The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic

by JoHarrington

On April 15th 1912, RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The story has fascinated generations ever since. But why?

It's beyond question that the Titanic disaster interests people. Even those who only know of it through a Hollywood block-buster movie have it held in their imagination.

And there have been many Hollywood films about Titanic.

But why only this tragedy? There have been bigger ships sunk beneath the waves. It isn't even the largest loss of life in a single maritime disaster. But this one is special. This one endures; and I'm here to tell you why.

Titanic Commemorative Events for April 2012

Across Britain and the world, the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic will be hard to miss.

April 15th 2012 marks a century since one of the most famous disasters in modern history.

100 years ago, the ocean liner RMS Titanic hit an ice-berg and disappeared beneath the icy waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It's not an event which is likely to be forgotten any time soon.

To commemorate the occasion, the city of Belfast is unveiling its £100 million tourist attraction, The Titanic Experience. The doomed ship was built there. 

Meanwhile, the Titanic Heritage Trust will be staging events in all of the towns and cities associated with the liner - Belfast, Liverpool, Stoke, Lichfield and Southampton - as well as other places around the United Kingdom.

In Lichfield, at 8.30pm on the anniversary, a distress flare will be shot into the sky from Beacon Park. It will hover over the statue of the Titanic's Captain John Smith, which was itself only recently placed there. It's just one of a number of events being held in and around the town. Such scenes will be repeated all over the country.

On the television, there will be no less than five programs dedicated to the memory of the disaster on BBC alone. The other channels will be following suit.

Not to be out-done, Hollywood has re-released James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster Titanic, only this time in 3D. It will be hitting theater screens during April 2012.

There have been worse disasters in terms of scale. There has been greater loss of life. There have also been ships sinking in quite a similar fashion. Yet nothing has quite gripped the imagination of successive generations as this one.

So why would that be?

Titanic (1997) (Three-Disc Special Collector's Edition)

Why Does the Titanic Continue to Command our Attention?

It is an historical event which has something for everyone. The greatest story ever told.

Authors and film-makers are forever searching for the perfect story.

It has to have it all, encompassing all passions to attract the largest audience, and it has to be timeless, in order to achieve longevity. Better still if it doesn't have to be up-dated, as the original telling will suffice.

The story of the Titanic had it all. It is perhaps one of the most enduring tales because of this strange mixture of timing and tragedy. It appeals to everyone. Though it's highly possible that we're not all looking at the same things.

Even during our own life-times, we may shift our personal focus onto another aspect. It's easy to do, as the circumstances on and surrounding the disaster have so much to tell us.

It is way too simplistic to state that the story of the Titanic is that of a ship, which set out from Southampton to New York City, but hit an ice-berg along the way. Even quoting mortality figures at each other isn't going to cut it. Millions of people die every day, often in tragic circumstances and frequently en masse.

What makes Titanic special is everything else about it. It can either be symbolic, or else feed the interests of many groups of people. As evidence of this, just search Amazon for 'Titanic'.

Under Movies and TV alone there are 19 different categories, which contain DVDs relating to the disaster. They include the usual suspects - drama, action and documentaries - but also comedy, musicals and, yes, even porn. Something for everyone indeed.

A Selection of Movies about the Titanic

The fact that Hollywood repeatedly makes films about the disaster helps maintain it at the forefront of the public imagination.

The Titanic as a Tragedy

Everyone likes a good poignant story, as long as it's removed from us in time and space.

There's a strange psychology, which keeps human beings gripped on the testimonies of disasters.

I like to think that it's our survival instinct kicking in, rather than anything too voyeuristic. We want to know what happened to them, so we can ensure that it never happens to us or our loved ones. We want to be prepared.

But once the immediate adrenaline of learning has passed, what we want next are the tales of heroism, the human interest stories, the sadness and the grief. The clue is in the latter.

If we can focus on just one true life account, then we can weep for them all. Crying removes adrenaline from our system, thus returning us to normal after the shock and scare.

For those alive at the time, this would have been more immediate. They might have known someone on the ship, or at least known of them, so the urgency and danger would have felt more real.

For those encountering the story decades later, then Titanic can act as catharsis. We project our own real and present fears onto a 'safe' event (insofar as it happened so long ago). Then we get to feel emotion and shed tears in equal 'safety'. 

The story of the Titanic has plenty to cry about. With all cross-sections of humanity on board, you get to pick between the elderly, the lovers, the children, the men, the women, the poor or the rich and famous.

