This is Titanic Week, marking the ninety-ninth anniversary of the sinking, and so now the time is right to include a post about researching the Titanic. Flocks of enthusiasts and student researchers continuously seek information on that tragedy and the many people involved in it, so let’s hope that this post finds them drawn to read.

Whether rational or not, Titanic has attained the status of legend of sorts that stands out from many other ships and shipwrecks. The continuously growing community of experts and enthusiasts holds Titanic in its collective heart and keeps the stories as fresh and alive as they were nearly a century ago.

What more can be said about the ship and those on board her? Believe it or not, the stories haven’t yet finished unfolding. That’s the beauty of Titanic—it is limitless in her treasure trove of knowledge. Our long struggle to discover and learn more about her has continually brought forth a plethora of new insights not only with regard to the ship and her time period, but also how we conduct research. This process has not stopped.

When it comes to researching Titanic, the process has been life-long for me. As a boy, I found myself intrigued by the great ship and all the mysteries that abounded: How big/long was she? How many funnels did she have? What did she look like? Where, when and how did she sink? How many people were on her? Who were they and where were they from? Who died and who survived? Why did so few first-class perish compared to those in steerage? These and other questions drove me on.

The answers to these questions were at one time unknown, but continuing research has unearthed much of that information. Not surprising, such information has created a bit of controversy and debate among many: Was there a three-hundred-foot gash or was the damage nothing more than a series of tears and rivet pops? With regard to this damage, what developments impelled the Titanic to sink within two hours and forty minutes? What efforts were employed to render safety to passengers and seek help? Why wasn’t that enough? What could have been done differently to change the outcome?

And the questions keep on mounting. Ironically enough, this happens when one conducts research; the deeper we look into the subject and discuss it, the more questions arise. This serves as the natural cycle of ascertaining and building knowledge. The more questions we have, the further we go. There is never an end and likely never will be. That’s what keeps researchers like me interested—the game is in a constant shift, but it persists, and the mystery and intrigue remain throughout. As long as there are questions, people will struggle to find the answers.

One place to start would be obtaining a library’s worth of essential documentation: the transcripts (there are two—American and the subsequent British Board of Trade), birth/death certificates, passenger/crew and cargo manifests, ticket purchase receipts, diaries, personal letters, and deck plans, all of which are primary sources; and eyewitness testimonies, books, documentaries and discussion boards fall in second place due to their subjective nature (even though researchers obtain their information from primary sources et al., personal biases are likely to affect their accounts, and quite often conjecture is made [remember the ongoing questions?]).

Field experience, which I have discussed in earlier posts, is extremely important in Titanic’s story. In order for us as researchers to determine where Titanic went down, what condition she was in and how she sank, we had to get to the wreck of the ship and study it up close. The problems were multiple: (1) we didn’t even know where the ship was (Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall’s calculations put the sinking at 41/46N-50/14W, but that has since been proven false); (2) the wreck was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, some two and a half miles down, which wasn’t easy to reach, much less to find in the first place; (3) the reliable technology needed to find and reach Titanic, wherever her location, was scarce, in its infant stages or untested; and (4) the costs required just to develop the technology, let alone mount a mission to find Titanic, would be unbelievably and staggeringly high. Several attempts have been made over the years to find her, but all failed. One millionaire, Jack Grimm, invested large amounts of money, but the research just wasn’t there to assure success. This is/was the Catch-22 of field investigation: the research requires money, but the money requires research. Which one would have to come first—the chicken or the egg? This was the unsolvable conundrum.

In the meantime, all we could do was speculate. This stirred the imaginations, but it did little for finding the desired answers and facts. The failure and our limitations motivated us, though, so, ironically enough, our failure to find the ship early on was a benefit to us. We assessed the situation and its complexities and strove about to rectify the issue.

One area on which we focused was the development of technology. Specialists in a variety of fields, from marine salvage to history to ship-building to naval architecture and oceanographic engineering, contributed their insight as to what would be necessary to safely find and reach the Titanic. Among the innovations that came about in this process were the use of sonar and the underwater submersible. Sonar was limited in its scope and detection capabilities, but it was enhanced to discern the differences in mass size and composition. The latter, submersibles, were already being used, but they never made a safe or successful descent to that extreme depth; these vehicles were able to go to a certain depth, but none had ever gone two and a half miles down. That was risky, not only with regards to air pressure, but also to equipment function (lights, gauges, camera and video), water pressure (at that depth, it was relentlessly strong and dense), and communication (would those at the bottom be able to communicate with those at the surface, etc.?). These technologies needed to be developed or enhanced further and tested as well before any attempts could be made. The cost would be in the millions.

See how important and involved, not to mention expensive, field research can be?

