Karyn Gerhard is a senior editor at Alpha Books and an information addict looking for an adventure. This blog documents her explorations into of all those dusty corners of human culture that no one has bothered to clean in years.
Today’s Obsession: The Titanic
I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.—Captain Smith, Commander of Titanic
One hundred years ago today, the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York; this weekend will mark the 100th anniversary of that tragic night when the Ship of Dreams went down. In the past few weeks I have become a Titanic junkie—obsessively reading about how she was built, learning about crash, poring over pictures, listening to survivor stories, and researching the stories of the passengers and crew. I found out that what I thought I knew about the Titanic was only a drop in the ocean. Here’s just some of what I found.
Exploring the Rise and Fall
Ever since it was discovered in 1985, the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor has been a sensation. This being the anniversary year, the bright light is being shown once again on the remnants of the ship, and new technology is allowing us to see it in even greater depth.
National Geographic has been all over the Titanic anniversary, in print, online, and on TV. They have produced an amazing (and free!) app, Building the Titanic. This interactive timeline takes you from concept to launch with dozens of previously unreleased pictures and fascinating bits of information. (You can also check out the timeline on the NG website.
A fascinating documentary, Titanic: The Last Word with James Cameron, premiered on the National Geographic Channel, chock full of new views and perspectives of the wreck. One of the most fascinating parts was the CGI recreation of how the ship sank.
Sponsored by the RMS Titanic corporation, Expedition Titanic is a fascinating interactive program that takes you down to the ocean floor and lets you explore the wreck in ways never before possible. You can view sections such as Captain Smith’s quarters and “Hell’s Kitchen,” and view 3D HD footage of the wreck.
If you’ve got the itch to make your own movie about the Titanic, you need to check out this nifty Titanic Moviemaker. You can choose from all kinds of original images, put in your own music, add titles, and voilà—your very own epic.
In honor of the anniversary, newspapers and magazines have been culling their archives for Titanic items, and what they have found is impressive, to say the least. Seeing how the entire tragedy played out in the papers—from the first reports saying that the ship was hit but was fine, to the final inquests—is absolutely fascinating. Here are a few of those collections:
The Boston Globe has put together an impressive gallery of images from their archives, the most amazing of which are shots of the survivors in their lifeboats taken by crewmen on the RMS Carpathia.
Needless to say, The New York Times has a staggering collection of material. Their Topics page for Titanic contains original scans of articles, photos, videos, and new pieces looking back on the disaster. They have also put together a pdf of newspaper clippings from the New York Herald, chronicling everything from the announcement of her launch to the aftermath. One particularly interesting item is the front-page story of how the ship narrowly missed a collision, posted on April 11th.
Time magazine’s collection of photographs taken by Father Francis Browne is one of my favorites. A priest who rode on the ship for the first part of her journey, Browne photographed life on the ship, from trunks being loaded to children playing on deck. He also took some amazing shots of the interior, from his own state room to the gorgeous dining halls.
The Passengers and Crew
As much as I love looking at images of the wreck and the artifacts found, it is the stories of the people that truly holds my fascination. Listening to survivor accounts and reading the biographies of the people who perished, both passengers and crew—that is what really brings the Titanic story home to me. There is some truly amazing material to be found.
The Encyclopedia Titanic is hands down the best reference for anything you want to know about the ship, its passengers, and its crew. There are biographies for every single victim and survivor, which include their ticket numbers, the lifeboat they were on (if they survived) or body tags (if they didn’t), traveling companions, related documents and news items, and much more. Some even include the passenger’s memoirs of their trip, such as the one written by survivor Roberta Maioni, a servant working for a couple in First Class. You can also search the list of unidentified and recovered bodies, and so much more.
A fantastic piece about the brave musicians of the ship’s orchestra, who voluntarily kept playing while the ship was going down, in an effort to keep the passengers calm.
This Demographic of Titanic passengers (deaths, survivals, and lifeboat occupancy) is truly fascinating. We all know that the majority of survivors were women and children from first class (97% and 86%, respectively), but did you know that 91% of the female staff of the ship also survived? By comparison, only 34% of the First Class men survived; even worse, only 9% of the Third Class men made it. The site also breaks the passengers down by nationality, and the statistics there are even more compelling.
