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High-Tech Titanic

Technological Innovations of the "Floating Palace"

Photo: A boy stands next to the massive boilers of the Titanic's nearly-identical sister ship, the Olympic, at Harland and Wolff in Belfast.

Photo: A boy stands next to the massive boilers of the Titanic's nearly-identical sister ship, the Olympic, at Harland and Wolff in Belfast. (View larger version)

Photograph © National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Harland and Wolff, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum

By Patrick J. Kiger

Published

In his memoir, “The Truth About the Titanic,” survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie made note of “the pleasure and comfort which all of us enjoyed upon this floating palace…with its extraordinary provisions for such purposes.” Indeed, the $7.5 million Titanic was the floating equivalent of a four-star luxury hotel, equipped with intricate Edwardian gadgetry and posh conveniences. Beyond that, the 46, 328-ton liner—whose 882 feet 9 inch length, the New York Times calculated, was the equivalent of more than four city blocks—also represented the cutting edge in transportation technology and design. “She was the latest thing in the art of shipbuilding,” White Star chairman and managing director J. Bruce Ismay testified in a U.S. Senate inquiry into the Titanic’s demise. “Absolutely no money was spared in her construction.”

The Titanic—like its sister ship, the Olympic—was designed to compete with the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania, which had set the speed standard for crossing the Atlantic a few years before. To that end, the Titanic incorporated the latest advances in power plant and propulsion systems. The ship was equipped with a state-of-art power plant and propulsion system that included two four-cylinder reciprocating engines—each driving a wing propeller—and a turbine driving the center propeller. The combination, according to Titanic historian Walter Lord, enabled the ship to generate at least 55,000 horsepower. Even so, the Titanic was slower than the 26 knots that its competitors were able to achieve. The Titanic Historical Society figures its maximum speed at 21 knots, while Walter Lord estimated that she might have been able to top out at 24 knots. Either way, White Star had decided that style and comfort, rather than speed, was the Titanic’s main selling point.

Thus, even as the Titanic was making its way across the ocean, its design features almost made it seem as if passengers already had reached their destination and disembarked upon land. As Gracie noted, “the motion of the ship and the noise of its machinery were scarcely discernible on deck or in the salons, either day or night.” Even the ship’s décor had subtle innovations designed to further the illusion of being on land. In the A La Carte Restaurant, for example, the crystal chandeliers were designed to hang rigidly from the ceiling, so that the sway of the ship wasn’t noticeable to diners. Similarly, the First Class Dining Saloon was broken up with alcoves outfitted with large leaded glass windows, which would be lit from behind to give the illusion that the restaurant was situated on a city street, instead of in the middle of the ocean.

Additionally, Edwardian society was fascinated with newfangled gadgetry and conveniences that were supplanting the older, slower ways of doing things, and the Titanic was equipped to satisfy those desires. The ship’s First Class Suites, for example, were equipped with telephones, heaters, steward call bells, table fans and electrical blowers to provide fresh air.

The Titanic also was equipped with the latest-generation Marconi wireless equipment, which during the daytime gave operators the ability to communicate with ships over 400 miles away. Those capabilities made it possible for passengers to communicate not just with the shore, but with passengers on others ships. Passengers Isidor and Ida Straus, for example, had a daily exchange with their son and his wife, who were a German liner, the Amerika, and received a message from them before 6 p.m. on the evening of the collision. All in all, the Titanic’s operators transmitted about 250 telegrams from the time they left Southampton.

It’s a sad irony that one of the Titanic’s most advanced design features—its 16 internal watertight compartments, connected by a series of doors that could be automatically closed and sealed from the bridge—was intended to make the ship resistant to sinking. The designers’ research indicated that even if the ship’s side was pierced and two of the compartments were flooded, the weight of the water in them would be insufficient to pull the ship down. Theories abounded about how the ship’s hull could have been punctured. In recent years, some researchers have theorized that poor-quality iron rivets in various sections of the ship’s hull broke from the force of the collision, causing the ship to take on more water. (That explanation has been disputed by Titanic builder Harlan and Wolff, now an engineering firm.)

Another theory about the Titanic’s technology was its rudder size, which was undersized. This long-but-thin rudder, part of a stern design, was said to be intended to emulate 18th Century sailing ships. While it looked elegant, the design it has been said made it difficult for the Titanic to turn quickly to avoid an iceberg. A 2001 BBC News article refers to this as “the Titanic’s Achilles heel.” This theory has been discounted by researchers though.

But the least-advanced technology on the Titanic may have been its emergency escape equipment. As Gracie recounted in his book, “The Truth About the Titanic,” the ship was equipped with 14 wooden lifeboats, each 30 feet long and designed to carry 65 escapees; two 25-foot-long wooden “cutters,” each capable of seating 40 people; and four 25-and-a-half-foot-long Engelhardt “surf-boats” with collapsible canvas sides that could carry 47 people. According to Gracie, flaws in the design of the collapsible boats made it difficult to remove the canvas cover and cut the boat loose from its tethering; at one point, it was necessary for him to lend his penknife to crew members so that they could release the boats. “Some means should have been available for doing this without delay,” he later complained.

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