RMS Titanic departing on April 12, 1912
Credit: F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923)/Public Domain/Accessed via Wikimedia Commons

On April 10, 1912 the majestic Titanic embarked across the Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage. This grand ship, a product of the White Star Line, was a vision realized which had been dreamt of several years earlier. The day Titanic set sail the long-envisioned dream finally became a reality.

Competition in the shipping industry in the early part of the 20th century was fierce. The White Star Line was determined to outdo its competitor, the Cunard Line, and retain a respectable place in the market. To meet this goal, White Star had to strategically come up with something spectacular to maintain a sizable market share. Ultimately, it decided to build a new line of luxury ships. Fast ships.

Building of Grand Ships

The Cunard Line had experienced handsome success with its famed Lusitania and Mauretania ships which were able to sail across the Atlantic in record-breaking speeds. White Star wanted to match this success and, as a response, conceived the idea of three larger ships, the Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic; thus a strategic plan was born. The idea was to build each sister ship larger and fancier than its predecessor to create the spectacular trio.

The Olympic was first launched in the fall of 1910 and Titanic soon followed. As planned, Titanic was slightly larger and more luxurious than its sister ship. Unfortunately, its eventful birth was quickly met with a tragic death. After the Titanic sailed for New York on that April spring day, sadly the ship would not ever reach its destination.

Titanic at the docks of Southampton.
Credit: Public Domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Titanic at the docks of Southampton.

Pursuing the Cause of the Tragedy

On the evening of April 14th, 1912, the Titanic struck a large iceberg which severely damaged its structure. The grand ship gasped its last breath in the open air in the early hours of April 15th; sinking at 2:20 a.m. This disaster is probably the most well-known maritime accident. Over the years many have speculated and theorized as to what went wrong and caused this mass disaster. For almost a century people have studied the conditions, reading the accounts of survivors, exploring the wreckage underneath the sea and trying to piece together the events which led up to this tragedy.

In the early 1900s technology was not developed enough to reach the depths of the sea, but in the latter part of the century, the ship itself was actually able to be explored and photos were taken of it; the first discovery of Titanic was on the ocean floor as by Dr. Robert Ballard circa 1986. 2

The ship was found in fragile condition, but amazingly many of the passengers' personal possessions and ship's artifacts were still intact; some of these have been extracted from the sea. (Unfortunately, since 1986 tourists and salvagers have contributed to the wreck's deterioration). 3

Robert Ballard's Titanic: Exploring the Greatest of all Lost Ships
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Robert Ballard has published several books documenting his discovery of the Titanic.

Now that more information is available, it is a bit easier to speculate the events which set the conditions for the sinking of Titanic.

Possible Factors Contributing to the Tragedy of Titanic

There are likely many factors that came into play, leading to such a tragic occurrence. Some of these factors were clearly present, others are widely speculative.


Complacency is probably one of the biggest factors which contributed to Titanic's death. At the time the media had hailed Titanic as being "practically unsinkable". While the owners didn't initially make this claim, they didn't dispute it either.

Over the course of building the mighty ship, those who had a vested interest in Titanic seemingly began to believe this notion themselves. People were so enamored by Titanic; they believed in its vast size and thought it to be improbable something so severe could happen.

Lack of Communication

A lack of communication between the wireless operators and the bridge is likely another factor which contributed to the accident. Throughout the day of April 14th wireless operators, Harold Bride and Jack Phillips sent several warnings up to Captain Smith on the bridge.

Unfortunately, not all the warnings made their destination to the officers and, as a result, the situation's severity was probably unrealized. Had closer communications been followed through between the wireless operators and the captain, the disaster may have possibly been averted.


Stress is another likely contributor which played a role in the disaster. As hard as the wireless operators worked, they felt pressured to focus on passenger messages instead of the ones from other ships warning of icy conditions and floating ice. 

A critical message was received at 9:30 p.m., but the operators dutifully continued the passengers' messages to keep up with the in and out flux of messages coming and figured they'd sent up enough warnings earlier in the day.

Ship's Design

The Titanic possessed fallible safety features and the design could not withstand the damage to the ship. Titanic was designed with 16 watertight compartments which could withhold damage to the first four or two of the middle ones. At the time, it was almost unheard of that any larger amount of damage could occur and the ship was not designed to withstand any further damage than that.

