In this, our first episode and Part I of the Titanic series, we’ll be covering:
  • Background about the liners
  • The building of the ship
  • The launch and fitting out of the Titanic
  • Technology
  • Prep for the maiden voyage
  • Heading out of Southampton

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Ice…It’s All Over the Place!

Titanic iceberg hint number 1

The North Atlantic shipping lane wasn’t a straight route from one country to another. For instance, a ship couldn’t sail straight for New York from Southampton.

Instead, because the North Atlantic was known for their icebergs, the captains were forced to sail south to avoid the bergs before turning north again toward their destination.

In comparison to the years before, the 1911-1912 Arctic winter was milder. This meant the icebergs that broke off from the glaciers were much bigger than usual. Because they were so big it took longer for the icebergs to melt. As a result there were more icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping routes. 

The Liners and Their Diva Moments

The German liners, Hamburg-Amerika and Norrdeutscher-Lloyd, were the ones to beat. Their ships were fast and snazzy, taking over the North Atlantic shipping lane to ferry immigrants to North America in a larger capacity than before. Just like that, the Cunard ships were outdated.

Their ships were small and slow, but safe. But that wasn’t enough any more.  Passengers wanted the fastest, fanciest ship more than they wanted safety. Knowing they needed to respond to the German challenge, Cunard built the Caronia and the Carmania, also known as the “Pretty Sisters,” and eventually the Lusitania and the Mauretania, which were faster and more luxurious than the German ships.

The German liners were outmatched and unable to rise to the top again. Cunard, riding the momentum of their success, put in an order for three new ships to be built — the Ivernia, the Saxonia, and the Carpathia, which would become the most famous of the three new ships due to the role she played the night the Titanic sank.

Cunard Line's Lusitiania

Cunard’s Lusitania

In the 1890s, Cunard and White Star — whose full name was the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company — went head to head with one another for the Blue Riband, which was an award given to the ship that made the fastest trip across the Atlantic.

Being the fastest was the same as being the best. And passengers, of course, wanted to sail on the best ship. 

White Star eventually stopped competing for the award. Not because they couldn’t keep up, but because J. Bruce Ismay, who took over White Star after his father Thomas Ismay — the founder of White Star — passed away, realized passengers were looking for something different. Even though they did want to sail on a fast ship, Ismay found that they were now looking for comfort over faster crossings.

The Mighty Lightbulb Moment

J. Bruce Ismay came up with the idea of building the Titanic and her sister ships while he was at a dinner party in London hosted by Lord William Pirrie. He was the man in charge of Harland & Wolff, which was a well-known shipbuilding company in Belfast, Ireland.

J.P. Morganic, owner of White Star and Titanic

J.P. Morgan

Ismay’s plan consisted of three sister ships, which would be the largest, and most comfortable, ships ever built-in the world. The larger the ships, the more passengers they can carry (of all classes), and the more money White Star can make.

Ismay took his brilliant plan to John Pierpont Morgan, who had bought White Star in 1902. He had also bought other shipping lines as well. All together, his purchases became the International Mercantile Marine (IMM).

Morgan, a suave businessman who understood the potential for such a venture, was one hundred percent on board. With Morgan’s investment, three ships would be built, to be known as the Olympic-class ships — the Olympic, the Titanic, and Gigantic (later renamed Britannic).

Titanic and Olympic being built

Titanic and Olympic during the building

The Olympic and Titanic were built next to each other, with the Britannic built last. The keel for the Olympic was laid down in December of 1908 with Titanic’s keel laid down on March 31, 1909.  

Build Her Up

Thomas Andrews, who was the nephew of Lord Pirrie and Managing Director of the Design Department at Harland & Wolff, would be responsible for the building of the sister ships. He was a man completely devoted to his work, who could usually be found at work long before anyone else, including the workers.

There were three dangers the builders considered the ship might face out on the Atlantic: it could run aground, it could hit another ship, or the ship might be rammed into by another boat. To protect the ships against running aground, they would have a double bottom.

