15 Things You Might Not Have Known About the RMS Titanic

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

When the Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the disaster inspired countless books, Titanic museum exhibits, several Hollywood films (including one that earned a Best Picture Oscar), and a cottage industry of theories and memorials. The Titanic sinking became the most infamous shipwreck in history—but what really happened on that unusually calm night in the North Atlantic? Read on for some surprising Titanic facts.

1. The Titanic was built for luxury, not speed.

In the early 20th century, new technology and an increasing population of European immigrants allowed Britain's largest passenger steamship lines to build the biggest and most opulent ocean liners then known. Liverpool-based Cunard launched the two fastest and sleekest liners, the Mauretania in 1906 and the Lusitania in 1907, capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in record time. The White Star Line, hoping to compete with its main rival, countered by ordering three massive ocean liners—the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic. Built by the Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland), the ships were designed to be the most luxurious liners afloat.

On board the RMS Titanic (the "RMS" stood for "royal mail ship"), passengers could enjoy the swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, a gymnasium, sunrooms, fine dining rooms, and a Turkish bath. The ship had "one hundred more first-class cabins than the Olympic, and a Parisian boulevard on B Deck [was added] to create the illusion of a sidewalk café. Ultimately, the Titanic outweighed her sister by more than 1000 tons," Paul R. Ryan wrote in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution magazine Oceanus.

2. Everything on the Titanic was huge—except the number of lifeboats.

View of the Titanic's propellers with a group of men
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Copyright Restrictions

The Titanic was the largest passenger ship of its time. Its steel construction was held in place by 3 million rivets weighing 1200 tons, while each link in the ship's anchor chains weighed 175 pounds. Twenty-nine boilers produced enough energy to achieve 50,000 horsepower and an average speed of 21 knots (just over 24 mph). The distance between the keel (the underside of the ship) and the top of the four gigantic funnels was 175 feet. The ship measured 882.5 feet from bow to stern and 92.5 feet at its widest point. "She was, in short, 11 stories high and four city blocks long," wrote Walter Lord in his definitive history of the Titanic sinking, A Night to Remember.

According to the British government's official inquiry, the ship carried about 1316 passengers and 885 crew on its maiden voyage (other sources have slightly different numbers), but only 20 boats, each of which could safely hold between 40 and 60 people for a total capacity of 1178 [PDF]. At the time, Board of Trade regulations for passenger liners required only 14 life boats on board. The Titanic had 14 life boats plus two cutters and four collapsible boats.

3. The plot of an 1889 novel bore eerie similarities to the events that would befall the Titanic.

The Wreck of the Titan, or, Futility, by little-known novelist Morgan Robertson, may not have predicted the Titanic's sinking, but it includes some uncanny coincidences. In the book, the most fabulous ocean liner ever built—the Titan (!)—is crossing the Atlantic on its maiden voyage when it collides with an iceberg and sinks. The Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic was 882.5 feet. Both ships could reach speeds of 25 knots. Both sailed in April. Both could carry 3000 people, and both had far too few life boats.

4. Before the Titanic sinking, ocean liners encountered more icebergs than usual in the North Atlantic.

Icebergs were a common sight between Ireland and Newfoundland, but a 2014 study published by the Royal Meteorological Society suggested that weather conditions produced more of them than average in April 1912. Freezing air from northeast Canada met the southward flow of the Labrador Current off the coast of Newfoundland, leading to a stream of icebergs that were swept farther south than was typical for most of the 20th century. "In 1912, the peak number of icebergs for the year was recorded in April, whereas normally this occurs in May, and there were nearly two and a half times as many icebergs as in an average year," the authors wrote.

On April 14, 1912, the Titanic received several wireless messages from other ships warning of ice along their routes, but they never reached the Titanic's captain.

5. The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable.

The White Star Line claimed, unofficially, that the Titanic was unsinkable. The ship had 16 watertight bulkheads, from bow to stern below the waterline, that would keep the ship afloat even if the first four of the compartments were breached. Unfortunately, at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the lookout saw a towering iceberg directly in the Titanic's path. The alarm was relayed to the bridge, where First Officer William Murdoch ordered the ship put "hard-a-starboard" and the engines reversed; he also pulled the lever that closed the watertight compartment doors. But it was too late. Thirty-seven seconds after the lookout's warning, the Titanic grazed the iceberg on the starboard side, opening a series of cuts that stretched across six consecutive watertight compartments 10 feet above the keel. Within 10 minutes, 7 feet of water filled the first compartment.

