Titanic FAQs: Penny-Pinching, Cut Corners, & Shoddy Ships?

Penny-Pinching, Cut Corners, & Shoddy Ships?

Question: Was the strength of the Titanic‘s hull insufficient or of a poor design? Had anyone – J. P. Morgan, J. Bruce Ismay, or others – encouraged or forced Harland & Wolff to build Olympic & Titanic “on the cheap”, thus endangering lives or even causing the accident?

Answer: No.

This subject is a very tempting one, particularly with the today’s media and some researchers who seem to be merely looking to sell copy. Yet, on the face of it, the concept makes sense. How on earth could the world’s greatest ocean liner sink on its maiden voyage after a slight “brush” with an iceberg?

Allegations have been made that Harland & Wolff built the Titanic (and Olympic) to a poorer standard of design than other ships of the era. The thickness of her hull plating and also of her rib spacing have been questioned; the upshot of these allegations is that the frames should have been much closer together, the rivets of better quality, and the hull plating much thicker, than they were when the ships were built.

These allegations are absolutely absurd. The Olympic and Titanic were designed by what was arguably the premiere shipbuilding firm in the world at the time. Although the sisters were significantly larger than any previous liners, they were designed and constructed on time-tested principles of ship construction. Additionally, shipbuilding at the time was an extremely competitive business – for Harland & Wolff to build the largest ships in the world to a slipshod level of strength would have been a shortsighted business decision, indeed.

Simply comparing the design of the Titanic’s hull with that of other ocean liners should lay this allegation to rest entirely:

The frame spacing for the Titanic and both of her sisters was: 36 inches amidships, narrowing to 24 inches at the bow and 27 inches at the stern. The plates attached over the keel bar, or the “A” strake, were 30/20” thick, narrowing to 24/20”. The plating at the turn of the bilge was typically over one inch thick for 2/5ths of her length. In some places, such as the reinforced areas of her hull at the B and C Deck levels, plates were doubled to create an overall thickness of 3”.

The frame spacing for the Lusitania was: 32” for ¾ of her length amidships, narrowing to 25” aft and 26” forward. Her hull plating was typically 22/20” thick, thinning to only 12/20” thick fore and aft (where the frame spacing narrowed), and it was doubled in places up to 2 3/20”. Interestingly, Engineering magazine noted that the holes in the Lusitania’s “intermediate longitudinals… are placed with their larger dimension running vertically instead of horizontally. This was because of the comparative closeness of the frames.” This sentence shows that the frame spacing on the Lusitania was ‘comparatively close’ as compared with that found on other previous liners. The Titanic’s arrangement was quite similar to that found on the Cunarder.

And while the Lusitania and Mauretania employed high-tensile “special” steel in their upper hull amidships, which was found to be some 36% stronger than the traditional “mild steel” used in liners of the period, this was done to reduce their upper scantlings by 10% to save top weight, helping improve their already-marginal stability and their goal of high speed.

This comparison between the Titanic and the Lusitania is particularly interesting for several reasons. The Lusitania was specifically designed under the intense scrutiny of the Admiralty; the British Government had provided the loans for her construction, and they wanted to make sure that their design would serve them well in peace and in war. This latter point is particularly telling, because the Admiralty was planning to use the Lusitania as an armed auxiliary cruiser, with plans for her to sport an impressive armament of 6-inch guns in active service (detailed information on this can be found in my upcoming book on the Lusitania). She thus had to bear not only the strain of the weapons’ weight, but also their powerful recoil when in use. Titanic never had to bear any of this added weight or stress, and yet her hull design was comparatively similar to that of the Cunarder. Additionally, during construction of the Lusitania, a decision had been made to ‘cut away the deadwood’ of her hull aft. This was to allow a free-flow of water past her rudder for tight maneuvering. Thus, for a large stretch of her overall length aft, an arch was created. While the liner was in water, this posed no particular problem; however, during drydocking procedures, this design meant that the top of the hull would have to bear the enormous stretching stresses as it supported the entire aft end of the liner in the air. That need for the Lusitania‘s hull to combat just this tension shows just how powerfully built her hull was. As has already been seen, the Titanic’s hull was designed with similar frame and plating strengths, and yet it never had to combat any of these stresses. It is also interesting to note that John Brown, the shipyard that built the Lusitania, had an affiliation with Harland & Wolff that allowed them to share information, etc., between the two yards. Thus, in building larger ships than the Lusitania, Harland & Wolff could draw upon the experience of John Brown. (The Mauretania and later the Aquitania were designed in a very similar fashion to the Lusitania, as well.)

Shouldn’t the Olympic and Titanic have employed high-tensile “special” steel in their hulls to increase their strength? No, and there is no record of Board of Trade officials or on-site surveyors ever recommending this, despite recent televised claims. Why was this unnecessary? The White Star sisters did not need to reduce top weight, by reducing scantlings, because of otherwise-insufficient stability; nor were they going to be shooting for the high speeds the Lusitania and Mauretania were aiming for. There was thus no need for such an unusual use of high-tensile steel in their structure.

Perhaps, some might say, all of these ships did not have correct rib spacing, something that was corrected at a later date, and that would still leave the Titanic and all of these other ships with questionable hull design. Is this correct? No. More than twenty years after the Titanic, another ocean liner was built by John Brown. When she entered service, she was also the “largest vessel in the world.” Her length was also significantly greater than the Titanic, at 1,019 feet as opposed to 882 feet, and thus she was exposed to greater stresses over her entire length. She was the Queen Mary. Was the Queen Mary’s design drastically altered from that of the previous generation, like the Lusitania and Titanic? Had shipbuilders discovered a serious deficiency that they corrected in the newer liners? No. The Queen Mary’s rib spacing was 36” over the greater part of the vessel, narrowing to 24” at the fore and aft ends, even more closely matching that of the Titanic than the Lusitania. The Queen Mary sailed through virtually anything that any of the world’s oceans could throw her way over the years, and her hull’s strength was never in question. Today, some seventy years after she entered service, she is resting quietly in Long Beach, California, a model of strength and reliability.

Although the designs of the Olympic and Britannic were altered after the sinking of the Titanic, their rib-spacing never changed, and they proved quite strong. The Olympic’s hull integrity was never in serious question throughout her career. (Allegations of this nature have been leveled at her, but these were very nicely answered in Mark Chirnside’s book, RMS Olympic: Titanic’s Sister.) The Britannic sank in 1916, and fell at a very stressful angle onto the ocean floor; even so, her hull proved quite strong in the way it dealt with these stresses. Today, her hull retains its full width.

Importantly, the design of the Olympic and Titanic was not perfect; however, they were not shoddily-built ships thrown together cheaply with cut corners to make a few quid while risking the lives of all who took passage on them.

Recommended Reading:

  • Conspiracies at Sea: Titanic & Lusitania, by J. Kent Layton
  • Titanic: The Ship Magnificent by Steve Hall and Bruce Beveridge.
  • RMS Olympic: Titanic’s Sister by Mark Chirnside
  • The Olympic-Class Ships by Mark Chirnside
  • On A Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic by Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton and Bill Wormstedt
  • The Edwardian Superliners: A Trio of Trios by J. Kent Layton