Titanic Facts You Didn’t Learn From Watching The Movie
See what the film got right and wrong about this infamous tragedy.
Director James Cameron went to great lengths to accurately depict life aboard the Titanic in his blockbuster 1997 movie of the same name. But in the years since the movie entered our lives (and Leo and Kate stole our hearts), more information about history’s most famous shipwreck has come to light. And what of the other interesting tidbits the film touched on but didn’t necessarily explain in detail?
The RMS Titanic departed on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, from Southampton, England, making stops in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, before setting out across the Atlantic on April 11. It hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. Ever since, armchair historians and professional researchers the world over have obsessed over every aspect of the ship.
For those who saw the movie but want to know more, here are some facts about the ship that show there’s so much more to the Titanic than Cameron’s “Titanic.”
Early Reports Were Surprisingly Accurate
Despite the initial conflicting reports from the Titanic’s owner, White Star Line, the news media of the time sussed out the details of the disaster quickly. On April 16, 1912, the Guardian reported on the confusion:
“Late last night the White Star officials in New York announced that a message had been received stating that the Titanic sank at 2.20 yesterday morning after all her passengers and crew had been transferred to another vessel,” the story reads. “Later they admitted that many lives had been lost.”
The day before, the New York Times had reported that “655 souls have been saved of the crew and passengers, most of the latter presumably women and children.” Those early reports were close — just over 700 people survived, while 1,517 people died.
One Of The Titanic’s Smokestacks Was A Dummy
The Titanic had four smokestacks, or funnels (a replica funnel is shown below), but only three of them served the typical purpose of venting combustible gasses from the ship’s engines. The fourth was designed to make the ship look more powerful. But engineers also built in some functionality, using the dummy funnel for ventilation for the engine room, galleys and first-class smoking room.
It Wasn’t Called ‘Unsinkable’ By The Builder
Though it’s hard to think of the Titanic now without putting the word “unsinkable” in the same sentence, this was poetic license from the media and, later, Hollywood. White Star Line itself didn’t make claims about its ship being unsinkable, though passengers did report that it was difficult to obtain insurance for their cargo because insurers viewed it as unnecessary — why insure goods traveling on an unsinkable ship?
There Was A Cover-Up About The Lifeboats
It’s common knowledge now that the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats. But proof of a cover-up about it didn’t come until a century later. The Titanic’s safety officer inspected the ship five hours before it left port and wrote in a report that it needed 50 percent more lifeboats. However, he also wrote that if he made this recommendation official, his job would be at stake — White Star didn’t want the ship’s maiden voyage held up. The safety officer’s documents, and the revelation therein that confirmed White Star’s cover-up, came to light when they were up for auction 100 years after the ship sank.
Two Ships Were Nearby, But Only One Rescued People
The captains of two ships nearest to the Titanic when it was sinking reacted in strikingly different ways. The Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Rostron, sped his ship through the iceberg field to rescue passengers. But when lookouts on the Californian saw flares in the direction of the Titanic and woke their captain (twice) to alert him, Captain Stanley Lord brushed them off as “company rockets” designed to communicate between ships of the same line. He also didn’t reopen the Californian’s wireless office for the night, so the ship didn’t get the messages about the Titanic until morning, when it was too late.
Molly Brown Raised Money For Survivors
After the crew of the Carpathia rescued Margaret “Molly” Tobin Brown and other survivors out of a lifeboat, she realized that most of the women around her had lost everything. She began asking the Carpathia’s first-class passengers to donate money to the survivors, coaxing $10,000 out of them by the time they docked in New York. Later, Brown presented Captain Rostron with a silver cup (below) to thank him for rescuing more than 700 people that night.
We Know The Final Menu
The final first-class menu from the Titanic was recovered, so we know what the passengers were served for dinner that fateful night. The menu included oysters, foie gras, filet mignon, roast pigeon, lamb with mint sauce and a palate cleanser served midway through the meal called Punch Romaine, which was an icy, citrusy drink with a splash of champagne.
The Story Of The Titanic Has Incredible Staying Power
Though many have written about the Titanic in the years since 1912, few covered the disaster as well as Walter Lord in his book, “A Night To Remember.” Lord interviewed 63 survivors to tell his story, and his book is still considered a definitive telling and a must-read by Titanic-history enthusiasts. The book was published in 1955 and, remarkably, has never been out of print.
