Deeply regret to advise you Titanic sank this morning, the fifteenth, after a collision with an iceberg resulting in serious loss of life. Further particulars later.
At 2:20 AM Atlantic Standard Time on the morning of April 15, 1912, the largest and most luxurious man-made object that had ever been moved, the Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Titanic, disappeared beneath the calm waters of the North Atlantic about 370 miles or 600 kilometers south-southeast of the coast of Newfoundland, leaving behind her the majority of 2,208 living, breathing human beings— people with families, dreams, hopes, ambitions, and plans— struggling to stay afloat in the frigid ocean water. Among them were the world's richest and most famous and influential individuals, who had been traveling in the luxury of First Class, as well as those who had used their last penny to pay for Third Class passage in hopes of starting a new life in America. There were people of all races and creeds and people who hailed from different places all over the globe. Among the richest was John Jacob Astor IV, an American businessman, real estate builder, investor, inventor, writer, lieutenant colonel in the Spanish-American War, and a prominent member of the Astor family. Astor had been traveling across Europe for a number of months with his young wife Madeleine and when she became pregnant during the trip and expressed her desire that the child be born in America, Astor booked passage on Titanic by purchasing three cabins in First Class at a total cost of $171,600 in today's value. As for the poorest of the passengers, their tickets cost about $900 in today's value and although no one can definitively say who among them was the poorest, it is a well-known fact that First Class passengers were given first accommodations on lifeboats and as such, there were very few, if any, left for the Third Class passengers. Rich or poor, however, panic set in with each individual almost immediately after they hit the water as they desperately looked around them for any sort of floatation device that would lift them at least part of the way out of it and give them some hope of avoiding what would turn out to be an inevitable icy demise due to extreme hypothermia and what is known as “cold shock.”
Hypothermia, a state in which the human body's core temperature drops below that which is required to sustain normal metabolism and body functions, generally begins to set in when the body's temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). Body heat is lost much more quickly in water than it is in air and this ocean water, which was now filled as far as the eye could see with souls who by now had come to the awful realization that their lives were soon to end, was only 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2 degrees Celsius). Immersion in water so icy would, at first, cause these people to experience shivering, hypertension, tachycardia, and vasoconstriction— all physiological responses that occur in an effort to preserve heat. Prolonged exposure to these temperatures would cause much more violent shivering, muscle mis-coordination, mild confusion, pale skin, and extremities such as fingers and toes beginning to turn blue. By the time fifteen to thirty minutes had passed, the person would have inevitably frozen to death, and that is exactly what happened to Titanic's victims. Many people think their cause of death was drowning, and for some it may have been, but for most, death came slowly and painfully.
The 711 people who were lucky enough to have secured for themselves a place in one of the too-few lifeboats, most of them First Class women, were forced to watch as their husbands, other family members, friends, acquaintances, and people they didn't even know succumbed to this fate and were forced to listen as, one by one, the voices stopped screaming and the surrounding air fell silent once more. The air was undoubtedly freezing as well, and once all was quiet, one can imagine what must have been going through the minds of the survivors. For these few hundred people in the boats, everything they had ever known in life was gone. It had been taken from them and sent tumbling down to the ocean floor with Titanic when she slipped beneath the waves. What was left? How would they carry on? How would they start over without their belongings and without their loved ones? These questions remained to be answered and the tremendous amount of loss remained to be dealt with, but there were two questions that loomed above all of the others. How could such an enormous “unsinkable” ship break completely in half and founder so easily? How many occurrences contributed to such a terrible disaster? To answer those questions, one must go back even further in time— to July 29, 1908, for it was on this date that the story of Titanic had its genesis.
In 1908, the most successful British shipping company, the Cunard line (which still exists today), was the rival and the largest source of competition for the company that would birth Titanic— the White Star Line. Talks between the White Star Line's chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, and American financier, J.P. Morgan, concerning building three of the most majestic ships the world had ever seen had begun long before in mid-1907, but it was on this July day in 1908 that the blueprints for Titanic and her two sister ships were completed and presented before Ismay and other White Star Line executives. Ismay approved of the design and, two days later, authorized the start of the construction.
The incredible size of Titanic and her sisters posed a major engineering problem for the Belfast shipbuilders tasked with the construction, Harland and Wolff, as never before had any shipbuilder attempted to build vessels so large. Titanic and her two sisters, which would eventually be named Olympic and Britannic, were to be identical, but once constructed and fitted out, it was Titanic's slightly heavier weight in gross register tons that secured her place in history as the largest moveable man-made object to have ever existed up to that point in time. She measured 882 feet and 9 inches (just over 296 meters) long and possessed a maximum breadth of 92 feet and 6 inches (just over 28 meters). Her total height from the bottom of her keel to the top level of her bridge and not including her funnels was 104 feet or 32 meters. She weighed 46,328 gross register tons and displaced 52,310 tons of water once afloat. To put this sheer size into perspective, Titanic, if stood on her end, would dwarf the tallest skyscrapers in the world today including the St. Louis Arch, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Woolworth Building. Truly a modern marvel for her era, she was also as long as three and a half New York City blocks and her official launch into the water occurred at 12:15 PM on May 31, 1911 in the presence of Lord Pirrie, who was the director of both Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, and J.P. Morgan as well as 100,000 curious onlookers. It took 22 tons of soap and tallow to lubricate the slipway enough so that Titanic could slide from the place of her construction into the River Lagan. She was then towed out to a fitting-out berth where, over the course of the next year, her engines, funnels, and superstructure were installed and her interior was made to be a virtual floating palace of luxury, boasting an on-board telephone system, a lending library, and a large barber shop. First Class passengers also had the privilege of using an on board swimming pool, a squash court, a Turkish bath, an electric bath, and a Verandah cafe. There was also the Café Parisien, which was located on a sunlit veranda fitted with trellis decorations. Second Class and Third Class were equally luxurious for their respective prices and it was said that a Third Class ticket on Titanic boasted the same amount of luxury as a First Class ticket on other ships of her era.
