The Birth Of The Titanic cover

The Birth Of The Titanic

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It took just a minute for the giant hull to slide gracefully down the slipways and into the River Lagan in Belfast on May 31, 1911.
At the time, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic was the largest manmade moveable object in the world.
The floating behemoth was also the trump hand in an intense rivalry among rival shipping lines in the early years of the 20th century.


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The Birth Of The Titanic

The Titanic

It took just a minute for the giant hull to slide gracefully down the slipways and into the River Lagan in Belfast on May 31, 1911.

At the time, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic was the largest manmade moveable object in the world.

The floating behemoth was also the trump hand in an intense rivalry among rival shipping lines in the early years of the 20th century.

Cunard’s Mauretania held all the cards in 1907 when it was launched to great fanfare only to set a speed record for the fastest transatlantic crossing at its first attempt – a feat that remained unbeaten for 22 years.

The Titanic

The Titanic

Public Domain

Coming Up With An Idea

In the same year, Cunard’s other masterpiece, the ill-fated Lusitania – which would be sunk by a German U-Boat on May 7, 1915 with the loss of almost 1,200 lives, precipitating America’s entry into World War I – was celebrated as the last word in comfort and luxury.

The double blow was the last straw for the White Star Line’s ambitious and fiercely competitive English chief executive J. Bruce Ismay and the U.S. financier J. Pierpoint Morgan, who controlled the company’s parent corporation, the International Mercantile Marine Co. The gloves were off, they decided. They were going to blow their rivals out of the water.

Taking Shape

With the mission agreed, it was time to present the plan to the one person Ismay knew who was capable of making it a reality.

On a warm summer evening that same year, Ismay’s Daimler-Benz pulled up outside Lord and Lady Pirrie’s elegant home in London’s swish Belgravia.

William J. Pirrie, chairman of the Belfast-based shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff, agreed that Cunard’s challenge could not go unanswered. Over cigar and brandies in the drawing room, a plan began to take shape.

An Olympic Class

They couldn’t compete with the speed of the Cunard liners that had been built with British Admiralty expertise in the latest high-powered turbine propulsion systems, an area where Harland and Wolff’s experience was limited.

But the Belfast shipyard could make up for in size what it lacked in knots. White Star already had a fleet of 29 steamers and tenders. But they would build a new “Olympic” class of liner that would leave Cunard’s speed kings in their wake.

A Huge Endeavor

Public Domain

A Huge Endeavor

Rudder with central and port wing propellers. For scale note the man at bottom of the photo.

Which Way To Go

If Cunard wanted to go big, White Star could go bigger and if Cunard wanted to up the luxury then White Star would do luxury on a scale never before seen on a boat.

If Cunard could build two then White Star would build three so they could offer weekly east and westbound trips - and they would all be monsters of the sea.

They would also be safer. These ocean-going hotels were going to be “unsinkable.”

Money was no object and Harland and Wolff was given a budget of (pounds) 3 million per ship to build the first two – an enormous amount of money at the time.

Getting Their Hopes Up

Because of the long relationship between the two companies, Ismay put much faith and latitude in the shipbuilder’s design team overseen by Pirrie, who was also a director of the White Star Line.

On the team was naval architect Thomas Andrews, the popular managing director of Harland and Wolff's design department; Edward Wilding, Andrews' deputy and the engineer responsible for calculating the ship's design, stability and trim; and Alexander Carlisle, the shipyard's chief draughtsman and general manager.

Ready To Start

Carlisle's responsibilities included the decorations, equipment and all general arrangements, including the implementation of an efficient lifeboat design.

On July 29, 1908, a year after they were commissioned, the drawings were approved by Ismay, who signed three "letters of agreement" authorizing the start of construction.

Before they could even start a giant gantry had to be built by the same Scottish company responsible for London’s Tower Bridge and the Forth Bridge.

Gymnasium

Public Domain

Gymnasium

The gymnasium on the Boat Deck was equipped with the latest exercise machines.

The Biggest In The World

By the end of the year, work had already begun on the first ship, the Olympic.

Construction of the second, Titanic, would follow on almost immediately and the third, Giganti, would have her keel laid in Olympic’s slip once it was vacated. The idea was they would be ready to go into service in the spring of 1911, 1912 and 1913 respectively.

But it was the second liner, the RMS Titanic, that really caught the public’s imagination as a colossus of the industrial age by virtue of a minor addition of extra glass and steel decks shields protecting First Class passengers from sea spray insisted on by Ismay that made it marginally the biggest of the three and consequently the biggest in the world.