During the summer of 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard and his team of the prestigious Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts, grouped with French underwater exploration, headed by Jean Louis Michel, set out to find Titanic. The area was vast and comprised of a large triangle established by three coordinates (Boxhall’s calculation, the Mount Temple’s estimation of Titanic’s location and the Carpathia). This would take several days, if not weeks. In late September of that year, while the night shift scanned the ocean floor, a large mass of metal triggered the signals. On closer inspection, the hulk of a huge ship came into view. It was the Titanic’s bow! Finally, the behemoth was found. What shocked the crew and Ballard was the fact that the ship abruptly ended around the region of the third funnel; everything aft of that point was gone. This confirmed the ongoing query—the ship had indeed broken apart on the night she sank. They found the stern a half-mile away, lying in a debris field; its shattered remains a sad sight to behold (most of the people who died were either on or inside the stern. Knowing this fact has causes many onlookers to silently cry while gazing upon this heap of splayed and twisted metal). Other discoveries included: (1) a third middle “section” was missing, which showed that the ship did not simply crack in two, but crumbled away as it broke apart, top-down and in a twisting motion, at the point of the aft expansion joint situated just aft of the third funnel (the aft-grand staircase was completely gone, leaving an exposed first-class smoking room and a set of reciprocating engines); (2) the decks were compressed flat, suggesting that the stern slammed hard into the bottom; (five boilers from BR #1 rested nearby, confirming that the break went through that room); (3) the hull was splayed out on the starboard side and the poop-deck peeled back over the docking bridge, indicating that the stern section first imploded and then exploded on its way down (the trapped air inside burst outward through the third-class stairwell and cargo hold #4, obliterating the well deck and sending the poop-deck backwards); and (4) the presence of five more boilers at the end of the bow section substantiated the theory that the boilers, in fact, did NOT blow up that night and were still embedded on their moorings. These findings are/were valuable, and would not have been possible to know had we not traveled to the bottom of the ocean to take a look. Field research, as said, is not only essential, but crucial, to gaining knowledge that would be inaccessible through any other means.

Further advancements were also set in place with regard to marine protocol. International Ice Patrols (ICPs) now constantly monitor the north Atlantic for icebergs. Of course, modern-day ship communications operate via computer systems, so reporting dangers is quicker and much more efficient than at the time of the Titanic. The vigils are therefore a combine effort. Another innovation—or law, to be more precise—was that all passenger ships MUST have enough lifeboats for everyone on boat (Titanic had only enough for approximately 1,200 people, a little over half of the 2,200 people the ship carried on her maiden voyage. The owners of the White Star Line placed luxury over safety, figuring that any dangers or threat to human well being would likely be minimal or non-existent. She was the largest ship in the world at the time, after all, at 883 feet in length. What could possibly happen? No one at that time ever said that Titanic was “unsinkable,” but it was likely assumed by many). Her sister ship, the Britannic, would later be redesigned with bulkheads going up to B-deck (Titanic’s only extended as high as E-deck, but it wasn’t high enough—the incoming water spilled over each bulkhead in “ice tray” fashion until the imbalance of weight created an excess of stress that caused the break). Unfortunately, the Britannic sank in 1916, as a hospital ship during World War I, but the damage incurred there was severer than that inflicted by Titanic. Still, the raised bulkheads gave the crew time to disembark before the ship sank. Had the bulkheads not gone as high as B-deck, the death toll would likely have been greater than the 30 it was).

As far as research goes, the Titanic and her demise have spurred on new forms. The technological developments one could argue as added research capabilities, since the Titanic would not have been found without it. Indeed, what was achieved pushed research capabilities at that time of the ship’s discovery. Jacques Cousteau had found the Britannic wreck only nine years prior, but that wasn’t the same—the hospital ship lie nowhere near the extreme depth as that of the Titanic, so its access was easier and less costly. Even then, in 1985, the idea of looking for something that deep was considered as somewhat risky—only a desire, a hope and a dream that, with ongoing diligence and persistence, paid off. This shows that success in research is due just as much to human ambition and ingenuity as much as it is to capability. The drive creates the need(s), which, in turn, brings about research insight and the advancements that reflect it.

My research methodology has expanded as well. When I was younger, looking up info was considered the extent of broadening one’s knowledge, but I have always been the one to ask questions, generate queries, to think critically about things. Only this way can we increase the scope of learning. Don’t settle with what is told to you, even if it is based on current findings; think for yourself and form your own conclusions. Diversity adds to the research and the growing body of knowledge. This doesn’t mean one should disbelieve or disregard the knowledge that’s out there, but, don’t accept that as the “all and the end” of what can be learned. That serves as a necessary base, that’s it. Always go further, and what I have discovered as a Titanic researcher is that there IS no end.

Titanic Research and the Media

The media has contributed to Titanic’s legendary status. This is especially true in the industry of entertainment. No other ship has generated as many books, documentaries or movies as the Titanic. New authors emerge all the time with fresh insights. The number of Titanic experts is still growing, and that would include James Cameron, a filmmaker by trade, who researched, produced and directed the latest incarnation in 1998, which is merely the latest in a series of seven movies (eight, if one considers survivor Dorothy Gibson’s 20-minute reel from 1912. No copies are known to exist, but it was made). The film won eleven academy awards, including Best Picture. This reflects an unwavering interest in Titanic. Although most viewers weren’t concerned with details, they were curious and became inspired by the great ship and her story.

