This Week in History: The RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage.

Source: ThinkStock

Source: ThinkStock

The British ocean liner Titanic was on its maiden (first) voyage, from Southampton, England, to New York City, when it struck an iceberg at about 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. About two and a half hours later, on the morning of April 15, the ship broke in two and sank into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster—historians are not precisely sure how many, because we do not have any perfect records of how many people were originally on the ship. We do know that 705 people survived, mostly women and children. A ship from a rival cruise line, the RMS Carpathia, rescued the survivors.

The RMS Titanic—RMS stands for “Royal Mail Ship or Steamer”—was supposed to be unsinkable. Its hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments. Even if two of those compartments flooded, the ship could still float. The White Star Line emphasized safety as its top priority—at least publicly. But speed and pleasure were more attractive marketing features to travelers. The ship was the most luxurious ever built at the time, but it carried only enough lifeboats to hold half of its passengers and crew. And its captain drove the ship at top speed, despite warnings from other ships that the route he sailed was filled with icebergs.

When the ship hit the iceberg, the impact burst riveted seams in the ship’s hull. The 16 watertight compartments proved to be not so watertight, because the vertical walls that separated the compartments did not extend to the upper decks. Seawater flooded the bow (front) of the ship. Like a seesaw with weight on one side, the ship tilted. As the flooded bow sank, the stern (back) was lifted high up. Eventually, the angle increased until the stern was nearly vertical—and then the stern’s weight caused the ship to break in two. The two halves quickly plunged into the icy depths.

Evacuating the ship was difficult in the chaotic dark night. Famously, the ship’s band played music during the evacuation, possibly to help calm the passengers. Many wealthy and famous passengers perished. They included the millionaire John Jacob Astor, the department store owner Isidor Straus, and the businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, all of the United States. The Titanic’s captain, Edward J. Smith of England, went down with the ship.

The Titanic was not the most deadly shipwreck in history, nor was it the only ship to sink on its maiden voyage. Even so, it is probably the best known shipwreck in history. In September 1985, a team of French and American scientists found the wreckage of the Titanic. In 2012, around the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, artifacts taken from the shipwreck were put up for sale at auction.



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