A Selection of True Stories about the Titanic's Passengers

Buy these books to immerse yourself in tales of heroism, tragedy and escape.

The Family Who Survived the Disaster

The majority of the people on board Titanic died. There was a hierarchy, steeped in the social etiquette of the time, which dictated who would live and who would die.

Almost guaranteed salvation were the female children amongst the First Class passengers. They had age, gender and social standing on their side. Their brothers followed them into the life-boats, then their mothers.

At the other end of the spectrum, the adult males in steerage were going to die. Simple as that. They were right at the end of the pecking order.

Therefore it was highly unusual for whole families to survive. The Caldwells managed it mostly through luck, persistence and standing in the right place at the right time.

Generally children were orphaned or wives widowed. Relatively few men made it at all.

A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells' Story of Survival

The Old Lady Who Died with her Husband

The Titanic was famously without enough life-boats. Even those which it did possess left with some of them not full. Thousands died through having no means of escape.

Ida Straus could have been in a life-boat. It was women and children first. As a wealthy passenger, she had an early invitation to step into one.

That she did not, and subsequently went down with the ship, has become the stuff of legend.

Eye-witnesses heard Ida state firmly, "I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together." But Isidor could have left too. He refused to, while there were younger men still waiting to escape.

Isidor and Ida appeared to have taken the view that they were an old couple. They had already lived and enjoyed full lives together, deeply in love.

A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus

The Heroic Titanic Band

Another story which has passed into Titanic lore was that of the ship's band. They continued to play music, on the ship's deck, right up until the very last moments.

They did this knowing that they had absolutely no hope of surviving themselves. Their role, they knew, was to keep the passengers calm until all of the life-boats were filled.

Each musician probably wanted to play a lament or something angry, to reflect their circumstances, but they did not.

Bandmaster Wallace H. Hartley led his men through bright, cheery songs, through which it was hoped nobody could panic.

Fred Clarke, P.C. Taylor, G. Krins, Theodore Brailey, Jock Hume, J.W. Woodward and Roger Bricoux made up the rest of the eight-piece band. Many survivors recalled being calmed by their music.

And The Band Played On...

Most Titanic books end with the sinking. That's when this one begins. It's the shocking, heart-breaking story of two families left behind.

Celebrity Aboard the Titanic

One great way to ensure publicity for anything, be it product, cause or news event, is to have a celebrity involved.

This did happen on the Titanic.

Political activist Margaret Brown was amongst those ladies clambering into a life-boat. But she famously fought for her boat to return to the scene to pick up survivors afterwards. Creating a mini-mutiny to get her way.

Margaret was one of America's leading Suffragettes; and ran for the Senate two years after the Titanic sank. This meant that her story was constantly in the press. She capitalized on the interest to campaign for the rights of women and workers, and children's education.

Her life later became the basis of the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Oscar winning performance from Debbie Reynolds

Powerful People on Titanic

It's hard to imagine now that 100 years ago the major celebrities were the nobility and the rich.

New York socialites and the royal families of Europe could command the kind of press attention that we reserve for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga today. Though shades of it can still be found in the news columns dedicated to Donald Trump or Prince William and Kate.

RMS Titanic had the most opulent first-class facilities ever seen on any ocean liner before. It was also the ship's maiden voyage, so a lot of kudos was to be held in sailing on it.

Amongst those who drowned were millionaires John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim; Major Archibald Butt, who was the closest aide to President Taft; and the esteemed artist Frank Davis Millet.

Amongst the survivors were several aristocratic ladies, including the Countess of Rothes and Lady Duff-Gordon. The latter was also a famous fashion designer of the time.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage

Learn about first class on the ship.

Artist Frank Davis Millet Died on the Titanic

Wizzley author Mladen has written an article all about him. Millet's loss helped sustain interest in the disaster within the art world.
Francis Davis Millet was an American artist, journalist and war correspondant. Millet died 100 years ago in Titanic tragedy.

The Timing of Titanic: When it Happened is Important

The ship sank in 1912, during a golden age of prosperity. Two years later, the world would be at war.

The Edwardian period is often viewed as an idyllic time, especially in Britain. Queen Victoria had died, taking a whole era of prudish values and rigid social etiquette with her.

Her son Edward VII had also passed on, but his son George hadn't yet made his mark as monarch. Everyone still considered themselves to be Edwardian; and it was a time of decadence.

