The Real Reason The Titanic Sank

Most people could give a pretty good answer to the question, what sank the Titanic?

Warned numerous times that he was steaming into a dangerous ice field, Titanic’s captain took no special precautions, stayed his course at nearly top speed, and retired to his stateroom. And at 11:40 PM on April 14, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg. The berg opened a gash through Titanic’s steel skin running almost a third of her length.

And two hours and 20 minutes later, on April 15, 1912, with great loss of life, Titanic was gone—but not, of course, forgotten.

This version of the folly that sank the Titanic is reflected in James Cameron’s blockbuster movie by the same name, and it was the version accepted by the inquiries which followed the disaster. Blame the captain. But the real reasons Titanic sank, like the iceberg she struck, run far deeper.

By the 1890s vast profits were being made by shipping companies carrying freight and passengers between Europe and North America. For all the vaunted luxury in which she coddled first-class passengers, Titanic was essentially an enormous ferry boat, built in a day when transatlantic passenger flight was an idle dream.

Building on enormous successes in banking and industry in the United States, John Pierpont Morgan formed a plan to obtain an effective monopoly over North Atlantic shipping. As part of his grand scheme, he acquired ownership of White Star Lines, and commenced an aggressive shipbuilding plan intended to crush the competition.

The size of ships had been growing at a rapid rate through the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, and J.P. Morgan always thought big.

He would build a fleet of blockbuster vessels 50 percent larger than the world had ever seen. An awed public would flock to these great vessels, abandoning White Star’s competition. Once the monopoly was firmly established, prices would rise.

But while shipbuilding technology was taking a giant step forward into the unknown and the untried, shipbuilding regulators remained stuck firmly in the past.

In the most well-known example of regulatory inadequacy, requirements for the provision of lifeboats remained decades behind the explosion in the size of passenger ships. Titanic had enough lifeboat capacity for perhaps one-third of her full complement of passengers and crew.

The chief designer had planned for more, but this was overruled by White Star on the basis that they cluttered up the promenade deck, and only 20 were provided. The law required no more.

Deregulation—or perhaps more exactly, lack of regulation—was responsible for much more than Titanic’s lethal lack of lifeboats. The plan developed by shipyard designers called for the use of 1½ inch steel plates. On instructions from owner White Star, the thickness of the plates was reduced from 1½ inches to 1¼ inches, and thinner rivets were used.

And although Titanic had a double bottom, it was decided not to give the world’s largest moving object a double hull.

It has been remarked that if J.P. Morgan wanted shipbuilder Harland and Wolfe to build a boat out of papier-mâché, the builder would have done it!

It is a general principle of human behavior that business enterprises will maximize profits where opportunity presents. If the regulatory environment allows costs to be saved which compromise human safety, then somebody will make these compromises. So it was with the design and build of Titanic.

Had regulators required thicker steel plates and a double hull, there is a strong case that Titanic would have completed her maiden voyage to New York, and her brush with an iceberg would be a footnote in history, not the disaster which defined an age.

The origins of Titanic’s short but glorious life, and the story of her quick and nasty death, are told in compelling images and text in the public exhibit at the Johnson Geo Centre in St. John’s.

Next time you hear proposals for deregulation, give some thought to Titanic.