On April 14th, 1912, the largest, most technological advanced passenger steamship in the world, hit an iceberg. Two hours and forty minutes later, the Titanic sank, with the loss of 1,517 lives. Only 705 people survived.
Nearly a century later, the sinking of the Titanic has turned into a cottage industry where, as Harvard historian Steven Biel joked, only ‘Jesus and the Civil War have been written about more.’ Nearly 200 books have been written on the disaster, with countless documentaries, movies, historical and scientific studies analyzing what caused the Titanic to sink. Was it the fault of the captain, running the ship too hard to make a deadline to New York? Was it the fault of the engineers, some defect in the ship’s design? Was the fault of the Marconi wireless officers too busy tapping out passenger’s messages they failed to heed iceberg warning from other ships? Was it the wrath of God angry because the White Star Line didn’t christen their ships? Was it incompetence and the lack of enough lifeboats? Was it just plain bad luck? What they all didn’t know was that a confidential investigation launched by the ship’s builders shortly after the disaster had all too quickly – and all too easily – determined exactly what sank the Titanic.
It was the lack of regulation.
J. P. Morgan (the actual man, not the company, or the company too, but owned by the living person, then called the International Mercantile Marine Co., the company, not the... oh nevermind...) bought controlling interest in the British and American shipping companies building the Titanic. The US government further provided him with substantial tax cuts and subsidies. The only private company to resist Morgan’s takeover, Cunard Shipping, was promptly subsidized by the British government. J. P. Morgan was given the financial backing and the freedom to do whatever he wanted, unhindered by any oversight or liability.
Because the shipbuilding industry was un(de)regulated, the shipbuilders were pressured to make changes in the Titanic's construction against the strenuous objections of the design engineers – using plate a quarter of an inch thinner and rivets an eighth thinner in order to shave 2500 tons off her weight, not just to cut costs but so the ship would sail faster than the competition. Two other ships, the Republic and the Florida, collided off Massachusetts while the Titanic was being built, and even though they were damaged far more badly than would be the Titanic, the Florida made it back to New York and the Republic didn't sink for 38 hours, with all 750 passengers saved. The Titanic barely nicked an iceberg, not even with enough force to tear a gash in the hull as was first thought, but just hard enough to pop out the rivets and buckle the steel plate hull, allowing water to flood into five compartments. With a flimsy hull and skimpy rivets, however, the rest of the hull couldn’t endure the strain of the water. She broke up into 3 pieces, (not two as first thought) before she completely sank, and went down faster and at a steeper angle than even Cameron depicted in his movie.
The investigation proved conclusively it was negligence (and greed) on the part of the ship owners unhindered by any industry regulation. But the investigation was quickly buried and never made public, two formal governmental inquiries pinned the official blame on the (conveniently dead) captain of the Titanic, because the lawsuits from so many victims would have bankrupted the ship's owners, including J. P. Morgan. (Whose bank, ironically enough, just 'rescued' my bank, WaMu.)
'If J. P. Morgan wanted a boat made out of papier-mâché, they would have made him a boat out of papier-mâché,' said Brad Matsen, who's just published his findings on this long buried investigation in a new book, Titanic’s Last Secrets.
But beyond all question, was the lack of regulation of shipbuilding at the time that was responsible for sinking the Titanic.
Ninety-seven years later, industrialists and big business have once again built another ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, a deceptively impressive colossus made out of papier-mâché, sinking rapidly due to deregulation, and is allowing the government to pin the blame on the third-class passengers. Except this time, it’s the Ship of State. And somehow, I’m starting to worry about those lifeboats…