As far as other elements of her construction, notable features included her double-bottom hull, two thousand steel hull plates, and over three million steel rivets that were hammered in by hand as well as her watertight compartments located within the belly of the ship that themselves contributed to the belief that she was “practically unsinkable.” These watertight compartments were separated by steel bulkheads that were able to be closed in an instant with the press of a switch on the captain's bridge. The problem with these bulkheads, however, was that they unfortunately only rose to the saloon deck, or D-Deck. This meant that in the event of the compartments being opened to the sea, as Titanic took on water and dipped into the ocean, the water would easily fill up the first compartment, spill over the top of the bulkhead at D-Deck and begin to fill up the next compartment. This process would repeat, resulting in the entire ship becoming flooded with water and ultimately causing her to founder. The oversight in the level to which the watertight bulkheads rose within the ship would prove to be a key part of Titanic's untimely undoing, but many other occurrences contributed to this disaster— so many, in fact, that some believe her sinking to be preordained by God or whichever higher power the particular person happens to believe in. One of these occurrences, a mix-up so simple that had it not contributed to so many deaths would have been almost laughable, was the loss of an ordinary object that could be found almost anywhere. The object was a simple locker key, and it is here that our story truly begins.
David Blair, a British merchant seaman with the White Star Line, was assigned to travel with Titanic on her maiden voyage, serving as her Second Officer. Titanic was due to set sail on April 10, 1912 from the port at Southampton, England, cross the English Channel and dock in Cherbourg, France to pick up extra passengers before traveling to what was then known as Queenstown, Ireland (now called Cobh, Ireland) to do the same. Once she had picked up her passengers in Queenstown, she would depart for the open ocean on her trans-Atlantic run to New York City. Blair had been with Titanic during her trial voyages to test her seaworthiness and was also on board during her final voyage from the Belfast construction location to Southampton. At the last minute, however, the White Star Line decided to have Titanic's sister, Olympic's Chief Officer, Henry Wilde take Blair's position, citing his experience with vessels of Titanic's class as their reason. Blair was sorely disappointed to have been removed from Titanic's command roster, remarking on the occurrence in a postcard to his sister-in-law days before Titanic left Belfast for Southampton:
Titanic's maiden voyage was rather uneventful until the night of April 14, 1912, when she was traveling at an average of 21 knots, which was equivalent to 24 miles per hour or 39 kilometers per hour. This was perhaps a poor decision on the part of the commanding officers, but it has often been said that J. Bruce Ismay was somewhat influential in the decision to increase Titanic's speed, saying that he wanted the maiden voyage of the largest passenger liner in the world to make the headlines. The weather during the trans-Atlantic crossing was fairly mild until April 13, 1912, when Titanic crossed a cold weather front and dealt with somewhat choppy waters which eventually died down and gave way to calm seas and clear, cold skies on April 14. On this night, Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee went on duty as lookouts at around 10:00 PM, relieving their fellow officers, George Symons and Archie Jewell. This particular night was moonless and, as mentioned before, calm, making any ice that happened to be present extremely difficult to see due to there being no waves breaking at the base of the icebergs and no reflection. This difficulty was only increased by the lack of the binoculars that no one could access without Blair's key. The night remained uneventful until one hour and forty minutes after he had taken his place in the crow's nest, one of the two lookouts, Frederick Fleet, saw a faint shadow in the distance, directly ahead of and in the path of Titanic. He immediately rang the crow's nest bell three times, which was the signal for something being ahead of the ship, and then followed this action by using the nest's telephone to place a call to the bridge, where Sixth Officer, James Paul Moody, answered and asked Fleet what he had seen.
ICEBERG, RIGHT AHEAD!
In the aftermath of the sinking, the RMS Carpathia picked up the survivors out of their lifeboats and, three days later, arrived in New York City. Both a British and an American inquiry into the disaster were conducted in the coming months and laws were ultimately changed in response to such a great loss of human life. One such law that was altered was that it was made absolutely mandatory that a ship carry with her enough lifeboats for everyone aboard, but perhaps the most significant impact the sinking of Titanic made on the world aside from going down in history as one of the most legendary stories ever told was the creation of the International Ice Patrol, which monitors icebergs in the shipping lanes and still exists to this day.
The International Ice Patrol is operated by the Coast Guard of the United States of America but is contributed to by the governments of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. It was officially established in 1914 and in direct response to Titanic's sinking. In addition to this, many other things in the world changed, many people's lives were indeed never the same, and the course of history was forever altered as a result of the Titanic disaster. One must wonder, however— what if the key to the locker containing the binoculars had never been accidentally taken off of the ship? What if the lookouts had had the advantage of being able to see further into the distance that night? Would they have seen the iceberg in their path in time to turn? Would Titanic have made it to New York? These are questions that will never be answered, but one fact remains. History was significantly changed, or at the very least, a significant change in history was contributed to by the loss of an object so common that one would never think twice about it— an ordinary locker key.