Based on glacier calving data from Greenland, the Royal Meteorological Society study suggested that the iceberg had originated on Greenland's west coast and measured about 125 meters (410 feet) long and 15 to 17 meters (49 to 55 feet) tall above the ocean's surface, giving it a mass of 2.2 million tons. The dimensions are consistent with those in a photo of an iceberg bearing a streak of red paint, photographed by the captain of the Minia, a rescue ship later sent to pick up Titanic survivors.

6. After the collision, few Titanic passengers were worried.

Life boats on board the TItanic
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For his 1955 book, Walter Lord spoke with more than 60 Titanic survivors, who revealed an initial lack of concern after the collision with the iceberg. Many in first and second class hardly felt the impact and either went back to what they were doing or asked crewmembers why the ship's engines had stopped. But soon, the truth began to dawn on them, according to Lord's account:

"Far above on A Deck, second class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed a curious thing. As he started below to check his cabin, he felt certain the stairs 'weren't quite right.' They seemed level, and yet his feet didn’t fall where they should. Somehow they strayed forward off-balance … as though the steps were tilted down toward the bow."

Titanic passengers and crew hadn't received clear instructions for boarding life boats. Once it became clear that the ship was listing, the process of filling the boats was chaotic. Women and children boarded first, with deference given to first- and second-class passengers; their male companions were told (or opted) to stay with the ship. Boats were lowered with only half of their seats filled. Male and female third-class passengers were largely left to fend for themselves.

7. Hundreds of Titanic survivors were rescued—but more than a thousand perished.

The nearest ship, a merchant vessel called the Californian, was fewer than 10 miles away from the Titanic when it began sinking, but it failed to act on the liner's distress signals—its Marconi wireless operator had gone to bed minutes before the Titanic's collision with the iceberg. That left the Cunard passenger steamship Carpathia, 58 miles away, to come to the Titanic's aid. It took almost two hours to reach the first Titanic survivors.

Of the 2201 passengers and crew on board, just 711 survived the Titanic sinking, a death toll of 1490 according to the British government's figures. (Other inquiries found 1503, 1517, and as high as 1635 deaths). First-class passengers suffered the fewest casualties—203 out of 325, or 62 percent, survived. In second class, 118 of 285 passengers, or 41 percent, survived. And in third class, just 178 of 706 passengers, or 25 percent, made it out alive.

Of the crew, 673 out of 885, or 76 percent, went down with the ship, including Captain Edward Smith, First Mate William Murdoch, the Marconi wireless operator Jack Phillips, who sent the CQD and SOS distress signals, and all eight members of the Titanic's band.

8. A department store telegraph manager may have broken the news of the Titanic sinking.

After the Titanic's final wireless message, listeners sought updates from ships sent to its aid. Only fragments of messages reached New York, where the Titanic had been headed. David Sarnoff, a Marconi manager at the Wanamaker's department store in New York, picked up a message at 4:35 p.m. on April 15 from the Olympic relaying definitively that the Titanic had sunk. Sarnoff and his two wireless operators told the press and continued to intercept messages relayed from the Cape Race station in Newfoundland.

Later, Sarnoff exaggerated the details and his role in the Titanic sinking, claiming that he alone received a distress signal from the Titanic itself and then remained in the Wanamaker's wireless station for 72 hours straight to receive the names of the survivors.

9. The Titanic sinking left tragic "what if?" questions.

Artist's rendering of the Titanic sinking, Illustrated London News
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Walter Lord summed up the chain of tragic—and avoidable—missteps that led to the disaster:

"If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday … if ice conditions had been normal … if the night had been rough or moonlit … if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner—or 15 seconds later … if she had hit the ice in any other way … if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher … if she had carried enough boats … if the Californian had only come. Had any one of these 'ifs' turned out right, every life might have been saved."

10. Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton testified at the Titanic sinking inquiry.

Shackleton, already a widely hailed veteran of two expeditions to Antarctica, knew a lot about icebergs, which explains why he was called as an expert witness in the British government's inquiry into the Titanic sinking. He believed it was likely that the lookouts missed the gigantic iceberg in the ship's path until it was too late. "With a dead calm sea there is no sign at all to give you any indication that there is anything there. If you first see the breaking sea at all, then you look for the rest and you generally see it," Shackleton said. "From a height it is not so easily seen; it blends with the ocean if you are looking down at an angle like that."

