For all of the attention lavished upon it since the moment the ship left the surface of the Atlantic in 1912, you could be forgiven for thinking that Titanic represented the worst disaster in history, or at least the worst maritime disaster. Her sinking is neither. In fact, the loss of 1,492 lives on that cold April night does not even represent the worst peacetime loss of life in a sinking (the loss of MV Doña Paz in 1987 far surpasses Titanic with over 4,300 lives lost).
So why Titanic? Why does her legacy live on so vibrantly today?
As Don Lynch noted during “Ghosts of the Abyss” in 2001, “look at all the stuff that comes with this!” Titanic isn’t just a garden-variety shipwreck. She was the largest ship ever built at that time, considered along with her sister Olympic to be mankind’s triumph over nature. She was believed to be safer than anything that could be built in 1912. The two ships were unparalleled in terms of luxury and style. She then proceeded to sink on her maiden voyage. Unlike so many shipwrecks, however, her final moments played out over more than two hours, allowing for drama to unfold, and was reported live via wireless reports from her two operators. Her loss came at a crucial point in the world’s history, as one age gave way to another.
Titanic’s legacy thus began to form before her hull touched down on the floor of the Atlantic after a journey of two miles.
Perhaps the first things that changed had to do with safety at sea. While Titanic compares favorably in terms of safety with ships at sea today (save for the large amount of flammable materials aboard her), as a direct result of her loss and the two inquiries held into it, many changes were made to shipping regulations. Lifeboats for all aboard a ship appeared almost immediately, taxing the ability of manufacturers to supply them. Before long, ships were being retrofitted or built new with more, higher, and better watertight subdivision and full double-skins. Passengers no longer were able to pass a voyage without a proper, detailed lifeboat drill.
New organizations and conventions were even formed that are still with us today. Titanic was far from the first ship to have an unfortunate or even tragic brush with ice. In direct response to her loss, however, the International Ice Patrol was formed by the nations involved in the Atlantic trade. It remains today, and every year the event that inspired it is commemorated with a wreath laying at the site of the sinking. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) also still exists today, governing safety standards for ships that sail the world’s oceans, from construction to operational regulations. Neither of these would likely exist if not for the consciousness-raising loss of the grand White Star liner.
Titanic didn’t just give pause to shipbuilders, owners, and travelers, though. The disaster immediately became a pop culture icon and phenomenon. Just 31 days after the sinking, the first feature film about the tragedy debuted, starring survivor Dorothy Gibson. Filson Young published the first book about the disaster at about the same time. Lawrence Beesley and Archibald Gracie published survivor accounts within a year, two among many books about the sinking that quoted those who had been there. Newspaper coverage of the sinking had been breathless from the start, with editors and publishers conscious of the profits to be made from continued copy. Before a year had passed, two more feature films covered the disaster. Songs and poems were composed, with the sinking inspiring more of the former than any other disaster in history according to some sources.
Even religion co-opted the story, with sermons from pulpits on both sides of the ocean ringing forth with dire warnings about how mankind had challenged God and nature and come out the loser. Religious leaders in every denomination saw the sinking as a clarion call that humanity was in danger of losing sight of its creation and its limits.
Physical monuments also became a popular way to commemorate the loss of so many lives. Monuments to Captain Smith, the ship’s heroic lost engineers, to her bandsmen, and even to individual survivors, popped up in the first months and years after their lives were cut short. Perhaps nowhere was more changed by the sinking than Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the bodies of those lost at sea were brought ashore and where many, known and unknown, were laid to rest. Even today, Halifax looks after those who never went home again, tending their graves and remembering their loss.
Had the disaster not become so indelibly tied to popular culture, it’s possible that World War I would’ve caused it to fade from public consciousness entirely. But unlike most sinkings, which could burn brightly for a moment and then fade to obscurity, Titanic would never quite let go its grip on humanity. First in the interwar years with films like 1929’s “Atlantic,” which drew the ire of the financially-struggling White Star Line, then in the first decade after the next war with Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (later turned into a feature film of the same name), books and films continued to pay homage to the story. Titanic even became a vehicle for Nazi propaganda with a 1943 dramatization of the disaster intended to paint a heroic (and fictional) German officer in contrast to the corrupt, money-grubbing owner and the weak-willed captain. As television took hold, Titanic provided the plot for episodes of shows like “The Time Tunnel” and “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
At the same time, however, the most tragic legacy of the sinking was continuing to play out in the lives of those who survived. While many of those who lived through the sinking went on to relatively “normal” lives afterward, not everyone was so lucky. Titanic’s loss and the deaths of so many aboard left untold numbers of widows and many orphans to fend for themselves. While relief drives were plentiful and well-subscribed, they couldn’t replace a lost spouse, parent, or provider. In this way, thousands of lives through the subsequent generations have been touched by the disaster, their lives forever different than they might have been. For other individual survivors, a return to normalcy wasn’t in the cards. Madeline Astor, married to the ship’s richest passenger, found herself a widow before she turned 19. She, along with many others, would suffer from what today we would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some survivors would find the memories, the survivor’s guilt, and the anguish too much and would take their own lives in subsequent years. Stewardess Annie Robinson was perhaps the first, throwing herself overboard from another liner in October of 1912. Lookout Frederick Fleet, who had spotted the fatal iceberg, was perhaps the last, dying by his own hand in 1964.
After the discovery of the wreck in 1985, Titanic’s legacy entered a new chapter. New information gleaned from numerous expeditions to visit and study the wreck has greatly added to the historical record, clarified many questions, and expanded the ship’s reach into the realm of science. New life forms were discovered living on and among the wreck, and it has since contributed greatly to various scientific experiments and projects.
The discovery also set off a new boom of Titanic mania, culminating in a wealth of new books, documentaries, and the 1997 James Cameron epic feature film that seated the ship and her story firmly in the public consciousness once again. Video games set their story aboard the great ship. A musical was made to set the story to song. Today, a virtual museum is being created to diligently reproduce every aspect of the ship in a way people can explore, truly bringing her back to life.
Just as in the early days after her loss, the ship’s name and history became a shorthand for discussing tragedies of all types. After the horrid September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, people reached for Titanic as a comparative and as a way to understand a new and unexpected disaster.
Titanic, however, does not only live on today in tragic comparisons and romantic feature dramas. It is still very much a story that we can–and do–reach out and touch. From the preserved interiors of several spaces from her sister Olympic at the White Swan Hotel and other locations in England to the many traveling and permanent museum exhibits around the world, we continue to interact with the ship, her passengers, and her tragic history with our eyes, ears, and hands. Touching a piece of the ship’s steel hull, looking upon a bracelet worn by one of her passengers, or listening to the preserved accounts of her now-dead survivors can evoke great emotion in us all and can teach us lessons both sought and unexpected about us as humans, the way we approach our lives, the way we think about death, and the way we define ideas like heroism and tragedy.
Titanic will likely never fade from human consciousness. Two worldwide wars, countless tragedies of greater magnitude, and over 100 years separate us from that night, but still the ship lives on, in both the everyday lives of enthusiasts’ and in the background for so many others. While we are certainly safer today on the waves thanks to the lessons learned that night in 1912, we also still reach for the story of the great ship at various times and for numerous reasons. She will always be with us, and the legacy created by her loss continues to touch lives the world over even today.
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