To protect against the second and third fears, 15 bulkheads were installed that reached 15 with 16 watertight compartments. In addition, the watertight doors could be shut with a switch by one of the officers. The doors could also shut themselves if there was more than 6 inches of water in the compartment.

Plans were put into place. If one of the ships smashed into something with the bow, the ship could still float if the first 4 compartments filled with water. The builders could never have imagined a scenario where more compartments could be flooded and the ship would sink. After all, the tragedy that befell the Titanic had never happened before.

Titanic being built

Titanic’s outer shell being built

So where do you build the largest ships to ever be built? On Queen’s Island, where three berths had to be broken down into two.

Plus, since the ships were going to be so large, the piers in New York harbor had to be lengthened to accommodate their size.

Caution! Dangerous Work Zone Ahead

In total, there were six deaths while the Titanic was being built:

    • Sam Scott: 15 years old and working as a catchboy — caught the hot rivets in a bucket before they were pounded into the steel plates. On the first day of work, April 20, 1910, he fell and died later the same day from a head injury.
      • Six months later, his father died, also of a fall
    • John Kelly, 19 years old, died after falling from some scaffolding
    • William Clarke died in May 1911 – another fall
  • Robert Murphy died June 1911 – also a fall
    • Murphy’s son, Robert Jr., lost his life during the building of the Olympic

It’s important to note that there were over 250 reported accidents. This meant that the injuries were serious enough that someone had to be told, such as when men fell or lost limbs through accidental cutting or crushing incidents.

If an injury was reported, depending on how bad it was, men could either be sent home or taken to the hospital. In either case, it was valuable time and money they lost, which was sorely needed to feed their families.

Because of this, many injuries went unreported (like bruising and cuts). And if you think the workers were safe once the launching ceremony was in progress, think again. James Dobbin’s foot got stuck under one of the support beams when they were being knocked out. Even though he was dragged away and taken to the hospital, he died later that day.

RMS Titanic without her funnels, after the launch

Titanic without her four funnels

And Off She Goes!

On May 31, 1911, the Titanic was officially launched. The Olympic, ready to set out on her maiden voyage that same day, was floating a little ways off. She was just close enough to be seen and attract more attention for the event.

While it was common for liners to break a champagne bottle against the bow to christen her. That wasn’t White Star’s thing. Instead, three rockets were shot into the air, which was followed by the Titanic sliding into the River Lagan, where a few tug boats were waiting to tow it to the fitting out basin.

Titanic's rudder on the dry dock

Titanic rudder on a dry dock

A Few Quick and Dirty Facts

    • Standing up like a building, the Titanic was almost 102 ft. (31 m) shorter than the Eiffel Tower
    • There were 10 decks, 8 of which were for the passengers (Decks A-G)
    • There were 3 propellers, which were about as large as windmills
    • Titanic had three engines, which were some of the fastest engines on the seas
  • Total capacity the Titanic could carry was 3,327
      • 2.435 passengers
    • 892 crew
Olympic grand staircase photo, Titanic would be identical

Olympic Grand Staircase – the Titanic’s was identical

Time to Get Pretty!

The Titanic was completely empty on the inside when it was launched. It took a total of 10 months to turn the Titanic into the magnificent ship passengers would want to flock to.

Both Andrews and Ismay wanted the ship to look and seem luxurious. For Thomas Andrews, this translated into the types of materials used within the ship. This included things like mahogany and gold-plated equipment, such as the light fixtures.

Bruce Ismay, on the other hand, saw it as the amount of space people would have within their cabins (first-class of course).

Oh, the Technology!

    • 10,000 electric lights were installed
      • There was a state of the art fire detection on board because they were concerned about fires due to all the electrical lighting
    • Telephone switchboard which was used by the crew to communicate with other parts of the ship
    • Marconi Wireless, which was used by the crew to communicate with other ships
      • First-class passengers also sent and received messages to friends and family on other ships and on land
    • Hot and cold running water
  • Elevators! (operated by White Star employees)
Glass dome on the Olympic, just like Titanic

The glass dome and the grand staircase on the Olympic, identical on the Titanic 

Lifeboats, Because Too Many is Just Enough…Right?

