April 15, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912 after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City. The sinking of Titanic caused the deaths of 1,514 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history. She was the largest ship afloat at the time of her maiden voyage, and was built from 1909 to 1911 by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland with the help of White Star Line’s chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, and the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan.
Her passengers included some of the wealthiest people in the world, as well as over a thousand emigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere seeking a new life in North America. The ship was designed to be the last word in comfort and luxury, with an on-board gymnasium, swimming pool, libraries, high-class restaurants and opulent cabins. The ship also had a powerful wireless telegraph provided for the convenience of passengers as well as for operational use. Though Titanic had advanced safety features such as watertight compartments and remotely activated watertight doors, it lacked enough lifeboats to accommodate all of those aboard. Due to outdated maritime safety regulations, Titanic carried only enough lifeboats for 1,178 people – a third of her total passenger and crew capacity.
After leaving Southampton on 10 April 1912, Titanic stopped at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in Ireland before heading westwards towards New York. On 14 April 1912, four days into the crossing and about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, the ship hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm. The glancing collision caused Titanic’s hull plates to buckle inwards in a number of locations on her starboard side and opened five of her sixteen watertight compartments to the sea. Over the next two and a half hours, the ship gradually filled with water and sank. Passengers and some crew members were evacuated in lifeboats, many of which were launched only partly filled. The “women and children first” protocol was followed by the officers loading the lifeboats. Just before 2:20 am Titanic broke up and sank bow-first with over a thousand people still on board. Those in the water died within minutes from hypothermia caused by immersion in the freezing ocean. The 710 survivors were taken aboard from the lifeboats by the RMS Carpathia a few hours later.
After that night, the ship’s location was lost due to miscalculation of its coordinates during its sinking and would remain unknown until 1985. In 1984 the Navy sent Ballard and Argo to map the wrecks of the sunken nuclear submarines USS Thresher and USS Scorpion, lost in the North Atlantic at depths of up to 9,800 feet. The expedition found the submarines and made an important discovery. As Thresher and Scorpion sank, debris spilled out from them across a wide area of the seabed and was sorted by the currents, so that light debris drifted furthest away from the site of the sinking. This “debris field” was far larger than the wrecks themselves. By following the comet-like trail of debris, the main pieces of wreckage could be found. The debris field would also be a far bigger target, stretching a mile or longer, whereas Titanic itself was only 90 feet wide. After a week of fruitless searching, at 12.48 am on Sunday 1 September 1985 pieces of debris began to appear. One of them was identified as a boiler, identical to those shown in pictures from 1911. The following day, the main part of the wreck was found and Argo sent back the first pictures of Titanic since its sinking 73 years before. The discovery made headlines around the world.
A prominent role has been played by the RMS Titanic in popular culture since her sinking in April 1912. The disaster and the Titanic herself have been objects of public fascination for many years. They have inspired numerous books, plays, films, songs, poems and works of art, including James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which is the most successful film made about the ship. Titanic’s story has been interpreted in many overlapping ways, including as a symbol of technological hubris, as an indictment of the class divisions of the time, and as a romantic tragedy. It has inspired many moral, social and political metaphors and is regularly invoked as a cautionary tale of the limitations of modernity and ambition.