"What a Night!"
The sinking of R.M.S. "Titanic"
Due to the fact that a lecture in the Hamburg planetarium by Dr. Bernd Loibl, the director of the Wolfsburg
planetarium, contained more hearsay rather than solid facts, I would like to present a more truthful account of
that last, fateful night of the "Titanic", with special attention to the astronomical aspects.
In the years 1905 and 1906, the shipping company White Star Line had entered a fierce competition against her
main rival, the Cunard Line, for dominance of the profitable Atlantic traffic. Therefore, White Star chairman Bruce
Ismay decided to build a trio of ocean liners which were to surpass Cunard's largest ships, the "Mauretania"
and "Lusitania", if not in their speed, at least in the luxury of their appointments.
The first ship, "Olympic", was launched on Thursday, October 20, 1910, followed by "Titanic" on
Wednesday, May 31, 1911.
The name "Titanic", like the name for her sister ship, "Olympic", comes from Greek mythology.
The Titans were a race of giants with extraordinary power. But they were boundlessly arrogant and plotted to
overthrow the Gods (Zeus, etc.). For this, they were punished by the Gods by being thrown into the depths of the
Tartarus (a mythological hell).
The blasphemy to choose a name like this for an alledgedly "unsinkable" ship ("God Himself can not sink this
ship!") was considered a bad omen by many.
True to her name, "Titanic" was a giantess. Weighing more than 66,000 tons, she was the largest moveable
object ever made by man. She had a length of 269 meters (881.5 feet) and a beam of 28 meters (92 feet (a tennis
court is about as long)). From keel to masttop she measured 73 meters (240 feet). Her four funnels alone
had a height of 23 meters (75 feet). Her triple expansion steam engines (with 16,000 Hp ea.), driving the
three- bladed outer propellers were as tall as a 4 story building. The rudder weighed 101 tons and the hull was
held together by 3,000,000 rivets with a total weight of 1,250 tons.
On Wednesday, April 10, 1912 at 12:15 pm, "Titanic" left Southampton on her maiden voyage with White Star
Line's commodore, Captain Edward John Smith ("E.J."), in command. After calls at Cherbourg (France) and Queenstown
(today Cobh, Ireland), "Titanic" left for New York on April 11, 1912 with 2,200 souls on board.
April 14, Sunday
A boat drill had been scheduled in the morning, but Captain Smith had it cancelled, as it would have interfered
with the divine service of which he was in charge. On a macabre sideline, one of the chorals sung on the occasion
was "For Those In Peril on the Sea".
"Titanic"'s Marconi office for "wireless telegraphy", call sign MGY, had the world largest range of any
mobile station (500 miles, though by night considerably more), and, while "Titanic" was berthed in
Southampton, the two wireless operators Philips und Bride enjoyed themselves by chatting away with stations as far
Their equipment, consisting of a 5 KW disk discharger and a Flemming valve receiver, had broken down on Saturday,
but both had managed to get the set operational again by Sunday morning. Delayed by the failure, they lagged
hopelessly behind in sending the passenger's private messages. Hence important messages from other ships referring
to the ice situation were lost. Some messages were carried to the bridge. One of those was actually put on
display in the chart room, but was never entered into the chart itself. Captain Smith handed an ice warning to Bruce
Ismay, who put it in his pocket to show it off to other passengers later.
Careful analysis provided, the big picture would have been as follows: Directly in "Titanic"'s path was
a giant icefield, running from North to South, consisting of icebergs and small growlers. Several ships had already
been severely damaged on attempting to pass the field.
Nonetheless, "Titanic" had throttled up her speed ever since the beginning of her voyage. Derived by the
noon position, she was going at 22 knots on Saturday. Sunday evening, the propeller revolutions were increased by
three revs to 75 revolutions per minute. Captain Smith had also ordered the last of the 29 boilers lit, thereby
accelerating the vessel to its highest speed of 23 knots (43 km/h or 12 m/s).
On 17:50 hrs, "Titanic" changed her heading from 240° (about SW) to 266° (roughly W), having reached
the so- called "corner", which usually requires a course correction for New York. In "Titanic"'s case, this
change was made even later than usual.
On the evening, passengers became witness to a wonderful and wildly romantic sunset, followed by the appearance
of the first stars at around 20:00 hrs. Directly ahead, the officers could see Betelgeuse and Rigel, while Sirius
reflected in the oily sea at port side. Saturn was setting on starboard, and Mars was high above the bridge. Neither
stars nor planets were "shot" with a sextant, however, because only noon shots were used for navigation.
At 20:55 hrs Captain Smith was relieved from his bridge duty by 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller. Both briefly
conferred about the situation and agreed that the missing swell, the imminent new moon and the calm would probably
interfere with the cognition of icebergs, but that they still would be detected by their white outlines.
