"There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers."
Phillip Franklin, White Star Line vice-president, 1912
Words that have gone down in history, for all the wrong reasons. At latitude 41° 43' 32" north, longitude 49° 56' 49" west, 370 miles (595 kilometres) southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2.5 miles (4 km) down lays the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The rust-coloured remains rest in two parts, the stern around 2,000 feet (600 metres) from the bow and facing in opposite directions.
The belated iceberg spot, a failed swerve, the lack of lifeboats and the loss of over 1,500 lives – roughly 70% of the ship's passengers and crew – the sinking of the largest and most luxurious ship built at the time has become immortalized in popular history, inspiring documentaries, television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters.
It also has become immortalized in shipping history. The ship’s maiden voyage that ended in tragedy on 14 April 1912 forced a huge rethink over design and features in a number of ways, many of which still exist today. As a result, ships are built better and safer than ever before – while the world commercial shipping fleet has trebled to over 100,000 vessels, shipping losses have decreased significantly from one ship in 100 per year in Titanic’s time to one ship in 670 per year, according to a report published last month by specialist marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.
But as the recent Costa Concordia incident showed, we are still a long way from fulfilling Franklin’s infamous boast. "The bottom line is no ship is unsinkable," says Tony Selman, vice chairman of the Radio Officers' Association. "No matter how safe a ship is, if you drive it full speed into a rock it is likely to sink.”
That said, Selman admits the chances of not getting into such a perilous scenario are “infinitesimally better than they were 100 years ago”. BBC Future outlines how these odds are being shifted continually in our favour, how designers, engineers and operators are working to safeguard against such a disaster happening again, and the barriers that still stand in their way.
Many of the structural changes made in response to the Titanic’s demise are still with us today. The ship sank within three hours because of the height of its bulkheads, the upright partitions positioned within the hull to stop any breaches from flooding the rest of the ship. Like ships before it, the Titanic's bulkheads did not reach the deck above, extending only 10 ft (3m) above the waterline. When it struck the iceberg, five of Titanic's 16 compartments breached, causing the bow to dip, which in turn forced water into the remaining compartments.
As a result, the Titanic’s builders Harland and Wolff extended the height of the bulkheads of the sister ships, HMHS Britannic and RMS Olympic, made them fireproof, and also fitted a second internal hull to make both more impact resistant. Ships’ bulkheads also became watertight on all sides by stretching from deck plate to deckhead (floor to ceiling).
Unlike today’s sturdier ships, which are made by welding together prefabricated sections, ship hulls like the Titanic were constructed by reinforced steel plates held together like glue by millions of rivets. The reinforced steel used for the Titanic’s hull may have been the most advanced of its age, but metallurgical and mechanical tests showed that it was brittle at ice-water temperatures, and cast doubts about the quality of the rivets.
Modern forms of steel are more “impact-resistant”, and are around 10 times less brittle, as they contain higher levels of manganese, and lower levels of sulphur, oxygen and phosphorus. And alternatives to steel might one day be on the horizon. There is “a considerable volume of research at national and EU level” into other impact-resistant materials, according to Dracos Vassalos, professor of Maritime Safety at the University of Strathclyde.