Shackleton wasn't the only celebrity to offer testimony: Guglielmo Marconi, a Nobel laureate and inventor of the wireless system used on nearly every ocean liner by that point, explained the regulations for sending distress signals.

11. No one knew the exact location of the Titanic wreckage for 73 years.

Several expeditions had tried and failed to discover the final resting place of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. In 1985, Robert D. Ballard, then a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a French team led by Jean-Louis Michel of the research institute IFREMER finally succeeded. The U.S. Navy had secretly commissioned Ballard to locate two Cold War-era nuclear submarines that had sunk in the North Atlantic decades before—and Ballard agreed to help as long as he could use its technology to search for the Titanic in the same area.

The team was aboard Woods Hole's research vessel Knorr, using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to survey the deep sea. Instead of trying to locate the ship itself in a huge search area, the team concentrated on finding the Titanic's large debris field. As the engineers piloted the ROV, its camera transmitted pictures to the research vessel. On September 1, 1985, an image of the Titanic's boilers slowly came into view—the first time in 73 years that people had seen the ship.

Photos of the Titanic wreckage—its ghostly hull and a trail of unbroken wine bottles, silver platters, a leaded glass window, bedsprings, and other artifacts resting 2.4 miles below the surface—were published and broadcast around the world.

12. Deep-sea robots mapped the ship's debris field.

In 2012, researchers from Woods Hole, the Waitt Institute, and RMS Titanic, Inc.—the wreck's legal custodian—announced that they had created a map of the 15-square-mile debris field using underwater robots. Sonar data and about 10,000 photos were synthesized to create the high-resolution map, which revealed the widely scattered artifacts extending outward from where the two large bow and stern sections of the ship came to rest on the seafloor about a half-mile apart.

The data also provided new clues as to how the Titanic sank. After 1 a.m. on April 15, 1912, as the flooded bow dipped first, the ship's stern rose out of the water at a steep angle. As the ship slid under the surface, the stern broke away and spiraled downward in a corkscrew pattern to the seabed, rather than falling in a straight line.

13. There might still be some cheese down there.

By the time the Titanic wreckage was found, most of the food that had sunk with the ship was long gone. But according to Holger W. Jannasch, senior scientist in Woods Hole's biology department in 1985, there might have been some brie lingering in the pantry. "Some foodstuffs, such as cheese, are protected from decay by the very microbial activity that starts the degradation process. If kept in boxes, it may have changed little over the extended time period," Jannasch wrote in Oceanus. "The microbes that turn milk or whey into cheese produce either highly acidic or highly alkaline conditions, both of which protect these highly proteinaceous foodstuffs from further spoiling." Similarly, wines seen on the seafloor "may still be drinkable and possibly of excellent quality, the normal aging process being slowed down during the [then 73] years of deep-sea storage at about 36°F," he wrote.

14. Artifacts recovered from the wreckage are included in several Titanic museum exhibits.

Titanic life belt and other artifacts
Kat Long

In Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum's Titanic collection includes important pieces of the ship's story. A life belt saved by a Titanic survivor and a nameplate removed from one of the Titanic's life boats aboard the Carpathia are on display. There is an actual telegram, sent from the Carpathia's captain Arthur Rostron to Cunard headquarters, telling the company about the disaster. Artifacts retrieved from the wreckage itself include porcelain dishes, a pair of pince-nez glasses, and gold hat pins. The museum also owns the sole surviving first class ticket for the Titanic's only voyage: The clergyman who bought it opted to stay home and tend to his wife who had fallen ill the night before departure.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History also owns a number of Titanic artifacts, including Carpathia passenger Bernice Palmer Ellis's Kodak "Brownie" camera and photos she took of the rescued Titanic survivors.

While the ship itself remains on the seabed, RMS Titanic Inc. has successfully recovered more than 5000 artifacts, including a 12-foot-by-26-foot piece of the starboard hull. That chunk went on display in a Titanic museum exhibit at the Luxor in Las Vegas in 2011.

15. You may see the Titanic sail again.

OK, not the original ocean liner. Australian businessman Clive Palmer established the Blue Star Line shipping company in 2012 to build a nearly exact replica of the Titaniccalled Titanic II—with the hope of completing the transatlantic crossing that its predecessor never did. The Titanic II will be slightly larger than the original, with space for 2400 passengers and 900 crew, while faithfully recreating its Edwardian opulence (even the Turkish bath). Fortunately for passengers on the Titanic II's maiden voyage, tentatively scheduled for 2022, the ship will have plenty of life boats and comprehensive evacuation plans in case of icebergs.