The Captain receded to his chamber by 21:20 hrs. Lightoller ordered the men in the crow's nest to keep a sharp
lookout for icebergs until daybreak. He also had a hatch in front of the bridge closed, as the light that came from
that hatch hampered night vision. Furthermore, he had the fresh water tanks temperature monitored to avoid their
At 22:00 hrs, Lightoller is relieved by 1st Officer William Murdoch. In the crow's nest, too, a new watch
assumes duty. Lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee will be the ship's eyes until midnight. On the Docking
Bridge on the Poop Deck, Quartermaster George Rowe rubs his hands and paces up and down to keep warm by the motion.
At 23:40 hrs, Fleet suddenly spots a dark silhouette that stands out as a black hole against the starry sky.
He pulls the ship's bell three times to signal an obstacle in "Titanic"'s path. Then he picks up the phone's
handset and cranks away at the handle. One of the most bizarre conversations in history is about to begin:
Upon hearing someone picking up the phone in the Wheelhouse, Fleet shouts:"Is there anybody there?"
6th Officer Moody responds "Yes. What did you see?"
Fleet: "Iceberg right ahead!"
Moody hangs up and calls to First Officer Murdoch: "Iceberg right ahead!" Having seen the iceberg himself that
very instant, Murdoch sprints to the engine telegraph and tears it to "Full Astern". Simultaneously, he orders the
helmsman "Hard a-starboard!", meaning at that time: "Move your rudder's tiller to starboard, so that
the ship's bow turns to port."
Contrary to a legend spread by Second Officer Lightoller, the iceberg was not a recently overturned
"blue" berg. There are numerous eyewitnesses who have seen the berg gliding past, and none of them described
it as being blue or dark.
In the crow's nest, Frederick Fleet still clutches the handset, waiting, watching, hoping, that the bow finally
starts to swerve aside. In the last moment, the bow starts to move to port, tantalizingly sloooow. When it
finally seems as if "Titanic" would clear the berg, an ominous crunching sound is heard from down below, and
an ever so slight shudder shakes the ship.
The iceberg punches six tiny holes over a length of 90 meters (290 feet) along rivet seams. Cooled down by the
subzero water (minus 2 Centigrades; only the North Atlantic salinity prevents the water from freezing), the rivet
steel is too brittle to withstand the enormous shear stresses.
It has been determined later that 38 seconds passed from the instant that the iceberg was sighted until collision.
During each of these seconds, "Titanic" travelled a distance of 12 meters (39 feet). Murdoch's orders
were fatal in many respects: First of all, the rudder surface was too small (30 m² (280 square feet)) to move
a mass of 66,000 tons effectively. Also, the four- bladed center propeller was operated by a Parsons turbine, which
could not be reversed. Hence, the propeller effectiveness was already greatly reduced. For full effectiveness, the
entire prop flow should have remained on the rudder blade to increase the turning ratio. And, "Titanic"'s
outer reciprocating engines took at least three revolutions to clear themselves from surplus steam before they
could be stopped and reversed.
Quartermaster Rowe continued his watch, when he observed the glittering of myriads of ice crystals in the deck
lights. Then, to his utter astonishment, he beheld of something like a wind jammer on starboard. Only on second
sight did he recognize the iceberg.
200 meters ahead, Murdoch operated the switches for the watertight doors.
In Boiler Room #6, which was first to the bow, First Stoker Fred Barrett had just ordered the dampers shut,
when he heard a deafening thunder and water gushed into the Boiler Room half a meter above the floor plates along
its entire length. Barrett jumped through the closing door leading astern to Boiler Room #5. This room was damaged,
too, if only light.
In the mean time, Captain Smith had entered the Bridge. After seeing tons of ice on the Foc'sle and forward
Well Deck, he ordered Boxhall to go down and assess the damage, if any. Boxhall went down as far as the lowest
passenger deck and as far forward as possible, but could not detect any sign of a damage. This was to be the last
good news ever for Captain Smith. Still worried, he ordered Boxhall to seek the Carpenter to have him inspect the ship.
Boxhall had barely left the Bridge, when the carpenter brushed him aside, shouting: "The ship is making water!"
Hard on his heels came Jago Smith, one of the postal clerks, reporting "The Post Office is flooded to the ceiling!"
Monday, April 15
After the inspection by the carpenter and "Titanic"'s designer, Thomas Andrews, who was also aboard,
the situation was as follows: Water in the Fore Peak ... in Hatch No.1 ... in Hatch No.2 ... in the Post Office ...
