April 1, 2012 at 8:29 PM ET
The "unsinkable" Titanic was sunk by an iceberg, but there are other reasons why the tragedy that occurred 100 years ago this month was as tragic as it was. Even a century later, the case of the Titanic illustrates how technological failures often result from a succession of omissions, missteps and bad luck rather than one big mess-up.
"No one thing sent the Titanic to the bottom of the North Atlantic," Richard Corfield writes in a Physics World retrospective on the disaster that caused 1,514 deaths on April 14-15, 1912. "Rather, the ship was ensnared by a perfect storm of circumstances that conspired her to her doom. Such a chain is familiar to those who study disasters — it is called an 'event cascade.'"
The iceberg that the Titanic struck on its way from Southampton to New York is No. 1 on a top-10 list of circumstances. Here are nine other suggested circumstances from Corfield's article and other sources:
Climate caused more icebergs: Weather conditions in the North Atlantic were particularly conducive for corralling icebergs at the intersection of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream, due to warmer-than-usual waters in the Gulf Stream, Richard Norris of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography told Physics World. "Oceanographically, the upshot of that was that icebergs, sea ice and growlers were concentrated in the very position where the collision happened," Norris said.
Tides sent icebergs southward: Last month, astronomers at Texas State University at San Marcos noted that the sun, the moon and Earth were aligned in such a way that could have led to unusually high tides in January 1912. They speculated that the tides could have dislodged icebergs that were stuck in the Labrador Sea, sending more of them toward the waters traversed by the Titanic a couple of months later.
The ship was going too fast: Many Titanicologists have said that the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, was aiming to better the crossing time of the Olympic, the Titanic's older sibling in the White Star fleet. For some, the fact that the Titanic was sailing full speed ahead despite concerns about icebergs was Smith's biggest misstep. "Simply put, Titanic was traveling way too fast in an area known to contain ice; that's the bottom line," says Mark Nichol, webmaster for the Titanic and Other White Star Ships website.
Iceberg warnings went unheeded: The Titanic received multiple warnings about icefields in the North Atlantic over the wireless, but Corfield notes that the last and most specific warning was not passed along by senior radio operator Jack Phillips to Captain Smith, apparently because it didn't carry the prefix "MSG" (Masters' Service Gram). That would have required a personal acknowledgment from the captain. "Phillips interpreted it as non-urgent and returned to sending passenger messages to the receiver on shore at Cape Race, Newfoundland, before it went out of range," Corfield writes.
The binoculars were locked up: Corfield also says binoculars that could have been used by lookouts on the night of the collision were locked up aboard the ship — and the key was held by David Blair, an officer who was bumped from the crew before the ship's departure from Southampton. Some historians have speculated that the fatal iceberg might have been spotted earlier if the binoculars were in use, but others say it wouldn't have made a difference.
The steersman took a wrong turn: Did the Titanic's steersman turn the ship toward the iceberg, dooming the ship? That's the claim made in 2010 by Louise Patten, who said the story was passed down from her grandfather, the most senior ship officer to survive the disaster. After the iceberg was spotted, the command was issued to turn "hard a starboard," but as the command was passed down the line, it was misinterpreted as meaning "make the ship turn right" rather than "push the tiller right to make the ship head left," Patten said. She said the error was quickly discovered, but not quickly enough to avert the collision. She also speculated that if the ship had stopped where it was hit, seawater would not have pushed into one interior compartment after another as it did, and the ship might not have sunk as quickly.
Reverse thrust reduced the ship's maneuverability: Just before impact, first officer William McMaster Murdoch is said to have telegraphed the engine room to put the ship's engines into reverse. That would cause the left and right propeller to turn backward, but because of the configuration of the stern, the central propeller could only be halted, not reversed. Corfield said "the fact that the steering propeller was not rotating severely diminished the turning ability of the ship. It is one of the many bitter ironies of the Titanic tragedy that the ship might well have avoided the iceberg if Murdoch had not told the engine room to reduce and then reverse thrust."
The iron rivets were too weak: Metallurgists Tim Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty looked into the materials used for the building of the Titanic at its Belfast shipyard and found that the steel plates toward the bow and the stern were held together with low-grade iron rivets. Those rivets may have been used because higher-grade rivets were in short supply, or because the better rivets couldn't be inserted in those areas using the shipyard's crane-mounted hydraulic equipment. The metallurgists said those low-grade rivets would have ripped apart more easily during the collision, causing the ship to sink more quickly that it would have if stronger rivets had been used. Other researchers have contested that claim, however.
There were too few lifeboats: Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate all of the Titanic's more than 2,200 passengers and crew members. The lifeboats could accommodate only about 1,200 people — which was still in excess of the 1,060-person capacity that was the legal requirement for that time. "It seems that in 1912, in a way not dissimilar to our own box-ticking, responsibility-avoiding culture today, lack of effective oversight on the part of the authorities caused the consequences of the disaster to be much worse than they might have been," Corfield wrote.
Do these 10 causes cover everything, or are there still more factors I'm forgetting? Are there some lessons still unlearned from the Titanic tragedy? Feel free to weigh in with your reflections on the Titanic centennial in the comment space below.
More about the Titanic:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.