The British passenger liner, under the captaincy of Edward Smith, had roughly 2,400 passengers on board when it struck an iceberg shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912. The devastating event saw more than 1,500 people lose their lives on the “unsinkable” vessel in one of modern history’s deadliest commercial marine disasters. An official inquiry into the incident by the British Wreck Commissioner found the owners – White Star – were not to blame, but in the years since numerous myths have developed over the story.
According to expert Tim Maltin, one of these surrounds how the vessel went down. Famous sketches over the years have depicted the front of the ship raised, as the back appears to slowly disappear below the waves. But Mr Maltin told historian Dan Snow that “sadly, this is a myth” during his appearance on History Hit’s documentary ‘Debunking the Myths of the Titanic’.
This originally began as “Titanic Alternative Sinking Theories” but is more appropriate to state these are sinking theories that fall into three distinct categories. Since it sank in 1912, there have been numerous theories as to why Titanic sank. Some of them were based upon witness testimony at the two Titanic hearings and conjecture as to what might have happened. When the wreck was located in 1985, it solved some questions and raised others. The question has turned not to why Titanic sank (we know that of course, it struck an iceberg)but what factors contributed to its untimely demise. And that is where you get some interesting theories and ones that are well outside the box.
So to begin there are three distinct categories:
In order to be plausible, it must be based on scientific data, witness statements and other things that meet this criteria. It excludes otherwordly explanations (aliens, ghosts, curses, mummies etc) and conspiracies. However plausible theories may lack actual proof and be scientific conjecture. Others do offer proof through scientific tests. The point is that plausible theories have a rational basis in fact and science to be plausible.
Conspiracy advocates that collusion occurred between certain parties to bring about Titanic’s demise. The conspirators may be corporate villains or some secret organization pulling the strings of power to get the desired results.
Supernatural explanations involve portents of doom, curses, God, or cursed Egyptian mummy.
1)Titanic 300 Foot Gash/Sank In One Piece
Originally it was conjectured that the iceberg had ripped open a 300 foot gash although not all experts agreed. Edward Wilding (chief naval architect for Harland and Wolff), testified that it was not a continuous rip but that different openings along the hull allowed the water to enter to flood the compartments. Wilding was closer to the truth. Ultrasound scans of the hull found six slits or openings in an area covering 12 to 13 square feet. Also the openings followed the line of hull plates which meant rivets either popped or snapped off. As was later determined, many of the rivets in bow and stern were iron. Hull plates examined appear to be shattered on impact rather than bending. This it appears the ships hull was a contributing factor in its demise.
The wreck confirmed what some witnesses had said but discounted: that Titanic had broken in two. The front or bow section appears mostly intact but the stern badly damaged. One theory is that the front section had no air pockets by the time it went down so no implosions occurred. However the stern had air pockets remaining causing implosion as it went down resulting in the stern looking like it had been through a battle.
2) Pack Ice
Captain L.M.Collins, former member of Ice Pilotage Service, argued in 2003 that Titanic was not hit by an iceberg but low-lying pack ice. He based this on his own experience and witness statements given at American & British inquiries. His main points are 1)The lookouts did not see haze but a strip of pack ice; 2)Differences in iceberg height reported by the lookouts, Fourth Officer Boxhall, and others. Optical illusion created by cold sea and calm water created the illusion; 3)If Titanic had collided with an iceberg on starboard side, the hull and superstructure would have been more damaged and ship sunk faster.
While this theory has merit, most today believe the iceberg was low lying but inverted meaning bigger underwater than on top (which may have occurred if the berg flipped over at some point). Because it was bigger underwater and most of the damage was there, it explains why there would be less damage to the hull and superstructure.
3) Coal Fire
Robert Essenhigh, Ohio State University engineer, argued in 2004 that a coal fire led indirectly to iceberg collision. A pile of smouldering coal caused a problem resulting in them being put into furnaces. The increased speed due to the coal usage led to Titanic moving fast through the ice field. Essenhigh states records show fire control teams were standing by in Cherbourg and Southampton. He believes Titanic set off from Southampton with a coal bunker on fire or that coal ignited after leaving port. Since coal fires were common on coal fire ships and may be the reason for the U.S.S. Maine exploding in 1898.
In this theory, the coal fire would have weakened Titanic in that area (due to heat). And possibly that made that area more easy to be scrapped open by the iceberg. As for the increased use of coal, it was due to Captain Smith wanting to get to New York to beat Olympic’s arrival time.
