The Inevitable Tragedy of the Titanic

A century later, it might seem difficult to recapture how it felt to hear the news of the Titanic disaster. Yet it couldn’t have been much different from how we felt in 2001, when we saw the Twin Towers burn and collapse.

In both cases, there was an intense hunger for news—any news—that would explain what had just happened. In 1912, thanks to the telegraphic internet, every major newspaper had most of the details by the next day: the RMS Titanic, the world’s largest ocean liner, sailing from Southampton to New York, had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sunk within hours. Over 1,500 passengers and crew members had drowned.

In 1912, as in 2001, learning what had happened proved far easier than learning why.

Several explanations were offered by American and British newspapers: the helmsman steered the wrong course; the builders used a poor design and cheap steel; the ship was moving at top speed even though the officers had been warned of icebergs; no one saw the iceberg until it was too late because the company refused to issue binoculars to its officers.

But when the Post’s editor wrote about the Titanic deaths, they directed no blame at Captain Smith, the White Star Line, or the Belfast ship builders. They pointed straight at the American and British governments.

The Titanic carried enough lifeboats to hold one third of her full complement of crew and passengers. The question, “What would happen to the other two thirds if the ship sank?” was never raised until it was too late.

A word from the Governments of Great Britain and the United States would have compelled every liner to carry enough lifeboats for all on board. That word was not spoken. The Governments took the chance of an unnecessary loss of over sixteen hundred lives.

Technically, the Titanic broke no law. British ocean liners were only required to carry 16 lifeboats, which could hold 1060 people. (The Titanic had 2,200 passengers and crew members, but only 20 lifeboats, and many of these were lowered away only partly full.)

The rules weren’t changed because the maritime authorities believed modern ships were inherently safe. In the ten years prior to the Titanic’s launch, over 6,000,000 passengers had crossed the Atlantic, and just 6 had been lost at sea. The British Board of Trade had begun regarding lifeboats as unnecessary equipment that took up valuable deck space.

The Saturday Evening Post of 1912 was as strong an advocate of business and capitalism as any American magazine. But its editors believed the businesses, left to themselves, would carelessly endanger lives.

Artist's Version of the Iroquois Fire.

Chicago had a fire ordinance relating to theaters. To enforce it rigidly would have put the manager of the Iroquois Theater to quite a little trouble and expense. It was not rigidly enforce—and [605 customers] died when the theater burned.

From a score of sickening examples, New York knew the danger of firetraps like the Triangle shirtwaist factory; but it didn’t care to interfere with the profits of the landlord—until the catastrophe! [146 garment workers died.]

Many stores in the United States are fire-traps, with inadequate exits, narrow aisles, and counters piled with inflammable stuff that would go up like tinder if a fire started. The Government knows this, but, generally speaking, will do nothing about it—to the injury of profits—until a holocaust somewhere forces its hand.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.

The public never knows. It reads of the steamer’s tennis court and swimming pool, of the theater’s handsome decorations; of the store’s bargain. The public goes, as a matter of course, with a vague assurance that there are laws and inspectors to make things safe.

Congress proposes to find out where the blame for the Titanic tragedy rests.

It rests, first of all, upon the Governments of the United States and Great Britain.

In fact, the Post reported, the U.S. government had been given fair warning of the problem, in no uncertain terms, two years before the Titanic took 1,500 people to their deaths. In February, 1910, the president of the International Seamen’s Union told Congress:

"Which?— Fate? — Or economy in life boats?" A 1912 cartoon.

There is not sailing today on any ocean a passenger vessel carrying the number of boats needed to take care of the passengers and crew, or a sufficient number of skilled men to handle the boats that are carried…

The average ship-owner knows this; but he must… carry passengers as cheaply as the other fellow.

If vessels are lost the insurance—that is, the public—pays the loss.

If passengers are lost that is very bad, but there is God to be blamed!

If seamen are lost, why there are plenty more idle men to be had on shore. They cost nothing, not even in the training, because they need no training, no skill being required by law.

As to the passengers, are they satisfied with these conditions? The passengers do not know. They are told a lot of rot about bulkheads, vessels so built that they will not sink or burn. Of course, we seamen know this to be the veriest nonsense.”

The warning may have been ignored because it principally concerned sailors, not the public. But the welfare of workers and the public, the editors concluded, was the same thing.


We wish to make the moral as broad as possible. Every one of us, every minute of the day, is in the same boat with the workingman. If we ignore his just complaints it is at our own peril.