On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg, causing the deaths of more than 1,500 people. Less than a month after the ship settled on the ocean’s frigid floor, the first movie about the disaster was on screens. In the century since then, countless books, movies, video games, poems and songs show we’re still compelled to relive the disaster.
Powell’s City of Books has an entire section dedicated to the Titanic, and on that shelf you’ll find a 2008 book by Portland metallurgist Jennifer Hooper McCarty. In What Really Sank the Titanic, McCarty uses information gleaned from studying rivets salvaged from the wreck to argue that the world’s most famous shipwreck was caused by poor-quality iron.
McCarty, who recently left a position at Oregon Health & Science University to work for an international engineering firm, studied 48 rivets pulled from the Titanic’s wreckage, visited the archives of the ship’s builder in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and pored over the archives of the British Board of Trade and Lloyd’s of London, which set ship-condition standards.
Her argument goes something like this: Working in harsh conditions on tight deadlines, the Titanic’s builders used inconsistent materials to make the 3 million rivets in her hull. While some rivets were modern steel, others were less-durable wrought iron. And much of the iron was of lower quality than that typically used and was set by unskilled laborers. Unluckily, McCarty says, the bow of the ship, which struck an iceberg, was built using the less-durable iron rivets, which snapped under the pressure. If the ship had been built better, she says, the “unsinkable” ship would have remained afloat long enough for rescuers to save more of the passengers and crew.
WW: You conducted your research on the Titanic during graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. What first got you interested?
Jennifer Hooper McCarty: The Discovery Channel offered an expedition to go see the ship and assess what role the materials played in the sinking. My mentor was invited to go down and see the ship. He said this could be my thesis if I wanted on the expedition. Getting down there, he could see what was going on with the steel. He was able to see the ship; it was very exciting.
They brought back steel and rivets, the fasteners that hold the ship together. I was able to spend the next three years studying the pieces under the microscope and working using computer modeling. This was around the same time that the Leonardo DiCaprio movie came out. There were a lot of questions about the materials—why this unsinkable ship sank in three hours.
What was ultimately wrong with the rivets on the Titanic?
In short, the rivets in the bow and stern sections were made with a quality of wrought iron that was below industry standard. The iron had an excessive amount of slag, which resulted in weak regions in the rivets following their installation on the ship. This weakness was not detectable during normal quality checks, but resulted in rivet failure after less than an inch of movement in the plates.
Why is there so much interest surrounding the Titanic?
We’re attracted to tragedy. In its time, the Titanic was the largest moving manmade object. It had all these features that were the first of their kind. There was a lot of excitement for its launch. There are so many little facts that people can keep learning about and getting into. The history of the materials, the history of the workers, the history of each person on that ship—there is always more to learn.
There’s half a bookshelf devoted to the Titanic at Powell’s. What does your book add to this selection?
There is a lot of info out there, but one of the reasons I think I was successful in getting a book published is, there are very few people actually studying the materials the ship was made out of. I can back my story up with lots of hard research. A lot of people can speculate. They have a lot of information on the tiny details on the history, but they haven’t physically looked at the materials. I can describe to the Titanic community how something so tiny can have such a huge impact.
Did unexpected curiosities turn up in your research?
Out of the 3 million rivets on the ship, I thought they would all be wrought iron. I started looking at them and thought, “Oh my gosh, they were using rivets of iron and steel.” As soon as I saw that, I realized somebody used recently developed new materials to strengthen the ship. They knew the steel was stronger, so they used it. However, rather than using stronger material throughout the whole ship, they used it only on some parts. They were cutting costs, working as fast as they could, and the workers liked working with iron better than steel.
What is the takeaway message of the book?
They had to make some significant engineering decisions that had a huge impact on how fast the ship sank and how many people died. These are the kind of decisions that happen all the time.
Tiny little defects contributed to the sinking of the largest manmade moving object. That is so fascinating to me. It’s just nanometers. They thought they were being safe.