L AST AUGUST, 1994, IN A DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE LAB IN Halifax, I held in my hand pie-plate-size piece of a ship’s hull, recently plucked from 12,612 feet under the sea. Now a small team of researchers was about to cut off a section and smash it. The result, the men hoped, would help solve an 80-year old mystery: exactly what happened to the Titanic that sent her to the bottom of the ocean on her maiden voyage?
The Titanic, nearly 900 feet long, more than 46,000 tons, was the ultimate in turn-of-the century ship design. First-class suite rates ran almost to $50,000 in today’s (1994) dollars. When she sailed from Southampton, England , for New York City with stops in France and Ireland, her more than 2,000 passengers included the very cream of industrial society—men such as John Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus, who founded Macy’s, and Thomas Andrews, the ship’s own designer.
Built with compartments that could be easily sealed off, the Titanic was supposed to he virtually unsinkable. If the hull was punctured, only the ruptured compartment would flood. The builders figured that in the worst case, with two or three compartments flooded, the Titanic would take from two to three days to sink, plenty of time for nearby ships to help.
ON THAT APRIL EVENING in 1912, at about 7:30, the Titanic’s wireless operator heard a message from the steamer Californian, which was in the vicinity: Three large bergs five miles southward of us. It was one of several ice warnings the Titanic received that day, but the ship continued to rush through the darkness. High in the crow’s-nest, two lookouts shivered as they peered into the night. The air temperature was around freezing. Had there been a moon, they would have seen ice floes already off to the sides. Had there been a wind, foam from waves breaking against the ice would have shown up misty-white in the starlight. But the sky was moonless, the sea dead flat.
Just before 11:40, about 100 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, lookout Frederick Fleet squinted into the night an(l noticed that on the horizon ahead, the stars started to wink out. Then he began to discern a shape, perhaps a quarter mile away. Fleet rang the crow s nest bell and telephoned the bridge. “Iceberg right ahead!” he cried.
The officer in charge immediately signaled “full speed astern” to the engine room and directed the wheel man to turn “hard astarboard.” The crow’s nest lookouts braced for a collision. But slowly, the ship began to turn and slide by the berg. A wall of ice —“like a windjammer with sails the color of wet canvas as one report put it——moved past the starboard railing. Chunks fell onto the deck. Some passengers playfully threw pieces at one another. Then the ice struck. To many it didn’t seem much more than a jar---certainly not hard enough for worry. In seconds the ice disappeared into the darkness astern. But in a sweltering boiler room just between the bow and midship, a geyser of water was drenching stokers as they leapt through a quickly closing water-tight door. In the next compartment, too, water was gushing in.
When Titanic designer Andrews assessed the damage, he realized its seriousness. Grimly, he and Capt. Edward J. Smith conferred over the bad news: the iceberg had damaged the first six watertight compartments. Both men foresaw the awful drama to come. When the ruptured compartments filled with water, the weight would pitch the ship forward. The problem was that the bulkheads of some of the “water-tight” compartments extended only a few feet above the waterline, and the decks topping the compartments weren’t watertight. Because of the Titanic’s nose- down tilt, as each compartment filled, water would spill over to the next. Smith agreed to evacuate the ship.
As water poured into the ship, the pitch worsened. The propellers lifted free of the water. From inside the ship came a sound like breaking china. Suddenly, with a screech of tearing metal, the forward smokestack buckled over into the ocean. Thee first lifeboat had touched the sea at 12:25 a.m. But all the lifeboats combined could accommodate little more than half the people on board. Sometime after 2 a m., with the ship upended to about 45 degrees, those in the lifeboats heard a deep rumbling. The stern appeared to rise. One lifeboat passenger said, “Look—it’s coming back!” Then the stern began to slip downward. At 2:20, the Titanic vanished beneath the surface, carrying with her more than 1500 people, including Astor, Straus. Andrews and Captain Smith . The largest ship ever built, designed to take at least two days to sink, settled to her grave in less than three hours.
In post-mortem accounts, engineers guessed nobody had foreseen the massive damage a sideswiping iceberg could do: it must have pushed in the hull’s huge, almost one-inch-thick plates, they speculated—popping the rivets and pulling the ship apart at the seams. But some felt the theory didn’t add up. Not when it was compared with the reports of damage actually seen before the ship went down. And not with the speed at which the ship sank. There had to be some other unknown.
For nearly three-quarters of a century, that’s all anyone knew—~until September, 1985, when marine geologist Robert Ballard found the Titanic. The ship lay in two sections-—stern and bow separated by a wide field of debris. Ballard tried to spy the damage left by the iceberg, but that part of the bow was buried in a 35-foot-deep mud hank plowed up as the Titanic hit bottom. Six years passed. Then, in 1991, a team of scientists and engineers visited the site, its leader was Steve Blasco, 45, a gray-bearded, salt-weathered Canadian marine geologist. Its vehicles were a pair of submersibles capable of staying at great depths for 20 hours or more.
On one of their dives, the scientists brought up a chunk of what looked like part of the hull. The ten-inch-diameter disc was almost an inch thick, with three rivet holes, each an inch-and-a-quarter across. Back aboard the mother ship, the piece was dried and carefully cleaned. Researchers were surprised to see remnants of the original paint. After decades underwater, that piece of steel should have been severely corroded. Why wasn’t that the case? “ It somehow involves temperature and pressure,” says Blasco. “That’s not a very good explanation, hut it’s all we have for now.” Of even more interest to the researchers was the condition of the chunk’s edges: jagged, almost shattered, as if the fragment were made of broken china. Yet high- quality ship steel, metallurgists know, is very tough. What had happened?