Alexander Carlisle, one of the directors at Harland & Wolff, thought the British Board of Trade would finally update the amount of lifeboats a ship should carry.

As a result, he came up with a new crane (the thing that hoists and lowers lifeboats) that could hold way more lifeboats. This would allow Titanic to carry 48 lifeboats, more than enough for all the people on board should anything happen.

Instead, the number of lifeboats was cut down to 20 since the Board of Trade wasn’t going to be implementing any changes. This meant only one-third of the passengers could be saved if the ship were to sink.

However, the Titanic was in good company since all of the ships out on the ocean didn’t have enough lifeboats for all the souls on board, including Cunard’s Mauretania and Lusitania.

Safe Ship Will Travel

On April 2, 1912, the Titanic headed out in the early morning for her sea trials out on the Irish Sea. Thomas Andrews and Captain Edward Smith were on board at this time, as well as the Marconi operators and a skeleton crew (just enough people to man the ship without it being a full crew). 

The Titanic was tested to see what she could do. This included going up to speeds of 20 knots, an emergency stop, turning, and lowering the anchors. Unsurprisingly, the Titanic passed her trials.

She left Belfast for the last time just after 8:00 p.m. the same day, and headed toward Southampton. She docked in Berth 44 around midnight the next night.

Strike it Like it’s Hot

The years of 1911-1912 saw more than its fair share of strikes. The firemen and seamen, wanting higher wages — understandably so — started to strike in 1911. After quite a few weeks, they eventually won higher wages when the shipowners gave in. However, this started a domino effect since the dockyard workers also went on strike after this.

In August, the army was sent in to stop the riots. This ended with two men shot and killed. In the same month, the national railway went on strike for the first time. Once again two men were killed when the army stepped in. None of this stopped other workers from going on strike.

In March 1912, a month before the Titanic was set to sail on her maiden voyage, there was a coal strike. This resulted in the mines closing, which left iron and steel workers, as well as seamen, without work.

The government did introduce new minimum-wage legislation, but it came too late. The strike didn’t end until April 6, which didn’t leave enough time for the new coal to be transported to Southampton.

Since the Titanic was set to sail for her maiden voyage, coal was transferred from other liners. Many of the passengers who had their voyages cancelled were moved to the Titanic.

Stuffing the Ship Full of Stuff

Olympic's deck

The Olympic’s deck from the second-class entrance, the Titanic would have looked the same

From the moment the Titanic docked in Southampton, work didn’t cease. There was still so much to be done. There was a constant flurry of activity as passenger cargo and provisions, such as food and linens, were loaded onto the ship.

After all the coal was placed below decks, the ship had to be cleaned from top to bottom once more to remove the black dust the coal left behind.

There was a skeleton crew on board, including Thomas Andrews — ever devoted to the Titanic — working day and night to keep the ship running and working out any last-minute details.

The Saturday before the maiden voyage was the day White Star hired the rest of the crew. This was a blessing to the people of Southampton as the coal strike had left them many without jobs. Time was ticking and there was still so much left to do before Wednesday.

All Hands on Deck: The Crew

    • Three departments
      • Deck, Engine, and Stewards
    • Almost 500 in the Stewards’ Department
      • Included 5 postal clerks and the 2 Marconi operators
    • 29 able seamen who took care of the ship’s everyday functions
    • 7 quartermasters, who helped with steering and navigation
    • 6 lookouts, working for two-hour ships in pairs
    • 20 Engineers and 20 electricians, who kept the ship running
      • The highest paid jobs because of the skill and knowledge required
    • 33 greasers who kept the engines and other machinery greased with oil
    • 170+ firemen who loaded the coal into the furnaces to fuel the engines
  • 73 coal trimmers who brought the coal to the firemen and kept the coal level to keep the ship from capsizing

