The claim that the RMS Titanic was “practically unsinkable” may have been more a marketing tactic than a commentary on its engineering, but its prelaunch reputation of being impervious to the perils of the high seas has lingered for the past 100 years.
It is dangerous to cast engineering projects in such absolute terms—of course there had to be some combination of conditions under which the ocean liner would have failed. As elegant and grand as it was, however, theTitanic—like any other ship—was far from unsinkable.
At nearly 275 meters long with a gross weight of about 42,000 metric tons, theTitanic was the largest ship ever built at the time. It featured 16 major watertight compartments in its lower section that could be sealed off in the event of a punctured hull. Yet the luxury liner sank less than three hours after colliding with a massive iceberg in the North Atlantic, despite some estimates that it should have been able to stay afloat for as long as three days after an accident at sea.
The watertight compartments proved to be a fatal design flaw—one that James Cameron illustrated well early in his 1997 film recounting the fateful April night in 1912 when the Titanic sunk, taking about two thirds of her 2,200 passengers into the icy waters with her. The 90-meter gash in the Titanic’s hull caused the ship to take on water near its bow, flooding six of the compartments. When enough water had penetrated the hull breach, the ship pitched forward at an angle that caused water from the individual compartments to spill over their bulkheads, inundating the front of the ship and sending the Titanic like a torpedo to the ocean bottom almost four kilometers below. Had the bulkheads been higher, or watertight at the top as well as the bottom, the water rushing into the hull might have been distributed more evenly, giving passengers more time to escape.
Ironically, builders of the Titanic were given a preview of how their ship might react to a hull breach several months before it even left port. On September 20, 1911,Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, was broadsided by the British warship HMS Hawke, which ripped away metal plates and riveted joints, leaving an 11-meter opening in the starboard side of the Olympic’s hull. The collision caused the flooding of two of the Olympic’s lower compartments, but the ship was able to make it back to port, perhaps contributing to the unsinkability myth.