12 Facts About the R.M.S. Lusitania

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A newspaper once said that "there never was a more audacious experiment in marine architecture" than the R.M.S. Lusitania. But on May 7, 1915, a German torpedo sunk the massive ship, killing more than 1100 civilian passengers. The sinking was one of the events that nudged the U.S. into World War I. Read on for more facts about this legendary ocean liner.

1. THE LUSITANIA WAS MEANT TO HELP BRITAIN REGAIN POWER.

The Liverpool-based shipping company Cunard ordered the R.M.S. Lusitania and her sister, the R.M.S. Mauretania, in 1902, and the Lusitania was built by the shipyard of John Brown & Co. in Scotland. For Cunard, the two ocean liners had a shared purpose: to restore Britain’s dominance in the transatlantic passenger travel industry by beating its German (and, to a lesser degree, American) competition. At the start of the 20th century, German ocean liners had the finest amenities and latest onboard technology, and had held the record for the fastest Atlantic crossings since 1897. Cunard bet that its two new “superliners” could reach unheard-of speeds and breathe new life into British travel.

2. CUNARD WAS GIVEN A HUGE LOAN—WITH A CATCH.

To build the Lusitania and Mauretania, Cunard secured a £2.6 million, low-interest subsidy from the British government (in today’s currency, that’s almost £268 million). Cunard also received an annual operating subsidy of £75,000, or about £7.7 million today, for each ship, and a contract worth £68,000 each, or £7 million today, to transport mail. (The “R.M.S.” in their names stands for “royal mail ship.”)

What would the British government get out of the deal, besides national pride and a very low return on investment? The Admiralty required that both ships would be built to naval specifications so they could be requisitioned for use in war. While the Lusitania never ferried troops, the Mauretania was put into service as a hospital ship and as a troopship, and even got a coat of dazzle paint to camouflage it at sea.

3. THE LUSITANIA INCLUDED CUTTING-EDGE EDWARDIAN TECHNOLOGY.

As another part of the loan deal, Cunard guaranteed that both ships would be able to cruise at a speed of at least 24.5 knots (about 28 mph): That would make the Lusitania and Mauretania faster than the speediest German liners, which could run just over 23 knots.

To meet the challenge, Cunard installed four steam turbine engines, each with its own screw propeller, a first for ocean liners. The new technology in the Lusitania required “68 additional furnaces, six more boilers, 52,000 square feet of heating surface, and an increase of 30,000 horsepower,” The New York Times reported. Without the turbines, the ship would have needed at least three 20,000-horsepower standard engines to reach 25 knots.

The Lusitania needed all of the power it could get, because it was massive: 787 feet long, with a gross tonnage of around 32,000 tons, four funnels to match the Germans’ look (previous British liners had three), and seven passenger decks [PDF]. The ship was designed to accommodate 552 first-class, 460 second-class, and 1186 third-class passengers, plus 827 crew.

4. THOUSANDS WATCHED THE LUSITANIA DEPART ON HER MAIDEN VOYAGE.

On September 7, 1907, the Lusitania departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage en route to New York with a stop in Queenstown, Ireland. “She presented an impressive picture as she left with her mighty funnels and brilliant illuminations,” the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser reported. “Throughout the day there was a continuous stream of sightseers on board, and the departure was witnessed by about 200,000 people.”

When the ship reached Queenstown, the paper continued, “768 bags of mail were put on board the Lusitania, which, amid enthusiastic cheers from the crowds of spectators attracted from all parts of the Emerald Isle, set off her great trial of speed across the broad Atlantic.”

5. EVEN THIRD-CLASS PASSENGERS TRAVELED IN STYLE.

Each class of passenger accommodation featured dining rooms, smoking rooms, ladies’ lounges, nurseries, and other public spaces. They ranged in opulence from plush Georgian and Queen Anne styles in the first-class compartments to plain but comfortable in third class. The Lusitania was also the first ocean liner to have elevators, as well as a wireless telegraph, telephones, and electric lights.

Onboard dining included dozens of dishes at each seating for the most discerning Edwardian gastronomes. A luncheon menu from January 1908 suggested appetizers like potted shrimps, omelette aux tomates, lamb pot pie, and grilled sirloin steak or mutton chops. A variety of cold meats—Cumberland ham, roast beef, boiled ox tongue, boar’s head, and more—was served next. For dessert, guests could nibble on fancy pastry, compote of prunes and rice, cheeses, fruits, and nuts.

6. THE LUSITANIA REGAINED THE BLUE RIBAND.

Germany’s dominance in transatlantic service pained Britain, the country that basically invented the race for ever-faster crossings. Cunard desperately wanted to win back the Blue Riband, an unofficial title for the fastest average time on a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, from the German superliners. Bad weather prevented the Lusitania from reaching its top speed on the first try. But on the voyage from October 6-10, 1907, the ship reached an average speed of 23.99 knots, smashing the German’s record.

The Lusitania broke its own record, but lost it to the Mauretania in 1909, which held on to the Blue Riband for the next 20 years.

