Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Titanic--nature's triumph or human failure?

The sinking of the Titanic has always been presented as a morality tale, one in which human hubris ("unsinkable") was humbled by the power of nature. However, according to William J. Broad's story in today's New York Times, two scientists who have examined both physical evidence from the ship's wreckage and the archives of her builder, the famous Harland & Wolff, of Belfast, have concluded that nature may not have had to win the contest, or at least not with as catastrophic consequences.

According to the researchers, rivets recovered from the wreck show an unusual amount of slag mixed with the iron from which they were forged. Moreover, minutes of H&W's Board of Directors meetings at the time Titanic was under construction document discussion of the difficulties in procuring sufficient rivets, which may have led H&W to rely on substandard suppliers, as well as problems in finding skilled riveters to hire, which could have led to faulty workmanship. Present and past officials of H&W have disputed these conclusions, one of them calling them "a waffle." Also, James Alexander Carlisle, grandson of an H&W riveter who worked on Titanic, has vigorously disputed the faulty rivet theory on the website of the Belfast Titanic Society.

If the researchers' theory is correct, Titanic is not so much a morality tale about technological hubris, but one about loyalty to an institution (H&W, at the time, was trying to complete on schedule what had to be the largest shipbuilding project in history: the construction of Titanic and her sisters Britannic and Olympic) trumping considerations of prudence and due regard for human life.