‘Unsinkable Ship’: How Was The Titanic Built? | History Hit

‘Unsinkable Ship’: How Was The Titanic Built?

RMS TItanic under construction, between February and March 1912.
Image Credit: Public Domain / Robert John Welch (1859-1936), official photographer for Harland & Wolff / Wikimedia Commons

On the freezing cold night of 14 April 1912, it took just 2 hours and 40 minutes for the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic to disappear beneath the icy waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The famed – and now infamous – ocean liner was, at the time, the largest man-made moving object in the world, and was carrying 2,240 passengers and crew who ranged from wealthy holiday-makers to poor immigrants in search of a better life.

In spite of receiving several iceberg warnings, the Titanic’s captain Edward Smith continued to sail full-throttle into the night. This decision proved deadly: the mighty ship collided with an iceberg, which tore a hole into the hull, causing it to flood and sink. Around 1,500 people died in what was then the greatest loss of life from any peacetime shipwreck.

The disaster sent shockwaves around the world, not least to the White Star Line and its engineers, who had boasted of the Titanic’s supposedly unsinkable design.

So how, where and why was Titanic built?

It was the biggest ship on the company’s line

Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line shipping company had an exclusive contract that specified that White Star could only go to Harland and Wolff to have their ships built, and Harland and Wolff could not build for rival companies.

RMS Titanic, its name derived from the Titans of Greek mythology, was to be the second of three Olympic-class ocean liners (the others being RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic), which were by far the largest of White Star Line’s fleet. The genesis of the three ships was first discussed in mid 1907 between the White Star Line chairman and American financier J. P. Morgan.

It was designed to be the biggest passenger liner in history

The Titanic ready for launch. The ship was constructed on Queen’s Island, now known as the Titanic Quarter, in Belfast Harbour which was part of the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Though many ships already offered passage from Europe across the Atlantic, Titanic aimed to be the grandest, biggest and most luxurious passenger liner available. In particular, White Star Line aimed to dwarf rival Cunard Lines’ ships the Lusitania and Mauretania, which were then the fastest passenger ships in service, as well as German lines Hamburg America and Norddeutscher Lloyd.

The company chose to dominate in terms of size and luxury, rather than speed, as a means of strengthening the Southampton-Cherbourg-New York service that was inaugurated in 1907.

It had a near unlimited budget

When it came to the design and construction of the ships, White Star Line would normally sketch out a general idea, then allow Harland and Wolff to turn this into a ship design. Cost considerations were low on the agenda; Harland and Wolff were authorised to spend almost whatever they liked on the ships, in addition to a 5% profit margin. In the case of the Olympic-class ships, £3 million (around £310 million in 2019) was allocated to the first two ships.

However, some elements of the original design were altered or removed as Titanic went severely over construction budget, which included removing extra luxury features such as extra swimming pools and electric lifts.

Two new slipways were required for its construction

The Titanic‘s construction began on 31 March 1909 when designer Thomas Andrews laid the first keel plate in Harland and Wolff Shipyards, Belfast. Her sister ship, The Olympic, had begun some three months earlier, and the two ships were constructed simultaneously by over 15,000 workers. By the time the ship was built, 8 workers had lost their lives as a result of the large and dangerous construction site.

At the time that Titanic was built, no facilities existed to build or berth such a vast ship. As a result, Harland and Wolff built two new slipways, two gantries that featured moving cranes and lifts and a vast, 200-ton floating crane to lift the boilers and other mechanical items.

It was bigger and heavier than its nearest rival

RMS Olympic’s rudder with central and port wing propellers; for scale, note the man at the bottom of the photo.

Image Credit: Robert Welch - Harland & Wolff Collection N.M.N.I. Olympic-Fitting-out.html / Wikimedia Commons

The Titanic featured 3 million hand-driven rivets, weighed 46,000 tons and measured more than 882 feet (269 metres), making her over 100 feet longer and over 50% heavier than their nearest rival. Indeed, she was the largest man-made moving object ever built at the time.

The ‘unsinkable’ hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments, and featured over 2,000 portholes for the wealthier guests to look out of. Titanic was built to stay afloat even if two of the middle compartments or four front compartments flooded, which was indeed an ingenious stroke of engineering and design that was lamentably let down by poor budgeting and execution. Indeed, in the wake of the disaster, the quality of the rivet installation and metalworking was blamed for succumbing to the iceberg so quickly.

Speed was compromised in favour of comfort, with the propellors deliberately positioned to create no noticeable vibration or disturbance for customers – the peak of luxury. Indeed, media flocked to the dry dock throughout the construction of both Titanic and Olympic, which naturally helped ensure that tickets for passage on the ships were sold out for years to come.

For the 15,000 men who worked at Harland and Wolff at the time, there were very few safety precautions. During the construction of the Titanic, 246 injuries were recorded, of which 28 were classified as ‘severe’. Six workers died on the ship while she was being kitted out, while two more died in the shipyard sheds and workshops.

It didn’t have enough lifeboats to hold everyone on board

Though no expense was spared when it came to luxury, the same rules weren’t applied to safety precautions on board.

The ship was equipped with 16 lifeboat davits, which were each capable of lowering three lifeboats for a total of 48 boats. However, she only carried 20 lifeboats, four of which were collapsible and proved difficult to launch while the ship was sinking – one was swamped and filled with a foot of water, while another entirely overturned while launching.

Together, the 20 lifeboats could only hold 1,178 people – about half the number of people on board. To make matters worse, when many of the lifeboats were launched, they were only half full.

It produced around 46,000 horsepower

The Titanic naturally required an enormous power source. In the early 1900s, that source was coal-powered steam. The ship featured 24 double-ended Scotch class boilers as well as five single-ended boilers housed in six boiler rooms. With all boilers firing, the TItanic produced around 46,000 horsepower.

The original design was so efficient that it only required three funnels to service the huge boilers 150 feet below. However, White Star Line believed that a ship of such grandeur should possess four funnels. As a result, a fourth, non-functional funnel was added as an aesthetic element and to provide fresh air to the engine rooms.

Its launch was a huge affair

Launch, 1911 (unfinished superstructure)

Image Credit: Public domain: Launch, 1911 (unfinished superstructure) / Wikimedia Commons

On 31 May 1911, the 26,000 ton hull of the Titanic still smelt of fresh black enamel as it descended down the slipway assisted by some 25 tons of grease and soap. Large crowds, dignitaries and press totalling around 100,000 flocked to the sight, many believing that such a massive steel object wouldn’t possibly float.

A White Star Line employee was quoted saying, ‘Not even God himself could sink this ship.’ The rest is history.

Lucy Davidson