7. PASSENGERS WERE WARNED ABOUT ENEMY ATTACKS.

The First World War broke out in Europe in July 1914. On May 1, 1915—the day of the Lusitania’s fateful departure—the German embassy in Washington, D.C. published a note in New York’s morning newspapers reminding passengers of the danger of transatlantic travel during the war. In some newspapers, the announcement appeared directly under an advertisement for Cunard’s future sailings, including the Lusitania’s scheduled trip on May 29, 1915. “Notice! Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies,” it shouted. “Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in [British] waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

Few believed the Lusitania was in danger, because it had sailed without incident since the beginning of the war. And, as a passenger ship carrying civilians, it was not thought to be a legitimate military target.

8. IT WAS TORPEDOED BY A GERMAN U-BOAT.

The first six days of the crossing were typically uneventful. In the early afternoon of May 7, able seaman Leslie Morton began his scheduled watch at 2 p.m. He told the BBC:

“It was a beautiful day; the sea was like glass. And as we were going to be in Liverpool the next day, everybody felt very happy. We hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to the threats to sink her because we didn’t think it was possible … Ten past two, I saw a disturbance in the water, obviously the air coming up from a torpedo tube. And I saw two torpedoes running toward the ship, fired diagonally across the course. The 'Lucy' was making about 16 knots at the time. I reported them to the bridge with a megaphone, we had torpedoes coming on the starboard side. And by the time I had time to turn round and have another look, they hit her amidships between No. 2 and 3 funnels.”

In first class, the suffragette and businesswoman Margaret Haig Thomas (later Second Viscountess Rhondda) felt the impact. “There was a dull thud, not very loud, but unmistakably an explosion,” she told the BBC. “I didn’t wait; as I ran up the stairs the boat was already heeling over.”

9. THE LUSITANIA SANK IN JUST 18 MINUTES.

The torpedo hit just behind the bridge (near the bow of the ship) and a huge cloud of smoke rose. Immediately, the ship began listing to the starboard side and the bow began to sink. Chaos ensued on the seven passenger decks. Morton told the BBC that all of the port-side lifeboats were now unable to be lowered to the water, while the starboard-side boats were filled with panicked passengers and let go haphazardly; some even capsized or fell on top of other boats already in the sea. Watching from his periscope, the U-boat’s captain Walther Schwieger wrote in his war diary, “Many people must have lost their heads; several boats loaded with people rushed downward, struck the water bow or stern first and filled at once.”

Moments after the torpedo hit, another blast exploded from inside the ship. At that point, the sea filled with people, lifeboats, splintered pieces of the ship, luggage, deck chairs, and other debris, all at risk of being sucked into the wake of the rapidly sinking ocean liner. “The whole thing was over in 15 minutes. It takes longer to tell,” recalled Morton, who had managed to find a collapsible boat and save dozens of other passengers. An hour later, he said, “the ship was already down at the bottom.”

Survivors and dead bodies were plucked from the water by fishermen in small boats, then taken to Queenstown. Of the 1960 verified people on board the Lusitania, 1193 were killed, and just 767 survived. Four of those survivors would soon die from trauma.

10. THE SINKING MAY HAVE TURNED THE TIDE OF WORLD WAR I.

Almost all of the American passengers—more than 120 of 159 on board—did not survive the sinking. The U.S., a neutral country, immediately criticized the attack on civilians, and public opinion turned against Germany and its actions. While Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan argued that Germany and Britain (which enforced a blockade of food shipments to Germany) were both worthy of blame in the disaster, the American people were choosing a side. The U.S. did not enter World War I, however, until April 1917.

11. THE SOURCE OF THE SECOND EXPLOSION REMAINS A MYSTERY.

Morton survived the disaster and, in his testimony for the official investigation into the attack, insisted that he witnessed two torpedoes launched at the Lusitania. Schwieger’s log and the U-boat crew’s accounts indicate the submarine fired only one.

The cause of the second explosion, 15 seconds after the first strike, is still unknown—but numerous theories abound. One suggests that undeclared explosives meant for the British military, stored in the ship’s magazine, detonated from the torpedo’s impact. Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, suggested in his book Lost Liners that the torpedo breached the ship’s coal bunkers and kicked up enough coal dust to trigger the blast. There is also a possibility that another, unidentified submarine fired a second torpedo, but no other sub ever took credit for the fatal blow, perhaps due to the global backlash against Schwieger’s action.

Maritime archaeologists may never know the truth. Three hundred feet down on the seafloor, the Lusitania wreck lies on the side that the torpedo breached, and many of the decks have collapsed onto the seabed, obscuring further clues.

12. THE LAST SURVIVOR PASSED AWAY IN 2011.

Audrey Warren Pearl was only 3 months old when she sailed on the Lusitania with her parents, three older siblings, and two nannies in first class. After the explosions and while attempting to board lifeboats, Audrey, her 5-year-old brother Stuart, and her nanny Alice Lines were separated from her sisters Amy and Susan, their nanny Greta Lorenson, and her parents, Warren and Amy Pearl. Alice and the two children were able to safely board Lifeboat 13, while Audrey’s parents were picked up from the sea and survived. Greta and the other two children were never found.

Audrey went on to be active in Britain’s war effort in the 1940s and in numerous charities. She and Alice Lines remained friends until Alice’s death in 1997 at the age of 100. Audrey, the last survivor of the 1915 disaster, lived to the age of 95 and died January 11, 2011.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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