The BBC recently published an article titled “Five Titanic myths spread by films.” The first alleged myth is that the White Star Line never claimed that the Titanic was “unsinkable.” The article asserts: “ The White Star Line never made any substantive claims that the Titanic was unsinkable – and nobody really talked about the ship’s unsinkability until after the event..” One hears this claim over and over. White Star Line never claimed that the Titanic was unsinkable. But is it accurate?
It is true that White Star did not prominently feature “unsinkability” in its advertising. Their slogan was “Largest and finest steamers in the world.” Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that White Star, and indeed most experts of the day, did consider the Titanic to be unsinkable.
On the morning of April 15th, 1912, after reports had come out of the ship hitting an iceberg, A. S. Franklin, Vice President of International Mercantile Marine, the American holding company which owned White Star Lines, issued a statement to the press, “We can not state too strongly our belief that the ship is unsinkable and passengers perfectly safe. The ship is reported to have gone down several feet by the head. This may be due from water filling forward compartments, and ship may go down many feet by the head and still keep afloat for an indefinite period.”
Of course, by the time that Franklin made that statement the “unsinkable ship” had already sunk. Nevertheless, his statement does seem to reflect the consensus at the time that advances in ship design and construction had made modern passenger ship practically unsinkable. The Titanic‘s Captain Edward Smith was quoted several years earlier, regarding the ship Adriatic, ”I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
Likewise popular and technical publications printed the year before the sinking included claims of unsinkability. the Irish News, Belfast Morning News, and Shipbuilder printed detailed articles about the ship’s construction and noted that “The Captain may, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.”
Even the claim that White Star Line never advertised “unsinkability” may be open to question. The Titanic Commutator in 1993, located a promotional flyer for the Titanic and Olympic that read “as far as it is possible to do, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable.”
Yes, the statements regarding ”unsinkability” tend to have modifiers – “as far as possible,” “practically,” and so on. All the same, the message is clear enough. No one expected the ship to sink. Most thought that she was unsinkable.
The claim that the media concocted the story of the “unsinkable ship” to sell more papers and later move movie tickets, also seems unlikely. The issue of ”unsinkability” was raised over and over again in both the British and US inquiries into the sinking. If no one claimed or believed that the ship was unsinkable prior to the Titanic’s rendezvous with the iceberg, why was the topic discussed at such length in the inquiries?
Thanks to Brian Frizell for contributing to the post.