Steel could have helped prevent the most infamous maritime disaster in history
In less than three hours, the Titanic sank in the freezing North Atlantic Ocean, killing more than 1,500 people on board. Famous for being the largest, most luxurious ship in the world, the Titanic that was once deemed “unsinkable,” hit an iceberg on its first voyage on April 15, 1912, Titanic – over 105 years ago.
But could steel have played an important role in preventing the most infamous maritime disaster in history?
Metallurgists and historians studied archives of the ship’s builder, Harland and Wolff, compared metals recovered from Titanic with other ships’ metals from that era and reviewed engineers’ documents to determine what was considered state-of-the-art. They concluded that substandard materials doomed the ship.
Harland and Wolff constructed two other large ships, Olympic and Britannic, at the same time it built Titanic — and pressure was on from the White Star Line to complete all ships quickly. The shortage of materials was a widely acknowledged problem, causing Harland and Wolff to purchase lower quality materials from unfamiliar suppliers.
Despite the fact that most shipbuilders of the era were transitioning from iron to steel rivets, which were known to be stronger, more durable and did not require skilled riveting by hand, mostly iron rivets were used on Titanic — No. 3 bar, or “best,” as opposed to No. 4 bar, or “best of best.” Slag, a residue from smelting that makes iron extremely brittle, was also discovered in the iron rivets at Titanic’s wreckage, suggesting the workmanship was mediocre.
Additional inspection showed steel rivets were used only on Titanic’s central hull, considered the most critical part of the ship. Iron rivets were used on the bow, which was precisely where the iceberg hit causing rivets to pop and six seams to open in the steel bow plates. This allowed water to rush in several watertight compartments, removing all hope of saving the ship. The conclusion? Higher quality steel rivets could have minimized the damage or kept Titanic afloat long enough for rescuers to arrive, potentially saving hundreds of lives.
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Source: Broad, William J. “In Weak Rivets, A Possible Key to Titanic’s Doom,” New York Times, April 15, 2008.