. This most famous and celebrated Titanic film earned 14 Oscar nominations and won 11, equalling Ben Hur’s haul.

With a budget of $200 million, it has earned in excess of $2 billion at the box office! Titanic and Avatar were both written and directed by James Cameron, and are the two highest grossing films of all time.Titanic, the James Cameron movie of 1997 retold the Titanic story yet again

James Cameron’s epic 1997 retelling of the Titanic story,
starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet


And finally … the warnings that were missed

Several times (probably six or more), Titanic received iceberg warnings via their Marconi messaging system (the system was owned by Marconi, rather than White Star). The wireless operators were inundated with messages to and from passengers and to relay stations, and the system was easily overloaded, in that each and every message had to be taken down by hand, or sent by hand.

Messages meant for the bridge wouldn’t always be relayed to the bridge, or could be literally left to one side while the operators dealt with other messages. It must have been a difficult and demanding job. And the whole business of sending and receiving messages between ship and shore was very new and there were no rules, as such.

To give an idea of the kind of thing that happened, and the mistakes and miscommunications that could occur, here’s an exchange between a ship (the Californian) warning of pack ice and icebergs, and Titanic, whose operator was struggling under a heavy workload.

From the Californian:

“Ice report in lat. 42N to 41.25N, long 49W to long 50.30W.
Saw much heavy pack ice and great number
large icebergs also field ice. Weather good clear”

Titanic, travelling at 22.5 knots (almost full speed) was heading straight into an ice field, and was being given a clear warning about the situation.

Titanic’s reply:

“Shut up. Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race.”
 

Jack Phillips was Titanic’s wireless operator at the time. The repeated iceberg warnings were interfering with his work of sending and receiving passengers’ messages. Cape Race was a relay station in Newfoundland. The Californian was very close (maybe an hour away) so her signal was strong and, to Phillips, very loud in his ears, hence his curt ‘Shut up!’

Tragically, the wireless operator on the Californian became bored with the whole thing and eventually switched his set off and went to bed (remember, this whole thing was new and there were, effectively, no rules). Fifteen minutes later, Titanic hit the iceberg. The Californian could have got news of the disaster immediately, and was close enough to lend assistance, but it was not to be.

Phillips stayed at his telegraph key, tapping out distress calls, long after he had been relieved of his duty by his captain. His earlier mistake might well have contributed to the disaster, but he did his best to make up for that later. He continued desperately sending distress calls until Titanic’s power finally failed.

Unfortunately, long before that moment, Titanic’s fate had been sealed.

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