Everything Historians Think Went Wrong That Led To The Sinking Of The 'Titanic'
Photo: Die Gartenlaube / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Everything Historians Think Went Wrong That Led To The Sinking Of The 'Titanic'

On April 15, 1912, one of the 20th century's most famous and state-of-the-art steamships hit an iceberg and sank in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean, taking around 1,500 lives with it. Despite this tragic ending, the story of the Titanic captured the imaginations of many, inspiring myths, artwork, books, and movies. The story is always the same: An enormous ship thought to be the epitome of human accomplishment collides with an iceberg at sea and sinks in less than three hours. While this story is widely accepted, the nuances of why the Titanic hit the iceberg and exactly how this led to its rapid demise remains something of a mystery.

Numerous conspiracy theories surround the Titanic disaster, involving everything from insurance fraud to a mummy's curse, but many historians and researchers have presented hypotheses explaining the Titanic's sinking using historical evidence. Both before and after Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic wreckage in 1985, experts have theorized and tried to explain what really went wrong that fateful night. In July 2000, courts ruled that"RMS Titanic Inc. could not cut into the wreckage or detach any part of it," making the possibility of studying the ship's remains more difficult. Twenty years later, however, a federal judge approved RMS Titanic Inc.'s request to salvage the radio used to call for help, prompting an expedition that would require divers to remove a part of the ship's wreckage.

Although there likely isn't one single reason for the disaster - and the true explanation may never be known - it's interesting to consider how many possible problems compiled to send the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean.

  • The Iceberg Warning Wasn't Sent As An Emergency Message

    White Star Line equipped the Titanic with the latest and most powerful radio communication technology made by Marconi, and they hired Marconi employees Harold Bride and Jack Phillips to operate it while the ship crossed the Atlantic.

    Since this new technology allowed people on board to send messages to those on land, many of the upper-class passengers clogged the system with their personal telegrams rather than leaving the lines open for emergency communication. Bride and Phillips spent most of their time relaying personal messages, and as their stress levels escalated, several other ships began interrupting them by sending warnings of possible icebergs in the Titanic's path. They forwarded some of these warnings to the bridge, and though Captain Smith changed course slightly, he maintained the same speed, essentially ignoring them.

    Bride and Phillips eventually became frustrated with the repeated warnings, telling the Mesaba, "Thanks," and the Californian, "Shut up!" The latter was only miles away and claimed to have stopped sailing for the night since there was so much ice. Possibly offended at Phillips's response, Californian radio operator Cyril Evans turned off the radio and fell asleep.

    Phillips may have failed to pass the Californian's message along to Captain Smith because Evans's message didn't begin with "MSG," meaning Masters' Service Gram. This code indicated an emergency that needed personal acknowledgement from the captain. In all, the Titanic received seven radio messages from various ships warning about possible ice in their path, the last of which included specific coordinates of the iceberg the ship is believed to have hit.

  • Too Many People Were Using The Ship's Transmission Frequency At The Same Time

    About 30 minutes after the Titanic struck the iceberg, the ship began sending out distress signals. Radio operators repeatedly sent out the distress codes SOS and CQD - the latter being a code specific to Marconi operators. Since the Marconi's signal was so powerful, it reached many ships, as well as areas on land.

    Unfortunately, the Marconi system was a single line, meaning all the responses from other ships and on-land operators came through simultaneously, interrupting and cutting off one another. Chaos ensued as the Titanic's radio operators repeated their entire emergency message to different ships, all while being continually interrupted.

    To make matters worse, the Titanic crew didn't know the ship's exact location and gave potential rescuers incorrect coordinates several times. Adding to the confusion, amateur radio operators on land heard the distress calls and created more interference by attempting to respond.

    People later blamed novice operators' interruptions for a false report claiming all the Titanic's passengers had been saved and were on their way to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Governments put several communication laws into place following the Titanic disaster, including limiting the operating power of amateur radio operators and reserving frequencies for emergencies.

  • The Lookouts Didn't Have Binoculars

    Second Officer David Blair acted as lookout in the crow's nest during the first leg of the Titanic's journey from Belfast to Southampton. Due to a shuffling of officers, Blair lost his position on the ship and stayed in Southampton as the Titanic set off for New York.

    While this ultimately saved his life, his actions may have inadvertently doomed the voyage. He asked a crewmate to lock the crow's nest binoculars in a cabinet, but he accidentally took the key with him when he departed from the ship in Southampton. Many believed the ship would never have hit an iceberg - or at least would have had a better chance of avoiding it - had the lookouts had access to binoculars.

