R.M.S. “Titanic” at 105: Why We Still Care

It was 105 years ago this Monday that Royal Mail Steamship “Titanic,” the world’s largest and most luxurious liner, set sail from Southampton, England on its maiden voyage, more than a century since the supposedly “unsinkable” ship met her demise in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Much like the first world war, the events of April 10-14, 1912 still haunt us.

In many ways the sinking of “Titanic” signaled the end of the Edwardian Age, a period (ca. 1900-1914) in which humanity generally thought itself capable of mastering the forces of nature through sheer fortitude and cunning. Many of the inventions and devices we take for granted today—the electric light, the automobile, indoor plumbing, refrigeration—were refined during the opening decades of the twentieth century. And the Edwardian’s crowning achievement, Royal Mail Steamship “Titanic”: the largest, safest, most-opulent ocean liner ever built. Captains of industry, newspapers, and the general public alike boasted, ‘she is virtually unsinkable.’

But sink Titanic did, just four days into her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. And with her went the bravado of the Edwardian era.

To my eyes, the world as we knew it ended on April 14, 1912.

Within fourteen months of the sinking of Titanic Europe was at war, an atrocity that took a staggering 37.5 million lives between 1914 and 1918. A generation was wiped out. The powers of Europe that built Titanic were decimated. “To my eyes,” penned one Titanic survivor, “the world as we knew it ended on April 14, 1912.”

The Royal Mail Steamship (RMS) “Titanic” departed its berth at Southampton, England (pictured above) shortly after 12 o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 10, 1912 bound across the English Channel to her first port of call at Cherbourg, France. She arrived there just after 6:00 that evening, where some passengers disembarked and other joined the ship’s company. From Cherbourg Titanic steamed overnight to Queenstown (now Cobh), Northern Ireland, reaching the Irish coast around noon on Thursday, April 11th. Shortly after 2:00 Titanic left Queenstown and headed for the open Atlantic. She was never seen again.

Sailing on Thursday, April 11 through Sunday morning, April 14 is calm and uneventful, save the constant flow of iceberg warnings received in the wireless room over the weekend. Just after 8:00 on the evening of Sunday, April 14 these warnings become more dire, so much so that ships ahead of Titanic stop for the night. But Titanic bravely steams on. At 11:40 p.m. lookouts in Titanic’s crows nest spot a large iceberg directly ahead, approximately 500 yards in the distance. The bridge is rung. Engines are stopped, then reversed, and the ship is steered hard out of its path. But the massive liner cannot maneuver in time. Titanic grazes the side of the iceberg, rupturing the steel plates of her hull. Within three hours of impact, at 2:20 on the morning of Monday, April 15th she is gone. Titanic is sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, taking 1,500 people with her.

Although a brief boom followed in the next decade as the world tried to forget (the ‘Roaring’ Twenties), the New York stock market crashed in October 1929, hurling the world back into catastrophe. The second world war followed.

“Titanic” sank 105 years ago. A century after she collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic we still remember her because she still matters. The bravado that built and sank Titanic built the cities we call home and perhaps even the houses in which we live. Henry Ford, the busiest auto maker in April 1912, still finds his name on millions of our cars. The courage, inventiveness, and sheer force of will that modernized our world and created our way of life reached their zenith in 1912. It was the blind trust in humanity’s unquestioned triumph that built Titanic and the supreme arrogance of such a notion that doomed her. And it is never too late for us to heed Titanic’s warning.

-This post, adapted from others, appears with archival photographs on “Royal Mail Steamship Titanic,” published by the Author.

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Featured Image: R.M.S “Titanic” releases its mooring lines shortly before departing its berth at Southampton, England, for its maiden voyage on Wednesday, April 10, 1912. Titanic would steam to Cherbourg, France, then to Queenstown, Northern Ireland, before setting out to sea.

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