When the Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the disaster inspired countless books, Titanic museum exhibits, several Hollywood films (including one that earned a Best Picture Oscar), and a cottage industry of theories and memorials. The Titanic sinking became the most infamous shipwreck in history—but what really happened on that unusually calm night in the North Atlantic? Read on for some surprising Titanic facts.
1. The Titanic was built for luxury, not speed.
In the early 20th century, new technology and an increasing population of European immigrants allowed Britain's largest passenger steamship lines to build the biggest and most opulent ocean liners then known. Liverpool-based Cunard launched the two fastest and sleekest liners, the Mauretania in 1906 and the Lusitania in 1907, capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in record time. The White Star Line, hoping to compete with its main rival, countered by ordering three massive ocean liners—the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic. Built by the Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Ireland (now Northern Ireland), the ships were designed to be the most luxurious liners afloat.
On board the RMS Titanic (the "RMS" stood for "royal mail ship"), passengers could enjoy the swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, a gymnasium, sunrooms, fine dining rooms, and a Turkish bath. The ship had "one hundred more first-class cabins than the Olympic, and a Parisian boulevard on B Deck [was added] to create the illusion of a sidewalk café. Ultimately, the Titanic outweighed her sister by more than 1000 tons," Paul R. Ryan wrote in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution magazine Oceanus.
2. Everything on the Titanic was huge—except the number of lifeboats.
The Titanic was the largest passenger ship of its time. Its steel construction was held in place by 3 million rivets weighing 1200 tons, while each link in the ship's anchor chains weighed 175 pounds. Twenty-nine boilers produced enough energy to achieve 50,000 horsepower and an average speed of 21 knots (just over 24 mph). The distance between the keel (the underside of the ship) and the top of the four gigantic funnels was 175 feet. The ship measured 882.5 feet from bow to stern and 92.5 feet at its widest point. "She was, in short, 11 stories high and four city blocks long," wrote Walter Lord in his definitive history of the Titanic sinking, A Night to Remember.
According to the British government's official inquiry, the ship carried about 1316 passengers and 885 crew on its maiden voyage (other sources have slightly different numbers), but only 20 boats, each of which could safely hold between 40 and 60 people for a total capacity of 1178. At the time, Board of Trade regulations for passenger liners required only 14 lifeboats on board. The Titanic had 14 lifeboats plus two cutters and four collapsible boats.
3. The plot of an 1889 novel bore eerie similarities to the events that would befall the Titanic.
The Wreck of the Titan, or, Futility, by little-known novelist Morgan Robertson, may not have predicted the Titanic's sinking, but it includes some uncanny coincidences. In the book, the most fabulous ocean liner ever built—the Titan (!)—is crossing the Atlantic on its maiden voyage when it collides with an iceberg and sinks. The Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic was 882.5 feet. Both ships could reach speeds of 25 knots. Both sailed in April. Both could carry 3000 people, and both had far too few lifeboats.
4. Before the Titanic sinking, ocean liners encountered more icebergs than usual in the North Atlantic.
Icebergs were a common sight between Ireland and Newfoundland, but a 2014 study published by the Royal Meteorological Society suggested that weather conditions produced more of them than average in April 1912. Freezing air from northeast Canada met the southward flow of the Labrador Current off the coast of Newfoundland, leading to a stream of icebergs that were swept farther south than was typical for most of the 20th century. "In 1912, the peak number of icebergs for the year was recorded in April, whereas normally this occurs in May, and there were nearly two and a half times as many icebergs as in an average year," the authors wrote.
On April 14, 1912, the Titanic received several wireless messages from other ships warning of ice along their routes, but they never reached the Titanic's captain.
5. The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable.
The White Star Line claimed, unofficially, that the Titanic was unsinkable. The ship had 16 watertight bulkheads, from bow to stern below the waterline, that would keep the ship afloat even if the first four of the compartments were breached. Unfortunately, at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the lookout saw a towering iceberg directly in the Titanic's path. The alarm was relayed to the bridge, where First Officer William Murdoch ordered the ship put "hard-a-starboard" and the engines reversed; he also pulled the lever that closed the watertight compartment doors. But it was too late. Thirty-seven seconds after the lookout's warning, the Titanic grazed the iceberg on the starboard side, opening a series of cuts that stretched across six consecutive watertight compartments 10 feet above the keel. Within 10 minutes, 7 feet of water filled the first compartment.
