By Alyssa Freitas
On the fifteenth of April, in the year 1912, the largest and most luxurious steamship in the world sank into the North Atlantic. This sinking was the result of a collision with an iceberg; a collision which had occurred two hours and forty minutes earlier. The steamship took with her approximately 1500 of her 2200 passengers and crew.
The R.M.S. Titanic was, at the time, White Star Line’s finest achievement. She was nicknamed “The Millionaire’s Special” (Wade 19), offering more luxury, comfort and amenities that any other passenger liner of the time. The safety features she boasted included sixteen watertight compartments and a double hull (20).
Titanic’s safety features, as well as her awe-inspiring presence, made it all the more unbelievable when she sank. The reaction of the United States to the Titanic disaster is comparable, in this writer’s opinion, to only one other event in America’s history; the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. These events evoked enormous amounts of shock, disbelief and anger. They were so unbelievable that if there had been no survivors or witnesses, no one would have been able to accept that they had actually happened.
Titanic had just over 700 survivors and it was because of their testimonies that the events on April 14 and 15 in 1912 could be pieced together. The story of the Titanic disaster cannot be completed without the aftermath being told. The reactions of America as well as the changing of regulations regarding ocean travel have helped earn Titanic an enduring place in this country’s vast history.
The reaction of the American public went through quite a few different phases. There was disbelief (on the part of IMM’s vice-president), anger and grief. The change in emotions probably had much to do with how the country received the news. Back in 1912, newspapers were able to pick up wireless messages. All of the wireless traffic overheard from ships in the Atlantic left reporters with an unclear message of what became of the Titanic (Butler 168). Philip A. S. Franklin, vice-president and general manager of the International Mercantile Marine, denied rumors, brought to him by reporters, that the Titanic had sunk. He stated, “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable” (Butler 168).
By 6:15 in the evening, after receiving a wireless communication from Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, Franklin would be changing this belief. “Gentlemen,” he would say, “I regret to say that the Titanic sank at 2:20 this morning” (Butler 169). The stunned reporters issued extras for the newsboys to disperse. When America woke up on the morning of April sixteenth, it would be to the news that Titanic, the largest passenger liner in the world, had sunk, resulting in a major loss of life (Wade 36). The country was all the more shocked by this news because White Star and IMM officials held up the claim that Titanic was unsinkable (Butler 168-9).
Once the truth was known, the White Star-IMM office in New York became bombarded with family and friends of Titanic passengers. John Jacob Astor’s son, Vincent Astor, went into the office and came out crying. People in front of the office “were openly weeping” (Wade 36). This grief would turn to anger later in the day.
People became angry as a result of the false assurances of Titanic’s safety. Another reason was, up until official word had been received, some newspapers had issued banners and headlines reporting the Titanic’s and her passengers’ safety (Butler 168, Wade 33). Others were dumbfounded. How could this have happened? Titanic was believed to be unsinkable and completely safe. In forty years of Atlantic crossings, only four lives had been lost (Butler 179). To have over 1500 lives gone in a matter of hours was unthinkable. No matter how amazing the story was, it was true.
Besides the actions and reactions of the press and the American public, this writer has found the reactions of the survivors to be an interesting piece of the story. People can appreciate this more if they were to imagine being on Titanic on her maiden voyage. To go from luxury and elation to chaos and tragedy in a few short hours is mind-blowing. It can be appreciated even more when one remembers what it was like to watch the Twin Towers falling. At one moment, there is business and order; a short time later, all that is left is a pile of debris.
People who survived the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic reacted differently besides the obvious amount of grief. Bruce Ismay, the owner of White Star Line and the president of the IMM, secluded himself in a room on board the Carpathia, the only ship to come to Titanic’s rescue. He ate only soup and did not leave the room until Carpathia arrived in New York on the eighteenth of April (Kuntz 393). Harold Bride, the only Marconi wireless operator to survive the sinking would help relieve Carpathia’s wireless operator after getting medical attention for his frostbitten feet (Butler 167-8). Many of the survivors on the Carpathia searched for loved ones. The Carpathia’s passengers would later tell of how quiet the Titanic’s passengers were (Butler 155). This would be understandable considering the tragedy these people had just experienced. While the Carpathia made its way back to New York, a man named William Alden Smith was preparing.
William Alden Smith was a senator from Michigan. Upon learning of Titanic’s fate, he proposed a resolution to President William Howard Taft (Wade 101). This resolution contained three items: One was the authorization of an investigation; The second was the authorization to summon witnesses and serve subpoenas to witnesses; The third item was that, based on the investigation committee’s findings, an “international agreement to secure the protection of sea traffic” would be drawn up (Wade 101-2).
