Construction of German ocean liners, such as the Wilhelm Der Grosse, in the late 19th century ensured that Germany's ships clinched the Blue Riband ahead of British alternatives. The new breed of German ocean liners reigned supreme in the Atlantic. To return the Blue Riband speed record for transatlantic crossings back to Great Britain, Cunard laid down the blueprints for the RMS Lusitania in 1903.

Cunard appointed the naval architect Mr Peskett to design the Mauretania and Lusitania. The original plans for the Lusitania included just the three funnels, but this was later modified with an additional fourth. Cunard added the extra funnel to provide exhaust for the ocean liner's boilers. Lusitania was the first British ship to have four funnels. Other adjustments included an extra fourth propeller to enhance the ship's propulsion.

Lusitania included 23 double-ended boilers and a couple of single-ended alternatives. The size of the boiler rooms ensured that some of the coal bunkers were placed along the side of the hull, and they were also included as longitudinal watertight compartments. Cunard added 12 transverse watertight compartments, which was three fewer than the Titanic's 15. Two of the compartments could be flooded without sinking the ship, whilst the Titanic could stay afloat with four flooded watertight compartments.

For the ocean liner's engines Cunard consulted with Mr Parson, whose innovative new turbine engines were replacing the reciprocating alternatives. Parson promised that the turbine engines would ensure that the Lusitania could reach up to 25 knots for transatlantic crossings. At the time that would have been a Blue Riband record. As such, the Parson steam turbine engines were also included in the blueprints; and duly added to the ocean liner when constructed.[1]

Once the design plans had been laid down, construction of the Lusitania began in 1904. The keep of the ocean liner was laid in Clydeback. John Brown and Co reorganized its shipyard so that it could house an ocean liner that eclipsed 30,000 gross tons. The company added railway tracks to the shipyard to bring in construction materials for the ocean liner, and a new slipway that filled the space of two. An estimated four million rivets were required during construction.

Construction of the ocean liner continued up to 1906. The hull was complete up to the main level of the deck, and had three-bladed propellers added. They constructed the actual superstructure of the ocean liner after the ship launched in 1906.

The ship's launch ceremony was greatly celebrated by the English press. This was, after all, a British ocean liner expected to set new Blue Riband records. It was also the largest ocean liner constructed at the time with a gross tonnage of 31,550, and could transport about 2,165 passengers.

The outfitting was later added to the Lusitania at the Tail of the Bank in Gourock. That included the Lusitania's funnels and interior decor. The Saloon class had the more extravagant decor, with the lounge including Georgian style inland mahogany panels. The ship's smoking rooms had Italian walnut paneling and red furnishings.

Most investment was given to the dining saloon that sat on two decks and had an open, circular well in the center. The ship's designers decorated the saloon with elaborate gold leaf and mahogany panels alongside Corinthian pillars. The dome in the center of the saloon included neoclassical frescoes.

At the hub of the ocean liner was the Grand Staircase. This staircase connected all six of the Lusitania's primary decks. Those decks included the Boat Deck, Promenade Deck, Shelter Deck, Upper Deck, Main Deck and the Lower Deck. The staircase also wrapped around two gilded-cage elevators.

Lusitania Boat DeckCredit: Public Domain

The Lusitania's construction was complete by 1907, and Cunard launched the ship in that same year. After sea-trials the Lusitania began her maiden voyage in September 1907. When Lusitania left its docks in Liverpool for New York, it was the largest ocean liner of its period until the Mauretania eclipsed it months later.

Although the Lusitania did not set a speed record in this first maiden voyage, it would not be long before the Blue Riband speed record returned to Britain. In October 1907, Lusitania reached New York in record time which regained the Blue Riband for Great Britain. The Mauretania eclipsed the Lusitania's record months later.


However, 1909 was another golden year for the Lusitania. The liner once again clinched the Blue Riband in June 1909. Once more the record would not be held for that long as the Mauretania reclaimed it months later.

The Lusitania was also involved in the Hudson-Fulton celebration in 1909. This was the 300th anniversary of Hudson’s trip up River Hudson, and the 100th of Fulton's steamboat. As such, the Lusitania and other advancements in steamship technology were showcased there.

In 1914, the British declared war on Germany after German troops invaded Belgium. This marked the beginnings of World War One. The war would also be taken to the sea in naval battles such as the Battle of Heligoland Bight. Given the disparity in size between the British and German navies, Germany's U-boats were a better alternative to surface fleet ships for commerce raiding missions and economic blockades. Consequently, German U-boats scouted British waters for merchant ships and warships.

Lusitania continued its transatlantic voyages during the months of 1914 and '15. The Admiralty did not requisition the ocean liner, largely because of the high potential operating costs of fueling the ship. However, Cunard reduced the schedules of the ocean liner's voyages. Lusitania also transported large quantities of American munitions to Britain. When in 1915 the Germans announced that any ship encountered by U-boats in British waters would be sunk, the liner became a potential target for German U-boats.

It was in May that the Lusitania left its port in New York for Liverpool. For this final voyage Lusitania carried a total of almost 2,000 including its crew. It also transported an assortment of military cargo such as artillery shells.

As the Lusitania sailed into British waters, the U-20 U-boat intercepted it off the south coast of Ireland. The U-20 fired one torpedo at the Lusitania. The orders were given to abandon ship soon after the explosion as water flooded the ocean liner.

After the Titanic's demise, the Board of Trade had adjusted naval regulations for passenger ships; and the Lusitania did carry enough lifeboats for its passengers. However, as the Lusitania sank in about 18 minutes they made little difference. A minority of those aboard the ocean liner, about 700, survived the sinking.

The sinking of the Lusitania had political ramifications. While the United States remained neutral in the war, there were hundreds of American passengers aboard the Lusitania when it sank. German promises to limit further U-boat operations were enough to ensure U.S. neutrality in 1915. Nevertheless, the ship's sinking was just one factor in the U.S. declaration of war with Germany during the U-boat campaign of 1917.

Lusitania was undoubtedly one of the great passenger liners of its era. It reasserted British ocean liners as the best in the world. Although perhaps overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic three years before it, the Lusitania was also a magnificent ship.