The Titanic: a Century’s Struggle to Learn the Truth
Whether rational or not, Titanic has attained legendary status and stands out from other ships and shipwrecks. The sole reason, if there is one, isn’t certain, but a continuously growing community of experts and enthusiasts holds Titanic in its collective heart and keeps her stories as fresh and alive as they were a century ago.
What more can be said about the ship and those aboard? Unbelievably, the stories are still unfolding. That’s the beauty of Titanic— limitless in her treasure trove of knowledge. The long struggle to discover and learn has continually brought forth a plethora of new insights not only with regard to the ship and her time period but also how we research. This process has not stopped.
When it comes to the Titanic, the process of research has been life-long for me. As a boy, I was intrigued by the great ship and all her mysteries. 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 those on board and where were they from? Who died and who survived? Why did so few first-class perish compared to those in steerage? The mystery and mystique continue to drive me on.
Not surprising, much information about Titanic has created controversy and debate: Was there a three-hundred-foot gash or was it nothing more than a series of tears and rivet pops? What damage impelled the Titanic to sink within two hours and forty minutes? How did the ship flood and break apart? What efforts were employed to help passengers? Why wasn’t that enough? What could have been done differently to change the outcome?
The questions mount. Ironically enough, this commonly happens during research. The deeper we look into the subject and discuss it, the more questions arise. This is 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 flux, but it persists, and the mystery and intrigue remain throughout. As long as questions exist, people will struggle to find answers.
One place to start would be obtaining a library’s worth of essential documentation: the transcripts to both Inquiries (the 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. Eyewitness testimonies, books, documentaries and discussion boards fall in second place due to their subjective nature. Even though researchers obtain information from primary sources, personal biases can affect their accounts and often result in conjecture and—you guessed it—debate (remember the ongoing questions?).
In order to determine where the Titanic went down, what condition she was in, and how she sank, researchers had to study the shipwreck up close. The problems multiplied:
1. We didn’t even know where the ship was. Calculations made by Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall put the sinking at 41/46N-50/14W but were since determined to be false.
2. The wreck was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, some two and a half miles down. It wasn’t easy to reach and would be difficult to find in the first place.
3. The reliable technology needed to locate and explore the Titanic, wherever her location, was in its infant stages and/or untested.
4. The costs required developing the technology and to fund a mission to find Titanic were staggeringly high. Several attempts to locate the ship had been made over the years to no avail. Exponentially growing costs played a key role in their failure.
One millionaire, Jack Grimm, invested large sums of money, but the research just wasn’t there to assure success. This was and still is a Catch-22 of field investigation: Research requires money, but the money requires research. Which one would have to come first—the chicken or the egg? It is/was a conundrum.
In the meantime, we could only speculate. It stirred the imaginations, but it did little in achieving the desired objective. The failures and limitations motivated us, so ironically both were beneficial. We assessed the complexities of the situation and strove to rectify the issue.
One area of particular focus was technological development. Specialists from a variety of fields—marine salvage, history, document analysis, shipbuilding, naval architecture and oceanographic engineering—all contributed their insight as to what was necessary to find and reach the Titanic and carry out the desired studies.
This process brought about innovations in the use of sonar and underwater submersibles. Sonar was limited in scope and detection capabilities but was enhanced to differentiate in mass and composition. Submersibles were already being used at that time, but none ever made a safe or successful descent to the extreme depth of two and a half miles.
To compound the problem with submersibles were the various risks involved: reliability of air and water pressure (at that depth, it was relentlessly strong and dense), equipment function (lights, gauges, camera and video) and communication (would those inside the submersible be able to communicate with those at the surface?). These key technologies needed to be further developed, enhanced and tested before such attempts could be made. The cost, of course, would be astronomical (think: millions).
See how important and involved, not to mention expensive, field research can be?