The “Black” White Star
The story of the White Star ocean liner, the Titanic, has become legend. The tale of a ship billed by its own company to be “virtually unsinkable” – although the “virtually” is often dropped in Titanic folklore – that sank on her maiden voyage in a freak accident has long served as an almost cautionary tale about the limits of man.
The wreck of the ship lay undisturbed and silent two and a half miles beneath the ocean’s surface for nearly eighty years before the discovery in 1985 by Dr. Robert Ballard brought the story of the ship to the public consciousness once more. The Titanic is a ship that has penetrated public awareness in a way that few do. But looking a little closer into the story of her design and conception, one soon learns that if it were not for that fateful April sinking in the spring of 1912, it is extremely unlikely that the Titanic would be remembered by any beyond the most dedicated maritime historians.
Design without Insight
The Titanic was one of three ships commissioned by the White Star line at the turn of the 20th Century in an age where man could not build fast enough to keep up with their learning. The established ship building company made a decision with the design of their three new ships that was surprising for most. Along with her sisters, the older Olympic and younger Britannic, the Titanic was designed not for speed and sea worthiness for the treacherous Atlantic crossings, but for style, opulence and grandeur on a scale previously never seen.
While fierce rivals Cunard built a brace of ships, the Mauritania and Lusitania, for the same Atlantic passage and focussed primarily on speed, White Star took a basic ship design and simply made it bigger. The manner in which they did this was almost crude, simply choosing to beat Cunard on size – the Titanic and sisters were over a hundred feet longer than their rival the Mauritania – but surprisingly little change was made to the design and handling of the sisters to accommodate this increase of size on what was a basic liner design.
Unfortunately the White Star Line would pay for this cavalier choice of size over innovative design. Of the three White Star Line ships dubbed the Olympic class, of which the Titanic was one, only the most senior – the Olympic – finished its usage life naturally. The Titanic, of course, collided with an iceberg and sank, a disaster that could arguably have been avoided had handling of such a large vessel been incorporated into the design. The Britannic struck a mine during the First World War and sank in under an hour. Even the Olympic, who did finish her life in the scrap yards as was normal for liners of the time, was not spared a troublesome life. During her sea trials the immense suction created by a ship of a size never seen before surprised all, and the navy barger HMS Hawke was dragged into her side, gouging a huge hole and destroying the smaller vessel.
Fortunately this incident was survived by the ship, which would prove to be the luckiest of the Olympic Class. But for three sister ships to be involved in three serious accidents is an important historical lesson in the foundations of ship design – to learn that with greater size comes greater responsibility. The White Star Line would not survive the disasters of the Olympic Class and were bought out by rivals Cunard, proving that in their desire to be the greatest, the simple mechanics of ship design were ignored. The price was paid – it is interesting to note that Cunard, who focussed so much more on innovation and intelligent design, still exist to this day.