In Boiler Room No.6. Water 4.20 meter above keel in the first five compartments within ten minutes. The pumps would
never be able to control the inrush of water. What did that mean? Andrews explained with a calm voice: The bulkhead
between the fifth and the sixth watertight compartments did not go any higher than E Deck. The weight of the
inrushing water would lower the bow, so that the water would flood Compartment No.6 from above, then
Compartment No.7 and so forth. There was no way out. Ship Engineer Wilding had calculated as far back as 1912, that
the holes punched into the ship must have been ridiculously small. Today, it is known that they did not exceed an
area of 2 m² (22 square feet), as small as a normal front door. However, it was "Titanic"'s
death blow, as these tiny holes were absolutely inaccessible by the time the situation was clear.
Andrews gave "Titanic" one hour, two at most. Captain Smith was petrified. His career's greatest triumph
became a living nightmare right in front of his eyes. He ordered the lifeboats to be swung out and readied and
went to the Radio Room himself to have the operators call for help.
Meanwhile, Fourth Officer Boxhall had determined the dead reckoning, a method for calculating the ship's
position by accounting for the ship's course, headway, logged speed and currency offsets since the last noon
position. Boxhall determined the position as being latitude 41° 46' N and longitude 50° 14' W. Actually, the
real position was 13 nautical miles to the east. At 0:15 hrs, "Titanic" sent a general call for help
("CQD MGY", meaning: "All ships, this is "Titanic" calling, we need help!") six times into the darkness of the
Ten miles to the NNW, the tramp steamer "Californian" was surrounded by ice. Wireless operator Cyril Evans
was just getting ready for his bunk, when Third Officer Groves looked into the cabin and asked with which ships
Evans were in contact. "Only "Titanic".", said Evans. He had been bawled out rudely by "Titanic",
when he tried to send them another ice warning, and therefore he had enough for today. Groves put on the headset
and listened. He was interested in the wireless and quite good when it came to picking up a message, but he was
not very familiar with the equipment. "Californian"'s station had a magnetic detector, which had to be
wound up. Groves did not wind it up and, consequently, heard nothing. He sighed, put the headset down on
the table went below to seek some less boring company. It was a few minutes past 0:15 hrs.
Aboard "Titanic", stewards were busy awakening all passengers and get them to the lifeboats. Now it
paid dearly that there never had been a boat drill: Instead of lowering the boats simultaneously, one after the
other was lowered away. Also, there was no general plan, but a boat was lowered as soon as it was ready.
On the Docking Bridge, Quartermaster George Rowe continued on his rounds. Since the iceberg passed almost an
hour ago, he had seen nobody and heard nothing. Now he observed to his utter amazement, Boat No.7 drifting past
on starboard side. He telephoned to the Main Bridge whether it was known that a boat had been lowered? An
incredulous voice asked him who he was and Rowe answered that he was the stern lookout and it became apparent
that he had been forgotten. He was ordered to come ahead and bring rockets with him. Rowe accordingly took a crate
of 12 rockets under his arm and hurried forward- the last man to learn about the events.
On the Main Bridge, the top and port lights of a ship (as it was known only later, of the "Californian")
had been sighted about 10 miles away. It has been stated that the crew had confused the setting planet Mars and
Castor, Pollux and Capella with a ship's running light. However, at least the officers were qualified enough to
recognize stars or planets for what they were. It is also very improbable that Mars can be confused with a red port
light, because Mars is not quite "red enough", it being more of an orange color. Moreover, Castor, Pollux and Capella span far too wide an angle (35
degrees) to be mistaken for a ship's light. With passengers, such a misunderstanding is more probable, as even
Venus is mistaken for a lot of objects even today.
1:15 hrs: "Titanic"'s bow nameplates submerge.
Visibility on this night was extraordinary. Passenger Lawrence Beesley, teacher at Dulwich College and an
extremely precise observer, reported the following from Boat No.13, which was lowered at 1:35 hrs:
"The night was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen: the sky without a single cloud to mar the perfect
brilliance of the stars, clustered so thickly together that in places there seemed almost more dazzling points of
light set in the black sky than background of sky itself; and each star seemed, in the keen atmosphere, free from
any haze, to have increased its brilliance tenfold and to twinkle and glitter with a staccato flash that made the
sky seem nothing but a setting made for them in which to display their wonder."
I discussed this with Peter Williamson, the director of the Canberra planetarium and also an avid "Titanophile".
We both agree that the limiting magnitude must have been around mag. 6.5.
1:40 hrs: The last rocket is fired. The fore Well Deck submerges.
2:00 hrs: The water is 3 meters (10 feet) below the fore part of the Boat Deck.
2:05 hrs: The last lifeboat, Collapsible D is lowered. "Titanic"'s bow is submerged to Bridge.
2:10 hrs: The last call for help is sent. Shortly after, the first funnel's stays snap and the funnel crashes
onto drifting swimmers in a plume of smoke and soot.
2:17 hrs: The lights flicker one last time and go out for good. The engineers, keeping the dynamoes running
unto the last moment, cannot leave the Engine Room any more, because the stern bulkhead turns into the Engine Room's
ceiling. The stern climbs to an angle of 45°. The second funnel, too, breaks away from its anchor. More than
1,000 souls cling to the stern.
2:18 hrs: Subjected to the tremendous lever action of the stern's 25,000 overhanging tons, the shell plating
starts to buckle at first and then rips apart, emanating from an ash ejection door on E Deck. The rip runs along
portholes and gangway doors similar to a perforation, until it reaches the uppermost decks. The hull loses its
entire integrity and breaks apart with a rumbling, screeching noise. While the bow sinks at once, the stern piece
falls back and settles horizontally for the moment. The impact topples the last funnel, sending it astern and
overboard; its weight crushing numerous unnamed people. The water rushes into the fully opened Engine Room like
into a giant wound.
Physics's pitiless powers again start to drag down the fore part of the stern section. The leak is now 1,000
square meters large (11,000 square feet), compared to the initial 2 m² torn by the iceberg. Within seconds,
the stern stands perpendicularly. The people clinging to the stern flagstaff are now 70 meters (230 feet) above the
surface of the water, higher than a suicide jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
2:20 hrs: The hull pauses for a moment, settles back a bit and then goes under with a slight turning motion.
People in the surrounding lifeboats hardly trust their eyes: For almost three hours they have hoped and prayed
that, somehow, the situation would normalize and they would be able to return on board. Even when the angle of
the rows of portholes steepened, they had not abandoned hope.
With the ship gone, only a thin pall of smoke wafts over the site of the sinking. But then they hear the
Cries for help by hundreds of swimmers unite to one single, terrible yell. Lawrence Beesley had intended to
skip it in his account of the disaster, but, finally, decided differently. Survivors compared the noise to the
sound of spectators in a stadium when a home run occurs. In some lifeboats, people sang sailor's songs and
cheered, so that they would not hear the cries anymore.
Here and there the opinion was advanced that the boats should row back, but it was feared that they would be
"swamped" by swimmers, and so, only one of the twenty lifeboats, commanded by Fifth Officer Lowe, returned to the
sinking site. Only four people could be saved, of whom one, who obviously went down with "Titanic", died
soon after. Last one picked up by the boat was Bath Attendant Harold Phillimore. Together with another man, he had
climbed onto a big piece of wreckage. His fellow sufferer became weaker and weaker and, finally, slid back into the
icy water whispering "What a Night!".
Slowly the cries diminished. The night became ominously peaceful. Mrs Elizabeth Shutes in Boat No.3 observed
shooting stars, coming from the Lyrid Meteor Shower. She thought how small and petty "Titanic"'s rockets
had looked. Ms. Gertrude Hippach in Boat No.4, too, saw the meteors. Never before had she seen so many and
remembered the old legend that with every shooting star someone died.
At around 3:00 hrs, Lawrence Beesley observed a glow on the horizon. He thought that it was sunrise at first,
but then that it were northern light. However, as 1912 was a year of sunspot minimum and "Titanic" was on a
latitude south of Rome, Italy, where Aurora Borealis can practically never been seen, I think that Beesley is wrong
and that he indeed- as he first believed- witnessed the start of astronomical dawn. That would have started at
3:34 hrs, which would coincide with his estimated 3:00 hrs. Peter Williamson agrees with this supposition.
Around 4:00 hrs, the people sighted the mast head lights of the steamer "Carpathia", which had been
summoned via wireless. While she carefully navigated through the ice field towards the lifeboats, Lawrence Beesley
observed that "the stars died, slowly -- save one which remained long after the others just above the horizon; and
nearby, with the crescent turned to the north, and the lower horn just touching the horizon, the thinnest, palest
of moons." Indeed, on the morning of April 15, 1912 Moon and Venus rise in a horizontal distance of only 4 degrees.
The moon at this time was an extremely thin crescent, being 27.4 days old. Had he been less waning, the disaster
would in all probability have been prevented: The reflections on the iceberg's surface would have enabled the
lookouts to see him in time for evasion.
At 5:17 hrs, the 706 survivors saw sunrise at last.
1,517 souls were not as lucky.
We should remember them when we raise our eyes to the starry skies around April 15.
Walter Lord: A Night To Remember
Walter Lord: The Night Lives On
Lawrence Beesley: "Titanic"
Tom Kuntz (Ed.): The "Titanic" Disaster Hearings. Pocket Books, 1998.
Ken Marschall, Donald Lynch: "Titanic"- An Illustrated History. The Madison Press, 1992.