Sinking of the

In the late hours of April 14, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. By the early morning hours of April 15, the ship had sunk into the ocean, and more than half the passengers and crew drowned. The disaster shocked the world; the reputedly unsinkable Titanic carried many wealthy, prominent public figures on board and had been considered one of the marvels of the modern era.

Summary of Event

In 1907, William James Pirrie, managing director of Harlan and Wolff shipbuilders in Belfast, Ireland, and Joseph Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line, devised a plan to compete with the more successful Cunard Line and its fleet of luxury liners—including the Lusitania and Mauritania—on the lucrative North Atlantic route. They planned to build three sister ships, the Olympia, Titanic, and Gigantic, that would exceed the Cunard fleet in both size and luxury. The ships would be longer and heavier than those in the Cunard fleet and would emphasize elegance and safety. The Olympic was launched in 1911, and its successor, the Titanic, was to be even larger and more luxurious. Titanic (ship)
[kw]Sinking of the Titanic (Apr. 14-15, 1912)
[kw]Titanic, Sinking of the (Apr. 14-15, 1912)
Titanic (ship)
[g]Atlantic Ocean;Apr. 14-15, 1912: Sinking of the Titanic[03080]
[c]Disasters;Apr. 14-15, 1912: Sinking of the Titanic[03080]
[c]Transportation;Apr. 14-15, 1912: Sinking of the Titanic[03080]
Smith, Edward John
Rostron, Arthur Henry
Pirrie, William James
Ismay, Joseph Bruce
Andrews, Thomas
Brown, Molly

No expense was spared to make the Titanic the most extravagant ship ever built. There was room for 2,603 passengers, including 905 in first class, 564 in second class, 1,134 in third class, and 944 crew. The three classes were strictly segregated, but even second-class accommodations exceeded those in many liners’ first-class cabins, and the third-class rooms were superior to those in other ships’ second-class quarters. The first class had its own dining rooms, lounges, promenades, barber shop, gymnasium, squash court, swimming pools, Turkish baths, a darkroom for photography, library, clothes-pressing room, and a special dining room for maids and valets. The first-class staterooms were decorated in period styles such as Louis XVI and Italian Renaissance. The ship’s signature feature was a grand staircase topped by a glass dome.

The passenger list on the Titanic’s maiden voyage was as impressive as the ship itself. It included such luminaries as millionaire John Jacob Astor and his young pregnant wife Madeline Astor; Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store, and his wife Ida; and Philadelphia’s George and Eleanor Widener, whose banking and railroad fortune was worth thirty million dollars. The 190 families in first class were attended by twenty-three maids, eight valets, and assorted nurses and governesses. Joseph Bruce Ismay and the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, were also along.

The Titanic left from Southampton, England, at noon on April 10, 1912, under the leadership of the experienced and well-respected Captain Edward John Smith. It docked in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, before setting out across the Atlantic. The weather was perfect for a sea voyage: The ocean was calm and the skies were blue. Unfortunately, this mild weather had caused the ice fields farther north to break up and drift south, and the Titanic received its first iceberg warning on Sunday, April 14, at 9:00 a.m. The warnings continued throughout the day; the last one arrived at 11:00 p.m. By 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, the temperature had dropped to 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and as there was no dancing allowed on Sunday evenings, most of the passengers had retired to their rooms or were reading or socializing in the various lounges.

At 11:40 p.m., one of the lookouts spotted an iceberg immediately ahead and sounded the ship’s alarm. With the iceberg less than 500 yards away, there was neither room nor time to stop or change course. Although the ship avoided a head-on collision, the iceberg scraped the first 300 feet of the hull, well below the waterline. Many passengers were unaware of the occurrence, and those who heard the collision did not make much of it. They felt it as a slight jarring, or scraping sound, and only noticed something amiss when the ship stopped and the comforting sound of the engines suddenly ceased. Ten minutes after the crash, the water level was fourteen feet above the keel in the first of five supposedly watertight compartments. The ship could float with any two of its compartments flooded, but the breaching of five compartments was too much. At 12:05 a.m., the captain gave orders to lower the lifeboats and sent an SOS, which was received by the Carpathia’s Captain Arthur Henry Rostron, who immediately changed course, headed toward the sinking ship, and readied his vessel to take on survivors.

Because the Titanic had no public-address system, news of the disaster traveled slowly throughout the ship. The band began to play in an attempt to maintain normality and to keep the passengers from panicking. Many were convinced that the ship was indeed unsinkable, and until they were faced with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, they preferred staying on the warm ship to boarding the lifeboats. As passengers observed the rule of allowing women and children to go first, many of the already insufficient number of lifeboats were sent off with more than half their seats empty. At 2:10 a.m., the band played one last song. No one knows exactly which song it was, but it was probably “Nearer My God to Thee,” the hymn “Autumn,” or the popular waltz of the day, “Songe d’Automne.” By 2:20 a.m., the Titanic was under water.

Many tales of heroism and grace under pressure remain as part of the Titanic’s legacy. For example, Ida Straus made sure that her maid was safely placed in a lifeboat and then refused to go into one herself, choosing instead to die with her husband of many years. Molly Brown, a wealthy socialite from Denver, helped row her lifeboat to safety, gave her fur coat to a freezing man, and was instrumental in the survival of her lifeboat’s inhabitants. Thirty-four of the engineering officers stayed at their posts, maintaining the ship’s lighting until two minutes before the ship finally sank. The Carpathia reached the first lifeboat at 4:10 a.m., and over the next four hours all of the survivors were taken on board, and the ship proceeded to New York City. Although numbers vary slightly by source, close to 2,228 passengers were aboard the Titanic on April 14, and of those, 1,523 perished.


More than three thousand books have been written about the Titanic, and so many legends have grown up around the event that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Several films have been made about the disaster, including the silent film Saved from the Titanic (1912), which starred Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson. Most notable are Titanic (1953), with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb; A Night to Remember (1958), based on the 1955 nonfiction book of the same name by Walter Lord; and Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1985, American oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage of the Titanic, and interest in the event was reignited. Although Ballard preferred to leave the site undisturbed, several later expeditions retrieved thousands of artifacts from the wreckage, and these have been displayed in various museums throughout the world.

Before the Titanic disaster, regulations for lifeboat capacities had been dreadfully out of date, and the loss of the Titanic inspired regulations that required enough lifeboat space for every person on board a ship. Never again would a ship carrying more than two thousand people be outfitted with lifeboats for only half that number. In addition, regulations concerning required lifeboat drills began to be enforced, and several new rules were implemented as well: Wireless instruments had to be used and manned twenty-four hours a day, lookouts had to have regular eye tests, and ships were required to reduce their speed in ice fields. Titanic (ship)

Further Reading

  • Eaton, John P., and Charles A. Haas. Titanic: A Journey Through Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. A complete chronology of the disaster, from the births of the major players to the recovery expeditions. A very thorough examination of the event itself and its background.
  • Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1957. A gripping account of the disaster, beginning with the collision with the iceberg and ending on the Carpathia. A nonfiction book that reads like fiction.
  • O’Donnell, E. E. The Last Days of the Titanic. Niwot, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 1997. A photographic record of the Titanic. The photos were taken by a passenger who disembarked at Queenstown; they were discovered in 1985.
  • Tiballs, Jeff. The Titanic. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest, 1997. History of the Titanic from its inception to recovery efforts. Good photographs and illustrations.
  • Wels, Susan. Titanic: Legacy of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liner. San Diego, Calif.: Tehabi Books/Time Life Books, 1997. Full of wonderful pictures. Covers the history of the Titanic and the disaster and provides full coverage of the recovery efforts.

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