The stories told by the survivors are just unbelievable. Some, told right after the ship sank, are raw and horrifying; others told when the survivors were much older paint a more nostalgic picture. But they are totally engrossing. Here are just a handful:
The BBC has an amazing collection of recorded accounts from survivors. The most powerful is the radio interview in 1936 with Commander CH Lightoller , the most senior member of the crew to survive. To hear him describe how they could’ve been saved by The Californian, a ship so close to the Titanic they could see her lights, but weren’t because the ship never got their SOS (the wireless operator on that boat was off duty) is absolutely heartbreaking.
Although these interviews are inexplicably cut with scenes from the movie, they still tell a powerful story, both from a crew member’s and a passenger’s point of view:
Ever wonder what it would’ve been like had the people on the Titanic had Twitter accounts? Well, with @Titanicvoyage you can follow the events of the Titanic in real time. Each tweet begins with a hashtag indicating the role of the (fictional) person writing the tweet. With first-class passengers wondering where their tea is, to reporters marveling at the release of the moorings and crewmen freaking out over a near-collision in port, this feed is an unexpectedly thrilling read.
A few months ago, one of the highest prices ever (76,000 pounds) for a piece of Titanic memorabilia was paid. What was it for? A dinner menu from First Class, dated April 14, 1912. The last supper, so to speak. Dining on First Class has always gotten a lot of play, but what was served in the other classes? WebTitanic.com has the complete set of menus from all three classes. It’s staggering to see the disparity between First and Third Class, until you realize that Titanic was one of the only ships to even have catering for Third Class—on most vessels the passengers in Steerage had to bring their own food.
If you feel like trying your hand at some of these dishes, an industrious blogger (and obvious Downton Abbey fan) has collected a number of recipes of the dishes served on that final day.
The Exhibitions and Celebrations
It seems strange to use the word “celebrations” when talking about such a tragic event, but there are indeed celebrations happening all over the world commemorating the Titanic’s voyage. There are also some pretty amazing exhibitions being mounted in honor of the anniversary. Here are just a few.
The RMS Titanic, a company with exclusive rights to more than 5,500 artifacts, has temporary exhibitions set up throughout the country, from Las Vegas to Orlando, Florida. In addition to the artifacts, for $65 you can also take part in an elaborate dinner party that recreates the one millionaire passenger George Widener threw for the ship’s captain just before the crash.
Here in the States we have are two exhibitions that are positively jaw-dropping: Titanic Branson in Missouri and Titanic Pigeon Forge in Tennessee. Both built to celebrate the 100th anniversary, these exhibitions (also billed as “the world’s largest”) are housed in actual replicas of the two halves of the ship. Your admission ticket is the boarding pass of an actual passenger; during your visit you can shovel coal in the boiler room, view $5 million in artifacts, see reconstructions of everything from the grand staircase to the lifeboats (all built from the original blueprints) and, of course, find out the fate of your passenger.
In Belfast, where the Titanic was built, celebrations are running amok. Not only are they throwing a Titanic Festival, they are also opening a huge visitor attraction called The Titanic Belfast Experience. Billing itself as the world’s largest Titanic exhibition, the Experience allows you to relive the building of the ship and learn about its passengers and crew.
At the Molly Brown (as in, the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”) House Museum they are hosting a Steerage Class Shindig, recreating the experience of the people in Third Class.
The Titanic Historical Society is hosting their own Centennial Memorial Weekend in Springfield and Chicopee, Massachusetts, complete with dinners, lectures, and exhibits.
For the true enthusiast, you can take a Titanic memorial cruise. Leaving from the two ports of call on Titanic’s maiden voyage (New York and Southampton), the much-less-glamorously-named Fred Olsen Cruise Liners will trace the exact path taken by Titanic, ending at the actual crash site.
All of this is just—dare I say it?—the tip of the iceberg. With more websites, apps, and articles being posted daily, it certainly does seem that the fascination with Titanic will go on. And on.
The only existing footage of the Titanic
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