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Guide to the Titanic | Titanic History

Posted on 2022-05-09

The sinking of the Titanic remains one of the most famous tragedies of all time. Dubbed “unsinkable," the Titanic only needed to brush an iceberg to show mankind's limits on greatness and the fallacy of perfection. It's a story unlike any other, filled with heroes, drama and plenty of myths that still abound today.

The tragedy has become immortalized with books and films — new generations are always being brought up to speed with James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic. Although the Jack and Rose story isn't true, there is always that chance that something like it could have happened. That's part of what makes Titanic so interesting — its endless stories and possibilities of what may or may not have happened on its decks.

Even after the various court trials and documentation that followed the sinking, there remains a shrouded mystery around the “unsinkable” ship. How did it all happen? Could it have been avoided? And what was it like to be aboard the ship?

In this article, we'll take a look at the full history of the Titanic — its origins, construction, the various experiences for members aboard and its inevitable demise.


In the early 1900s, the competition between shipping companies was fierce. The transatlantic passenger trade was in high demand and extremely profitable. High-profile, wealthy passengers and humble immigrants alike sought passage to different lands and needed a way to get there. Luxury shipping companies such as White Star and Cunard offered a comfortable passage to get them where they needed to go.

In 1907, Cunard seemed poised to leap ahead of White Star by introducing two new ships, the Lusitania and the Mauretania. These ships were highly-anticipated for their speed — they both would go on to break speed records for crossing the Atlantic.

White Star needed to unveil something new to answer these two new ships — something big and awe-inspiring that grasped the public's attention.

White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay met with William Pirrie, who managed Harland and Wolff, a shipbuilding firm in Belfast, Ireland, that constructed most of White Star's vessels at the time. Interestingly, the two men didn't set out to create speedy liners. Instead, they planned to build liners that emphasized luxury and comfort above all else.

They decided they would construct three new vessels with this theme in mind — the Olympic, the Britannic and the Titanic.


Ship designer Thomas Andrews set out to create this line of new ships. Construction began just three months after that fateful meeting between Ismay and Pirrie. The Titanic was built in the massive Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. For two years, a crew worked nonstop to create the world's largest ocean liner. The Titanic cost around $7.5 million to build, equating to around $400 million today.

Its designs and construction were believed to be the peak of modern innovation. The ship would include elevators, a swimming pool, a grand staircase and dining areas where the first-class passengers could enjoy luxurious comfort. Even the third-class passengers would enjoy a level of comfort that was far better than the third-class cabins of other shipping companies.

Many claimed that its safety designs made it robust and durable. The Titanic had 16 compartments that could be electronically controlled from the bridge. Even if the hull was damaged and water started to enter, the compartments were watertight to protect the ship from sinking.

The compartments were not capped at the top, however, which allowed the water to rise and overflow into the accompanying compartments. The shipbuilders claimed that even if these compartments flooded, the Titanic would retain buoyancy. Shipbuilder Magazine called it “practically unsinkable.” This innovative design, however, would ultimately end up being Titanic's demise.

The Titanic was launched into the River Lagan in Belfast on May 31, 1911. At the time, the Titanic's hull was the largest movable manmade object in the world. More than 1,000 people gathered to watch the launch, which lasted a little over a minute. This hull was guided towards a fitting dock where thousands of workers would spend the next year building the luxurious interior and giant boilers to power two steam engines.


The Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, made her maiden voyage first in June 1911. A few adjustments were made to the Titanic's design, and in April 1912, the Titanic successfully completed sea trials.

The Titanic started its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, from Southampton, England. It was a fantastic sendoff that marked the beginning of one of the most famous and tragic sea voyages of all time. One aspect that perhaps no one was thinking of as the great ship departed was its number of lifeboats. The Titanic only had 16 lifeboats on board and four “collapsibles,” which could hold a total of 1,178 people — more than 1,000 less than the number of people on board.

Amazingly, the number of lifeboats on board actually exceeded that of the British Board of Trade's requirements. Nonetheless, the Titanic departed, although not without a hitch. As it left, the Titanic's suction pulled another docked ship — the New York — into its path, nearly causing a collision. It took an hour of maneuvering to avoid a crash at the start of the long journey — a bad omen that would become only too noteworthy days later.

