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14 April 1912: the sinking of the Titanic, a human and industrial catastrophe

What happened this week in the History of Industry? It is to answer this question that Global Industrie invites you to rediscover, every week, a key event which occurred around this time… in another age. Just 109 years ago, the most famous maritime disaster in History occurred. You are probably all familiar with this tragic event, immortalized by the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s film. But do you know what caused it? 



On the 14th of April 1912 at 11:40 pm, the Titanic, the flagship transatlantic ocean liner which was sailing from Britain to the United States, hit an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. Although  thought to be unsinkable, it sank in less than three hours, causing the death of nearly 1,500 passengers and crew members. How was this able to happen?

There are in fact several reasons for this disastrous tragedy, the first of which are natural and human.

It should indeed be noted that it was very rare at that time to encounter icebergs in that season in the area where the collision occurred, especially as the ship was sailing to the south of the recommended route. But the winter of 1911-1912 had been particularly mild, which explains this phenomenon. Almost as if some early global warming was to blame…

The second stroke of fate was that the night was pitch black. An unfortunate circumstance which could have been partially offset if the officers on watch had not inadvertently forgotten to take binoculars with them…

Another human error was that the ship was sailing at very high speed at the time of the impact with the iceberg. On this point there is a tendency to blame Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of the White Star Line which owned the ship, who apparently wanted to beat the record transatlantic crossing time. However, the commission of inquiry was never able to demonstrate his guilt. 
Lastly, the ship did not possess enough lifeboats, some of them moreover remaining far from full due to the effect of panic, disorganization of the crew and lack of passenger information. 



However, the techniques and technology of the era were also to blame. 

Thus, although the designers of the Titanic rightly claimed to have equipped the vessel with watertight compartments which were supposed to guarantee it against any sinking, these compartments did not extend sufficiently high to prevent the progression of the water, because they would have prevented the passengers from going up to the deck above. 
Another concern was that the ship only had a double hull at the bottom, to protect it in shallow water.

The main problem, however, was of a structural nature. Some of the steel used for the hull proved to be very brittle when it was cold… and the temperature of the water on the night of the tragedy was −1 to −2 °C. Above all, however, we come across a problem which sadly seems to be a constant in industry: a supply difficulty! Some of the rivets suffered from a shortage of steel parts, obliging the workers to use wrought iron, which is not as strong. Modern research has thus shown that they contained too much sulfur and not enough manganese, and therefore broke more easily. The inspection of the wreck, which was to be located on the 1st of September 1985 by Professor Ballard, demonstrated moreover that the iceberg did not make holes directly in the hull of the ship: it was the shockwave which caused the rivets to pop out, thus opening a channel for the water…



- 11 April (1828): the Entreprise Générale des Omnibus creates the first public transport lines in Paris, served at the time by horse-drawn vehicles
-12 April (1937): the British engineer Frank Whittle tests the first jet engine on the ground
-12 April (1961): the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to travel in space
-12 April (1981): first flight of the American space shuttle Columbia
-14 April (1896): the Lumière brothers produce the first color photograph
-14 April (1931): first transmission of a television image in France
-16 April (1955): the word "ordinateur" (French for “computer”) is invented by the French professor Jacques Perret, at IBM’s request
-17 April (1964): Ford presents its Mustang at the New York World’s Fair
-17 April (1970): landing of Apollo 13, which had to make an emergency return to Earth following an engine failure and an explosion