The sinking of the Titanic was one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. The tale has since evolved into a heady mix of fact and legend, a testimony to the enduring intrigue that surrounds this historic maritime disaster.

When the Titanic sank, some 1,500 passengers and crew drowned overnight, mainly because there was a massive shortage of lifeboats on the most luxurious sea voyager ever built.

Engraving by Willy Stöwer:

Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Titanic sinking (Photo credit: Willy Stöwer)

When Did Titanic Sink?

The Date in ContextThe Titanic was expected to complete her maiden voyage on a transatlantic crossing from England’s Southhampton to the port at New York City, but she didn’t get far. When did the Titanic sink? Embarking from the UK on April 10, the world’s largest ship struck ice four days later. She was sucked into the cold Atlantic sea in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

While people have been sailing for millenia, ocean liners did not appear until the middle of the nineteenth century, when steamship technology made large-displacement ships possible. For the first time, we began to see big metal ships with looming smokestacks, staterooms, berths and boilers. It was a brave new age of oceangoing liners; boasts of ships’ incredible ‘modern’ capabilities were everywhere. The White Star Line and Cunard headed the pack as the two biggest steam-powered shipping companies.

By the time Titanic was conceived, sea travel was immersed in major shifts that emboldened naval architects to dream bigger. White Star’s Titanic was designed to up the ante in the marketing wars between major shippers. The jumbo, triple-propeller steamer was the world’s largest manmade moving object of any kind when it launched in 1912.

Titanic was in part designed to outpace Cunard’s Mauretania, the world’s fastest ship at the time. She also competed with the Lusitania, the second fastest—until it was sunk three years later, not by an iceberg but a hostile German U-boat on the eve of WWI.

Sailing Blind

titanic lifeboat

Last lifeboat launched from the Titanic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the Titanic struck the fateful iceberg in the North Atlantic at 11:40 pm on the 14th, she was not fighting off a storm, nor battling mighty waves. The danger was not a tempest but the prevailing eery calm: there was none of the usual phenomena that enlivens the ocean’s surface at night. No moon, nor wind or waves meant visibility was nil.

A few swells would have helped light the bases of the area’s iceberg masses with phosphorescent plankton, but on such a quiet night, the sea was only motionless and dark. Some blame the lack of binoculars in the crow’s nest for missing the iceberg, but in truth there was nothing to peer at. The Titanic was sailing blind.

Captain E.J.

Edward Smith

Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Captain Edward John Smith, affectionately known as “E.J.,” was a skilled veteran of the helm and came to the Titanic with as much wisdom and experience as one could hope for in a ship captain of that era. That said, no one was yet very skilled at steering the massive ocean liners that were being built.

Even E.J. had dealt with his share of mishaps while trying to steer the new, high-displacement ships of the day. The last time he had manned a maiden voyage on a huge liner, he thrashed a tugboat with his enormous propellers while trying to maneuver the unwieldy Olympic into New York harbor.

The Premonition of the Titan

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912.

Several spooky premonitions of the sinking occurred 14 years before it ever took place. In 1898, for example, the popular American novelist Morgan Robertson wrote a novel called The Wreck of the Titan. Whether its plot represents true premonition or mere coincidence, there’s no denying the striking parallels between Robertson’s story and the real Titanic.

In his novel, Robertson describes the voyage of a massive ocean liner named Titan, which crosses the Atlantic as fast as possible. The Titan collides with a massive iceberg en route and sinks, leaving many to drown due to its insufficient number of lifeboats.

Both the Titan and Titanic were described as the biggest ships in the world and marketed as record-breaking marvels. They were both around 800 feet long, had three propellers and two masts, and each launched and sank in the month of April.

Bonus Facts To Arouse Your Curiosity### “

Practically Unsinkable”Technically, the mammoth Titanic was never marketed as “unsinkable.” The phrase, made famous by lore and film, really came from a figure of speech taken out of context from the magazine Shipbuilder. In 1911, a reviewer had described the Titanic as “practically unsinkable” when its watertight doors were properly sealed.

Safety Technology

Even though little attention was paid to the basics, like having enough lifeboats, the Titanic was praised for its cutting-edge safety technology, including watertight compartments whose doors could be remotely activated. The collision with the iceberg, however, ruptured five of these watertight compartments, crippling their ability to lock out the gushing sea.

At the Edge of Retirement

Captain Smith, at 62 years of age, was ready for his retirement. The Titanic voyage was to be his last—even though it seems his employers at the White Star Line were already looking into postponing those plans. They wanted Smith to take the lead of Titanic’s even larger and more luxurious successor, the Gigantic, whose maiden voyage was scheduled for 2015.

Cheating Death

A handful of economic and political elites managed to cheat death on the Titanic by cancelling their accommodations before boarding. Henry Clay Frick, for instance, the steel magnate, booked and then gave up his Titanic suite to Wall Street baron J.P. Morgan—the man behind the conglomerate that owned the White Star Line and the Titanic.

J.P. Morgan decided he was too busy to travel, so he gave the room to fellow finance mogul J. Horace Harding, who let it become available to whatever poor soul would go in their places.