However, at least five compartments damaged when Titanic collided with the iceberg. Water poured in at a tremendously fast rate and the pumps could not effectively keep up with the volume of water coming in. Perhaps if the architects had taken into consideration the ship was significantly larger than most, it would have made the watertight compartments more proportional to the ship's size as opposed to the number of containers damaged.

Traveling Too Fast 

The ship was perhaps sailing at too high of a speed. It has been said Captain Smith was under a lot of pressure by J. Bruce Ismay, Director, and the other White Star Line benefactors who wanted to beat record speeds and make spectacular headlines. Had Titanic collided with the iceberg at a slower speed, perhaps the damage might not have been so extensive. Even if the ship was going to sink, the pace may have been slower until Carpathia or another ship could reach the passengers and crew.

Was Group-Think Present?

Did the Captain fail to follow experience and instincts and align himself with the others as to not cause conflict? Captain Smith's perhaps momentarily was unable to follow his own experience and instincts, instead, falling victim to group-think. If pressure was put on him by the non-nautical parties, parties who held financial interest in Titanic, is it possible he had fallen into their mindset?

While the Captain did reportedly turn the ship more to the south when he got word of the ice fields, he did not slow the ship down which likely would have been a sensible action to take.

Lack of Equipment and Lifeboats

A lack of equipment needed for the crew to effectively do their job was another problem. The two lookouts in the crow's nest whose jobs were to keep a watch for icebergs and other problems allegedly did not have any binoculars. They were positioned on the lookout using only their naked eyes, which significantly decreased their abilities to see what was ahead.

The lack of lifeboats present on board resulted in the loss of many lives. While this is not directly related to the sinking itself, but in planning for enough boats to hold passengers, a significantly higher number of lives would have been spared had preventative planning been established. There were not enough lifeboats by far to hold the more than 2,200+ passengers and crew and this is a direct cause of such a tragedy occurring. And it is said many of these lifeboats were nowhere near filled to capacity.

Last lifeboat successfully launched from the Titanic
Credit: Public Domain/Accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Photo description April 15, 1912: "Last lifeboat arrived, filled with Titanic survivors. This photograph was taken by a passenger of the Carpathia, the ship that received the Titanic's distress signal and came to rescue the survivors. It shows the last lifeboat successfully launched from the Titanic."

Weather Conditions

Weather and environmental conditions ultimately played a part in the accident. That fated night was clear, there was no moon and the sea was calm, and these conditions probably contributed to the sinking of Titanic. Without any kind of water movement, this meant it would be harder to detect any waves breaking at the base of any icebergs, making any in the ship's path far less noticeable. According to documented accounts, there was barely a ripple on the open sea.


Impulsive decisions during the emergency may have contributed to the extreme damage to the ship. First Officer Murdoch had initially ordered a stop and reversal of the Titanic's engines, and this diminished the ship's ability to turn. The ship's last-minute sharp turn actually harmed the vessel more than if it had hit the iceberg straight on.

Since Titanic was constructed to sustain damage to only four compartments on the end of the ship (or two in the center), when the ship turned, the iceberg ran across the starboard side of Titanic and the rivets began popping out, letting larger amounts of water in, so wide and fast that the compartments could not hold the water.

Size of Iceberg

The size of the iceberg is another possible cause of the sinking. It is possible a much smaller iceberg would not have caused such damage to the Titanic; thus it seems logical the size of the iceberg would have had an impact.

There are a myriad of factors which could have contributed to the sinking of Titanic, and some of the conditions that set the stage for this tragedy will forever remain a mystery, although many others have shared their experiences and story, shedding some light as to the events that unraveled that fateful night. Others preferred not to talk about the tragedy. Many more did not survive and took their stories with them.

At this time, all the Titanic survivors have now passed on. Millvina Dean, who was only two months old when the ship collided with the iceberg, died in 2009. The last survivor who had memories of the sinking was Lillian Asplund, who was five years old at the time. She passed away in 2006.

It does appear perhaps the chronological events of the day, coupled with the physical conditions and decision-making which occurred at night, all led to the unfortunate and disastrous sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic. There are many possible causes which may have all contributed on some level to the unfortunate sinking of this once sensational ship for its time.

[Related Reading: History of the Titanic ]

A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic (Holt Paperback)
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A book written several decades ago, but is still often considered to be one of the better accounts of Titanic's disastrous sinking.

Theory on how the Titanic sunk