The Titanic

Why did the flagship of the White Star Line sink?

There are many theories, counter theories and conspiracy theories. It’s a known fact that the ship rammed an iceberg and sank only a few hours later. The background stories have been searched and discussed for decades. It wasn’t until the wreck was discovered that broken deals and rivets without heads revealed technically relevant insights. Historians had already expected it. Scientists also found clues about it in the archives of the shipyard of the manufacturer. Metallurgists have explored and confirmed these theories. Today, many scientists would dare to say that this massive disaster could have been prevented if cheap riveted bolts hadn’t been used. The manufacturer of the Titanic, Harland & Wolff in Belfast, has denied this.

The Titanic was 268 m long, 28 m wide, 53 m high, had a draft of 10 m, a tonnage of 46,329 gross register tonnage, a carrying capacity of 13,767 tons and cost 1.5 Mio. pounds sterling, which is equal to around 160 Mio. Euros today. All of this was kept together with around three millions of riveted bolts.

Jennifer Hooper McCarty and Timothy Foecke write in their new book „What Really Sank the Titanic“ that the delivery shortages reached a climax when the Titanic was built. The board of management of Harland & Wolff was in a „sense of crisis“, says McCarty. For half a year - from the beginning of 1911 until the maiden voyage of the Titanic in April 1912 - problems with riveted bolts and shortages of labor had been discussed.


Were the cheap riveted bolts the cause?

In the book, the designers are not responsible for the catastrophe. It describes that everyone was under pressure to finish building the ship on budget until the date of her maiden voyage. It is said in the book that all riveted bolts were bought that were available. It appears that the quality standards that were agreed on have not been met by some suppliers. According to scientifically metallurgical research, the discrepancies in quality were due to different concentrations of ash in the materials. The glassy residue is produced during smelting and can make riveted bolts brittle. This is what many people suspect to be the causal problem for the sinking of the Titanic.

McCarty's and Foecke’s research also revealed that there were shortages in labor on the shipyard of Harland & Wolff. There weren’t enough trained riveters who knew exactly how to manually manufacture rivets of high quality. 

What is also interesting is that while the sides of the ships were built (in the middle of the body), steel rivets were used. This is where heavy stress was expected. In the bow and the rear however, iron rivets were used. The divers and the scientists who examined the wreck didn’t find the anticipated big hole or the big crack in the body. Instead, they discovered only six narrow cracks in the bow of the ship. And those were exactly the spots where the steel covering was bent and deformed massively. Enormous bendings have occurred that were caused by the sudden and immense force that the iceberg applied on the skinplate. To make the situation more difficult, the water temperature was at -2° Celsius, which lead to further brittle failures. Even then, scientists had the suspicion that weak rivets might have been the cause of the sinking.


They Could Have Reached The Harbor Of Halifax

McCarty’s and Foecke’s research has confirmed this. According to their information, the damage in the body of the Titanic ends in the area where the iron rivets switch to steel rivets. The scientist make a case that better rivets could have slowed down the streams of water flowing in. More people could have been saved. Foecke states that if the rivets had resisted better and only five rooms had been filled with water, then the ship wouldn’t have sunk this fast. If only four rooms had been filled with water, they could have reached the harbor of Halifax.

The Titanic expert and naval engineer at Harland & Wolff, David Livingstone, denies Foecke’s conclusions. He says that you cannot look at 100 years old material and tell that it’s substandard. According to him, the Titanic didn’t go down as surprisingly fast as other ships. He also states that he doesn’t understand how weak rivets were used in some spots or low carbon steel was used instead of hardened steel.

“Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” Murphy’s Law.

1,500 people lost their lives in the disaster.


Human Interface – Minimize The Sources Of Error

Although the right materials were defined for the Titanic at that time – steel rivets for the side plankings and iron rivets for bow and tail – however, the respective amounts of the planned and ordered rivets were apparently out of stock. The time pressure lead to the “chaotic” purchase of non-identical rivets in different quality and material compositions.

So why was the adequate number of rivets not identified, purchased and delivered just in time? Did the human interface fail? Or was the amount of the necessary rivets determined too late? Did the engineers need too much time to plan? 

This example shows that the transfer of sensitive data like amounts and materials from manufacturing to purchasing is always critical for the safety and quality of a product. This is why this data should only be entered once and transferred as automatically as possible to the subsequent systems.

People should be supported when they carry out their tasks so that sources of error can be reduced dramatically.