3) Brittle Steel/ Rivet Theories
In 1997, Dr. H.P. Leighly, a metallurgical engineering professor at University of Missouri-Rolls announced that in an upcoming paper (January 1998 issue Journal of Metals) that Titanic steel was not as strong as modern steel. Co-authored with metallurgical engineering student Katie Felkins, the paper argued that analysis of 200 pounds of steel from the wreck showed it was 10 times more brittle than modern steel in freezing temperatures. Tests showed a high sulfur content, along with oxygen and phosphorus. Such levels, coupled with a low level of manganese contributes to brittle steel. Brittle steel, coupled with other factors, contributed to Titanic sinking.
Later tests on hull plate fragments showed average toughness under freezing conditions. If brittle steel did not play a role, then perhaps something else?
In 1998 a team of marine forensic experts began examining Titanic under the supervision of William H. Garzke Jr, a naval architect. Garzke said that a preliminary study of two wrought-iron rivets showed they had high concentrations of slag making then brittle and prone to failure. He believed the rivets popped and thus allowed the plates to separate letting water in. Dr. Timothy Foecke, a metallurgist with National Institute of Standards and Technology, did the analysis. Foecke said in his report “’The microstructure of the rivets is the most likely candidate for becoming a quantifiable metallurgical factor in the loss of Titanic.”
Foecke continued his research and in 2008, in collaboration Dr. Jennifer Hooper McCarthy, published What Really Sank the Titanic – New Forensic Discoveries. The book greatly expands upon what was announced in 2008. The findings were that steel rivets were fine but iron-wrought ones had three more times more slag than normal. The slag also was in large pieces. Since iron rivets were hand made, it is was likely done by inexperienced workers. However documents from Harland & Wolff indicates poorer quality material was also used to complete Titanic on time and used suppliers uncertified for this kind of work. Thus if the iron rivets had been of high average quality or steel rivets had been used in key areas, then fewer compartments would have flooded.
Needless to say, the Brittle Steel/Rivet Theory was not supported by many in the Titanic community. Many pointed out that Harland & Wolff used a formula (Siemens-Martin) to produce steel in armed merchant cruisers. It was commonly called “battleship quality” by yard workers. They point our that both Titanic and Olympic were built using well known and established shipbuilding design, just larger and with more strength. Harland & Wolff had a cost-plus arrangement with White Star that allowed them to add a percentage profit to final cost, so they had no need to cut costs by using poorer quality material.
Except of course that is what Harland & Wolff did to complete Titanic on time. While most of the ship has steel rivets, it is clear they also used iron rivets. And the use of those in areas where the iceberg impacted made it less strong. The scientific proof is there since the rivets tested came from Titanic. It does upset people to realize Harland & Wolff did cut a corner in this regard since they could add the cost the final bill. Whether it makes them negligent in Titanic’s demise is something else. It does put them uncomfortably in the same seat as those who thought launching a space shuttle on a cold morning would not be a problem. In the case of Titanic, iron rivets likely contributed to its demise though most of that falls on Captain Smith for traveling in high speed through an ice field at night and the Board of Trade for its inability to insure there were lifeboats for all.
As for Tim Foecke, he points out that his findings have been accepted by the scientific community and detractors have failed to come up with evidence that refutes the findings.
4) Atmospheric Conditions/Moon
1) In 2012, scientists at Texas State University reported in Sky & Telescope that a rare conjunction of Earth-Moon-Sun resulted in more icebergs than usual in 1912. A full moon on 4 January coupled with a spring tide and the combined effect of gravity caused the sea to rise exceptionally high resulting in more icebergs months down the road.
2)The March 2012 Smithsonian reported that British historian Tim Maltin believed atmospheric conditions made things very difficult that night for Titanic. A thermal inversion occurred that kept cold air below warmer air and the high pressure prevented fog from forming. The result was light refracts abnormally with some objects appearing higher and nearer than actually are resulting in a false horizon. That area between the false and true would be hazy. The iceberg would have been camouflaged under these conditions and not seen till to late. Titanic would appear too small and near to be an ocean liner from California, a reason why they did not think it was a ship in distress. Also the atmospherics would distort and disrupt any Morse lamp signals.
3) Closed Watertight Doors Made Titanic Go Down Faster
According to this theory, if the watertight doors had been opened Titanic would have sunk on an even keel and remained afloat longer. The problem is that there were no watertight doors between the first four compartments. So it would be impossible to limit water in the bow much (except by pumping it out). Calculations indicate keeping the watertight doors open would have hastened, not slowed the sinking. In fact, it would have sunk faster.
The Discovery channel documentary, Titanic: Secrets Revealed(1998), ran model simulations and found the theory wrong.
