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Why the Titanic Still Fascinates

Part of the The Titanic For Dummies Cheat Sheet

The story of the Titanic’s demise is achingly dramatic and keeps audiences and readers spellbound even a century later. The Titanic disaster wasn’t the greatest maritime disaster in history, but it’s by far the most famous. Following are some reasons that the story still resonates:

  • The first-class passengers included some of the richest people in the world. The rich and famous flocked to the Titanic. In 1912, ocean travel was the only way to get from Europe to the United States, and the wealthy were drawn to the ship touted as the most luxurious steamship ever built — a luxury hotel on water. The ship’s maiden voyage attracted artists, authors, industrialists, retailers, and others who could afford the expense of a first-class ticket. While well more than half the first-class passengers survived the tragedy, some of the most famous passengers (such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim) were among the casualties.

  • The third-class passengers were sailing toward the American dream. Most of the 700-plus passengers in steerage were part of the great migration from Europe to America that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century. They were sailing in search of the American dream. Leaving their homelands with essentially everything they owned was the biggest decision of their lives. Only about 25 percent of them survived the sinking.

  • The caste system was on full display. While the third-class accommodations on the Titanic were nice compared with other ships, they paled in comparison to the first-class amenities. And the classes did not mix and mingle during the voyage — or during the sinking. Divisions among the classes were stark, as evidenced by the vast difference in survival rates between first- and third-class passengers. (James Cameron acknowledged this disparity in his epic film when he had Rose’s pompous, imperious mother ask, “Will the lifeboats be seated by class?”)

  • The ship was generally considered to be unsinkable. The sheer size of the Titanic (it was almost 900 feet long and weighed more than 46,000 tons) was a spectacle. It boasted 16 watertight compartments that were designed to allow the ship to stay afloat even if it suffered damage and began to take on water. While the White Star Line never claimed that the ship couldn’t sink, it did say (in a brochure) that the Titanic was “designed to be unsinkable.” No one imagined that it could go down, especially not on its maiden voyage.

  • The lifeboat capacity was inadequate. The Titanic met regulations in terms of the number of lifeboats on board, but the lifeboats could hold only 1,178 people if filled to capacity. More than 2,200 people were on the ship. Also, the chaos of the sinking led to many lifeboats launching without being filled to capacity, which is why only around 700 people survived.

  • The survivors’ stories were front-page news. Many survivors shared their harrowing stories of watching the ship sink and hearing the screams of passengers who did not secure spots on the lifeboats. They shared their terror of being in the icy waters of the North Atlantic for hours, uncertain whether any ships were trying to rescue them. Those stories made front-page news in the days and weeks after the sinking and became the stuff of legend.

  • The wreckage was found. Interest in the Titanic waned in the years after the tragedy, although the 1955 publication of Walter Lord’s history A Night to Remember created a surge of attention. (Several movies focusing on the sinking also brought it back into the spotlight from time to time.) But in 1985, interest exploded when Dr. Robert Ballard, on a joint mission with IFREMER (the French Research Institute for Exploration of the Sea), discovered the wreck of the Titanic. Since then, photos, video, and artifacts have brought the ship back into the public eye; spurred the release of documentaries and movies that explored the Titanic in ways never before possible (including James Cameron’s 1997 masterpiece); and secured the story’s place in world history.

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