The Titanic, name and thing, will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption.” That was the judgment of Edward Stuart Talbot, the Anglican bishop of Winchester, in the sermon he preached the Sunday after the fabled Atlantic passenger liner Titanic took nearly 1,500 lives with her as she sank after striking an iceberg in mid-ocean on April 14, 1912. “When has such a mighty lesson against our confidence and trust in power, machinery, and money been shot through the nation?” Talbot could not have known it, but an entire cascade of mighty lessons was about to be visited on human presumption in spades, in the form of two World Wars (Talbot would lose a son at Ypres) and the genocidal sacrifice of millions on the altars of Fascism and Communism. A mid-ocean shipping accident that cost a five-hundredth of the lives Britain lost in the 1914–18 war should seem like small potatoes indeed.
And yet, the Titanic conjures up more vivid images in people’s minds today than Ypres, and images almost as vivid as those of the Holocaust. The ship has been memorialized in six major motion pictures (including the lavish Nazi propaganda film Titanic in 1943, the American Grand Hotel–style melodrama Titanic in 1953, the British docudrama A Night to Remember in 1958, and James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997) and two Broadway musicals. A small industry of Titanic researchers has itemized the ship down to the last rivet; there are seven current Titanic-artifact exhibitions on offer; and the number of books on the Titanic has topped 200, from Walter Lord’s 1955 bestseller A Night to Remember (the foundation for the British movie) to the more mundane 1,912 Facts About the Titanic (1994).
The Titanic has indeed become a monument; the part about warning and presumption, though, seems to have gone curiously astray. Actually, until the mid–19th century, it was presumptuous simply to attempt an Atlantic crossing. It took too long, and involved too many risks, especially on the stormy North Atlantic. However, the adaptation of steam power to oceangoing ships sliced the time and the risk of Atlantic crossings, and in 1840, the Canadian-born Samuel Cunard organized the British & North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company to operate four paddlewheel steamers on a shuttle from Liverpool to Halifax and Boston. Cunard’s flagship, the Britannia, was small — only 1,150 gross tons and 207 feet long, and carrying only 115 passengers — but her nine-knot engines got her to Boston in 14 days, 8 hours. From there, Cunard’s company went nowhere but up. When the Cunard Line launched the Campania in 1891, its ships had lengthened to over 600 feet, weighed over 18,000 tons, and could make the Atlantic crossing in five days and nine hours. More important, the Campania could carry 2,000 passengers, the bulk of them immigrants in steerage.
By then, Cunard had competition from 13 other steamship lines. Chief among them was the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, or, as it was better known from the device emblazoned on its red company pennant, the White Star Line.
White Star’s first entry in the North Atlantic carrying trade was the Oceanic in 1871 — 3,700 tons and 420 feet long, and built to carry a thousand immigrants. She was followed by Atlantic, Baltic, Republic, Adriatic, and Celtic, until in 1899 White Star launched a second Oceanic, whose 700-foot length and 17,000 tons made her the largest liner in the world. The Oceanic did not make White Star the automatic champion of the western ocean, though, because Cunard had an invisible thumb on the balances. In 1903, the British government, anxious to secure a source of auxiliary shipping in wartime, provided the struggling Cunard Line with a £2.6 million bailout and an annual subvention of £150,000; in return, Cunard would allow the Admiralty to test new naval technology in Cunard’s next generation of liners, and build them to Admiralty specifications for wartime conversion as commerce raiders. The bailout enabled Cunard to build two of the largest liners on the Atlantic, Mauretania and Lusitania, 787 feet long and 31,550 tons, capable of 26 knots, and able to assume the role of armed “merchant cruisers” at the first threat of war.