No Champagne To Celebrate

Work on the Titanic started on March 31, 1909 and it continued around-the-clock until more than 100,000 people gathered at the Belfast docks to see the launch.

It was a magnificent day for Ismay, Pirrie, Andrews and their team but there was no champagne to christen the new arrival to the fleet. Practical men didn’t believe in such trifles.

The hull was towed out to a huge fitting-out dock where thousands of worker bees would spend the next year buzzing around its 882 ft. 9 ins. long by 92.5 ft. wide shell.

A Breathtaking Sight

The dimensions were quite breathtaking.

Her total height, measured from the base of the keel to the top of the bridge, was 104 feet. She measured 46,328 gross register tons and with a draught of 34 feet 7 inches, she displaced 52,310 tons.

Standing above the ten layers of decks were four funnels, each painted buff with black tops, although only three were functional - the last one was a dummy, installed for aesthetic purposes - and two masts, each 155 feet high.

Grand Staircase

Public Domain

Grand Staircase

The famous Grand Staircase, which connected Boat Deck and E Deck.

The Titanic From The Inside

Titanic's electrical plant alone was capable of producing more power than an average city power station of the time.

The three main engines were powered with steam produced in 29 boilers containing a total of 159 furnaces – fuelled by 600 tons of coal a day shoveled by hand by 176 firemen working around the clock.

The engines in turn were connected directly to three long shafts, which drove the propellers. The 78 ft. 8 ins. rudder was so big it needed steering engines to move it.

Interior Design

The interior was laid out in the style of the Ritz Hotel, at least for the 833 First Class passengers, with the grand staircase sweeping down from the Boat Desk to E Deck the focal point.

Even the less elaborate accommodation for the 614 Second Class and 1,006 Third Class travelers was way above average for the period. With the addition of about 900 crew, the ship was capable of carrying 3,547 people.

La Circassienne au Bain

La Circassienne au Bain

Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Designers’ Arrogance

The design gave the Titanic the capacity to carry 64 wooden lifeboats, which would have been enough for 4,000 people, more than sufficient to ferry off everybody on board.

However, the White Star Line, confident in the invincibility of its flagship, decided on just 16 lifeboats with four collapsible craft, enough to accommodate 1,178 people – or one-third of the total capacity.

It wasn’t difficult to understand the designers’ arrogance. After all, they’d divided the interior into 16 compartments divided by 15 bulkheads that extended way above the waterline, a vast improvement on the usual two or three collision bulkheads in the bow. The idea was that even if three or four compartments were flooded, say through a collision with another ship, the boat would still remain afloat.

The Unsinkable Ship

Watertight doors closed automatically through a flick of a switch either by hand or if the water level rose above a couple of inches.

The prestigious British journal ‘Shipbuilding’ anointed the liners “practically unsinkable” when the OIympic was launched.

A short while later, when it was Titanic’s time for a close-up, the qualifying adjective had been forgotten by an adoring public at a time when size really mattered.

The Unsinkable Ship

Watertight doors closed automatically through a flick of a switch either by hand or if the water level rose above a couple of inches.

The prestigious British journal ‘Shipbuilding’ anointed the liners “practically unsinkable” when the OIympic was launched.

A short while later, when it was Titanic’s time for a close-up, the qualifying adjective had been forgotten by an adoring public at a time when size really mattered.

Several Injuries In The Process

In those days, shipbuilding was fraught with risk for those working on the docks.

During Titanic’s construction, 246 injuries were recorded, 28 of them “severe” – such as limbs being cut off or crushed. Six people died on the ship itself and two more in shipyards and sheds on land. Just before the launch a worker was killed when a plank of wood fell on him.

Bruce Ismay and Lord Pirrie were too ill to attend the Titanic’s first real test at sea.

The Seaworthy Titanic

Her sea trials began at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, April 2, 1912, just two days after her fitting out was finished and eight days before she was due to leave Southampton on her maiden voyage.

The liner was put through her paces, first in Belfast Lough and then in the open waters of the Irish Sea. Over the course of about twelve hours, Titanic was driven at different speeds, her turning ability was tested and a "crash stop" was performed in which the engines were reversed full ahead to full astern, bringing her to a stop in 850 yards or 3 minutes and 15 seconds.

The Titanic was declared seaworthy. It was time to head to Southampton to make final preparations for the historic maiden voyage to New York.