Free at last, the Titanic made for Cherbourg, France, though it soon met another issue — the city's dock was too small to accommodate the giant ship. Instead, ferries took passengers from the dock to the ship. Docking took two hours, and then the Titanic was off again, this time towards its last stop in Queenstown, Ireland. It picked up the remaining passengers and finally set sail for New York City. The Titanic traveled at a top speed of 23 knots.

In total, the Titanic carried 2,200 “souls” as it made its way across the Atlantic.


The Titanic was about two-thirds full when it began its maiden voyage. Those on the ship were very proud of it — during this time, local newspapers often included the complete passenger lists of transatlantic ocean liners. It was a bit like a publicity grab — like posting a picture today on social media, people on board the Titanic would have their names read in the newspaper and be a part of one of the greatest voyages of all time.

The passengers themselves were on board for many different reasons. Some were on their way to make business deals, others were on vacation, and some just wanted to experience the luxuriousness and immensity of the world's largest ship. In third class, many passengers were traveling in hopes of finding a new life on the other side of the Atlantic.


Aside from being crowned “The Unsinkable Ship,” the Titanic was also known as the “Millionaire's Special” due to its extremely high-profile, wildly successful first-class passengers. Wealthy industrialists, moguls, celebrities and dignitaries filled the passenger list. It was a cast certainly designed to create a splash in the public eye.

Among them were J. Bruce Ismay and Thomas Andrews, the originators and designers of the ship. The owner of the department store juggernaut Macy's, Isidor Straus, was aboard, along with his wife, Ida.

Industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim joined first class with his entourage. And the famous American socialite Molly Brown, who would later become one of the first-class heroes in Titanic's history, was also on board as the Titanic set sail for New York.

J.P Morgan, the financier whose shipping trust controlled White Star Line, was supposed to be on the ship but had to cancel at the last minute due to business matters.

The ship's wealthiest passenger was John Jacob Astor. The Astors were a very public family who had amassed amazing wealth with their fur-trading business. John Jacob Astor inherited this wealth and had gone on to craft his own reputation as an author, inventor and real estate businessman.

“Millionaire Captain”

The captain of the Titanic was Edward J. Smith — and even he was something of a celebrity. Smith had earned the name “Millionaire's Captain” due to his massive popularity among wealthy passengers.

The Forgotten Majority

Many second-class passengers were employees of the wealthy first-class elites. Other second-class members included journalists, tourists and academics. The largest group of passengers was undoubtedly third class — it made up more than 700 passengers — more than both first and second class combined.

First Class Experience

When Ismay set out to one-up his rival shipping company, his vision was to emphasize comfort over speed. Instead of providing lavish designs and heavily-adorned interiors, Titanic and its sister ships would be amazingly comfortable, with simple designs and subtle elegance.

Staying on the Titanic would be like staying in a luxury hotel, filled with amenities on par with only the highest standards of technology, convenience, comfort and hygiene.

Amenities and Designs

The first-class experience aboard the Titanic was impeccable. There was a veranda cafe, smoking room, restaurant, reading and writing room and a dining saloon. The dining room was the largest on any ship of this time.

Everything was ornate and extremely detailed — each piece of furniture and paneling was hand-carved in sycamore, mahogany and oak. As passengers ate, an orchestra played gentle music in the background, setting the mood.

First class provided plenty of room for exercise, too. Deck games included shuffleboard, chess and backgammon. There was also a gym, squash courts and a swimming pool. If you wanted to get a haircut, there was a barbershop open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The Grand Staircase

One of the most impressive features of the Titanic was the grand staircase. Starting on the boat's deck, it descended six flights to E-deck in a collection of sweeping, beautifully-designed wooden curves. Crowning the grand staircase was a glass dome that allowed natural light to fall in and illuminate its elaborate designs.


First-class passengers stayed at the top of the ship, where there were 39 private suites. Each suite included two spacious bedrooms, two walk-in wardrobes and a bathroom. One suite cost £870, the equivalent of over $100,000 today.

Second Class Experience

The other classes didn't even come close to matching the amazing detail and elegance of first class, but the comfort and amenities were still much greater than other ships of the day.

Second class featured cabins with bunk beds, sinks and mirrors. Linen was changed daily. Second-class passengers also had their own outdoor promenade, dining room, smoking room and library. In the dining room, the furniture was mahogany and fitted with red upholstery.

Third Class Experience

The gap between third class and first class was vast. A general room allowed passengers to chat and socialize, and there was a piano where people were free to create their own music. A male-only smoking room was furnished with teak furniture and mahogany paneling.