The Senate’s investigation into the Titanic disaster begin in New York, Friday April nineteenth (Wade 111) and the report was adopted by the Committee on Commerce on May 23 (Wade 279). In his report, William Alden Smith introduced Senate Bill Number 6976. This bill would change the existing marine laws (Wade 295).
The laws concerning ocean voyages and the ships that embarked on them were extremely deficient. The Titanic had twenty lifeboats on board which would hold 1,178 people (Wade 41). While twenty lifeboats were insufficient so as to save everybody on board, that number actually exceeded the number required by the British Board of Trade (Wade 40-1). These requirements were based on the fact that “any ship exceeding 15,000 tons should provide no less than sixteen lifeboats” (Wade 41). Titanic more than tripled that amount of tonnage.
Another problem on board Titanic came as a result of a coal strike going on in 1912. Many ships on the day of Titanic’s departure were docked. Coal, as well as crew and passengers, were transferred to the Titanic. The new crewmembers were “unfamiliar with the ship, their duties, and with each other” (Wade 24). They did not know their entire way around the ship, nor were they familiar with her operations; especially how to work the lifeboat davits.
The issues of the lifeboats and the untrained crew were quickly remedied by some of the provisions adopted from Senate Bill Number 6976. The number of lifeboats and lifejackets would now have to accommodate everybody on board a ship (Wade 302). This writer has been on a modern cruise. One of the first things done after getting to a cabin was all passengers and crew members met at their designated lifeboat. A map and lifeboat number are provided and a role call is done. The crew also demonstrates how to put on a lifejacket, which all passengers must do during the drill. These actions are a direct result of the Titanic disaster.
The issue of untrained crewmembers was also dealt with. Four crewmembers would be assigned to each lifeboat. They would need to be skilled in the lowering of them. Lifeboats would also be lowered two times per month with the crew drilled in it’s handling and rowing. Every six months, all lifeboats would be required to participate in the drill (Wade302-3).
Because it was a collision with an iceberg that mortally wounded the Titanic, provisions were made to help ensure that this would never happen again. The Sixty-second Congress actually passed a piece of legislation that moved the passageway for north Atlantic-travelling ships south sixty miles when there was an increased risk of more icebergs (Wade 305). An international ice patrol service was also started. It included two ships, which would patrol the travelling passages on the Atlantic to warn ships of any possible ice hazards. All countries that had ships travelling to and from the United States would finance it. This service eventually became the U.S. Coast Guard who’s duties include patrolling for ice, enforcing maritime laws, keeping weather observation stations, and keeping navigation safe (Wade 307).
The sinking of R.M.S. Titanic holds a distinguished place in this country’s great history. Her demise and the results of it are not unlike the Progressive era that was so fervent only a few years before. A terrible event occurred which resulted in many lives being lost. As a result of this occurrence, action took place and gave us regulations that were not existent before. Maritime law changed forever; the Coast Guard came into existence. The ship herself is a prime example of an item of the Gilded Age. Titanic was built as a symbol of materialism and wealth; like man was trying to create heaven on earth by exploiting his extravagance.
Still comparing it to the tragedy on September 11, 2001; Regardless of what caused these two events to occur, they resulted in such a state of shock, grief and awe. These were two symbols of strength and wealth and they were both destroyed in a matter of hours. These kinds of events are of great historical significance. What kinds of change come about are a direct result of them happening. They are what make our country the way it is now.
Butler, Daniel Allen. “Unsinkable”: The Full Story of RMS Titanic. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1998.
Kuntz, Tom, ed. The Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate
Investigation. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.
Wade, Wyn Craig. The Titanic: End of a Dream. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
About Alyssa Freitas:
I wrote this paper during a semester for my U.S. History (since 1877) class in 2004. I took this class at Mt. San Jacinto College (it's a community college) in Southern California. I don't have the original copy as my teacher kept it along with any notes or comments. While the class didn't focus at all on the Titanic, we were allowed to choose whatever subject we wanted for our research papers. Since I rarely get to share information on my favorite aspect of history (except in the forum), I used this opportunity to learn a little more on it. I got 92 out of 100 points on the assignment.
I am a 24 year old (in 2004) homemaker/student. I take care of my 2 kids when not attending night classes and I actually hadn't been to school in 3 years. I stopped when I became pregnant with my first child and just decided last year to go back. My major field of study (which I will begin classes for this fall) is Child Development and Education.