Based on glacier calving data from Greenland, the Royal Meteorological Society study suggested that the iceberg had originated on Greenland's west coast and measured about 125 meters (410 feet) long and 15 to 17 meters (49 to 55 feet) tall above the ocean's surface, giving it a mass of 2.2 million tons. The dimensions are consistent with those in a photo of an iceberg bearing a streak of red paint, photographed by the captain of the Minia, a rescue ship later sent to pick up Titanic survivors.
6. After the collision, few Titanic passengers were worried.
For his 1955 book, Walter Lord spoke with more than 60 Titanic survivors, who revealed an initial lack of concern after the collision with the iceberg. Many in first and second class hardly felt the impact and either went back to what they were doing or asked crew members why the ship's engines had stopped. But soon, the truth began to dawn on them, according to Lord's account:
"Far above on A Deck, second class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed a curious thing. As he started below to check his cabin, he felt certain the stairs 'weren't quite right.' They seemed level, and yet his feet didn’t fall where they should. Somehow they strayed forward off-balance … as though the steps were tilted down toward the bow."
Titanic passengers and crew hadn't received clear instructions for boarding lifeboats. Once it became clear that the ship was listing, the process of filling the boats was chaotic. Women and children boarded first, with deference given to first- and second-class passengers; their male companions were told (or opted) to stay with the ship. Boats were lowered with only half of their seats filled. Male and female third-class passengers were largely left to fend for themselves.
7. Hundreds of Titanic survivors were rescued—but more than a thousand perished.
The nearest ship, a merchant vessel called the Californian, was fewer than 10 miles away from the Titanic when it began sinking, but it failed to act on the liner's distress signals—its Marconi wireless operator had gone to bed minutes before the Titanic's collision with the iceberg. That left the Cunard passenger steamship Carpathia, 58 miles away, to come to the Titanic's aid. It took almost two hours to reach the first Titanic survivors.
Of the 2201 passengers and crew on board, just 711 survived the Titanic sinking, a death toll of 1490 according to the British government's figures. (Other inquiries found 1503, 1517, and as high as 1635 deaths). First-class passengers suffered the fewest casualties—203 out of 325, or 62 percent, survived. In second class, 118 of 285 passengers, or 41 percent, survived. And in third class, just 178 of 706 passengers, or 25 percent, made it out alive.
Of the crew, 673 out of 885, or 76 percent, went down with the ship, including Captain Edward Smith, First Mate William Murdoch, the Marconi wireless operator Jack Phillips, who sent the CQD and SOS distress signals, and all eight members of the Titanic's band.
8. A department store telegraph manager may have broken the news of the Titanic sinking.
After the Titanic's final wireless message, listeners sought updates from ships sent to its aid. Only fragments of messages reached New York, where the Titanic had been headed. David Sarnoff, a Marconi manager at the Wanamaker's department store in New York, picked up a message at 4:35 p.m. on April 15 from the Olympic relaying definitively that the Titanic had sunk. Sarnoff and his two wireless operators told the press and continued to intercept messages relayed from the Cape Race station in Newfoundland.
Later, Sarnoff exaggerated the details and his role in the Titanic sinking, claiming that he alone received a distress signal from the Titanic itself and then remained in the Wanamaker's wireless station for 72 hours straight to receive the names of the survivors.
9. The Titanic sinking left tragic "what if?" questions.
Walter Lord summed up the chain of tragic—and avoidable—missteps that led to the disaster:
"If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday … if ice conditions had been normal … if the night had been rough or moonlit … if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner—or 15 seconds later … if she had hit the ice in any other way … if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher … if she had carried enough boats … if the Californian had only come. Had any one of these 'ifs' turned out right, every life might have been saved."
10. Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton testified at the Titanic sinking inquiry.
Sir Ernest Shackleton, already a widely hailed veteran of two expeditions to Antarctica, knew a lot about icebergs, which explains why he was called as an expert witness in the British government's inquiry into the Titanic sinking. He believed it was likely that the lookouts missed the gigantic iceberg in the ship's path until it was too late. "With a dead calm sea there is no sign at all to give you any indication that there is anything there. If you first see the breaking sea at all, then you look for the rest and you generally see it," Shackleton said. "From a height it is not so easily seen; it blends with the ocean if you are looking down at an angle like that."