There was also a dining room where rice soup, roast beef, biscuits and fruit were served. This in itself was an improvement over other ocean liners — other ships expected third-class passengers to bring their own food to last over the entire journey.

To house the many third-class passengers, cabins were quaint. There were often 10 people in a room situated at the bottom of the ship close to the noisy engines. Families stayed in the middle of the ship while single men and women were relegated to its ends. Hygiene standards were also lacking in third class — there were only two baths for all the passengers in third class.

Still, compared to other third-class experiences on ocean liners, with hundreds of passengers stuffed into open dormitories, the Titanic's cabins were luxurious. This was all a part of White Star Line's goal to improve the overall comfort of staying aboard their ships.

The Maiden Voyage

As the Titanic made its way towards New York City, a new problem arose that none of the passengers knew about — a fire. The fire had started before departure and continued several days into its voyage. The fire was a byproduct of the spontaneous combustion of coal on the ship — the crew had to extinguish it with fire hoses and by moving the top layer of coal to another bunker while also shoveling burning coal into the furnace.

While it may have been alarming to some passengers, these fires were common occurrences on ships and were routinely taken care of. Still, some question whether the fire may have made the Titanic more vulnerable to foundering.

The next few days passed peacefully, with clear and cold weather. Passengers enjoyed all the wonderful amenities, spent time on the deck playing shuffleboard and savored the exquisite dining. For a while, the Titanic lived up to its goal as one of the most luxurious, comfortable ships ever to sail the Atlantic.

The Iceberg

The Titanic had been receiving iceberg warnings throughout much of the voyage. These went to wireless operators Jack Philips and Harold Bride, who passed most of them to the bridge. Their primary job was handling passenger messages and relaying them to the crew.

It was the night of April 14th when things started to go wrong for the Titanic's voyage. The night was clear and unusually calm — the black ocean water was like glass. The Titanic began to approach an area known for icebergs, and Captain Smith shifted the ship's direction slightly south, though kept its constant speed.


At 9:40 P.M., a ship called the Mesaba sent a warning to the Titanic warning of an ice field. This warning was never communicated to the Titanic's bridge. An hour later, the Californian said it had halted after being surrounded by ice. Philips, who was handling the barrage of passenger messages, brushed off the message, annoyed that they had interrupted him.

Frederick Lee and Reginald Lee were the two lookouts stationed in the crow's nest. Usually, these lookouts could spot icebergs by seeing water lap up onto their base. However, on this night, the water was as still, making it much more difficult to spot an approaching iceberg. The binoculars to the crow's nest were also missing, which didn't help matters.


At 11:40 P.M., an iceberg was spotted directly in the Titanic's path. At this point, the Titanic was 400 nautical miles south of Newfoundland, Canada, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The bridge was notified, and First Officer William Murdoch ordered the Titanic “hard-a-starboard," which reversed the engines and turned the ship to the left. The maneuver came too late, and the Titanic brushed the iceberg, scattering ice chunks along its deck.

Because Murdoch had reversed engines, the Titanic actually turned slower, likely causing the collision. Some experts claim that if the Titanic had hit the iceberg head-on, it would not have sunk.

At the time, the collision didn't seem that detrimental. The real lay damage lay under the surface, where the bottom half of the iceberg had torn straight through several of the Titanic's compartments, flooding them with water.

When the ship collided, few if any passengers were alarmed. Those in first-class likely didn't feel the collision at all, and those who did ignored it. Others closer to where the iceberg had made contact felt it more directly. Engine workers heard a clashing and scraping sound and knew they had collided with something but did not consider it to be fatal.

The common thought of the day was that modern ships were unsinkable — even a small collision with an iceberg surely couldn't create the kind of damage that would founder a ship as luxurious and huge as the Titanic.


Captain Smith, who had retreated to his cabin to rest, felt the collision and came out to see what had happened. A select group made up of some of the high-ranking crew and ship designers went to see the damage. Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews descended to the ship's belly to discover that five of the watertight compartments had already been breached.

The iceberg had cut several gashes along the Titanic's hull in the collision. Ocean water immediately began to pour into those compartments rapidly, far outpacing the time it would take to bail water out of the compartments.

As Andrews observed the damage, he told the captain that as those front compartments filled up with water, the Titanic would tip forward, allowing those succeeding compartments to fill as well. It was inevitable — the Titanic would sink. Andrews said the ship would remain afloat for an hour and a half.

