Titanic: The engineering feat behind the tragedy

Posted on 12 Apr 2012

One hundred years ago today the RMS Titanic sunk in the north Atlantic Ocean. Adam Khan explores the extraordinary engineering achievement behind the infamous disaster.

The word Titanic prompts images of an historic ocean liner disaster in 1912 which has captured the imagination of popular culture and Hollywood filmmakers.

With today (April 12) marking the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, we should consider also the sheer immensity of the ship’s construction and engineering, which was peerless for its time.

Built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Titanic was the second of three Olympic class ocean liners which were the largest vessels commissioned by the British shipping company White Star Line. Facing strong competition from rival German lines Hamburg America and Norddeutscher Lloyd, White Star Line’s chairman J Bruce Ismay decided to compete on size rather than speed.

This led to the construction of the largest ship of its time in the world.

Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries won the contract to build the ship, helped because the shipbuilders had a relationship with White Star Line dating back to 1867. The contract included the construction of two other Olympic class ship s – HMHS Britannic and HMS Olympic – and designs were presented to Ismay as early as 1908. The Titanic was based on a revised design of the HMS Olympic.

On completion, Titanic was 882ft 9in (269.06 m) long with a maximum breadth of 92ft 6in (28.19 m). Her total height, measured from the base of the keel to the top of the bridge, was 104 feet (32 m). She weighed 46,328 gross register tonnes and had eleven decks, eight of which were for passenger use.
The Titanic was equipped with three engines. These comprised two four cylinder, triple expansion, inverted reciprocating steam engines and one low pressure Parsons turbine to drive the three propellers.
The two reciprocating engines were enormous – each one 63ft and weighing 720 tonnes. Steam was provided by Scotch type boilers fuelled by 159 coal burning furnaces giving the ship a speed of 23 knots. The combination of reciprocating engines with a turbine helped reduce fuel consumption, but increased power while using the same amount of steam.

The main engineering challenge for Harland and Wolff was simply the sheer size of the ship.

The company employed 15,000 men in the construction, which was often dangerous resulting in many injuries and fatalities. Unsurprising, perhaps, given that it was the first time any shipbuilding company had attempted to build a vessel of this size.

The building of the Titanic and her sister ships required the construction of two new shipyards on Queen’s Island, now known as Titanic Quarter, in Belfast Harbour. The construction of the new shipyards was facilitated by a gantry 228ft high built by Scottish firm Sir William Arrol & Co, the company responsible for constructing London’s Tower Bridge.

A Titanic construction: Key facts

 During Titanic’s construction, 246 injuries were recorded, 28 of them “severe”, involving severed arms by machines or legs crushed under falling pieces of steel.
 Six workers died on the ship itself while it was being constructed another two died in the shipyard workshops and sheds. Just before the launch, a worker was killed from a falling wooden support.
 22 tonnes of soap and tallow were spread on the slipway to lubricate the ship’s passage into the River Lagan
 Last minute changes at the personal request of J Bruce Ismay were intended to provide additional shelter to first class passengers. The design changes meant that the Titanic took longer to complete. Had the Titanic been finished earlier, she might well have missed her collision with an iceberg.
 Ismay’s changes made the Titanic heavier than the Olympic, therefore she could claim to be the largest ship afloat.
 Located aft of the Titanic’s turbine engine were four 400kW steam-driven electric generators, used to provide electrical power to the ship, plus two 30 kW auxiliary generators for emergency use. The ship’s electrical plant was capable of producing more power than a typical city power station of the time.

Three million rivets
The Titanic’s hull was laid down on March 31 1909 and was constructed alongside that of the Olympic.
Both ships took 26-months to build following a construction process which designed them as a box girder with the keel acting as a backbone and the frames of the hull forming the ribs. The ship used 2,000 hull plates. Each was a single piece of rolled steel, mostly up to 6ft (1.8 m) wide and 30ft (9.1 m) long and weighing between 2.5 and 3 tonnes.

Shell plating of rivet steel plates to the Titanic's frame and hull. Source: TRMA

Steel welding was still in its infancy at the time so the structure had to be held together with over three million iron and steel rivets which by themselves weighed over 1,200 tons. The rivets were fitted using hydraulic machines or were hammered in by hand.

Today Harland and Wolff focuses on ship repair, and renewable energy, offshore and rig engineering projects. The company will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking at St Ann’s Cathedral in Belfast this Saturday.

Harland and Wolff spokesperson David Mcveigh says: “Despite the tragic disaster, the manufacturing and engineering design of the Titanic was actually flawless and a smaller or weaker ship would have sunk much faster. No engineer can compete with the forces of nature and all cruise liners and ships face the same risks even till this day.”

“The disaster benefitted the shipbuilding industry by improving safety on transatlantic vessels,” Mr Mcveigh adds. “Regulations were introduced after the Titanic disaster as the ocean liner possessed insufficient life boats. The Titanic’s special automatic bulk head doors that prevented flooding were also improved upon after 1912.”

Period postcard showing the Lloyds Proving House foreman standing alongside the huge centre anchor and attachment chain for the Titanic.

Period postcard showing the Lloyds Proving House foreman standing alongside the huge centre anchor and attachment chain for the Titanic. Source: TRMA
Period postcard showing the Lloyds Proving House foreman standing alongside the huge centre anchor and attachment chain for the Titanic. Source: TRMA

Anchor factbox

  • The centre anchor weighed in at just over 15 tonnes and measured 18ft 6in in length.
  • This anchor was at its time, and for several years following, the world’s largest anchor forged by hand.
  • Both the side and centre anchor were forged by West Midlands’ largest forgery, Noah Hingley & Sons Ltd in Netherton, near Dudley.
  • The head of the anchor was cast by John Rogerson & Co in Newcastle-upon-Tyne upon the request of Hingleys.
  • The head of the anchor was to be cast in a bed of sand and clay. The process was typical of late Victorian and early Edwardian casting, but on a much larger scale.