4) Expanding Joints Theory
This is not an alternative theory how of Titanic went down, but rather a technical debate on how the ship broke apart. The traditional belief is that Titanic became perpendicular before its final plunge. The actual breakup occurred at or near the surface. The ships expansion joint–designed to allow for flexing of the hull in a seaway–appears not to have been the cause for the break-up.
A History Channel expedition in 2005 proposed a new theory based on scrutinizing two large sections of Titanic’s keel. Roger Long, a naval architect developed a new break up scenario that was televised in 2006 (Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces). The major change was Titanic’s angle was no greater than 11?. Long believes the breakup began with the premature failure of the expansion joint, which caused Titanic to sink faster. The History Channel sponsored dives to Titanic’s sister ship Brittanic. The found the joints superior on Brittanic. The History Channel also commissioned a computer simulation at JMS Engineering. The results appeared in the 2007 documentary Titanic’s Achilles Heel. The JMS simulation partly refuted Long in showing Titanic’s expansion joints would work fine and would outperform design specifications. However since the joints were part of the superstructure, above B-deck, and at the top of the structural hull, the expansion joints really had no meaning in support of the hull.
B) Conspiracy Theories
1)The Titanic/Olympic Switch
Robin Gardiner in Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank? argues that Olympic, not Titanic was sunk. Olympic was the older ship and was nearly identical to Titanic except for detailing like the promenade deck windows. On 20 Sep 1911, the HMS Hawke collided into Olympic–caused by Olympic’s surge caused by her propellers-resulting in the Royal Navy demanding compensation. An admiralty board put the blame on Olympic for the collision and White Star was sued by the Royal Navy. That is history and now comes Gardiner’s theory.
He argues Lloyd’s of London did not want to pay the claim to White Star. With Olympic out of service and repairs delaying Titanic’s completion, White Star faced serious financial problems. So White Star decided to convert Olympic to Titanic. Since Titanic was hardly fitted out at the time, this was easy to do since few things were specifically identified to the original Titanic. This allowed for the easy switch of parts and accessories. At sea Gardiner speculates they would open the seacocks, a valve on the hull, to let water in to sink the ship. The quick switch resulted in a shorter sea trial. Since Olympics patched up hole could not take long periods of high speed.
Gardiner asserts that First Officer Murdoch was one of the few high-ranking officers aware of the plan. He was also to keep a watch out for the rescue ships. However instead of an iceberg colliding with Titanic, it was a rescue ship drifting on station without its lights on. Gardiner does not believe an iceberg could have inflicted damage to a ship that was steel double hulled. It was this rescue ship that was seen by Californian, the one that appeared to sail away. Titanic then remained in service for 25 years as Olympic.
As could be expected, this controversial theory was hotly challenged by most Titanic scholars and researchers. Gardiner’s methodology and evidence attacked as faulty and based less on finding the truth but writing a sensational story. Most author’s challenge the documentary evidence relied upon as faulty, incomplete, and even fabricated. To date, despite claims made by those who believe, no solid proof has yet to be found confirming the switch. Examination of the wreck confirms it is Titanic. Also since repairs were done at Harland & Wolff in Belfast, it would be hard to do a switch and keep it a secret. After all a large part of the worker force was from Belfast. With that many workers in the yard it would be hard not to notice a switch going on and it not getting out.
2)German U-Boat Sank Titanic
Some have suggested a German U-Boat sank Titanic to collect on the insurance policy. Since the ship would be sunk in deep waters, it would never be learned a torpedo sank Titanic. And the lookouts would not be looking for a torpedo. Since it was late at night and it was hard to see anything, a torpedo could be fired unseen. Except that a torpedo striking a vessel is distinctive. It is an explosion that would have been noticed by a lot of people (and awakened them) unlike what happened. Those close to the impact felt while others further away felt nothing. A torpedo impact would be felt by just about everyone. It would also be easily proven when the wreck was found since torpedo impacts would be easy to spot. No such evidence was found.
One must distinguish the historical from the modern day. The original Illuminati were a secret organization in Bavaria in the 18th century. The espoused beliefs in republicanism, womens equality, opposed abuses of power, and separation of state and church. Radical ideas back then! They were outlawed by the Bavarian ruler and disbanded in 1785. Its more current use is to refer to organizations that somehow have links to the Bavarian Illuminati and conspire to control world affairs in various way. The Illuminati are often to central to many elaborate conspiracy theories by showing how they pull strings from the shadows. Many works of fiction, television, and movies have used Illuminati as plot devices.
