100 years since tragic loss at sea

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Jennifer Werner

jwerner2@radford.edu

April 15, 2012 marks the centennial anniversary of the Titanic’s tragic demise. The luxurious White Star Line was making its way from Southampton, England on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.

Advertised as being the safest ship ever built to date, the ’unsinkable’ Titanic only carried 20 lifeboats.

Constructed in Belfast, Ireland, the streamliner contained 15 watertight compartments fitted with steel doors that would shut within 25 seconds to prevent water from seeping into the ship’s interior. This in turn, was part of the Titanic’s fatal flaw. Each individual compartment was watertight, however, water was able to flow from one compartment to the other, according to history.com.

Since the luxury liner was deemed as unsinkable, one would assume the need for lifeboats would be irrelevant. This presented problem number two. The Titanic only carried 16 lifeboats and 4 Engelhardt “collapsibles,” which wouldn’t even hold half of the souls aboard the ship. Ironically, the Titanic held more than the required number of lifeboats as regulated by the British Board of Trade.

While the majority of the passengers aboard the ship were in third class, many of the first class passengers were wealthy heads of state, celebrities, businessmen and dignitaries. The accommodations offered to all of the people aboard, exceeded the standards of other luxury liners, especially for those traveling third class, according to history.com.

The encounter with the iceberg was not the Titanic’s first tango with fate. As the ship began its journey, a small fire blazed in one of the bunkers. Yet, the Captain concluded that since the hull was not damaged, the fire would continue to be dealt with while at sea. Therefore, the Titanic would continue full-speed ahead.

Perhaps a warning that a voyage to America was treacherous, the Titanic barely escaped a collision with the S.S. New York.

On April 14, 1912 at 11:30 p.m. the Titanic struck an iceberg. Despite attempts to veer the ship away to avoid a collision, the deceptively large iceberg slashed a 300-foot gash along the side of the ship below the water’s surface. Five compartments had filled with water, weighing the bow of the ship down, by the time that the damage could be inspected by the captain.

An hour after the collision, an overwhelming sense of panic and chaos overcame the passengers. An evacuation process was started, lowering women and children into the lifeboats first. Yet, almost every boat was launched before the capacity was reached.

After nearly three hours of struggling to stay afloat, the Titanic split in half and lunged into the sea’s deep abyss, leaving the vast majority of passengers to freeze in the icy water. Only 705 individuals survived.

A Radford University professor, Dr. William Kovarik, discussed the importance of communication, especially for the fate of the Titanic, in his book, “Revolutions in  “The existing commercial Marconi system, developed around 1897, only allowed one sender at a time. The spark was so strong and uncontrolled that it soaked up the entire radio bandwidth. Lots of people could listen but only one person could send.  The continuous wave systems developed around 1906 by Reginald Fessenden and Lee DeForest allowed multiple frequencies, and lots of people could send and receive in different channels,” said Kovarik, “But Marconi did not spend money on research for these systems.  And as it turned out, the big potential competition, AT&T, was in the middle of a re-organization, so they did not invest in Fessenden and DeForest’s technologies,” Kovarik said.

“If the new systems had been developed, there probably would have been an ongoing conversation in a marine safety channel about the ice field the Titanic was approaching. If the new systems had been developed, the Titanic operators wouldn’t have told the Californian operator to ‘keep off’’ the air. Obsolete technology wasn’t the only problem — Marconi’s control over the radio operators was another one.  The Marconi Company only allowed one radio operator on smaller ships and two on the largest, so the radio operators were exhausted at midnight on Sunday,” said Kovarik.

The captain of the ship ordered the crew to travel at full-speed, despite the existence of many large icebergs in the vicinity. Negligence due to the captain, as well as poor safety standards played an immense role in the tragedy.

However, as Kovarik pointed it, “Communication technology was a 3rd cause of the disaster. Obsolete radio technology was the failed safety net, the part of the system that was supposed to work when the rest broke down. It was originally sold as a safety feature — that’s how Marconi established a monopoly, by getting Lloyd’s of London to insist on radio for every ship around 1900. But Lloyds didn’t insist that radio officers work for the shipping companies. The radio operators all worked for Marconi, and Marconi was protecting an obsolete technology with its patents and keeping costs low by having only one radio operator on smaller ships.”

The Titanic tragedy changed the radio forever. In July of 1912, a Marconi dominated international radio conference failed to come to a substantial decision to make a difference. As a result, the Radio Act of 1912, passed by the U.S. Congress, forced every ship to have two licensed radio officers keep a constant 24 hour watch, according to Kovarik.

The story of the Titanic has been an inspiration for many films, books, and fanatical enthusiasm. On April 8, 2012, the MS Balmoral set sail from Southampton, England for the 12-night Titanic Memorial Cruise.

The cruise ship, with the exact same number of passengers that were aboard the Titanic, will retrace the Titanic’s first and final voyage. The cruise will recreate the pre-disaster luxury experience of the Titanic and will include lectures by Titanic experts. Some passengers even dressed in period costumes.