What Really Sank the Titanic

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What Really Sank the Titanic

Postby Dave Gittins » Mon Aug 13, 2012 6:01 am

What Really Sank the Titanic.

By Jennifer Hooper McCarty and Tim Foecke. 2008.

If you care about who went in which lifeboat, or how many dogs were saved, this book is not for you. If you love words like anisotropic and martensite, put on your metallurgist’s helmet and get stuck in.

The book is not easy to review, for it contains much that is thoroughly researched and much that is sloppy. I’ll begin with the positives.

Both authors are qualified metallurgists and their work outweighs the efforts of the amateurs who have pushed “theories” about Titanic’s sinking. Some of these get some rough handling. No names, no keelhauling!

Many topics are covered. We are given a course on the types of steel and iron used in the ship and their means of production. The steel, made by the open hearth process, was of uniform quality and was tested extensively before use. An important point is that the iron rivets used in parts of the ship were made of metal of very variable quality. This is because the iron was made in very small batches by manual workers. A revelation is that the iron for the rivets was not required to be tested by Board of Trade officers, possibly because the material was becoming obsolete. By 1912 many ships were built entirely with steel rivets. There is a good deal of basic metallurgy, with relevant illustrations.

We look at the work of Harland and Wolff and its labour problems, which may have had an effect on work quality. The key finding concerns the builder’s choice of iron rivets. From company documents, the authors show that the iron rivets used were of the second highest available grade. This is reflected in the test results given later in the book.

The collision with the berg is described and useful little drawings relate the positions of several eyewitnesses to the damaged areas. The work of several expeditions to the wreck is described.

The authors give a detailed account of the “brittle steel” claims that were popularized by the media a few years ago. The important fact here is that much publicity was given to tests that showed Titanic’s steel was brittle when subjected to a sharp impact at freezing temperatures. Less notice was taken of later tests that showed the steel was flexible when bent at a slower rate. The authors conclude that the steel in the hull was adequately strong at low temperatures.

The question of the second grade rivets is examined and this part of the book has been misrepresented in the media and online. The authors don’t go so far as to say Titanic would not have sunk if better rivets had been used throughout. They only go so far as to say that better rivets “would have changed the length of time of the sinking”. They theorise that this would have enabled more lives to be saved by Carpathia. Your reviewer would say that the sinking would have had to be slowed by perhaps as much a half a day to make a material difference. Landlubbers frequently underestimate the time needed to transfer hundreds of passengers from a sinking ship to a rescuer.

The book covers other topics, including the bunker fire, the breakup and the state of the wreck. There are brief notes on the key people involved.

The book is properly indexed and there is a big bibliography, which includes many technical books and learned papers. There are dozens of sources listed for each chapter but oddly enough the sources are not given reference numbers within the text.

I have several quarrels with the book. The most serious are technical. The authors have not noticed that the legendary one inch thick steel of the hull plating was not used throughout the ship. In the ends it was as little as .6” thick. This has important implications for the strength of the shell at the site of the berg impact. In spite of including a Board of Trade diagram of a hull rivet, the authors conducted tests on a “reproduction” riveted joint that has no resemblance to the real thing. (Page 14 of illustrations). The authors seem unaware that rivets below the waterline were inserted from inside the ship and their points hammered down almost flush with the plating.

An oddity is the indiscriminate use of Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures. There are few typos, though Captain Lord achieves the remarkable feat of reaching longitude 50° 70’ west. There is the usual confusion between weight and Gross Tonnage and on page 223 the authors make a mess of the helm orders. Most amazingly, Olympic is returned to the Arrol gantry for repairs after the HMS Hawke incident!

I recommend the book with reservations. The authors deserve to have their work assessed by actual reading, not via self-promoting reporters and bloggers.
Dave Gittins
Author of Titanic: Monument and Warning
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Re: What Really Sank the Titanic

Postby Atlantic1912 » Thu Aug 16, 2012 1:15 am

Dave, thanks for the review, I'll have to pick it up sometime.
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Re: What Really Sank the Titanic

Postby Dave Gittins » Thu Aug 16, 2012 10:30 am

By all means grab a copy. It's quite cheap and you get to read the authors' work for yourself instead of having it mangled by the media.
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Author of Titanic: Monument and Warning
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Re: What Really Sank the Titanic

Postby Atlantic1912 » Thu Aug 16, 2012 11:11 pm

You're right there, much easier to at least follow than have random quotes thrown around.

Keep up the reviews, there are too many books I don't yet have and I need to know what's worth reading.
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