The Illuminati come into play regarding Titanic thanks to the book “The Secret Terrorists” printed by Truth Triumphant Ministries, subsequently reprinted by the Tree of Life Resources. The book argues the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) is to blame for Titanic’s demise. Jesuits are a powerful and influential organization within the Catholic Church. It has established schools, universities, and has been confessors to powerful leaders. But it also acts as an enforcer and carried out religious killings (Jesuits pledge themselves to serve the pope). The plot regarding Titanic begins in 1910 when a secret meeting was held about creating the Federal Reserve Bank. Representatives of major banks were present including for the Rothschilds, which are agents for both the Jesuits and the wealth of the Catholic Church. These representatives established a cartel called the Federal Reserve and to ultimately bring about world domination by the Pope. The Jesuit Order controlled the Rotschilds, Morgans, and Rockefellers.
Those that opposed the Federal Reserve were Benjamin Guggenheim, Isidor Strauss, and John Jacob Astor. They stood in the way and had to be stopped. They were men of great power and wealth and along with others were aboard Titanic in 1912. Titanic became an instrument for getting rid of their opponents. They made sure the ship was considered unsinkable and would attract those of great wealth for its maiden voyage. Many Catholics aboard, particularly in third class, were considered expendable. The ship would be the means to kill them so no one would suspect they were murdered. Captain Edward Smith was part of the plan, who was a Jesuit (apparently you could be a lay person, be married, and keep the Jesuit title in secret) and worked for J.P. Morgan (Illuminati).
Frances Browne, S.J., known for his photographs of Titanic, is part of this as well. Apparently he was the most powerful Jesuit in Ireland and Smith’s master. His coming aboard was cover for meeting with Smith and briefing him on what needed to be done. Browne told Smith to sink Titanic in North Atlantic waters. This is why Titanic went at full speed, ignored ice warnings, and crashed into the iceberg. He did not act as a strong leader. Also the lack of lifeboats was on purpose to make sure those men of wealth they wanted dead would not survive. And all of this was done on the order of the Jesuits and Roman Catholic Church.
Okay that is the essential elements of the Illuminati/Titanic conspiracy. It makes for great reading and certainly one day a movie based on it.
A mummy of ancient Egyptian pharoah or priestess (possibly a priestess of Amun-Ra) who died around 1050 B.C. The mummy ended up in the British Museum in the 1890’s after its discoverer (name unknown) or purchaser got possession of it and suffered serious misfortunes. However mysterious problems happened to visitors and staff at the museum. William Thomas Stead bought the mummy and stowed it in the underside of his car. He did not believe in the curse but feared its reputation would keep it off Titanic. Supposedly Stead revealed the mummy’s presence the night before Titanic sank.
According to the British Museum, they never received the mummy but only the lid of its sarcophagus. There are variations of this curse and unfortunately it has duped many people and at least one noted author.
2) No Pope
In their book,Titanic: Destination Disaster, John Eaton and Charles Haas wrote of workers reading Titanic’s hull number 390904 causing a major problem at Harland & Wolff. They write:
Yard number 401 also bore the builder’s hull number of 390904 — a number whose appearance almost caused construction work to stop. Perhaps it was first seen by a member of the drafting department straightening his tie in a mirror, or possibly by a yard worker catching a glimpse of the number reflected in a rain puddle. But regardless of the origin, the numerals, if hastily written and then read as a mirror image, spelled out to some the ominous words ‘NO POPE.’ And in the hearts of the pious, working-class Catholic employees in Belfast, there was deep indignation until a delegation of their men was assured by management representatives that it was all strictly coincidence, and that no malice had been intended. In spite of the assurance, and although work resumed, the builder’s hull number — for many then, and many today — spelled doom for the vessel.
Supposedly Harland & Wolff had to convince workers this was by coincidence and not a deliberate slap at Roman Catholicism. The tale is odd since people recognized the problem and acted upon it. Yet the tragedy still occurred implying that blasphemy brought a steep price (like the mummy’s curse). There is just one problem with this legend: Titanic’s hull number was not 3909 04. The official Board of Trade hull designation was 131,428 and the yard number 401. Try as you might, NO POPE is not spelled out with either the false or real numbers. There is also another problem with this legend. From everything known about Harland & Wolff back then, most of the workers were Protestant and not Catholic.
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A copy of this will be posted to the website shortly.
This revises an earlier version, corrects some inaccuracies, and adds new information. (15 May 2014)
Over the years there have been many theories as to why Titanic sank in 1912. Some are outlandish, such as a submarine or White Star switching Titanic for Olympic. The wreck weakened several beliefs, such as Titanic going down in one piece or that there was 300 foot gash. We have had theories about brittle steel contributing to its demise. Now competing theories appearing in The Smithsonian magazine and National Geographic once again take us into the world of speculative theorizing.
