Bettmann/Getty Images

Heroic Capitalism

Elon Musk, meet … Stockton Rush?

edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Published August 9, 2023


The implosion of the submersible Titan and death of its five passengers in June during its descent to the Titanic has made the pilot and CEO of its operating company, Stockton Rush, one of the most controversial figures in the history of exploration. To countless op-ed moralists, his adoption of an untested design for Titan — with its cylindrical carbon-fiber body, plexiglass window, and videogame-like Bluetooth controller — was a foolhardy defiance of engineering best practices in the service of aquatic empire-building.

But to diehard libertarians, his rejection of the nanny state and what he called “obscenely safe” corporate policies was a glorious throwback to the strenuous life advocated by likes of Theodore Roosevelt, who nearly perished in a Brazilian adventure of his own. Besides, Rush’s paying passengers signed releases that acknowledged his craft’s experimental design and the risks of tagging along.

Lines are thus already drawn for the international hearings and years of litigation to follow. Assigning legal responsibility for loss of life and for the costs of the search and recovery operations may not get us any closer to understanding Stockton Rush’s courtship with destruction or his passengers’ blithe risk-taking. But looking back 200 years into the history of American business, we can find clues.

Once Upon a Time

It seems a stretch to link Titanic tourism to 19th-century coal mining, but the two enterprises have many links. Before the rise of surface strip mining, extracting coal was a hazardous exploration of a little-known subterranean world. While it is true that nobody descended into a mine shaft for fun in those days, many tourists and daredevil explorers do so today. Indeed, the website of the National Mining Association lists over a dozen coal mines open to tours.

While Rush established a charitable foundation to promote ocean exploration and marine research, he was not necessarily a coral-reef-hugger. The Independent of London cited a 2017 interview in which he acknowledged that the pool of wealthy Titanic explorers was limited. His goal for OceanGate was to metamorphose from adventure tourism into exploration, contracting for fossil fuel corporations seeking petroleum and natural gas deposits.

The origins of this quest stretch back to the early American republic. The opening of the anthracite fields of eastern Pennsylvania to national markets by means of a rapidly expanding canal system radically changed the economy beginning in the 1820s. Anthracite burns cleaner than bituminous coal and thus was preferred for household stoves and advertised as traveler-friendly by the railroads that powered locomotives with it. By the early 20th century, the Lackawanna Railroad could introduce a fictional heroine, Phoebe Snow, who arrived in Buffalo without a smudge on her fashionable white outfits — a meme that endured long after railroads had converted to electric and diesel power.

Demand for the relatively precious commodity drew speculators and workers into Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill and Lucerne counties. This coal rush, as it might be called, preceded the California Gold Rush by decades. But its fortune seekers shared the irrational exuberance of the next generation’s argonauts.

Irrational Exuberance

The 20th-century anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace wrote a series of studies of the anthracite communities and discovered that their entrepreneurs were not following classical models of rational risk-taking. The frequency of mine disasters was not due to misinformation about the geology of the mines, or even I’m-too-young-to-die optimism. The mine operators were seeking profits, of course, but were even more concerned about their reputations. They sought a role beyond wealth: recognition as heroes of industry. 

Wallace’s case-in-point was a man named Enoch W. McGinnis, a self-made manufacturer of steam engines who had begun his career as a machinist. McGinnis left an extensive correspondence with his financial backer, a Philadelphia publisher named Matthew Carey. McGinnis wanted to be known not as a rational capitalist but as one of the “daring men … the men who make things move.” He aspired to be one of the leading operators, admired by “the faithful and true.”

McGinnis and others like him, Wallace concluded, were taking irrational risks not only with the health and lives of the miners, but also with their own fortunes and those of their patrons. Paradoxically, it was only once mine risks were regulated by law that mining became profitable.

Stockton Rush saw the oceans as an alternative frontier — and one that more reliably promised the discovery of unknown life forms, consciously aspiring to be the Captain Kirk of the deep.

Stockton Rush, unlike Enoch McGinnis and his fellow coal operators, led perilous descents himself. (And ascents, too: after graduating from Princeton he became a flight test engineer for McDonnell Douglas’s F-15 fighter plane development.)

But Rush shared McGinnis’ passion for prestige as a risk-taker founding an industry. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine in 2019, Rush declared, “There hasn’t been an injury in the commercial sub industry in over 35 years. It’s obscenely safe because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown — because they have all these regulations.”

In a November 2022 podcast with the journalist David Pogue, he went further: “At some point, safety just is pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed. … At some point, you’re going to take some risk. … I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.”

Rush seems to have regarded competitors in undersea tourism as a cabal determined to thwart innovation. And by launching its submersibles in international waters, he eluded the cabal because it made OceanGate legally exempt from certification. Good thing, too. Following the rules like the one requiring an all-titanium hull would probably have been so costly that the charge to “mission specialists” (as Rush called paying passengers) would have led many to think twice. (For similar reasons, the Hindenburg needed a smoking lounge because half of its target elite market were smokers who could buy a first-class transatlantic liner ticket for half the fare.)

For early 19th-century mine operators like McGinness, reputation meant recognition for building the foundation of a new coal-powered society. For the post-industrial ideology of two centuries later, the peak of technological heroism is space. Excluded from NASA’s astronaut program by its strict eyesight test, Rush saw the oceans as an alternative frontier — and one that more reliably promised the discovery of unknown life forms, consciously aspiring to be the Captain Kirk of the deep.

Obscene Safety

It is hard to imagine that OceanQuest will emerge from its legal (and PR) troubles as a viable corporation. In this, it is like the mining operations that Enoch McGinnis organized, enduring one fire, explosion and flood after another with frequent bankruptcies until in the late 19th century the mines were consolidated (and then closed) by the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company.

In an appendix to his book St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry, Wallace outlined what he called the “disaster-prone organization,” two points of which are especially relevant:

• It endorses a prevailing mythology that praises daring and productive persons more than cautious and protective ones.

• It endorses a prevailing mythology that blames the industry’s problems on conspiratorial outsiders and on disaffected, dishonest or careless workers

Two of OceanQuest’s four paying “mission specialists” were sophisticated and experienced adventure travelers apparently charmed by Stockton’s enthusiasm — and no doubt by his willingness to risk his own life. The third and fourth were an Anglo-Pakistani billionaire (or, at least, centimillionaire) fascinated by the Titanic and his college-age son; it is less certain whether they fully understood the risks of the descent.

The tragedy of the Titan won’t end adventure travel. But just as ill-fated coal entrepreneurs like McGinnis saw their unprofitable holdings swallowed by giant corporations, the outcome is likely to leave OceanGate’s “obscenely safe” competitors in the driver’s seat. The expeditions of the future are likely to be more cautious, more regulated and even more expensive. Stockton Rush will have achieved his goal of historical recognition — for imploding the mythology of the technological hero and advancing all the institutions he scorned.

main topic: Innovation