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What Sank the Titanic?

What Sank the Titanic? (an episode of Discover’s new series, Curiosity)

Curiosity - the puncture theory

Curiosity - the puncture theory

As you may know, I’m a bit of a Titaniac, so I was pretty excited to watch Discovery’s What Sank the Titanic.  In particular, I was spoiling for an argument because I assumed the show would endorse the same old theories that have been part and parcel to the Titanic story for a long time, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the show comprehensive and, in my opinion, pretty right about which theories to stress, which to include, and which to ignore.

Overall, the show blended personal stories with scientific analysis of witness testimony to explain the key moments leading up to the ship’s foundering.  The only down-side was that before each commercial break, the narrator (Bill Paxton) would say something like “She had less than 60 minutes to live.”  So, here’s a quick breakdown of the sinking theories that I’m aware of and the contribution they make to the show:

Ice ram + re-started engines.  The best book exploring the forensics of the sinking, IMO, is Last Log of the Titanic, by David Brown.  Brown makes two key assertions: first, he argues that the witness descriptions of the collision fit the experience of running aground, not crashing into or striking a glancing blow.  He argues that the damage to the ship occurred along the bottom of the ship from an underwater shelf called an ice ram, not on the side as the standard theory had always said.  Then, as witnesses testified, the ship’s engines started again and she cruised for a few minutes before stopping for a second time.  This is actually what doomed the ship, as it put pressure on all the leaks and vastly increased the amount of water coming in at the bow.  Brown argues that if the captain had not resumed cruising, the ship probably would have stayed afloat long enough for help to arrive.  (Brown’s theory also helps explain the mysterious wireless message that arrived in New York saying the Titanic had struck an iceberg but was en route to Hallifax under her own power.  This last bit gets no mention in the show.) 

What Sank the Titanic agrees with Brown, offering these two factors as the key factors in the sinking.  But it also offers a number of minor theories as well.

Bad rivets:  Metallurgists McCarty and Foecke make a convincing argument that the rivets used to make Titanic were sub-standard iron unequal to the task of holding the hull together under the shearing tension of the ship under sinking stress.  If just a few rivets gave way, the seams would pop like zippers, and the water would rush in.  The Discovery show makes a nod to this theory with a discussion of the rivets failing (though they don’t mention the sub-standard iron).

Hull Stress: Chatterton and Kohler, the divers who found the Nazi sub off the coast of New Jersey, had their own theories about Titanic, focused mostly on the notion that the hull itself was built with weak points that made it crack open once the bow started to fill with water.  We get a very brief mention of the hull-stress, but nothing about the joints.  I’d say What Sank the Titanic ignored this theory.

Puncture Theory:  The early testimony about the ship assumed that the iceberg poked a bunch of holes in the side of the hull, leaving a series of gashes that were enough to sink the ship.  This was the official finding of the original hearings and is depicted in nearly every film about the disaster.  Curiosity nods to this theory in their graphic of the ship, post-collision, which includes some red lines where the punctures were supposed to have been.  The narration never explains what those punctures are, though.

Finally, it leaves out a few theories that are incidental to the forensic focus the show takes.

Bad Navigation: What Sank the Titanic pretty much ignores the Californian question (the idea that another ship was in the area but did not come to the aid of the Titanic).  It includes just one line that acknowledges Titanic‘s inaccurate position in their SOS call.

Insurance Fraud: The Discovery show does not give any credence to the notion that the Titanic was actually the already-damaged Brittanic, sunk intentionally for the insurance money.  Neither does anyone else, really, but there you go.

Overall, the episode is the best short discussion I’ve seen of why a ship designed to withstand precisely the kind of damage it took still sank in under three hours.  Well worth a watch if you find this sort of thing interesting.

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