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 The Titanic”   Artist: Simona Cantele

 

THE TITANIC BEFORE THE TITANIC

 

The Titanic, the vulnerable giant of the British company ‘White Star Line’ was the first luxurious and grandiose transatlantic liner of modern times, with a displacement of 60,000 tons.

 

Thanks to the innovative use of a double hull and watertight compartments, this Colossus of the Sea should have been extremely safe; for this motive the company didn’t think it necessary to furnish the ship with an adequate number of lifeboats in relation to the number of passengers.

 

This luxurious ‘Floating Palace’ sank miserably during its maiden voyage on the night of 14th April 1912, after a collision with an iceberg – 1500 passengers lost their lives. The tragedy hit public opinion profoundly. For a ship with advanced safety systems, such a calamity was unforeseeable.  

 

Perhaps, though, unforeseeable isn’t such an appropriate term, seeing as how 14 years previously in 1898 Morgan Robertson, an American author of sea-going adventures, published a novel with the title “FUTILITY” in which he described the sad future of the Titanic.

 

From the very beginning of the novel we find very significant extracts like the following:-

“the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable” –

“Unsinkable – indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws”.

 

The astonishing similarities between the two ships, the imaginary Titan and the real Titanic, continue throughout the succeeding pages. Shortly we will examine them in greater detail.

 

Before though I would like to look at things more precisely. To analyse this ‘anticipation’ of the future more scrupulously I trawled through many sources and managed to obtain an English language copy of Robertson’s book. I don’t believe an Italian language version exists, moreover the original language version is preferable. But can we really trust the original text? Especially as we are talking about a recent re-print. Could it have received any alteration, to make it more like the fate of the Titanic?

 

My view is that we can exclude this possibility  as the editor of this re-print is Martin Gardner. Gardner is known also in Italy  as the author of ‘Mathematical Games’ in the notable magazine ‘Scientific American’.

There is also another reason we can trust  Gardner; he absolutely doesn’t believe that Robertson predicted the future, and therefore would have no interest in modifying the text to make it more similar to what befell the Titanic.

 

In his long introduction to the book (re-printed with the title ‘The wreck of the Titanic foretold?’) Gardner maintains that the coincidences are just that – coincidences within the bounds of normal statistical laws of chance.

 

After this consideration we can finally examine the extensive list of similarities without obviously neglecting the difference between fact and fiction.

 

-         First of all the two ships had almost the same name Titan and Titanic

-         The Titanic was 882.5 feet in length, the Titan 800 feet

-         Both were made of steel with 3 propellers and 2 masts

-         Both were considered unsinkable because of the number of watertight compartments; 19 on the Titan 16 on the Titanic

-         The Titan had 92 watertight doors, the Titanic 12

-         Both were considered ‘the biggest passenger ship ever built’

-         Both were equipped to carry 3,000 passengers

-         The Titan carried 3,000 the Titanic 2,235

-         The Titanic displaced 66,000 tons, the Titan 45,000

-         The horse power of the Titanic was 46,000 that of the Titan 40,000

-         Both carried very few lifeboats- 20 the Titanic 24 the Titan

-         The Titan was travelling at 22.5 knots when it hit the iceberg the Titan 25 knots

-         Both the ships began their voyages in April

-         Both ships hit the iceberg at midnight

-         It was a clear night without a moon for the Titanic, but for the Titan it was a night of thick fog with moonlight

-         Both ships were hit on the starboard side

-         Both were travelling between New York and England

-         The Titanic was making her maiden voyage from England to New York. The Titan was going in the opposite direction and it was her third round-trip.

-         Both ships were owned by companies in Britain with offices in Liverpool

-         The Titanic lost c.1,500 passengers The Titan 3,000

 

I admit this long list of details could seem boring, but I think it indispensable for readers, in this way everyone can form their own opinion on this unusual series  of coincidences.

 

To make it easier to read, we have underlined the differences between fact and fiction, in this way we can see they are few in relation to the greater number of things in common.

 

Fortune-tellers and the like make a large number of predictions, because they know that among their numerous errors (benevolently forgotten by the public) there will be some rare cases which seem by chance to appear like reality. But with the book we are analysing the situation is somewhat diverse. The particulars which agree with reality greatly outnumber the differences. Can we still see it as coincidence?

 

Gardner the sceptical editor of the re-print in my possession, is totally convinced of this. Let’s follow his argument.

The coincidences between the Titanic and the Titan are so numerous not just through a casual similarity but also because of the logical reasoning followed by the author.

 

Desiring to write a novel based on a great naval disaster, it was easy to choose a collision with an iceberg, as it was at that time a danger feared by sailors.

The period most at risk of icebergs for sailing was the spring, when the temperature rises and the polar regions began to thaw, forming huge floating icebergs. Obvious therefore to choose April as the month for the disaster. Logical also to then imagine that the ship should be unsinkable to add a touch of irony to the tragedy.

 

As for the numerous technical details being almost exactly alike?

Also here Gardner has no doubts; Morgan Robertson, author of sea novels, was certainly well supplied with maritime technical details and skills.

It is true that at the time ships didn’t yet have the colossal characteristics of the Titanic, but companies were already thinking of building bigger ships. In fact Gardner references the New York Times of 17 September 1892, in which the construction of the ‘Gigantic’ was announced, this in fact was never realised.