    According to replacement Second Officer Charles Lightoller, lookout George Symons informed him the crow's nest had no binoculars after the ship left Southampton. Lightoller allegedly passed the information along to a higher-ranking officer but claimed to have been told there were no binoculars available for the lookouts.

    According to Lightoller, however, there were five other pairs of binoculars on board the ship. If his statement was true, the men in the crow's nest could have used another pair, had the Titanic's officers considered the issue important. As for the legendary key, Blair held onto it for many years, and it was auctioned off in 2007 for over $112,000.

  • The Walls Of The Watertight Compartments Were Too Low To Stop The Flooding 
    Photo: Robert John Welch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Walls Of The Watertight Compartments Were Too Low To Stop The Flooding 

    One of the Titanic's most impressive design additions potentially contributed to its sinking. The bottom of the ship contained 16 watertight compartments that could be closed off when flooded. In theory, this would help contain water seeping into the ship should the hull be breached.

    This feature helped inspire Titanic's ironic legacy, as Shipbuilder magazine believed the compartments made the ship "practically unsinkable." Engineers determined the Titanic could survive if four of the 16 compartments filled with water. Unfortunately, the hole caused by the iceberg allowed enough water in to fill six compartments.

    Additionally, the compartments' design allowed the flooding to spread rather than containing the water. The walls separating the compartments did not reach all the way from floor to ceiling, possibly to create more space for passengers and cargo holds. As water poured in through the hull, crew members closed the watertight doors to contain the flooding. However, the weight of the water in the containers caused the bow to pitch downwards and begin sinking.

    The angle of the ship then allowed large amounts of water to flow over the top of the walls, which filled up container after container, despite the closed watertight doors. Historians generally agree this design was one reason the Titanic sank, and it probably caused the ship to sink faster than anticipated.

  • A Possible Coal Bunker Fire May Have Forced The Ship To Travel At Unsafe Speeds
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Possible Coal Bunker Fire May Have Forced The Ship To Travel At Unsafe Speeds

    The Titanic was traveling at full steam when it struck the infamous iceberg. The most common explanation for why an enormous ship would be sailing full speed through a field of ice in the dark concerned the captain's alleged resolve to make the trip as quickly as possible.

    Considering the trip was the last Captain Edward Smith was planning to take before retiring, people generally assumed the Titanic's traveling speed was based on Smith's desire to prove himself a memorable captain. Others disputed these theories, however, noting that if the Titanic wanted to reach New York in record time, Smith would have taken a shorter route and ordered all the boilers to be lit. Historians also point out that the ship was designed more so for comfort than speed, as evidenced by its swimming pool, gymnasium, Turkish bath, and numerous dining rooms.

    According to engineer Robert Essenhigh, it's possible that the Titanic was sailing quickly due to a coal fire. The crew discovered a small fire as the ship left Southampton, but although the coal bunker was very close to the Titanic's hull, the chief engineer and captain didn't believe it would be a problem. They instructed the crew to control the flames and continued the journey out to sea.

    Essenhigh theorized that the fire remained uncontrolled the longer the Titanic sailed, forcing the ship to cross the ocean quickly to reach a safe port. After examining a photograph that appeared to show a dark streak on the Titanic's hull before it set sail, journalist Senan Molony believes the coal fire may have started weeks before the voyage, and the company covered it up to avoid bad press. Not only did the flames potentially force the ship to sail faster, but they may have weakened the ship's hull, allowing the iceberg to puncture it more easily.

  • The Ship's Size Prevented It From Avoiding Obstacles On Short Notice
    Photo: Robert John Welch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Ship's Size Prevented It From Avoiding Obstacles On Short Notice

    At 882 feet long and traveling at about 22 knots (approximately 25 miles per hour), slowing or altering the Titanic's course once lookouts spotted the iceberg proved difficult. First Officer Murdoch ordered the engines to be put in full reverse and the rudder to be turned in order to avoid the iceberg.

    However, because of the ship's size and its relatively small rudder - White Star Line didn't believe the Titanic would need a large rudder, as it wasn't meant to maneuver around any obstacles - steering was virtually impossible without the engines' help.

    Putting the engines into full reverse meant slowing the propellers and starting them again in the opposite direction, a maneuver that used up precious time. Additionally, the Titanic's central propeller didn't turn in reverse, meaning the ship had less power while traveling backwards than it did going forwards. Despite the crew's efforts, they may have simply spotted the iceberg too late to prevent the collision.