Why was the R.M.S. Titanic so infamous? The White Star Line ship hit an iceberg off the coast of Nova Scotia on April 14th, 1912. As the myth goes, the Titanic was touted as unsinkable by the press and White Star Line’s management. This mightier-than-thou narrative surrounding the Titanic was born from the preconceived notions of the time. What created the myth of the unsinkable ship was the Edwardian Era’s overconfidence in its technological advancements and manufactured inventions following the Second Industrial Revolution. Such beliefs would blow up in the face of many at the start of the First World War.
Titanic, the Unsinkable Ship: True or False?
To much fanfare, on April 10th, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic left Southampton, England, with New York City set as its final destination on its maiden voyage. The grandest ship in the world at the time would sadly become notorious for the loss of life on board. Fifteen hundred people out of two thousand and two hundred died during the sinking, especially members of the crew and Third-Class passengers.
Nowadays, the ship is well-known to the public thanks to James Cameron’s film Titanic, which was acknowledged for its historical accuracy in 1997, won eleven Oscars out of fourteen nominations, and is now part of the National Film Registry.
Throughout James Cameron’s film, many characters voice the myth of the Titanic’s unsinkability out loud. After the ship has collided with the iceberg, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, retorts: “But this ship can’t sink!” while Captain Smith, his officers, and architect Thomas Andrews discuss the sinking. This belief was due to the system of bulkheads that prevented a limited amount of water from seeping inside the hull. This invention, deemed strong enough to hold against natural disasters, has made the sinking of the Titanic remain at the forefront of popular culture.
The White Star Line: Overly Confident in the Titanic’s Unsinkability
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Whether the myth of the unsinkable ship is true, false, or somewhere in-between, has been debated before. Some have concluded that no one believed the ship was unsinkable before the sinking, while others are in the opposite camp. Many more prefer to think that the Titanic was touted as “practically unsinkable” (See Further Reading, Richard Howells, 1999, p.138) and that, in an ironic twist of fate, the term practically was lost in translation between the public and the press.
In any case, some facts show that there was overconfidence in the ship’s safety. The Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats for every passenger and crew member on board. Iceberg warnings were ignored by Captain Smith and his officers, too, and no lifeboat drills took place on April 14th, 1912. Following the ship’s sinking, safety standards became much more rigorous to prevent any more tragedies.
Eventually, the myth of the unsinkable ship percolated into the White Star Line’s management team. By the time news trickled down to the public that the Titanic was in trouble at sea, this “practically unsinkable” distinction didn’t seem to matter much to the company anymore. White Star Line Vice President Philip Albright Small Franklin addressed growing concerns on April 15th, 1912:
“While we are not in direct communication with the Titanic, we are perfectly satisfied that the ship is unsinkable. That no more wireless messages are coming from them may be due to atmospheric conditions or something like that.”
The R.M.S. Titanic: A Product of Its Time
On April 15th, 1912, the myth took form. It has permeated the discourse around the Titanic to this day, a hundred and ten years later. Not only is the irony of witnessing “the unsinkable ship” sink on its maiden voyage striking, but this myth also illustrates the folly of man and humanity’s shortcomings when faced with Mother Nature. This mindset echoes the Edwardian Era’s society, culture, and political landscape.
But what is the Edwardian Era? This period referred to the reign of King Edward VII and lasted from 1901 to 1910. The term “era,” though, is usually extended to include the years 1912 or 1914. To understand the Edwardian Era’s technological advancements, we must go back to the 19th century. From 1870 to 1914, this period saw the Second Industrial Revolution.
While the First Industrial Revolution was propelled by the steam engine, the Second Industrial Revolution saw the advent of many more inventions. Among others are telephones, lightbulbs, and telegraphs. Major developments in the transportation industry were also made, such as cars, airplanes, and steel steamships.
An Industrial Marvel That Was too Safe to Sink
Pride in technology was ubiquitous in this era. In the Titanic’s case, “at 92 feet ½ wide by 852 ½ long” (See Further Reading, Jillian Woodfield, 2014, p. 12), it was the largest sailing vessel of its day when it launched. This ship was the future of luxurious marine transportation with its obsequious First-Class staterooms and accommodations. The Titanic’s system of bulkheads, as well as its elevators, its electric lights, its wireless telegraph, and even its swimming pool and its gymnasium’s equipment, too – all were state of the art in 1912.
