Titanic: was it all right when it left here?

Titanic rivets

Not according to metallurgists Tim Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty whose research has suggested that dodgy Harland and Wolff rivets were at fault for allowing the Titanic’s hull to be ripped apart by the pressure of the iceberg impact.

With six of the hull’s chambers exposed to the Atlantic waters, the “unsinkable” ship lasted less than three hours, not enough time for rescue boats to reach those (disproportionately poorer) passengers left without access to a lifeboat (the White Star line failed to supply enough for all on board, although interestingly, this was still more than was required by law). As a result, 1,514 men, women and children died. Today, a sinking under such circumstances would likely result in a case of corporate manslaughter.

Science writer Richard Corfield picks up the story in a fascinating article in the current issue of Physics World (which I try to never miss):

In the mid-2000s two metallurgists, Tim Foecke at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, then at Johns Hopkins University in the US, focused their attention on the composition of the Titanic’s rivets. They combined their metallurgical analysis with a methodical sweep through the records of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast where the Titanic was built. Combining physical and historical analysis in this way proved to be a powerful trick.

Foecke and McCarty found that the rivets that held the mild-steel plates of the Titanic’s hull together were not of uniform composition or quality and had not been inserted in a uniform fashion. Specifically, Foecke and McCarty found that the rivets at the front and rear fifths of the Titanic were made only of “best” quality iron, not “best-best”, and had been inserted by hand. The reason for this was that, at the time of the Titanic’s construction, the hydraulic presses used to insert the rivets used in the middle three-fifths of the ship could not be operated where the curvature of the hull was too acute (i.e. at bow and stern).

But why did Harland and Wolff use “best” quality rivets rather than “best-best?” Foecke and McCarty speculate that it may simply have been a cost-saving exercise. “Best” rivets were cheaper than “best-best” but also had a higher concentration of impurities known as “slag”. This higher concentration of slag meant that the rivets were particularly vulnerable to shearing stresses – precisely the kind of impact they were subjected to that long-ago night in April 1912. Lab tests have shown that the heads of such rivets can pop off under extreme pressure, which on the Titanic would have allowed the steel plates on the hull to come apart, exposing her inner chambers to an onslaught of water.

The allegedly dodgy rivets are only part of “a perfect storm” of reasons outlined by Corfield for the sinking of the Titanic – the absence of binoculars in the crow’s nest; the high speed despite the iceberg warnings; the radio operators’ tardiness in getting crucial information to officers; the lack of lifeboats; the interplay of two ocean currents; and the high spring tide, all figure.

Yet, it does beg the question, amidst all the hype surrounding the opening of Titanic Belfast: ‘was it all right when it left here?’

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan

  • The whole titanic orgy is decidedly less than rivetting as only positive messages can be allowed to surface otherwise that would be running down norn iron. While Arlene Foster refuses to let tourists cross the border to visit derry out of spite while claiming NI is ‘open for business’ right.

  • Dec

    It’s generally recognised that there were flaws in the design of the ship, specifically with regards to the so-called ‘watertight’ compartments whose verical walls did not reach up to the bulk-head. However, regarding the broader thrust of the thread, physics demonstrates when a large object hits another large object at speed there’s going to be damage, regardless of rivets.

  • innis

    The findings are that the construction was as standard for the day. This is the equivalent of determining that the Pope is Catholic and Luxembourg is not very big.

    The Olympic’s construction was identical to Titanic as was the Nomadic’s. The Olympic sailed past it’s planned lifespan despite being torpedoed, collided with the Hawk, struck the Nantucket light vessel, the pier at New York and rammed and sank a German U-boat. Nomadic had the same construction and 100 years later (after several collisions in it’s life) is afloat in the Lagan.

    The construction was fine, probably as good as it got at the time – ramming it at high speed into an iceberg in mid-Atlantic with too few lifeboats is the only relevant factor. As slamming a modern constructed cruise liner into an Italian Island has recently demonstarted.

  • carl marks

    built a big ship, it sank, get over it.

  • lamhdearg2

    And all other ships made at the time used only “best best”?, if not, then its not that the Titanic especally suffered from non 100% top notch build quality, but that ships (and airplanes) then and now often do not .

  • I doubt that part of the specifications for the ship included the requirement to be able to survive a collision with an iceberg.

  • John Anderson

    The most remarkable aspect about Titanic-fest is the fact that if the boat hadn’t sank, no one would have remembered it. It is almost the perfect disaster story so fair play to James Cameron for spotting an opportunity to make a buck or billion – but the level of media coverage is slightly excessive.

  • dwatch

    If there was any truth that Harland Wolfe used dodgy rivets which caused Titanic to sink when the ship hit an iceberg, then why did the White Star line not take the shipyard to court over the issue?

  • Who cares about the 1500 dead on the titanic as long as Belfast can profit by tramping on their graves for tourists money? It’s called EXPLOITATION.

  • BluesJazz

    They’ve turned a sunken liner into a warped disney historiography. In a (perfectly reasonable) attempt to attract tourists.

    Yes it’s a kind of exploitation, but Belfast has nothing to offer the mainstream tourist. So they tried. I think it will work for the 1st 2 or 3 years (max). By then it’ll be someone elses problem -Belfast ratepayers- but no-one can rain on the parade until then.
    It was actually James Cameron’s film that gave wings to this folly, otherwise it wouldn’t be a ‘tourist premium’.
    The concrete U-Boat pens at La Rochelle in France are easily accessible, free, and much more interesting.

  • I take your point, Bluesjazz but news programmes are not supposed to be first and foremost tourist magazines. A sense of proportion from the broadcast media would be welcome but commonsense seems to have deserted them. They’ll pay for it in lost viewers.

  • John Anderson. The ITV viewers are deserting this turnip in droves so rivetting is it. At least across the water they don’t get titanic inflicted in place of news as local channels here are doing.

  • Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory. A bit like the 9/11 stuff. I wonder will they be making money out of Twin Trade Towers in 100 years time! Bet your bottom dollar. Now all we need to do is create a tenuous connection between the Twin Towers and the Titanic and we have a license to print money for generations more!

  • John Anderson

    ardmajel55. I do not consider the wall-to-wall Titanic experience coverage ‘rivetting’ in any way, to use the pun. I am bored to tears by it – indeed, I think glorifying and celebrating a catastrophic example of gross human negligence is respectively insulting to those who died, and thoroughly bizarre. I was merely referring to the fact that if you sat down to write a movie plot about a boat trip that went wrong, you would get the Titanic story. That is why is the movie was so successful. Will that fact drive many tourists to come to Belfast? No, I do not believe that this building will be a sustainable mid to long-term investment.

  • Point taken, John. Well the Cameron film was certainly a success in it’s aim, but the ITV drama seems to be struggling if appeals by ITV chiefs to viewers not to give up already, is an indicator. There’s some bemusement in Britain about the clingy and desperate local news media grasping this subject as though their lives depended on it.

  • BluesJazz

    Everyone received their ni2012 ‘postcard’ yet? you will.

    The local media seem to see themselves as part of the marketing strategy for tourism. A special feelgood sparkle for the way we were 100 years ago, along with the recent golf obsession to wash our blues away.

  • Just listened to/only now catching up with Nolan’s show from Monday last [3rd] and his conversation with ms bradshaw from the TB office. She rather let the cat out of the bag in defending the way the exhibition was constructed, saying it wasn’t practical to build a new staircase for the ‘proles’ as she undoutably sees the poorer folk. In revealing that the plan to cordon off the staircase to charge premuim rates for the betters, she let slip that they didn’t see this storm coming and thought it was ok to discriminate against ordinary 58 visitos making the same class judgement as the white star line did a century ago. No lessons learned from the number of dead caused by class discrimination then.

  • ‘Everyone received their ni2012 postcard yet? you will’

    well, bluejazz, as Nolan said at the end of the programme I referred to in post above, if the tourism minister foster and the media bosses were listening to reaction of the public onmn his show they would find it galling after all the top heavy pushing they’ve done that the folks aren’t all taken in.

  • babyface finlayson

    Silly question maybe, but do you think Belfast should be promoting any titanic tourism at all? If so would you think the local media should do their bit for local industry?
    In other words, is it that it’s done badly, or that it shouldn’t be done at all?

  • ‘is it that it’s done badly or that it shouldn’t be done at all?

    BB Finlay. Definitely the former. This promoting of a tragedy is clearly seen to be in questionable taste given the outcome of the titanic’s only crossing. There will be an academic conference on this question later in the year, at which an Aberdeen University professoer will present a paper arguing that belfast has handled this centenary very poorly in appearing to celebrate the death’s of 1500 people to profit from the ghoulish curiousity of some who will pay out to watch. It’s noticeable that neither the Bel Tel, BBC or UTV have seen fit to give any time to looking at how their efforts are seen abroad since they given lots of time discussing Belfast’s achievements in this story.

  • The bizarre coverage of the Titanic is clearly reflective of our desperate need to draw a line under our recent history of tragedy, loss and hubris.

    What better way than to turn to the Titanic tale of tragedy, loss and hubris?

  • I am very reliably informed that there is a leak in the Staff room at the Titanic Belfast. Not a good omen methinks.

  • peter doran. Normally, in the quiet times the news editors at BBC and UTV are able to judge what to put in these half hour programmes and what to leave out, but months before this titanic centenary they have been planning how to mark it so when it finally arrives, they’ve been expecting to fill weeks of episodes and clearly judgement and commonsense have gone out the window. they’re like schoolboys in a sweetshop. This why we’re being assaulted with overkill of the titanic. But reality has bitten and they have realised we’re not suckers for guff.

  • Alias

    Can anyone name the makers of other ships with dodgy rivets and bulkheads that sank after collusion? Nope, because they have the good sense to keep quiet about it.

  • Alias. This is how the belfast tele raph reports today the remembrance service for next sunday’s anniversary.”A memorial garden will be unveiled at the site opf the plaque bearing the names of those who lost their lives. This will be the culmination of days of festivities which began last saturday” this tells you where the Tele prioritises the titanic victims. It”s all you need to know about them, frankly

  • Drumlins Rock

    My view is, cash in on it if you can, but try for some taste!

    Have been to the graves in Halifax, and they have a good display in the museum ther too, nicely done.

  • JA The ‘our place our time slogan is cringeworthy Must be Arlene Foster who makes these crass lines up. The lovcal media will have to wean themselves off this neurotic and narcissistic trip some time. They only succeed in looking desperate for attention.

  • BluesJazz

    yes as was saying earlier, am gonna approach stormont for 100 million for the delorean interpretive centre. gonna call it the “future is more backward than the past”. any further ideas for this great opportunity to make money. No sorry meant develop NI,S great cultural, history industry tourism industry. greatly appreciated.

  • DR Is that the Halifax in Yorkshire or Nova Scotia?. Genuine inquiry.[it’s not immediately apparent in your post].

  • BluesJazz

    Don’t be cynical ardmej

    The Titanic industry will not go beyond the bluster of BBC Newsline.
    Though Donna and Noel did their best for ‘our time, our place’ this past month. Pity they didn’t have a filter/editor, who could have culled the trite overkill on a non-story. Embarrassing as it has been.
    There wasn’t a 5oth anniversary, and there won’t be any further. Beyond the pathetic ‘live cruise’ to the atlantic grave. Truly there is no news.

  • Sorry about that, BluesJazz. Speaking of Noel Thompson, They seem to be retiring him which is a pity as he’s the local BBC prime asset. Can’t see H&M carrying on much longer then after his departure. Oh well one more weekend of Titania.

  • jthree

    ‘ They seem to be retiring him ‘

    Presumably presenting Good Morning Ulster will be considered some sort of retirement hobby, like golf or bee-keeping?

  • jthree I meant retiring NT from tv appearances as they did with Rose neill for blatant PC reasons.