It Left A Big Wake
The Titanic was a huge ship, and it created big waves behind it. When the ship launched from Southampton, another ship was sucked into the Titanic’s massive wake, which almost caused a collision.
It Took Decades To Find The Shipwreck
The Titanic was found nearly 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, in 1985. But the search for the wreck began almost immediately after it sunk. The son of a wealthy man who perished on the Titanic announced just days after the accident that he wanted to find the ship and blow a hole into it to recover his father’s body. Little did they know then that the Titanic was under more than 12,000 feet of water.
The Titanic Had A Sister Ship
The Titanic, at right in this photo, had a sister ship. The Olympic, at left, launched first, to much fanfare. As a result, the Olympic was better known by the general public. White Star Line ordered the Titanic and Olympic from Belfast, Ireland, shipbuilders Harland and Wolff. Later, White Star also ordered another sister ship, the Britannic.
There’s An Olympic-Titanic Conspiracy Theory
Because the Olympic’s launch was covered so thoroughly by the press, the media used footage of the Olympic in their newsreels of the Titanic’s sinking because it was all they had. The misrepresentation led to conspiracy theories after the disaster that the Titanic hadn’t really sunk, and that the more-famous Olympic had sunk instead.
The Titanic Was Built To Compete For Passengers
White Star Line commissioned the Titanic, Olympic and Brittanic to compete commercially with the popular Cunard ships Lusitania and Mauretania. The Cunard liners were built for speed; both set records for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. The larger Titanic was built for comfort instead, offering more space and amenities for its 2,200-plus passengers.
The Movie’s Sets Were Based On The Olympic
The Titanic sank on its first voyage, before archival photos of the ship’s interior could be taken. So many of the sets for the film, from the elegant dining salons and Rose’s first-class suite to the steerage quarters, were based on photographs of the Olympic. However, we know more about the Titanic’s interior now thanks to Cameron, who commissioned new deep-diving vehicles to explore the wreckage and who has taken multiple dives to learn more about the ship.
The Movie Cost More Than The Ship
The First Fatalities Happened In The Shipyard
The Titanic and Olympic were built in a shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, and eight people died there in accidents during the ships’ construction. The first was a 15-year-old rivet catcher who fell from a ladder on the Titanic’s scaffolding two years before the ship sank.
Building The Titanic Took An Army
Nearly 15,000 people worked at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast at the time of the construction of the Titanic and Olympic. Most laborers in the shipyard worked six-day, 60-hour weeks and were only allowed brief bathroom, breakfast and lunch breaks. The conditions were difficult, but the city is still proud of its shipbuilding traditions, and it’s now home to a huge Titanic exhibit, where tourists can have afternoon tea by a replica of the famed grand staircase.
About 100,000 People Watched It Launch
The Titanic was launched into Belfast’s River Lagan on May 31, 1911. A crowd of 100,000 gathered for the moment when the Titanic’s supporting timbers would be knocked aside so the ship could slide (on a 1-inch layer of tallow and soap) into the water. One worker was injured by the falling timbers and died later, marking another death in the Titanic’s shipyard. The photo below, of the Olympic, shows how massive the underside of the Titanic was.
The Titanic Had A Gym
First-class passengers on the Titanic could go to a gymnasium room on board that had equipment modern gym-goers would recognize, including rowing machines and stationary bicycles. Women had access to the gym in the morning; men could go to the gym after lunch.
A Crew Change Left The Crow’s Nest Without Binoculars
The crew members who first spotted the iceberg that sank the Titanic were on the lookout without binoculars. White Star removed Second Officer David Blair at the last minute before the Titanic left port because he lacked experience on large ocean liners. Blair left the ship in such a rush that he forgot to hand off the key to the locker that researchers believe contained the binoculars the lookouts in the crow’s nest would have used. One of those lookouts, Frederick Fleet, said binoculars would’ve let them spot the iceberg sooner and, perhaps, steer the ship away from it.
The Titanic Sunk With Riches In Its Safe
Ten millionaires had booked passage aboard the Titanic, and part of the race to find the shipwreck in the 1980s was fueled by what the Titanic’s wealthiest passengers had brought aboard with them. The ship’s safe storage room was filled with untold treasures for modern-day hunters, including $7 million in diamonds (in 1912 dollars).
