On April 14, 1912, the luxury liner RMS Titanic, just four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, struck an iceberg and sank with the loss of 1,514 lives. At the time, the massive, state-of-the-art ship was the largest vessel afloat and considered by many to be "virtually unsinkable." Built in Belfast, Northern Ireland by shipbuilding firm Harland and Wolff for the White Star Line at the then-astronomical cost of US$7.5 million, the ill-fated Titanic has been a source of pathos and fascination for nearly a century. To bring the remarkable ship's story to countless more future generations (and presumably give the local economy a shot in the arm) the government of Northern Ireland, the Belfast City Council and numerous private groups have pooled resources and created Titanic Belfast, a futuristic, US$160 million, nine-gallery museum - the world's largest exclusively dedicated to the ship and its only voyage. The facility finally opened late last month – just in time for the centennial of the tragedy coming up in a few days.
Conceived by Todd Architects, CivicArts/Eric Kuhne Associates and Kay Elliott, the six-floor, 150,700 sq ft (14,000 sq m) museum's eye-catching exterior suggests four 90-foot (27 m) hulls pointing skyward, and is covered with 3,000 folded aluminum panels (designed by German façade specialist, Metallbau Frueh) which catch the light like facets on a gem. Located in an area rich with the ship's history, the Drawing Office where Titanic's plans were drawn up is adjacent, along with the Hamilton Graving Dock where her former tender, SS Nomadic, is still moored. The River Lagan, from which she was first launched, also flows nearby.
Inside, glass escalators line the four-story atrium and provide access to the museum's nine interpretive galleries, each loaded with interactive displays that allow visitors to explore every aspect of the Titanic's brief history. To evoke a sense of scale for the ship, one wall is decorated with copper-colored sheet metal panels similar in size to the riveted plates that made up Titanic's hull, and fans of fine woodwork will appreciate the efforts that went into creating an accurate, full-scale replica of the ship's original red oak Grand Staircase.
“A major challenge was the lack of complete drawings of the original staircase," Kay Elliot project director, Mark Muir, explained to WAN. "We developed a detailed 3D technical model based on photographs of the original staircase onboard Titanic’s sister ship Olympic – a job which involved painstaking detective work over several months so we could be as true to the design as possible.”
While interest in the Titanic has been building steadily as the 100th anniversary of its sinking approaches, there's been no shortage of controversy either. Since its discovery in 1985, numerous expeditions to the wreck site have resulted in the gathering of literally thousands of artifacts, an act viewed by many as desecration of what should remain a sacred site.
Recently, Guernsey's, a New York City auction house, announced its intent to sell a collection of 5,500 items salvaged from the wreck. Appraised value: US$189 million – greater than the estimated replacement cost of the ship itself! Evidently, capitalism knows no bounds. Now, the well-heeled can actually visit the ship via submersible for a cool US$60,000. Fortunately, Titanic Belfast appears to have taken a more sensitive, respectful approach in telling the story of this amazing vessel and the people whose lives it impacted – that alone appears to make it well worth a visit.
Although Titanic was the largest ship afloat when launched (older sister ship Olympic was slightly smaller) she appears rather diminutive compared to more modern vessels. At 882.75 feet (269.06 m) long with a maximum beam of 92.5 feet (28.19 m), she displaced 52,310 tons. For comparison, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, launched in 1967, measured 963 ft (293.5 m) in length and 105 ft (32.0 m) in the beam, but displaced only 48,923 tons, no doubt due to the use of lighter, man-made materials in its construction.
Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic, were assembled on Queen's Island, now referred to as the Titanic Quarter, in Belfast Harbour. The Olympic's hull was started on December 16, 1908 followed by the Titanic's on March 31, 1909 – both took about 26 months to complete. With steel welding not yet mainstream, the ship's structure was joined with more than three million iron and steel rivets – over 1,200 tons worth.
Titanic's three massive propellers (three blades port and starboard, 4-blade, center) were capable of pushing her along at a cruising speed of 21 knots (24 mph; 39 km/h), 24 knots maximum (28 mph; 44 km/h), and were driven by two four-cylinder, triple-expansion reciprocating steam engines (port/starboard 15,000 bhp each) and a centrally-located, low-pressure Parsons turbine that produced 16,000 bhp.
Each reciprocating engine weighed 720 tons and was 63 feet (19 m) long. The steam to drive them was generated by 29 boilers (24 double-ended, 5 single-ended) which held a combined 159 furnaces. Each boiler was 15.75 feet (4.80 m) in diameter, 20 feet (6.1 m) long, weighed 91.5 tons and held 48.5 tons of water. Keeping them stoked required more than 600 tons of hand-shoveled coal each day, which kept a team of 176 firemen working in shifts around the clock. Titanic's bunkers held 6,611 tons of coal - Hold 3 carried an additional 1,092 tons. The 100 tons of ash created daily was simply tossed overboard.
To keep everything electric powered and lit up, Titanic boasted a generating plant stronger than most typical city power stations of the period. Just behind the Parsons turbine sat four 400kW steam-powered electric generators for normal use and two 30kW auxiliary generators for use in emergencies.
The Titanic was designed to accommodate a combination of 3,339 passengers and crew, but left Southampton substantially under capacity with 1316 passengers and 908 crew members, which is fortunate because had the ship sailed with a full complement, the death toll would have been far greater. Though built to carry 32 lifeboats, she sailed for New York with only 20 aboard because management at the White Star Line was concerned that additional boats would mar the ship's aesthetic lines. Ticket costs may also have contributed to the sparse passenger list. Booking a parlor suite (first class), for instance, cost US$4,350 in 1912 dollars - the equivalent of US$100,034 today.
To say the Titanic was built plush is a definite understatement (although the hapless immigrants confined below decks in Steerage certainly had more spartan digs). It's been said that White Star management chose the Ritz hotel in Paris as a style template, and gave Harland and Wolff carte blanche to make Titanic and her sisters floating masterpieces. Unusual amenities for the day included electric elevators, a Turkish bath, a squash court, swimming pool and gym (complete with a mechanical camel and mechanical horse).
Aside from the inadequate number of life boats (enough for only half of those aboard), a key factor in the high mortality rate among passengers was the temperature of the water into which they were thrown - a lethal 28°F (−2°C). Due to its salt content, sea-water can actually stay liquid below the freezing point. After leaving Southampton on April 10, 1912, Titanic stopped briefly at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland before heading west to New York City. Just before midnight on April 14, she collided with an iceberg that flooded five of her 16 watertight compartments - just under three hours later, Titanic broke in two and headed into the icy deep where her hulk now rests at 12,415 feet (3,784 m). Only 710 of her passengers and crew survived - a disaster that after all these years, still haunts and fascinates us all.
Check out the TitanicBelfast video below to see a time-lapse view of the museum's construction:
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