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History of RMS Titanic

The Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic was designed to be one of the greatest achievements of an era of prosperity, confidence, and propriety known as the Gilded Age. The transatlantic steamship business was intensely competitive as advances were made in ship design, size and speed. White Star Line, one of the industry leaders, focused on size and elegance rather than just speed. In 1907, White Star Line's managing director J. Bruce Ismay and Lord James Pirrie, chairman of White Star Line’s shipbuilder, Harland & Wolff, conceived of three magnificent steamships that would set a new standard for comfort, elegance, and safety. The first two were to be named Olympic and Titanic, the latter name chosen by Ismay to convey a sense of overwhelming size and strength. The third would be Britannic.

Building the Titanic

It took a year to design the first two ships. Construction of Olympic started in December 1908, followed by Titanic in March 1909. The Belfast shipyards of Harland & Wolff had to be redesigned to accommodate the immense projects, while White Star's pier in New York City had to be lengthened to enable the ships to dock. During the two years it took to complete Titanic's hull, publicity about the ship's magnificence made Titanic a legend before its first cruise. The "launch" of the completed steel hull on May 31, 1911 was heavily publicized.

The ship was then "fitted out," which involved construction of the ship's many facilities and systems, its elaborate woodwork, and elegant decor. As the date of Titanic’s maiden voyage approached, the completed Olympic suffered a collision and required extensive repairs, increasing the workload at Harland & Wolff, which was struggling to complete Titanic on schedule. Titanic's maiden voyage was delayed from March 20 to April 10

About the ship

The Titanic was a massive ship—883 feet long, 92 feet wide, and displacing (or weighing) 52,310 long tons (a long ton is 2240 pounds). It was 175 feet tall from the keel to the top of the four stacks or funnels, almost 35 feet of which was below the waterline. The Titanic was taller above the water than most urban buildings of the time. There were three real smokestacks, with a fourth "dummy" stack added to increase the impression of its size and power and to vent smoke from the ship’s numerous galleys. At the time, Titanic was the largest ever movable man-made object.

While the ship itself was massive, it was also designed to be a symbol of modern safety technology. It had a double-hull of 1-inch thick steel plates and 16 water-tight compartments sealed by massive doors that could be instantly triggered by a single electric switch on the bridge, or automatically by electric water-sensors. The original design called for 32 lifeboats, but White Star Line thought the boat-deck would look cluttered and reduced the number to 16, for a total lifeboat capacity of 1,178. This capacity exceeded the current regulations requiring space for 962, even though Titanic was capable of carrying some 3,500 passengers and crew. The maiden voyage of the Titanic had more than 2,200 passengers and crew aboard. The press labeled the ship "unsinkable."


The accommodations aboard the Titanic were considered the most modern and luxurious on any ocean, and included electric light and heat in every room, electric elevators, a swimming pool, a squash court, a Turkish bath, a gymnasium with a mechanical horse and camel to keep riders fit, and staterooms and first-class facilities to rival the best hotels. First-class passengers could glide down a six-story, glass-domed grand staircase to enjoy the finest cuisine in the first-class dining saloon that spanned the width of the ship. For those who desired a more intimate atmosphere, the Titanic also offered the chic Palm Court and Verandah restaurants, and the festive Café Parisien. The liner had two musical ensembles, rather than the standard one, and two libraries, (first- and second-class). Even the third-class, or steerage, cabins were more luxurious than the first-class cabins on other steamships, and boasted amenities like indoor toilet facilities that some of Titanic's emigrant passengers had not enjoyed in their own homes.

The doomed maiden voyage of the Titanic

The ship’s much-publicized maiden voyage lured British nobility, members of American society and industrialists, as well as many poor emigrants hoping to begin a new life in America. The journey began at Southampton, England, at noon on April 10, 1912. By nightfall, Titanic had stopped in Cherbourg, France, to pick up additional passengers. That evening it sailed for Queenstown, Ireland, and at 1:30 PM on April 11, the ship headed into the Atlantic Ocean toward New York City.

The weather was pleasant and clear, and the water temperature was about 55° F. The winter of 1912 had been unusually mild, and unprecedented amounts of ice had broken loose from the arctic regions. Titanic was equipped with Marconi's new wireless telegraph system and the two Marconi operators kept the wireless room running 24 hours a day. On Sunday, April 14, the fifth day at sea, Titanic received five different ice-warnings, but Captain Edward Smith was not overly concerned. The ship steamed ahead at 22 knots, and the White Star's Managing Director J. Bruce Ismay hoped to arrive in New York a day ahead of schedule.

On the night of April 14, 1912, wireless operator Jack Phillips was busy sending passenger's messages to Cape Race, Newfoundland, to be relayed inland to friends and relatives. He received a sixth ice-warning that night, but didn't realize how close Titanic was to the position of the warning, and the message never reached Captain Smith or the officer on the bridge.

By all accounts, the night was uncommonly clear and dark, moonless but faintly glowing with a sky full of stars. The sea was unusually calm and flat, "like glass" according to many survivors. The lack of waves made it even more difficult to spot icebergs, since there was no telltale white water breaking at their edges.

At 11:40 p.m. lookout Fred Fleet in the crow's nest spotted an iceberg dead ahead. He notified the bridge, and First Officer William Murdoch ordered the ship turned hard to port. He signaled the engine room to reverse direction, full astern. The ship turned slightly, but it was too large, was moving too fast, and the iceberg was too close. Just seconds later, one of the greatest maritime disasters in history began unfolding. Within hours, over 1500 lives were lost. What really happened to "the unsinkable" Titanic remained a mystery—until September 1, 1985 when a joint American and French team would discover it.

Learn about the 1985 Discovery.