The Iceberg Was At Least A Year Old
Most icebergs in the North Atlantic come from Greenland, and most of them are carried northward into Baffin Bay by the West Greenland Current. If they last, they’re eventually carried southward again by the Labrador Current.
“Only an estimated 1 to 2% of large icebergs will, after a period of 1-3 years, reach latitude 45°N, crossing one of the most important route [sic] for ships of the entire Atlantic Ocean,” explains Scientific American.
The Titanic Had A Real J. Dawson
A real J. Dawson died on the Titanic. However, his story bears no resemblance to the story Cameron created for his Jack Dawson, and Cameron didn’t learn about him until after the film was made. Joseph Dawson shoveled coal in the Titanic’s engine room. This doesn’t stop fans of the movie from flocking to his grave, marked “J. Dawson,” in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Rose’s Suite Was More Accurate Than Expected
Rose’s suite in the movie was based on the suite of wealthy first-class passengers Ida and Isidor Straus. Cameron, eternally curious about the actual suite, finally wormed a tiny submarine robot into the difficult-to-access room in the shipwreck on a dive in 2005.
“The bot’s lights revealed gleaming gold sparkles,” he wrote for National Geographic. “Not only was the ornate mahogany fireplace still intact, but sitting on it was the gold-plated clock, just as it appeared in the archival photo, and just as we had re-created it for the movie. It was a surreal moment, fiction and reality merging in the stygian depths.”
The Meals Were Titanic
We know from the movie that for first-class passengers, the dining on board the Titanic was beyond fine. But just how outrageous was it? Evening meals could have as many as 13 courses. Each course came with an appropriate wine, and dinners could last four or five hours. The Titanic’s main galley, which created the meals for all first- and second-class passengers, included separate rooms for wine, beer, oysters and the china, as well as a bakery and 19 ovens. According to one account, the ship had 113 cooks!
The Titanic Had 23-Foot Propellers
The Titanic’s two outboard wing propellers were 23 feet and six inches in diameter and had three blades each. But the nature of the ship’s third and central propeller (now buried beneath the ocean floor) is a source of debate among naval historians. The central question? Whether it had three or four blades. However many blades the central propeller had, we do know it helped propel the ship to a maximum speed of 23 knots (about 26.4 mph).
Cameron Has Regrets About Fictionalizing Real People
Many items, such as the boot in the photo below, were retrieved from the Titanic, but it’s difficult to place which passenger they belonged to in most cases. One exception was a toiletry kit marked with the initials “W.M.,” plucked from the ocean floor near the shipwreck. The kit belonged to First Officer William Murdoch, a controversial figure in Titanic lore — especially after Cameron’s movie, which depicted Murdoch taking a bribe and shooting a passenger to prevent a lifeboat from overfilling before taking his own life.
In 2017, Cameron told USA Today that there was no evidence Murdoch did those things, and he regretted taking that storytelling license.
“But I was being a screenwriter,” Cameron said. “I wasn’t thinking about being a historian, and I think I wasn’t as sensitive about the fact that his family, his survivors might feel offended by that and they were.”
One Passenger Had A ‘Premonition Of Trouble’
Edith Rosenbaum, an American fashion writer, booked passage on the Titanic to return home from covering fashion in Paris. She sent a cable to her secretary in Paris about the voyage, saying she wasn’t particularly enjoying the trip.
“It is a monster, and I can’t say I like it, as I feel as if I were in a big hotel, instead of on a cozy ship,” she wrote, ending the cable by saying she had a “premonition of trouble.”
Third-Class Passengers Weren’t Locked Below
Let’s bust one myth the movie created: Though there were gates on the Titanic that kept third-class passengers from others, they weren’t locked on the night the ship went down. The gates were installed on the ship to keep immigrants separate from other passengers in order to be in compliance with U.S. immigration policy at the time. The Titanic would have stopped at Ellis Island, where the immigrants would have disembarked, before arriving in Manhattan.
Fewer Steerage Passengers Survived
Though third-class passengers had an allocation of lifeboats, none were stored on the third-class areas of the ship. So even though the gates weren’t locked (as they were in the movie), it did take third-class passengers longer to find their way through the decks — crucial time on a sinking ship that proved fatal for more than two-thirds of steerage passengers.
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