The White Star Line took great pride in telling all about the ship’s luxury and refined facilities. In James Cameron’s Titanic, Thomas Andrews slams his hand against a sturdy table at lunch and describes the ship as “[…] a steamer so grand in scale and so luxurious in its appointments that its supremacy would never be challenged,” a steamer that was “[…] willed into solid reality.”
The Titanic was a marvel of industrial technology and the accomplishment of decades of technological advancements in Great Britain. It is quite ironic to think that it was deemed too safe, too solid, to sink. And yet, here we are, brought back to the myth of its unsinkability.
A Project of Titanic Proportions for an Empire
Meanwhile, Europe colonized the world. At the end of the 19th century, especially during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, superpowers cut Africa and Asia for parts. Great Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal drew nonsensical lines in the sand. In the Americas, the United States, too, began its expansion, first West and from coast to coast, then with Cuba and Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War. Territory, nature, none of that mattered when empires wanted the world for themselves. All they craved were prestige and power. Arrogance dominated colonial ideology.
Thus, built in Belfast, Ireland by a British company, the Titanic reflected this arrogance. It was a product of the British Empire. After all, a manufactured steel steamship strong enough to earn the title “unsinkable” is like a slap in the face to Mother Nature. The Titanic demonstrates the British Empire’s overconfidence (See Further Reading, Jillian Woodfield, 2014, p.11) in its technological achievements, strong enough to travel from one part of the Atlantic Ocean to the next without fear of sinking.
It is interesting to note that the people on board the ship took part in this political landscape, too, from immigrants in Third-Class to gentlemen in First-Class. Indeed, James Cameron’s Titanic lampshades this well. Rose DeWitt-Bukater tells love interest Jack Dawson precisely this. Rich men relax by “congratulat[ing] themselves on being the masters of the universe.” The Titanic was a product of the Edwardian Era and the British Empire.
A Disaster that Announced the End of an Era
Just as the luxurious Titanic and its untimely demise informs us about the Edwardian Era, this ship’s sinking also announced its end. The First World War – which has other names, too, from the Great War to the War to End All Wars, among others – was soon going to set fire to the period. In a way, it’s fitting that the Titanic’s sinking happened only two years before the start of the war.
As mentioned before, while the Edwardian Era refers to the reign of King Edward VII, just as the Victorian referred to the reign of Edward’s mother, historians extend it to include 1912 and 1914. Two major events announce the end of the Edwardian Era: one is the Titanic’s sinking, and the second is the start of the First World War.
On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, duchess of Honenburg, were shot dead in Sarajevo. These assassinations kickstarted the First World War due to the system of secret alliances that had dominated European politics since the 19th century. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary to back up Serbia, and one after the other, everyone else followed suit. Soon enough, European superpowers dragged the world into a global war.
Overconfidence Led the Titanic & European Empires to Their Doom
How is the Titanic related to all of this? In a way, it isn’t. After all, the ship had already sunk two years before the events that followed Sarajevo. But in another way, the ship’s sinking announced the First World War. European Empires, including the British Empire, were engaged in these secret liaisons decades before and during the Titanic‘s sinking.
Europe had been sitting on a pile of firewood with a match in hand since the 19th century. It only took two assassinations to light the world on fire – or one iceberg to sink the grandest, “practically” unsinkable ship in the world.
Just as the Titanic was a product of the imperial pride of its time, the First World War was too. These superpowers’ arrogance and overconfidence in their spy networks resulted in dangerous, gunpowder-like secret alliances. The myth of Titanic’s unsinkability and the First World War shook the world to its very foundation and exposed the cracks upon which European superpowers were built. After all, all Empires are doomed to fall.
Titanic, to Conclude
To conclude, the R.M.S. Titanic, the grandest, most luxurious ship in the world in its time, as well as its myth of the unsinkable ship, show us many aspects of the Edwardian Era, its preconceived notions, and its shortcomings. The arrogance and overconfidence built at this ship’s core highlighted the British Empire’s–and all empires’–ultimate demise. This overconfidence in European superpowers announced the First World War.
In James Cameron’s Titanic, when J. Bruce Ismay, indignant, says that the ship cannot sink, Thomas Andrews replies: “She’s made of iron, sir. She can and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” It can only be ironic that the Titanic, the “practically” unsinkable ship, sank; and brought down the Edwardian Era with it.
Howells, Richard. The Myth of the Titanic. Internet Archive, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Accessible online:
Woodfield, J (2014). A Cultural and Historical Narrative of the Titanic, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. Accessible online: