Titanic: The Reboot

New research on what really caused the great ship to sink is informing the design of a new version

Caitlin Gainey

Titanic sequel is in the works. No, it’s not a second movie; it’s a second ship. While most people are content to simply remember the great ship, an Australian billionaire named Clive Palmer and his team are in the process of constructing a near-identical replica of this most lavish, legendary ocean liner—with a few updates. Since 2012, the construction of the new Titanic has been under way in China. It will supposedly make its maiden voyage, not across the iceberg-ridden north Atlantic, but from China to Dubai in 2022. From there, the ship will journey to Southampton, England, and traverse the exact same route as the original. If all goes according to plan, it will then continue on to circumnavigate the globe.

The Titanic II will be identical to the original in its architecture, cabin layout, class categories, restaurants and dining rooms—complete with authentic costumes for passengers and staff to wear. But the latest iteration will be decked out with new and improved technology and safety features in the hopes of deterring another disaster. Unlike the original, the vessel will be diesel-powered rather than coal-fired, but the four iconic smoke stacks will remain. Passengers can expect nine decks and 840 staterooms that can accommodate 2,400 passengers and 900 crew members. With an extra safety deck—which unlike the original ship holds the appropriate number of lifeboats—and a wider hull that will provide additional stability in the water, the Titanic II meets all 21st-century regulations and also has modern navigation technology that identifies any icebergs that threaten it.

Even if the Titanic II were to collide with an iceberg, however, its fate would almost certainly be different than that of its namesake. While everyone is familiar with the iceberg that caused this greatest of sea tragedies, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The iceberg did, in fact, precipitate the disaster, but recent research shows that it was the steel the ship was made of that really sank the original Titanic.

Built between 1909 and 1912 by the shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff, the original RMS Titanic was the largest ship built during her time: she was nearly 900 feet long, stood 25 stories high, and weighed 46,000 tons. With all the latest bells and whistles, the Titanic was deemed “unsinkable” by a respected journal of the time known as the Shipbuilder. Even in the worst of crashes, the team designed her to stay afloat for two to three days. Yet on April 14, 1912, the Titanic met her match when the ship grazed an iceberg that ruptured her lining. Completely engulfed by the sea in just three hours, the sinking of the unsinkable left the world in shock.

Yet, after finding the ship’s remains in the ocean in 1985, it turned out that iceberg wasn’t the only problem. Robert Ballard, an oceanographer on a detour from a U.S. Navy operation, and his team were the first to come upon the wreckage. “We were embarrassed we were celebrating,” he later told 60 Minutes; “and all of a sudden we realized that we should not be dancing on someone’s grave.” Surveying the residuum of the great ship, Ballard noted that the remains were miles from where the ship radioed its distress signal, which explains why it took over 70 years to find them—but he wrongly indicated that the ship was “pristine” like a “museum piece.” Cracked into pieces, the Titanic was in part buried in the sludge of the ocean floor, hiding the damage that led to its downfall. With the help of sonar, the forensic teams that appeared on site in the following years mapped multiple lacerations in the first six “watertight” compartments of the bow.

Materials scientists jumped at the news of splits in the supposedly indestructible compartments and began to investigate the ship’s design in earnest. After some fragments of the hull were recovered, the scientists at Canada’s Defence Research Establishment—Atlantic (DREA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, brought the ship’s fatal flaws, which were completely unheard of to the naval architects of her time, to light.

Using preserved pieces of the ship, DREA scientists recognized two major material failures: one in the steel hull and one in the iron rivets. First looking at the hull, the team noticed that the recovered piece of steel had jagged, sharp edges like broken glass. After the researchers made replicas of the sample, they submerged the clones into ice brine temperatures that rival those of the northern Atlantic Ocean. When they punctured the steel, it fractured in the exact same fashion. Scientists were then convinced: although the iceberg must have catalyzed the disaster, it was a phenomenon known as brittle fracture that sunk the Titanic.

Brittle fracture is an unstable failure process that occurs in many metals when some phenomenon triggers a phase transition, making the material go from pliable to rigid. Some of the most common causes of brittle fracture include low temperature exposure, high sulfur content in steel, and high impact speeds—and all of these were present the night of the Titanic’s crash. Tim Foecke, a metallurgist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, comments that while the steel used in its main structure was adequate in strength, ice-water temperatures encouraged the metal to fracture quickly and easily. Known as the ductile to brittle transition, this phase change essentially made the Titanic’s hull shatter like  china upon impact, allowing water to gush in at an inconceivable rate. Each factor alone could have sunk the Titanic, but the force of the impact, the sulfur content and the low temperatures together made the iceberg’s impact leave virtually no chance for the ship’s survival.

The DREA team’s second focus was on the iron rivets that fastened the hull plates to the skeleton of the Titanic. Performing the same tests as on the hull’s compartments, the researchers were shocked: there was another brittle fracture. The high stress collision and the low temperature water had doomed the ship in another spot. As the Titanic smacked into the iceberg at 26 miles per hour, the rivets were sheared off with ease. At a lower impact speed or temperatures above the ductile to brittle phase transition, the rivets would’ve deformed before failing. But the combination of hull and rivet failure allowed the water to penetrate and eventually swallow the entire ship 24 times faster than her builders expected.

The sinking of the Titanic was thus not only a historical tragedy but an engineering one: given the knowledge available to naval architects at the time of the ship’s construction, there was no way to predict or prevent the fatal crash of this most sumptuous cruise liner. The Titanic II’s builders, however, are well aware of the material properties that they are using aboard the latest model of the Titanic.

Although ticketing is yet to begin, those that do buy passage might go to recreate the infamous sinking scene, but they may be disappointed. The hull has been redesigned to keep the ship afloat through its journey. The hull of the Titanic II is no longer riveted but rather welded shut, and the whole structure of the ship has been manufactured with 21st-century steel alloys, which do not shatter at low temperatures. Although the structure of the new ship has fixed the material issues, the Titanic II might just turn into a billionaire’s pipe dream.

Like any ship—even ones as glamorous as the Titanic—there is still a chance that fate could send this $500 million project to its own watery grave. While history junkies are raving about a second Titanic hitting the water exactly 110 years after the original, many people are skeptical. If there were ever a place to tempt fate, provoke Poseidon’s wrath, nudge karmic retribution or what have you, willingly going aboard a clone of a doomed ship that suffered a tragic fate at sea, is it. “If this is some Darwinian test for humanity,” says Sarah Rense from Esquire, “we are failing.”

Others such as Charles Haas, president of the Titanic International Society, would “prefer to remember the Titanic as she really is and really was, rather than as an imperfect approximation.” Haas noted in an e-mail that after having seen the original ship during dives to the wreck on the 1993 and 1996 expeditions and met many survivors—now all gone—he would not buy passage on the Titanic II regardless of its resemblance or technology. It’s the same reason there are “no efforts to create a Lusitania II or a replica of the USS Arizona. It’s a matter of sensitivity, respect and thoughtfulness,” says Haas; “we commemorate tragedies and those lost in them, not duplicate them.”

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