The gold standard and the Empire had made the country rich. Female skirts rose an inch, in order to show ankles. Revolution was in the air, but that didn't yet seem threatening to the social order. It merely involved women silly enough to think they could vote.

Industry was powering on, with the Titanic the very epitome of that. A vast, glorious, unsinkable ocean liner, that sailed as a symbol of Britain's might. British ingenuity had designed that. It had been built in the United Kingdom using craftspeople from all four countries.

The pride in which she sailed was immense. Britannia well and truly did rule the waves.

But then she sank. The shockwaves didn't just start and end in the vicinity of the wreck, but back at home too. The whole world had witnessed that engineering shame, which probably did contribute to how well it was remembered too. Given what happened next, Britain probably never did get over it.

Within two years, the Great War was raging and the halcyon days were over. The gold standard was lost to the American dollar. Thousands perished in a senseless war; followed by the deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which awaited the survivors. 

Austerity led only to the Great Depression, which in turn segued into the Second World War, the Blitz and the loss of the British Empire. All within thirty years of the Titanic sinking.

Why does the Titanic disaster have such a powerful hold on the British imagination? It's because it's been picked over, time and again, like a scab. It was the ultimate symbol of Edwardian ease; a nostalgic memory for those who recalled Britain in its golden age.

It was the moment when it all started to go wrong. Britain, like Titanic, had once been brilliant; and now they were both an almighty shipwreck.

Picturing the Titanic

In 1907, the first stable color photography plate became available.

Five years later, Titanic was launched in the full blaze of press interest and public hype. It was one of the most photographed events of the time.

People had been able to take pictures since 1836, but that had involved a lot of sitting very still for long periods of time. By 1912, professional photographers were able to rush down to the docks and snap away at the celebrities waving from the deck.

It felt hi-tech and revolutionary, because it was. This does explain why so many historical images of Titanic exist.

Titanic in Photographs

The Titanic Movies of Hollywood

The ship sank in 1912. Hollywood was formed in 1913. Another example of historical timing playing its role.

Twenty-nine days after the Titanic sank, the first film was released telling its story. The American Film Industry was in its infancy, but they had the perfect star for the silent movie.

Dorothy Gibson was already a silent movie star and she was a survivor of the sinking. Not only did her celebrity add to the disaster's publicity, but she wasted no time getting in front of a camera to act it out.

For a cinema going public, still wide-eyed in shock about the news of Titanic, this was the ultimate expression of voyeurism. It felt like they were able to witness it first-hand, as 'told' by an actual eye-witness. She also wore exactly the same clothes on celluloid, as she worn on the night of the sinking.

Saved from Titanic was an instant success, though it's sadly no longer available. The only reels were destroyed in a fire.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, In Nacht und Eis (In Night and Ice) premiered in the winter of 1912. This silent movie also told the story of the disaster, only this one has survived the decades. Both were the first of many, many films, which continue to keep Titanic in the public eye.

In Nacht Und Eis (1912)

Filmed within months of the disaster, this German silent movie tells the story of the sinking of Titanic.

Ordinary People Died on Titanic

There were so many lives lost that their stories frequently turn up in local and family history. Wizzley author UninvitedWriter found one victim through genealogy.

Titanic: How It Really Sank

Human error played a huge part. Health and safety failed.

The Engineering of Titanic

This ship was unsinkable. At least that was the idea, though obviously circumstances made a mockery of that claim.

It was the height of British engineering prowess at the time, so what went wrong?  The story of Titanic isn't just about the passengers and crew upon it. There is also, quite literally, the nuts and bolts of the ship too.

For those with interests in engineering, invention and technology, the Titanic allows some wonderful discussions. Beyond the fascination with how it was made and what went wrong, there is a challenge inherent in the tale.

How do you make an unsinkable ship? Could modern engineering craft a liner which really could redeem that slogan?

It's an aspect of the story which has engaged inventors and designers throughout the century.

Construction of the Titanic

The engineering focus has largely been a British phenomenon, which goes back to the national psyche over the disaster.

Britain owned an Empire upon which the sun never set. It was wealthy on the proceeds. Its arrogance was unlimited and the Titanic was the best ocean liner that it could produce. Can you imagine how much pride fell under the waves with it?

Moreover, the entire world must have been hiding a smirk (or downright cheering in the colonies). Britain had a lot of egg on its face.

100 years later, our engineers have not matched Titanic for all of the QE2s that have sailed since.