That said, these movies do not reflect one-hundred percent accuracy, nor are they meant to do so; instead, they are products that (1) showcase a filmmaker’s perspective or beliefs, and (2) entertain. No movie made is factual to the detail, but more commercialized than anything else; that is, the purpose is to garner high numbers, both in ratings and in dollars, than to teach history.

A couple of examples revolve around the alleged suicide of First Officer Murdock and the Californian’s role in the tragedy. Several eyewitnesses from the Titanic recall hearing gunshots and seeing an officer slumped on the deck during the later hours when chaos reigned. Yes, a few named First Officer Murdock, but it has not been confirmed whether those individuals actually knew Murdock personally, and the limited lighting and excitement pounding at that point in time leave the question open as to the identity of the officer—or whether or not an officer actually shot himself. People have made mistakes before, and others have even mentioned Chief Officer Wilde in connection with this. No one knew for certain, except Murdock’s family who knew better than to believe he would commit suicide. His body was never found. We will never know. Still, the argument that he felt guilty over the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg during his shift is a compelling one, but it doesn’t confirm anything. Everything here is conjecture, and so the depiction of Murdock’s suicide in both Cameron’s film and the TV miniseries that preceded it a year before can only attest to the filmmakers’ respective beliefs, nothing more.

The Californian’s role in the story, too, is a continuous debate between those who believe this was the ship within visual distance during the sinking and those, called Lordites, who insist it wasn’t. The Californian never appeared in the “official” movie depiction, A Night to Remember, released in 1958 but Walter MacQuitty, who, as a boy, had actually witnessed the Titanic being launched back in 1912. That inspired him to no end. He knew better than to include such a controversial issue as that of the Californian’s questionable involvement in the sinking. Most other movies leave this account out as well and likely for similar reasons. Although many people believe it was the Californian there that night, no evidence exists to substantiate the claim one way or another. Stanley Lord’s log for that night places his ship at a set of coordinates considerably farther away from Titanic, so no one knows for sure. Yes, the nighttime crew saw a ship in the distance that shot rockets, but they couldn’t tell what ship it was and it could very well have been another. Again, nothing has been determined conclusively either way. As a researcher, I must remain objective and weigh all arguments evenly; without evidence, I cannot form any definite assessment. That would be irresponsible.

Art is a wonderful thing (I am an artist and creative writer myself), but the built-up drama and suspense for the sake of art cannot serve as a viable source for showcasing fact when expressing fact is not an objective of the movie. These movies, though, DO add a visual depiction of the Titanic and her story that inspires one to imagine what it was like being aboard her during her voyage and her sinking. That’s the extent of how far research goes.

The media has always sensationalized Titanic. But though the story warrants recognition, the hype it receives serves to excite readers for the wrong reasons. One must remember that magazines and other commercial publications are in the business to first sell. People are drawn out of interest, are intrigued, but they gain a superficial impression of the ship and her story that is based on little sensibility and is more legend than reality so that all, or most, credibility is either minimized or lost. The truth about Titanic is enough to give it strength; when that truth, whatever it might be, is approached with a sense of rationality and sensitivity, the legend stands up for what it actually is and acquires its rightful stance.

Conclusion

As the Titanic fades off into the past upon its centennial anniversary (coming up next year), its light remain strong and steady. The great ship won’t let us forget who she was and why she existed. So many stories ring continuously through our minds non-stop. . . The band playing “till the end” (which is true, depending on what one means by “the end.” If it refers to the point where the ship took a perilous slant and chaos reigned, then yes; if it refers to the point when the stern went under, then no); Molly Brown quipping about going out and retrieving ice on the deck for her late-night drink; Ida Straus refusing a seat in lifeboat #8 in order to stay behind with her husband, Isador (she was one of only five first-class females to perish that night); W.T. Stead reading his book in the first class smoking room all during the sinking; Benjamin Guggenheim casting his lifebelt aside and insisting on “going down like a gentleman,” along with his valet; P. Fletcher charging his bugle before every meal; John Phillips, the head wireless operator, persisting the calls, even after the captain released him and water began flooding the room; the battle between Molly Brown and Robert Hitchens (who had been at the wheel at the time of Titanic’s collision with the iceberg) in lifeboat #6 as they argued whether or not to go back and rescue people from the water; Fifth Officer Lowe forming a flotilla with lifeboats 4, 10, 12 and Collapsible D, then returning with a few volunteers in lifeboat 14 to rescue people in the water after the Titanic sank, only to find most dead (he saved a handful of people, including a first class man, a Japanese who had been strapped to a door, and a steward); the multitude of people who screamed into the night as they died horribly, among them several third-class families such as the Goodwins and Sages . . . There are countless stories, too many to mention here—many of them true, others skewered over the years—but the spirit of the Titanic shines through and penetrates us. We continue to reflect, yearn to know what really happened, long after every survivor has passed on. Its allure doesn’t weaken as long as her story is shared—her real story.

That’s where the research comes in . . . .