The Titanic’s Real Lesson


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

Published March 28, 2024


Preparing to teach a seminar on disasters since the Titanic, I am revisiting the tragedy of 1912 that has been the subject of so many books, songs, films, and TV programs. A historic milestone, it has nonetheless been relatively neglected by academics — enthusiasts and freelance writers have dominated Titanic scholarship. One result of their zealotry is the website Encyclopedia Titanica, a free-access treasure house of online information.

The challenge is extracting from the abundant detail on the Titanic what we’ve learned from it. Whether or not binoculars would have helped the lookouts, whether the metallurgy of the ship’s rivets contributed to its loss, whether the captain of a nearby ship, the Californian, could have rescued the Titanic’s passengers (a Royal Navy study published in 1992 concluded that he should have recognized the liner’s distress signals but was too distant to help) — these questions mean little for today’s decision makers.

But there is a broader debate that should remain of current interest some 120 years later. The U.S. Senate review of the sinking, conducted by a publicity-hungry senator, William Alden Smith, presented the tragedy as the consequence of both the White Star Line’s negligence in boasting of the ship’s construction while providing insufficient lifeboats and failing to train officers and crew adequately for evacuation, and of Captain Edward Smith’s reckless speed despite repeated telegraphic warnings of sea ice. The British Board of Trade report acknowledged almost the same facts but contextualized them to deflect blame from the White Star Line, and (since it set safety requirements like lifeboat provision) from itself.

In the British view, it was what today’s analysts call a Swiss cheese disaster — an event in which multiple safeguards failed in unforeseen ways. One captain after another testified that it was normal to proceed at full speed through ice fields in good weather. The wreck had demonstrated the need for new standards, especially the need for lifeboats for all passengers and crew. Even so, some British diehards like one nautical advisor to the Board of Trade believed the wreck was a freak accident and the new policies promulgated in its wake were “regulation gone mad.”

Until recently I leaned toward the Board of Trade interpretation, especially after reviewing publications from the years preceding the fateful maiden voyage and discovering that captains were expected to be extremely cautious regarding icebergs (and other ships) during fog and bad weather. Conditions on the night of the Titanic’s fatal encounter were unusual: calm but moonless, making it surprisingly difficult for lookouts to see an iceberg in time to evade or cut speed.

As early as the 1870s, two goals of the mature Industrial Revolution were already in conflict: “time is money” and “safety first” (though this latter phrase was not used until the early 20th century). 

A celebrated 1899 science fiction novel on the collision of a similar great ship with an iceberg got the future technology right, but set the story in fog. Liner managers, shipbuilders and captains were conscientious — but not about all risks. (One contemporary U.S. manual for ships’ officers mentions fog 135 times and icebergs not at all.)

For the course I’m teaching, I decided to look at more seamanship books and discovered a surprising gemThe Port of Refuge: Or Advice and Instructions to the Master-Mariner in Situations of Doubt, Difficulty and Danger, published in 1873, nearly 40 years before the launch of the Titanic. The author, Manley Hopkins, was one of the most respected marine insurance agents and adjusters in Britain. Writing from experience settling countless claims, Hopkins perceived a gap between the stated rules of shipping lines and the practices they tacitly encouraged:

The urgency of steam navigation; the desire to economize coals by saving time; the wish to be first, or not last; to be esteemed a very smart master; to obtain the approbation of an owner, or at any rate to escape his blame, are causes which lead to many collisions. Neither the danger attending fog, or the presence of floating ice, must interfere with the ship’s expected arrival in port at a certain hour. Black looks and taunting words are hard greetings, and must be avoided.

Even in the early steamship era, there was what might be called a community of expectations among shipping lines, captains, and passengers. According to the economic historian Timothy Hatton, steamships had reduced the travel time from Liverpool to New York in 1873 to a median of only 13 days — about a third of the time taken by sailing ships earlier in the century. Equally importantly, steam power had made arrival times far more predictable.

Thus, as early as the 1870s, two goals of the mature Industrial Revolution were already in conflict: “time is money” and “safety first” (though this latter phrase was not used until the early 20th century). A seaman’s master’s license could be suspended for a collision in bad weather, and ships always reserved a special swivel chair on the bridge called a fog chair exclusively for the captain, who was expected to deliver white-knuckle concentration in perilous conditions. In dense fog even rescue could be dangerous, as the approach of another ship could risk a further collision. Yet as Hopkins noted, captains still tried to maintain speed in difficult weather.

In the Titanic’s case, we can try a thought experiment. Suppose Captain Smith, one of the most respected and experienced masters on the North Atlantic, had ordered the liner to run at half-speed or slower after receiving the ice warnings. The Titanic would probably have arrived safely 12 hours or more after the scheduled time. But Smith would not have been acclaimed as a hero who had saved the ship from a fatal encounter with an iceberg. Far from it: the delay and expense would have annoyed friends and relatives planning to meet passengers. And the White Star Line’s schedule for loading thousands of tons of coal plus food and other supplies for the return voyage would have been set back.

The tension between the rule book and official policy on one hand and workplace culture on the other did not end with the Titanic and has persisted into our own time. In 1959 the magnificent Italian liner Andrea Doria was steaming through fog at full speed near Nantucket when she was struck by the Swedish-American Line’s Stockholm. The collision probably resulted from an erroneous setting by the radar operator of the Stockholm (“radar-assisted collisions” are surprisingly common). But contributing to it was the schedule urgency felt by the Andrea Doria’s captain, Piero Calamai.

As Melvin Maddocks wrote in The Great Liners, 200 longshoremen at the pier would have to be paid whether the ship arrived on time or not. Moreover, every additional hour at sea consumed 10-11 tons of oil. Like Edward Smith, Piero Calamai was a model of conscientiousness and vigilance given the time constraint he faced, but that was not enough. (Fortunately, all but 46 Andrea Doria passengers were rescued.)

Almost three decades later, the space shuttle Challenger exploded on launch, killing all seven astronauts. While understanding that the cold temperatures put the crucial O-ring seals in the rocket boosters at risk of leaking, officials at NASA and the rocket engine maker Morton Thiokol decided to chance it (as had Edward Smith and Piero Calamai) to meet a schedule. President Ronald Reagan was announcing the launch at his State of the Union address, and on-time performance was considered essential to reviving the American public’s interest in the space program.

We don’t have to look to sea or to outer space to find tacitly tolerated gaps between published norms and expectations. In down-to-earth construction. there are myriad laws and regulations protecting worker safety — but all are vulnerable to deadline pressure.

We have gone for decades without a highly visible preventable breakdown on the scale of the TitanicAndrea Doria, or Challenger. And maybe it’s because those in charge have learned something. A paper published a year after Challenger showed how the U.S. Navy had reduced accidents in one of the world’s most dangerous environments, the deck of an aircraft carrier, in part by empowering any crew member to halt an operation at the first sign of danger. Yet where civilian companies compete against one another on price and speed, tacit encouragement of risky behavior can never be eradicated.

Because human behavior does not change in lockstep with technology, it is even more important that we look to the history of technology for guidance in risk avoidance. In my seminar I am going to suggest that the ocean of old trade journals and manuals, freely searchable online, has myriad treasures to be salvaged.

main topic: Human Behavior