British historian Tim Maltin, after reviewing evidence gathered from weather records, survivor accounts, and previous studies believes “super refraction” prevented not only seeing Titanic in time but prevented the nearby California from really seeing clearly a ship in distress. The atmospheric conditions with air cooling from the bottom with warm air above creates a light inversion and a mirage making objects appear higher (and nearer) than they really are resulting in a false horizon. And the area between the real and false horizon would have haze. The result was that on a moonless night Titanic sighted the iceberg when it was too close. On the California, Titanic appeared too small and too near to be an ocean liner–an effect created by this unique super refraction. This would explain why California did not see the Morse lamp due to the distortion and later Titanic’s rockets. Titanic fired distress rockets 600 feet into the air but the distortion made them appear lower than the ship.
On the other hand, National Geographic has astronomer Donald Olson of Texas State University-San Marcos proposing that the large amount of icebergs in 1912 was a rare alignment of Earth-Moon-Sun intensifying the gravitational pull on the planet. The result are very low tides and very high tides (called a spring tide). Since icebergs do not travel fast, older icebergs were affected by the high tide and sent southward into Titanic’s path. And of course the rest is history.
Maltin’s claim provides more to California than Titanic. We already know Titanic was moving at night with no moon and in an area with lots of icebergs. Lookouts had no binoculars and did not see the iceberg until they were nearly upon it. Murdoch tried to port around the berg but doing so took precious time and ended up inflicting fatal damage to Titanic. Under this theory, Captain Lord appears vindicated. He claimed to not know it was Titanic, that distress rockets were not seen, and that the ship appeared to be too small. Speculation of a third ship between the two has never been proven. The theory of super refraction is fascinating. And it is possible under the right conditions but was it that way that night? The only answer is maybe since we have no conclusive evidence it did happen. Possibly experiments using those conditions might lead to answers.
As to the “supermoon” theory as some call it, that has less plausibility if for nothing else other astronomers argue back that the effect was not that great and likely did not contribute to large numbers of icebergs in the North Atlantic that year. Some speculate it was warmer water currents that may have been the cause.
It is not surprising these theories suddenly come out just before Titanic’s centennial takes place. With many people focused on Titanic, many will be drawn to them. Maltin has a book coming out about his theory and Smithsonian has a documentary called “Titanic’s Final Mystery” being televised on 15 April. So the news about this theory is more public relations than anything else. Olson has co-authored a report on this theory so again we have public relations drumming up interest.
Neither theory really gets into or changes the underlying facts. Whether you believe there was a super refraction or an unusual celestial alignment that created higher tides does little to change what happened that night. Nor does it excuse errors in judgment made by White Star, Captain Smith, or Captain Lord on Carpathia. It is speculative theorizing that sounds fascinating, possibly plausible, but in the end adds nothing to the story and 1,522 lives lost that fateful night.
According to Ben Golby in the Sunday Mercury, a new book by Tim Maltin dispels many myths and reveals new truths about Titanic. Some myths dismissed include the infamous mummy or conspiracy theories that argue Captain Smith was drunk. On item written by Golby drew my attention:
“But Tim’s research shows the Captain – who famously went down with the ship – could do nothing to avoid the sinking which made headlines across the world.”
Really? That is not the impression one gets from reading the testimony of both inquiries into the catastrophe. It was avoidable. There was nothing predestined about Titanic going down that night. Complacency was a major factor in what happened. No one seriously considered Titanic could suffer a catastrophic event that would sink her. Lifeboats for all was considered a foolish notion by nearly every ship line as unnecessary, cumbersome and expensive. No lifeboat drills were done on Titanic so the crew was unfamiliar on how to properly lower them (which was done all by hand). Nor was it commonly known that each lifeboat had been tested by Harland & Wolff to hold 65 fully grown men. This was never mentioned to Captain Smith because Harland & Wolff assumed Smith and his officers knew this. Also a factor is that neither the officers or crew really knew the ship.
And it gets worse when you add Titanic was traveling fast through an ice field in the dark of night. No one paid close attention to those ice warnings. Had they done so, they would have known they were in the middle of a large ice field. They ought to have slowed down or stopped for the night. Smith thought it was not a problem and went off to his stateroom. Meanwhile the lookouts had no binoculars to see a looming shape ahead until it was nearly upon them. And Murdoch’s maneuver likely would have worked on a smaller ship but not on Titanic.
Smith was considered one of the most respected sea captains of his day. But the new class of ships handled very differently and Smith had reasons to be concerned after his experience on Olympic. To argue though that nothing could have been done to avoid the sinking is totally wrong. There are many things, large and small, that could have averted the catastrophe. It was neither predestined nor fate that Titanic would sink that night. Which is why its sinking is tragic.