THREE YEARS LATER, in the Halifax testing lab, the chunk of the Titanic
rests on a worktable . Its 80-year-old paint is splotchy-brown, with an underlying smear of lead oxide, now pinkish-white. One edge is ruler-straight and shiny, where a strip of metal has been sliced off to make a few cigarette—size test pieces that are called coupons. One coupon will soon be mounted in a device that will conduct what is called a Charpy test. In the lab are Blasco and another team member, Duncan Ferguson, a 34-year-old mechanical engineer. The metallurgist in charge is Ken Karis Allen, 35, a specialist in fractures and corrosion. He’s most energetic, quick-moving, and when he speaks of his Charpy machine, he does so with fondness. The test measures brittleness, he explains, nonchalantly pushing the machine’s huge pendulum. The method is simple: as a coupon is held tightly against a steel holder, the 67 pound pendulum swings down and thumps against the sample, sometimes breaking it. The point of contact is connected to electronic instruments that document the force in microsecond detail. Karis Allen will test two coupons: one made of steel used in modern ships; the other, a slice from the Titanic. Both are resting in a bath of alcohol at 29 degrees Fahrenheit, which simulates the water temperature of that night 82 years before. Karis Allen must rush the test piece from the bath to the holder in five seconds. He hauls the pendulum in place. “Here goes,” he says. Whisking the modern coupon from the bath to the holder, he reaches for a red release handle and yanks. The pendulum swings down and thuds to a halt. The test piece has been bent into a “V.” Now he repeats the procedure with the Titanic sample. This time, the pendulum strikes the piece with a sharp ping. barely slows, and continues on its upswing while the sample, broken in two, sails across the room and smacks against a metal wastebasket.
Tracings on the computer screen and subsequent analysis confirm it: the Titanic’s steel is exceptionally brittle. When the ship hit the iceberg, the hull plates didn’t simply bend inward. They fractured. The Titanic sample is not brittle from sitting on the ocean floor for most of a century. It is a metallurgical match for a slug saved from the ship’s construction site in 1911. So the steel was brittle when it came from the plant, and it became even more brittle in the icy water. “To make present--day high-quality steel that brittle,” says Karis Allen, “I’d have to lower its temper-ature to minus-60 or minus-70 degrees Celsius.” “Back then, they didn’t under-stand the concept of brittle fracture,” adds Ferguson. They didn’t know that high sulfur content makes steel brittle. And Titanic steel was high even for the times. “It’s full of sulfide inclusions. It would never get out of a shipyard today.”
William Garzke, a staff naval architect with the New York-based firm of Gibbs & Cox Inc., has used forensic procedures to reconstruct what happened on that night in 1912. Combine his scenario with Ferguson’s analysis of events beneath the surface, plus other accounts, and you have this sequence:
11:39 p.m., April 14, 1912.
Up in the crow’s-nest, the lookouts spot the iceberg—and that’s too bad. Had they not alerted the bridge, the ship would have rammed the iceberg head on. Damage would probably have been limited to as few as two compartments, causing much less pitch—certainly not enough to pull the bulkheads below the waterline. Many injuries and perhaps even deaths would have resulted, but the Titanic wouldn’t
The ship sideswipes the ice. Had the hull been made of steel with a lower sulfur content, it would have bent and stretched, but not fractured. When the loose rivets popped, seams would have pulled apart and allowed water to pour in. But the steel would have absorbed massive amounts of energy. The ship might have abruptly slowed, or even bounced away from the iceberg. The Titanic would most likely have been mortally wounded, but she might have stayed afloat long enough for rescue ships to arrive. Instead, the ice crashes through the brittle plating as it grinds along the side, fracturing the hull. Those first six compartments are filling;
water is sloshing over the bulkheads.
2 to 2:20 a.m., April 15.
The Titanic tilts to 45 degrees or so, lifting the stern out of the water to the height
of a 20-story building. Stress on the midship reaches nearly 15 tons per square inch. Suddenly, at or just beneath the water surface, the superstructure pulls apart while the hull near the ship’s center fails. The keel bends, the bottom plating buckles. As frigid sea water floods into the ship, according to Garzke, there is a “spectacular failure, with the steel of the upper structure fragmenting.” The deep rumbling heard by those in lifeboats is probably the fracturing steel.
The bow is ripping loose from the stern. The stern seems to settle back, then rising sharply, holds an almost vertical position—and disappears beneath the water . Not far below the surface, sections still holding air succumb to water pressure. The spaces implode, scattering tons of material through the water.
2.30 to 3 a.m.
The bow strikes the bottom, plowing into the mud. The stern, rudder first, crashes about two-fifths of a mile from the bow. Debris will continue to rain down for hours.
‘THE LESSONS LEARNED from the Titanic changed the way maritime companies dealt with lifeboats, communications and ship design. But not for more than 8o years did scientists learn that the very steel with which the ship was built may have been a cause of the disaster. As Steve Blasco puts it, “Shipbuilding technology had out-stripped metallurgy technology.”
POPULAR SCIENCE Magazine. (February, 1995)
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