It's undoubtedly interest in marine construction which brings people to the drawing board of Titanic. But it's the residual shame that keeps them there.

RMS Titanic Manual: 1909-1912

Marine Archeology and the Famous Wreck

I recall very well the wreck of the Titanic being discovered on the Atlantic's ocean floor. This happened in my life-time.

Every newspaper was full of the story. Television shows provided glimpses into the eerily silent world under the sea. The ship itself was so well-known, so famous, that it was like seeing an old friend.

Fascination raged once again. But it carried with it another avenue of interest. We know more about space than what's in our oceans. Suddenly marine exploration became a hot topic, all through Titanic.

For many of us, that interest waned again; but for those who are scientifically minded, this was their moment to enter into the legend.

Human interest stories might not have grabbed them, but marine archeology certainly would!

National Geographic - Secrets of the Titanic

Other Elements in an Epic Tale

I haven't even scratched the surface of all of the stories that can be told about Titanic. 

There are still tales of the spiritual, the ghostly, the premonitions and the curses, which haven't even been touched. Conspiracy theories abound.

The politics of the industry and the times all played their parts. Economy is in there too. The strict boundaries between rich and poor. They all have their stake in the Titanic story.

Under the heading 'timing of the disaster', I could have included the recent invention of Marconi's radio. It played such a vital part in bringing help for the survivors, not to mention forming an early chapter in the history of the internet.

Under the heading of 'human interest stories', I could have gone on forever. There are so many of them to tell from every conceivable angle. Which is also why it's time to bring this article to a close.

The sheer wealth of sources, in all topics and all genres, bring so many people to the story of Titanic. It's what makes the real life legend so enduring. It also makes it impossible to chart a course through them all.

But I hope that you enjoyed my 100th Wizzley article, on the 100th anniversary of one of modern history's most enduring events.

More articles about Titanic

On April 14th 2012, the 100th anniversary of Titanic striking an iceberg, her home city showed me the human cost.
Most Titanic books end with the sinking. That's when this one begins. It's the shocking, heart-breaking story of two families left behind.
Votes for Women or boats for women? In 1912, the press pushed to make it either/or and the Suffragettes were left floundering.
Since before Titanic sank, on April 15th 1912, there have been strange stories connected with it. Prepare for a voyage into the unknown.

Titanic: 100th Anniversary Merchandise

Buy your own Titanic memento, as a keepsake of its centenary.

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Titanic: The 100th Anniversary Collection DVD

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Revell Titanic Special 100th Anniversary

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The Titanic 100th Anniversary Commemorative

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Updated: 06/16/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/12/2012

I'm glad that you liked the article. I agree that the story never gets old.

I'm off to Liverpool tomorrow, as it's one of the Titanic cities. I'll be looking at the exhibition there in the Maritime Museum on the Albert Dock. There are so many artefacts and the like recovered from the ship itself. Sunday is the 100th anniversary, so there will be a lot going on up there.

dustytoes on 04/12/2012

You covered so much here and did it so well. The story of the Titanic never gets old and it's always fascinating.

JoHarrington on 04/01/2012

I'm glad that you liked it (and thank you as well for your commendation on the Wizzley forum).

They are both fascinating stories; and both ended up with people under the waves. Atlantis is looking much less like a myth now that the remains of an ancient civilization have been found in a destroyed island north of Crete.

mandeesears on 03/31/2012

I have always been fascinated by two stories --the Titanic and Atlantis. One is true, one may be a myth but my fascination is still there. I enjoyed your article immensely.

JoHarrington on 03/29/2012

I know! As soon as someone finally gives me that time machine, I'm going back and fetching them off!

JoHarrington on 03/27/2012

Thank you very much. <3

JoHarrington on 03/26/2012

Glad to hear it, Sheri! As an historian, I'm fascinated by the whole timing of this. Had it gone down a decade earlier or later, then we probably wouldn't be talking about it today. At least in the way that we are. It chose the perfect historical moment to sink.

Sheri_Oz on 03/26/2012

This is brilliant!!! I learned so much here and you had me enthralled at every sentence.

JoHarrington on 03/25/2012

Thank you very much! *takes a bow* I've just added in a link to your excellent Wizzle on Frank Millet too.

Mladen on 03/25/2012

Great article on very interesting subject. Hundred years passed and it is still one of the most famous stories. And now we have Titanic in 3D. Who would imagine that. :)
You did excellent job here with this 100th article of yours! Congrats!

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