Shackleton wasn't the only celebrity to offer testimony: Guglielmo Marconi, a Nobel laureate and inventor of the wireless system used on nearly every ocean liner by that point, explained the regulations for sending distress signals.
11. No one knew the exact location of the Titanic wreckage for 73 years.
Several expeditions had tried and failed to discover the final resting place of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. In 1985, Robert D. Ballard, then a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a French team led by Jean-Louis Michel of the research institute IFREMER finally succeeded. The U.S. Navy had secretly commissioned Ballard to locate two Cold War-era nuclear submarines that had sunk in the North Atlantic decades before—and Ballard agreed to help as long as he could use its technology to search for the Titanic in the same area.
The team was aboard Woods Hole's research vessel Knorr, using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to survey the deep sea. Instead of trying to locate the ship itself in a huge search area, the team concentrated on finding the Titanic's large debris field. As the engineers piloted the ROV, its camera transmitted pictures to the research vessel. On September 1, 1985, an image of the Titanic's boilers slowly came into view—the first time in 73 years that people had seen the ship.
Photos of the Titanic wreckage—its ghostly hull and a trail of unbroken wine bottles, silver platters, a leaded glass window, bedsprings, and other artifacts resting 2.4 miles below the surface—were published and broadcast around the world.
12. Deep-sea robots mapped the ship's debris field.
In 2012, researchers from Woods Hole, the Waitt Institute, and RMS Titanic, Inc.—the wreck's legal custodian—announced that they had created a map of the 15-square-mile debris field using underwater robots. Sonar data and about 10,000 photos were synthesized to create the high-resolution map, which revealed the widely scattered artifacts extending outward from where the two large bow and stern sections of the ship came to rest on the seafloor about a half-mile apart.
The data also provided new clues as to how the Titanic sank. After 1 a.m. on April 15, 1912, as the flooded bow dipped first, the ship's stern rose out of the water at a steep angle. As the ship slid under the surface, the stern broke away and spiraled downward in a corkscrew pattern to the seabed, rather than falling in a straight line.
13. There might still be some cheese down there.
By the time the Titanic wreckage was found, most of the food that had sunk with the ship was long gone. But according to Holger W. Jannasch, senior scientist in Woods Hole's biology department in 1985, there might have been some brie lingering in the pantry. "Some foodstuffs, such as cheese, are protected from decay by the very microbial activity that starts the degradation process. If kept in boxes, it may have changed little over the extended time period," Jannasch wrote in Oceanus. "The microbes that turn milk or whey into cheese produce either highly acidic or highly alkaline conditions, both of which protect these highly proteinaceous foodstuffs from further spoiling." Similarly, wines seen on the seafloor "may still be drinkable and possibly of excellent quality, the normal aging process being slowed down during the [then 73] years of deep-sea storage at about 36°F," he wrote.
14. Artifacts recovered from the wreckage are included in several Titanic museum exhibits.
In Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum's Titanic collection includes important pieces of the ship's story. A life belt saved by a Titanic survivor and a nameplate removed from one of the Titanic's lifeboats aboard the Carpathia are on display. There is an actual telegram, sent from the Carpathia's captain Arthur Rostron to Cunard headquarters, telling the company about the disaster. Artifacts retrieved from the wreckage itself include porcelain dishes, a pair of pince-nez glasses, and gold hat pins. The museum also owns the sole surviving first-class ticket for the Titanic's only voyage: The clergyman who bought it opted to stay home and tend to his wife who had fallen ill the night before departure.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History also owns a number of Titanic artifacts, including Carpathia passenger Bernice Palmer Ellis's Kodak "Brownie" camera and photos she took of the rescued Titanic survivors.
While the ship itself remains on the seabed, RMS Titanic Inc. has successfully recovered more than 5000 artifacts, including a 12-foot-by-26-foot piece of the starboard hull. That chunk went on display in a Titanic museum exhibit at the Luxor in Las Vegas in 2011.
15. You may see the Titanic sail again.
OK, not the original ocean liner. Australian businessman Clive Palmer established the Blue Star Line shipping company in 2012 to build a nearly exact replica of the Titanic—called Titanic II—with the hope of completing the transatlantic crossing that its predecessor never did. As of April 2022, however, plans to build the ship appear to be on hold.
This article was originally published in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.