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

8 Historical Things That Prove Privacy Issues Aren't a Modern Problem

iStock/Veleri
iStock/Veleri

DEAR A.J.,
Help! I feel I have no privacy anymore. Facebook, Google, and Target know more about my life than my own husband does. Where has all the privacy gone?
Kathleen

Dear Kathleen,

Thanks for writing. I’ve recorded your name, address, marital status, and income level for my email list. You’ll be hearing from me soon!

In the meantime, maybe this will make you feel better: Privacy may be endangered in the digital age, but at least we’re still better off than many of our ancestors. In the past, everyone was all up in your business.

1. Peeping Tithingmen

Consider the Puritans: They were stunningly good at privacy invasion. In colonial America, Puritan villages had professional snoopers called “tithingmen.” Part of a tithingman’s job was to peek into their neighbors’ windows and spy on their every move to ensure they weren’t doing anything naughty, such as (gasp!) going for a stroll on the Sabbath—a crime that could be punishable by a day in the stocks.

2. Snail Mail Breaches

If you’re worried about hackers (or husbands) monitoring your emails, you should know that pen-and-ink mail was even more vulnerable back in the day. In early America, before an official postal service existed, letters were frequently left at taverns and coffeehouses to be picked up by the recipient—often after they’d been perused by other inquisitive customers. Things didn’t get much better when the government got involved. Postal workers were notorious for peeping at mail. Even letters from the Founding Fathers weren’t immune. Thomas Jefferson complained about the “curiosity of the post-offices” who enjoyed opening and reading his correspondence.

3. Public Voting—Out Loud

Speaking of the government: Voting was not always a private affair conducted behind the safety of a curtain. In early America, everyone knew your vote. They heard it loud and clear. You voted by stepping up to an election officer and announcing your vote in front of spectators. The practice was called viva voce—by voice. This, naturally, led to intimidation and harassment. As Paula Wasley writes in Humanities magazine, voting was “spectacularly public ... accompanied by boisterous crowds, partisan hecklers, torchlight parades, free-flowing whiskey, and brawling.” Casting your vote was less like participating in a dignified civic ritual and more like attending a Gathering of the Juggalos.

4. Nosy Questions on the (Publicly Posted) Census

You won’t find much respect for privacy in the old days of the U.S. census. The questions in the 1800s were astoundingly nosy. Uncle Sam asked about your mental health, whether you were “crippled, maimed, or deformed,” and questions about the financial status of homes and farms. The results of the early census were also posted in public, ostensibly so you could check them for accuracy, but in reality so that all your neighbors could titter.

5. Newspapers Printed Ailments

And if you didn’t know your neighbor’s frailties from the census, busybody local newspapers were there to fill you in. With no pesky HIPAA laws to get in the way, hospital admissions were popular fodder for newspapers for decades. For instance, an issue of the 1885 Philadelphia Inquirer told us that 53-year-old Hugh Dady had to go to the hospital after he received a head cut from a falling barrel.

6. Newspapers Printed Addresses

And if that’s not enough, the paper gives us what certainly appears to be the ailing folks’ addresses, such as “Francis Reynolds, aged twenty-seven, of No. 2335 Owen Street, with sprained wrist, from heavy lifting.” It was like TMZ, but if every celebrity was very boring.

7. Pooping in Public

But I’ve saved the worst for last. Because in the days of yore, even your most intimate acts—including going to the bathroom—occurred with very little privacy. In ancient Rome, you did your business in a public latrine with dozens of seats side by side. Archaeologists have found board games in between the toilets, indicating that voiding was a social occasion, much like a trip to the pub. Even the Father of our Country might not have pooped alone: Mount Vernon has a cozy three-seat outhouse. Over on the other side of the pond, Henry VIII had a formal assistant called “The Groom of the Stool,” a bathroom attendant whose job supposedly consisted of, in part, wiping the glorious monarchical butt.

8. Sex on Trial

What’s more, marital problems were shockingly out in the open. Consider the bizarreness that were the impotence trials of pre-Revolutionary France. A woman could ask to end a marriage on the grounds that her husband failed to consummate a marriage … but she had to prove it in front of witnesses. The most notorious such trial was in 1659, when a Marquis had to attempt sex with his wife in front of a 15-person jury, including doctors. The trial was so public, Frenchmen placed bets on the outcome. I’d tell you what happened, but I don’t want to invade the nobleman’s privacy yet again. (OK, fine. He failed. Happy?)

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