Say Hello to The Officers

    • Captain Edward John Smith had been with White Star since 1887
        • Captained 17 ships throughout his entire career
      • The “go-to” captain for White Star, usually in charge of new ships
    • Chief Officer Henry Tingle Wilde was a last-minute addition
        • As a result, Murdoch and Lightoller were downgraded
      • David Blair was transferred to another ship, he was in charge of the binoculars that the officers thought were left behind in Southampton
    • First Officer William McMaster Murdoch had worked for White Star since 1899
      • On the Olympic with Captain Smith and Chief Officer Wilde when she collided with the HMS Hawke
    • Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, who had been working his way up the ladder since he joined White Star in 1900
    • Third Officer Herbert John “Bert” Pitman charted the stars to help with navigation
    • Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall used Pitman’s readings to update the ship’s charts
    • Fifth Officer Harold Lowe was a master seaman but this was to be his first transatlantic crossing
    • Sixth Officer James Paul Moody recorded the water and air temperatures and logged them
  • Purser Herbert McElroy was in charge of luggage and ticketing

Ready, Set, Weigh that Anchor!

In the early hours of the morning on April 10, 1912, the crew began making its way on board. At this point, it should come as no surprise that the first on board was Thomas Andrews and some of his engineers.

A last-minute lifeboat drill was performed by Captain Clarke from the Board of Trade, which included lowering the boats. He also double checked the fresh water supply, the food, and accommodations before giving the all-clear.

Veranda Cafe and Palm Court on Titanic

The Veranda Cafe and Palm Court, one of the restaurants open to first-class only

Around 9:30 a.m. the majority of the second and third-class passengers began arriving.

While second-class was allowed to tour the first-class areas, medical staff checked third-class passengers. They were making sure they would be healthy enough to pass through customs upon entrance to America.

Around 11:30 a.m., the first-class passengers began to arrive, only 30 minutes before she was set to sail. They were welcomed with open arms, bright smiles, and escorted to their cabins.

In total, when the Titanic set sail, there were 1,317 souls on board:

    • Over 320 first-class passengers
    • Over 270 second-class passengers
  • Over 700 third-class passengers

Luckily, the Titanic was not filled to capacity. The passenger list is also considered to be incomplete. This was due to several reasons:

    • Some passengers weren’t sure about buying a ticket during the coal strike
    • Some of the passengers and crew missed the ship
    • Some cancelled
  • Others sold or swapped their tickets – the names of the people who took the tickets weren’t written down

Watch Out For That…Ship!

Olympic arriving in New York

The Olympic arriving in New York. The Olympic and Titanic were identical on the outside, except the Olympic’s hull was painted a darker color so it would stand out in photos as she was the most famous of the sister ships until the Titanic sank.

At noon, a handful of tug boats pulled the Titanic away from her berth and into the River Test. When she was properly positioned, the tugs pulled away as the Titanic boomed to life.

Because of the Titanic’s size, she was a little bit harder to manage in the river. As a result, her engines caused a sort of vacuum, pulling in the things around her.

The New York, a smaller ship, was minding her own business when the Titanic approached. The lines securing the New York to the pier broke away as she was pulled in towards the Titanic.

The crisis was averted due to Captain Smith’s many years of experience. The two ships came very close to hitting on another, but luckily it was only a near miss.

Free of any more danger, the Titanic sailed out into the open sea toward Cherbourg for the second leg of her journey. In Cherbourg, she would pick up more passengers, including some of the most famous and wealthiest passengers in the world at that time.

The next episode will pick up with the arrival in Cherbourg before the Titanic heads to Queenstown for her last port of call.

*Music: Initial classical piece that’s a part of the intro is Concerto for 2 Oboes in F Major Op9 no3, 3 Allegro by Advent Chamber Orchestra under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.*

Episode 1: Titanic Miniseries Part 1 - Build Her Up, Sail Her Out