However the project announced in the article contained many characteristics similar to those of the Titan. Robertson could have read this article using it as an optimum source for the technical detail contained in the novel. Are we then placing this ‘preview’ of the Titanic behind a curtain of coincidence and technical knowledge of the author? Relax, before that let’s look at it from another angle.

 

BANAL COINCIDENCES ?

 

As a man of science I can at least appreciate Gardner’s invitation to caution and rationality in the examination of the surprising number of coincidences between Titan and Titanic.

In our analysis the laws of probability cannot possibly be ignored and we mustn’t allow ourselves to become emotionally involved in the fascinating story of the author that manages to predict the future.

We make the same mistake however if we attribute everything to the power of the laws of statistical probability. If a monkey were to type the word ‘now’ on a type-writer we mustn’t be surprised. Hitting any three letters on a keyboard at random could give this result. If however, the monkey were to write ‘I’m hungry now’ we would be right to be astonished because to hit that many keys and for them to make sense is extremely improbable.

 

Returning to Robertson’s book, we are at pains to accept the idea that so great a number of details are correct only due to chance. As we have already seen, Gardner, apart from the fortuitousness, invites us to consider the reasoning of the writer. It was logical to think of collision with an iceberg. It was logical to imagine that the ship should be unsinkable. Yes, all was logical, but I don’t think the writer forming the idea for his book would be without alternatives. His Titan could have sunk after colliding with another ship, or exploded following mechanical problems or perhaps after hitting an uncharted rock. Hitting an iceberg wasn’t the only possibility.

 

Regarding the number of coincidental technical details between the two ships, Gardner has an ace up his sleeve. Robertson could have read the New York Times article of 17 September 1892, the imminent construction of the ‘Gigantic’, although never realised but with details similar to the Titan.

So how similar is the Gigantic to the Titan?

To find out I had to read the said article of 1892, which was made possible by the great kindness and availability of John Paul Eaton.

Eaton is one of the leading authorities in the field of the study of the Titanic; he has written 5 books on the subject and is a consultant for the National Geographic Society and 2 maritime museums. This studious authority, more than just furnish me with useful historical information about the Titanic, even went to the trouble of going to the library of New York, to get me a photocopy of the article about the Gigantic. From which I could compile the following table allowing us to compare the three ships:

 

NAME                          TITANIC                  TITAN                        GIGANTIC

 

LENGTH                      882.5 FT                 800 FT                         700 FT

 

HORSEPOWER                   46,000                   40,000                         4,500 

 

SPEED                 22.5 KNOTS               25 KNOTS                   22-27KNOTS

 

PROPELLERS                 3                            3                                    3

 

There aren’t any other technical details available for the Gigantic with which to compare the  other two ships, however I cannot possibly agree with Gardner when he says “ the figures given for the planned liner (Gigantic) are very close to those Robertson used for his imaginary Titan”.

Reading the table you can see they are alike only for the number of propellers and speed, while the length, horse-power, and name are totally different.

I don’t believe therefore that Robertson utilized the technical information for the Gigantic in his novel: the table clearly shows that the Titan is much more like the Titanic than the Gigantic.

 

There is another affirmation by Gardner that requires reflection; according to him it is possible that the White Star Line company, when Robertson wrote his novel, had already announced the name Titanic and had planned its construction.

It is a doubt that many could share, but the super expert J.P. Eaton expressed to me his scepticism on this hypothesis by informing that the name of the new ship (Titanic) was announced to the public on 11 September 1907, while the novel is of 1898.

 

And if there was some indiscretion before the official announcement?

 

Even if this ‘leak’ happened it couldn’t have happened when Robertson was writing his book because the Titanic hadn’t yet been thought of or designed. J.P. Eaton in fact informed me that the idea for the Titanic came in the same year of its announcement 1907.

 

It was in this year when there was an historical encounter between J.Bruce Ismay, president of White Star Line, and Lord Pirrie, president of the shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff.

Here is  what the encyclopedic Eaton wrote to me regarding this encounter.

 

“The concept of Olympic, Titanic and a third vessel to be built later were initially discussed by Lord Pirrie and Bruce Ismay both during and after dinner at Pirrie’s London home Downshire in the year 1907. The date of the dinner is not known at this time.

The Cunard Line’s vessel Lusitania came into service in September 1907.

In observing that liner’s performance, Pirrie was able to discuss with Ismay the necessity of building new tonnage for the White Star Line.”

 

This fundamental information completes my ‘Titanic dossier’ fruit of a long and scrupulously scientific inquiry. So what conclusions can we draw from it all?

Without wishing to withdraw from the rigorous science of the inquiry I prefer not to express any definitive opinion.

I wish to leave the readers to form their own personal opinions of this singular event: in light of the information given to me by J.P. Eaton, I find the judgement of Gardner too categorical, totally convinced that we are seeing just the curious coming together of coincidences.

It is true that Gardner could be right, though it seems to me quite improbable that an author of the 19th century could have found at random numerous details relative to the event of the Titanic.

But we must take into account that ‘improbable’ doesn’t mean ‘impossible’.

There have been so many tales written of imaginary disasters that some might by chance resemble a real disaster. But an accidental similarity with so many precise details?

 

I leave you to decide for yourselves.

 

                                                                      FLAVIO CENNI

 

 

 

Professor Cenni teaches Natural Sciences at Liceo Paul Klee of Genoa (Italy)

 

 

 

 

 
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