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20 Facts You Never Knew About Why the Titanic Sank

Posted by on April 30, 2012

On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic took her maiden voyage heading to New York. Days into her journey, the ship hit an iceberg and sunk with 1,514 lives lost. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. 

Many recognize the iceberg as the cause, but did you know these facts and theories that are thought to have contributed to the calamity?

Prevailing Conditions and Visibility

1. The winter had been uncharacteristically mild. The icebergs broke free from Greenland’s west coast during a particularly mild winter, resulting in the worst ice conditions in the North Atlantic in 50 years.

2. Rare proximity with the moon increased tides. In January 1912, the moon and earth were closer than they’d been in 1,400 years, causing unusually high tides that sent icebergs toward the Titanic‘s path.  

3. Water smooth as glass disguised the iceberg. The calm sea conditions may have created a mirage effect (Fata Morgana) and the lack of waves that would have thrashed against the obstacle hid the iceberg’s presence.

4. The lack of moonlight reduced visibility. There was no moon in the sky on the night the ship sank, which made it difficult to see what was on the horizon.

5. There were no binoculars on board the ship. Confusion in Southampton meant that the ship sailed without binoculars for the lookouts. (Some question whether they would have assisted in any case.)

The prevailing conditions brought icebergs into the Titanic’s path. Photo by Nesnad.

The Crew and Communications

6. The crew was not all sailors. Only five percent of the crew were sailors, the rest were engineers, stokers, firemen and stewards, and they only joined the ship in Southampton, leaving little time to understand the large liner.

7. Bad communication of warnings. Six radio messages were received from other ships, but not all were passed on. One message was possibly missed because of a fault on the ship that needed fixing.

8. Passenger messages were priority over warnings. The last two radio messages were not relayed because the operators were catching up on a backlog of passenger messages resulting from a broken radio.

Radio warnings were not relayed. Photo by cliff1066™.

Speed Verse Safety

9. The ship was traveling too fast. Despite warnings of sea ice, the Titanic was traveling at near maximum speed (22 out of 24 knots), meaning the ship was unable to steer away from the iceberg in time.

10. Reliance on lookouts. Instead of slowing the ship’s speed in ice, it was common to rely on crew to identify hazards in enough time.

11. Keeping to the schedule was top priority. The Titanic was sailing with its schedule in mind, meaning high speeds were given more importance than warnings.

Speed was a priority over safety. Photo by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Bad Commands

12. Confusion over first maneuver. There are conflicting reports about the command that was given when the iceberg was spotted, with one command being a left steer, another being an attempt to go to the right.

13. Delay in moving the ship. Neither command was implemented immediately due to a 30-second delay to operate the steam-powered tiller. A reverse maneuver would have had the same delay.

14. The center turbine and propeller were stopped. The turbine and propeller, which couldn’t be reversed, were turned off. However, with the switch off, it reduced the ship’s ability to turn quickly.

Bad commands were given. Photo by Sofian.


15. The rivets may have been weak. Surveys of the wreck by ultrasound show gaps along the hull plates as long as 39 feet, which is indicative of the rivets popping off and opening a seam that let water in. This fact is debated, though.

16. The watertight containers were not sealed at the top. The top of the watertight compartments were not sealed, so if enough water flooded in, it would spill from one compartment to another, which it did.

17. Too many watertight containers were breached. The ship was engineered to remain buoyant if four out of 16 of the watertight containers filled with water. Five were initially breached, sealing the ship’s fate.

18. More water intake than the pumps could handle. Within a mere 45 minutes, the Titanic had taken in 13,500 long tons of water, but the pumps could only deal with 1,700 long tons per hour.

Engineering contributed to the sinking. Photo by George Grantham Bain collection.

Ineffective Distress Calls

19. Wrong location given. The location of the sinking ship was incorrectly stated as being to the west of the iceberg, 13.5 nautical miles from its true location.

20. Nearby ship didn’t assist. Located near the site where the Titanic sank was another ship, SS Californian. There are contradictory reports but the ship failed to notice and respond to distress signals.

Unanswered distress calls added to the calamity. Photo by Willy Stower.

Do you know any other facts and theories about the sinking of the Titanic? Let me know in the comments below.

Main photo: The Titanic sets sail by F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923).

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