One can imagine the kind of cold disbelief and grave dread that occupied the faces of the captain, Andrews and the others at that moment when they realized the Titanic's fate. The “unsinkable” ship would sink, and the panic at the moment was exclusive to only those few who knew the extent of the damage that the iceberg had caused.

The other issue was how to get everyone off the ship safely. There were only 16 lifeboats on the Titanic. In total, there were 2,200 souls aboard. Even if each lifeboat were fully loaded, that would only account for half the passengers aboard. The Titanic was doomed to sink, and at least half of its passengers would sink with it.

Sensing the urgency of the situation, Captain Smith ordered the lifeboats to begin being loaded and told the radio operators to send out distress calls to neighboring ships. These signals would turn out to be fruitless. The Carpathia was 58 nautical miles away and would take over three hours to reach the Titanic. Other ships received the signal but were too far away. The Californian was also in the area but had turned off its wireless communications for the night. Titanic was on its own.

The Sinking

After colliding with the iceberg, the Titanic took two hours and 40 minutes to sink. In the first moments after the collision, life on the Titanic went on as usual for its passengers — people laughed and danced, talked leisurely and enjoyed a nice warm cup of tea in an elegant dining room. Even those who knew the Titanic had collided with an iceberg weren't alarmed. There were reports of people kicking around pieces of the iceberg on the deck for amusement.

Meanwhile, the squash court and mailroom were already flooded. Mail sorters frantically tried to save the thousands of pieces of mail the Titanic was carrying. Boiler rooms were filling with water, and workers were trying desperately to pump it out. Freezing, icy water was invading the ship, and there was no stopping it.

Gently but steadily, like the water that was slowly but surely filling the watertight compartments, fear spread throughout passengers on the Titanic. There was no public address system on the Titanic, so stewards were going door-to-door in first-class, telling passengers to go out onto the deck.

The experiences between first and third class at these moments were drastic — in first class, stewards were in charge of only a few cabin rooms. They could help passengers get dressed and ease them out onto the deck.

In second and especially third class, there were few stewards for many rooms. The crew was essentially throwing open doors and ordering passengers out onto the deck. The reaction from all classes was similar, however — people thought the orders to be tedious and merely precautionary, and many wanted to stay in the warm interior of the ship rather than go out into the freezing night air.

Launching the Lifeboats

As the crew attempted to avoid a panic, passengers were not told that the Titanic was sinking. Even as passengers were ordered to board the lifeboats — women and children first — many still thought it was ridiculous. It didn't help that high-pressure steam was being released from the boiler rooms and funneling out onto the deck, creating a booming, deafening noise that made conversation and orders difficult to hear.

The crew started to launch lifeboats far under capacity. This was partly due to Captain Smith canceling the lifeboat drill earlier that day — the crew was unsure if lifeboats could hold capacity and were opting on the side of caution, sending out boats nearly half-full. They were unaware that the boats had been tested in Belfast at full capacity. The first lifeboat, lifeboat seven, was launched with only 27 people aboard. It had space for 65.

As the enormity of the situation began to dawn on passengers, greater fear set in. Fathers were saying goodbye to their wives and children without knowing whether they would ever see them again.

Last Moments

The fates of Titanic's celebrity first-class passengers became legendary and reflected a larger theme — how each person aboard the sinking ship handled their last moments.

John Jacob Astor kissed his pregnant wife Madeline goodbye and, being refused entry onto the boat with her, watched her descent into the black water.

Isidor Straus was offered a spot on a lifeboat due to his age but refused the special considerations. His wife, Ida, would not leave her husband behind, and they both retired to their cabin to die together.

Upon learning about the sinking, Benjamin Guggenheim returned to his room with his valet to change into formal evening dress. Coming back out onto the deck, he announced, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”

Molly Brown, to no avail, tried to convince crewmen aboard her lifeboat to turn back to help the desperate passengers left stranded.

J. Bruce Ismay was seen helping passengers into lifeboats before stepping into one himself as it descended — an action that would make him exiled by the public for the rest of his life.

Titanic's chief designer, Thomas Andrews, was last spotted in a first-class smoking room, quietly observing a picture of a ship. After helping passengers get into lifeboats, Captain Smith followed standard practice and went down with the sinking ship.


