On 29 July 1908, J. Bruce Ismay viewed and approved the designs drawn up by Harland and Wolff for yard number 400. A slightly-modified design would be used for number 401. As yet unnamed, the materials were now gathered and the yard prepared for construction.
On December 16, 1908, the first plates of number 400’s keel were laid, marking the beginning of what was to be a long and productive life for a well-loved ship. A little more than three months hence, on 31 March 1909, number 401’s keel plates were likewise laid in the berth next to number 400. From that point, the two sister ships would rise side by side for more than a year, going from keel plates to double bottom, then to a steel skeleton that formed the vaguest outlines of the yacht-like hull. Then came the large hull plates, machine riveted except where the curvature of the sleek hull necessitated hand-hammered riveting.
By the end of September of 1910, Olympic was just about ready for launching. As was common practice for class leaders of the time, her hull was coated in a light grey paint that would make her photograph better. Her launch date was set for 20 October.
The day dawned sunny and, at first, quite windy. As the time for the momentous launching grew near, however, the conditions became perfect: a warm, sunny fall day. As historian Mark Chirnside chronicles in his fantastic biography of the great ship, “numerous dignitaries” attended the launch, including the daughter of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, and others.
Olympic, as was tradition for White Star ships, was not christened with champagne at her launching. Instead, a rocket was fired moments before 11 o’clock, Lord Pirrie gave the single-word command “Now!” from the launching stand, and the hydraulic triggers were released. With the timber props having already been knocked away by workmen–a dangerous task with thousands of tons of steel resting just over their heads–the vessel began to move, slowly at first, toward the River Lagan.
In 62 seconds, and after reaching a speed of over 12 knots as she raced down the ways and into the Lagan, the largest ship yet built by the hand of man was floating in the river, with six anchors now exerting their force to slow the empty hull to a stop, which was accomplished in less than a minute. Tugs took her in hand immediately and the light grey form of what was to become grandest liner yet seen was towed to the fitting out wharf, where she would spend the next seven-plus months being transformed from an empty hulk into a grand ocean queen.
First, her massive reciprocating engines were lowered into the hull and assembled in the largest engine room afloat, along with her center turbine. Soon, her 29 massive boilers would follow, secured to the tank top. Plumbing and electrical wiring would follow, along with telephones, steering apparatus, her telegraphy equipment, and yards of carpet, hundreds of wood panels and linoleum tiles, and eventually all matter of furniture, cutlery, and china.
Just after the year 1911 dawned, Olympic would be inching toward completion, but still without her distinctive funnels. The third funnel would arrive first, followed by the fourth and then the other two, with her lifeboats arriving aboard at the same time. As March became April, she now resembled a more finished product, her four funnels rising elegantly from her boat deck, her wooden lifeboats under her davits, and her paintwork becoming more complete.
The time had come to move the giant liner into the new Thompson Graving Dock for work that could only be completed with the hull out of the water. Olympic would be the first liner to use the cavernous dock, which would remain in service into the 21st century and host any number of famous vessels. It was in this dock that her propellers were installed and an iconic photograph of them, with lilliputian-like workmen standing beneath the majestic hull, would be taken.
Her building and fitting out complete, Olympic would steam out of Belfast on the 29th of May for two days of sea trials. As she completed these to the satisfaction of all involved, Titanic would join her afloat when she was launched on 31 May and began her own journey toward the open sea. Guests who attended the launching of the second of what was to become a trio of enormous, luxurious behemoths then were ferried to Olympic for her journey to Liverpool, her port of registry, for a ceremonial port call at White Star’s previous home port, and then on to Southampton, where she would prepare for her long-awaited maiden voyage.
The story of the Olympic begins with the ramp up of the competition for passenger traffic on the North Atlantic. With the concept of a “liner” coming up on a half-century in age, Germany and England engaged in not only a naval arms race that saw the construction of massive dreadnought battleships, but a race to build the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ocean liners.
It is here that our story begins. By the turn of the century, Britain had fallen behind Germany in the race for supremacy on the Great Circle Route. Both the Cunard and White Star shipping lines possessed ships that were too slow to keep up with their teutonic rivals. Germany had inaugurated the age of the four-stacker, ships that were large, grand, and fast.
Cunard would respond first, with the company being devoted to recapturing the Blue Riband, with the Lusitania and Mauretania entering service in the fall of 1907. White Star, devoted first to luxury and safety rather than speed, had recently completed the Adriatic, the final of the “Big Four” ships that would provide grand accommodations and amenities, many not seen yet on an ocean liner. It would be on Adriatic that passengers were to be first treated to an indoor swimming pool and a Turkish bath.
While the Big Four liners would be popular options, they did not, thanks to the four-funneled Cunarders, look th part of the sleek Atlantic greyhound. White Star would need to respond if their express service, recently shifted from Liverpool to Southampton, was to remain among the top choices of wealthy passengers and the thousands of immigrants who took these vessels to start a new life in America.
It was this reality into which Olympic would be born, first conceived by White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay and Harland and Wolff chairman Lord Pirrie in the summer of 1907, by many accounts over a dinner at the Pirrie home in Belgrave Square.
At first, the designs appear to have focused on an enlarged version of the Big Four liners with broken up deckhouses and three slim funnels amidships. While no exact drawings are known to exist, we do know that the fourth ‘D’ design was the one selected. This design showed a ship with four equally-spaced and elegantly raked funnels on a yacht-like hull with a single superstructure flanked by fore- and aft-well decks and a raise forecastle and poop deck.
Olympic would not be a challenger for the Blue Riband. She was designed for a fast, but not record-breaking, 21 knots, although she and her sisters would prove faster, in Olympic’s case considerably faster, than this marker. Where Olympic would win passengers over would be in her unsurpassed luxury.
The grandeur of her first-class spaces would be unmatched. She would have not one, but two grand staircases, both topped with a wrought iron and glass dome and paneled in the finest oak. She would have an enormous dining saloon in Jacobean style, a smoking room decorated with beautiful paneling and stained glass windows, a swimming pool, Turkish baths, and many other amenities that were just then coming into fashion with the rich and famous who traveled in liners’ best staterooms. Her staterooms, outfitted in various popular styles, would all be grand, capped by her parlor suites (although lacking the private promenades that her sister Titanic would make famous).
On her spacious decks, passengers could promenade in the open on A-deck or enclosed on B deck, on both being able to enjoy vast ocean vistas as they traveled the fabled route to and from New York.
All of this luxury would be packed into a design that, despite the storied loss of both her sisters, was among the safest to go to sea in that era. As drawn up, Olympic would be able to survive a rupture of any two adjoining compartments, the loss of her first four compartments, or any number of lesser calamities. Built with the best “battleship” steel then available, her hull was strong, her compartmentalization superior, and her stability remarkable. She would, unlike most of the other large greyhounds, prove to be among the most stable and comfortable ships of the era. She would suffer little of the vibration problems of other large vessels as well. All of this would ensure her enormous popularity both before and after the tragedy that befell Titanic.
Her designs completed, although continually tinkered with, construction began on Olympic and Titanic side by side in the newly-modernized Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast.
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