These stories are about more than just the tragic fates of the Titanic's rich and famous — they reflect the drama and heartbreak that was unfolding as the reality of what was happening set in. All over the ship's decks, families said goodbye for the last time. Actions of courage, bravery and cowardice were happening all at once. In an hour, denial had evolved from shock to panic and finally to tragic acceptance.

As lifeboats were being loaded, the band — who would all perish in the sinking — came onto the deck to give the ship one last night of music.

By 1:00 a.m., water had started to encroach the Grand Staircase. Desperate panic began to set in on the deck as several male passengers attempted to board a lifeboat. To keep order, officer Harold Lowe fired his gun three times.

At 2:00 a.m., the crew was released from their duties. At this point, only collapsible boats remained on the Titanic, and the ship had risen out of the water so that its propellers were visible. Twenty minutes later, the ship became completely submerged, leaving hundreds of passengers and crew stranded in the freezing water.

When the Titanic sank, the water had a temperature of 28 degrees Fahrenheit. This meant those submerged had only a few minutes or less before hypothermia set in.


By the time lifeboats came back to look for those left in the water, almost all were dead. More than 1,500 passengers perished. The most significant losses were from the crew and third class. Of the 710 third-class passengers aboard, only 174 survived.

The Carpathia arrived an hour after the Titanic sank and began boarding passengers from the lifeboats. It set out for New York City and arrived to stunned crowds, who still were uncertain whether the sinking had been real.

Exploration to Find Shipwreck

The Titanic wreck was discovered on September 1, 1985. Robert Ballard was leading an American-French expedition on the U.S. Navy ship Knorr to uncover the Titanic's remains. Using a submersible sled with a remote-controlled camera, Ballard and the crew were able to transmit live images onto the Knorr's monitor.

The ship was lying upright in two pieces, covered in rust-colored formations and showing signs of excessive deterioration. The Titanic shipwreck is 12,600 feet deep, located 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.


There's an endless history to the Titanic, with so many myths and facts you could spend forever piecing together the entire event. Here are some common questions that people have asked about the Titanic.

How Big Was the Titanic?

Fully completed, the Titanic was one of the largest and most luxurious ocean liners ever built. It weighed over 46,328 tons and was 882.5 feet long and 92.5 feet wide. Its sheer size, watertight design and flashy excitement may have overshadowed any thoughts of danger.

How Big Was the Iceberg That Sunk the Titanic?

The actual size of the iceberg will always remain a mystery, although experts estimate that the iceberg that sunk the Titanic was around 50 to 100 feet high and 200 to 400 feet long.

How Much Did a Titanic Ticket Cost?

First-class tickets on the Titanic would cost at least £30, the equivalent of over $4,000 today. At £13 and £7, respectively, second-class tickets would cost $1,900, while even third-class tickets would cost a little over $1,000.

How Many People Survived on the Titanic?

Of the 2,240 people on board the Titanic, only 706 people survived the sinking. A tragic combination of misfortune, hubris and poor planning led to hundreds of deaths at sea.

Was There a Car on the Titanic?

There was one car aboard the Titanic as it crossed the Atlantic — a Renault Type CB Coupe De Ville. The luxury vehicle, featuring a crimson interior, leather seats and gold trimming, was being shipped to the United States to owner William Carter.

Were There Animals on the Titanic?

There were many animals on the Titanic, including a wide assortment of dogs, chickens and rats scurrying about the ship's innards. One famous legend involves the Newfoundland dog Rigel, who allegedly belonged to First Officer William Murdoch.

Using his innate swimming abilities and water-resistant fur coat, Rigel saved a lifeboat full of passengers before it was crushed by the Carpathia. The passengers on the lifeboat were too exhausted to alert the ship that they were there and, as the story goes, Rigel was able to send a warning call by barking.

Rigel swam to the lifeboat, showing the captain and crew its position amidst the veil of white fog, and the Carpathia hauled up the survivors. Rigel was said to have been adopted by Titanic's Master at Arms, John Brown, who eventually took the dog with him back to his home in Scotland.

Were Jack and Rose Real?

The two beloved characters from James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, Jack and Rose, are fictionalized. 

Experience the Titanic Exhibit at the Volo Museum (Opening Summer 2022)

The Titanic is one of the most well-known and interesting tragedies in the world. After more than a century, it continues to intrigue us today. The Volo Museum is excited to announce that we will be opening our highly anticipated Titanic display in Summer 2022. You will be able to experience the Titanic unlike ever before when you visit our all-new exhibit.