Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Titanic Was on Fire for Days Before the Iceberg Hit (medium.com/dialogue-and-discourse)
334 points by Osiris30 on Dec 13, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 195 comments

Ah yes, another "TITANIC MYSTERY FINALLY SOLVED" article. And right on schedule too!

If you Google "Titanic coal fire", the results page will be full of articles positing this exact theory. This is neither new, nor correct. Anyone who has studied this event at any length will know it was a death by a thousand paper cuts. Trying to assign ultimate responsibility to a coal fire using a 106-year-old photo showing a black smudge is laughable and shows a fundamental lack of understanding.

The fire in question wasn’t some blazing inferno that many undoubtedly imagine, but rather it was more of a smoldering affair. This fire was in one of many rooms that was built for the express purpose of containing this coal. A fuel source that is known to self-ignite. To say that the fire effected the ship is like saying burning a casserole in your oven will burn down your house. Possible? Technically. Likely? Absolutely not.

Something this article failed to mention was that the fire was put out the day before the Titanic sank. Coal fires were common on large steel ships like the Titanic. The engineers and stokers were prepared for, and ultimately handled the fire. It was part of their job, not some apocalyptic emergency.

As I said above, the Titanic was a death by a thousand paper cuts. Unfortunately, it was a necessary death to give us the marine safety regulations we have today. If any number of things had been just slightly different on the Titanic, it would be a footnote in history and we would be talking about a different ship that would have inexplicably had everything go wrong, including but not limited to an irrelevant coal fire.

It's death by a thousand cuts, but somehow the coal fire contributes to not one of those cuts? I read the author's argument as "here are a few more of those cuts" myself.

But Occam's Razor says you don't need to add a thousand cuts to explain the sinking - just the one cut from running into the iceberg explains it.

No, Occam's Razor says that in the absence of more information, the hypothesis that makes the least amount of assumptions, is probably the best. Or something like that.

What it really doesn't say is that, if there's evidence suggesting additional factors, ignore them and go for the simplest explanation that fits. That's just silly.

It's not always the simplest explanation that is true. It's a heuristic to pick an explanation in absence of more information.

Also it's still just a heuristic and Occam's Razor can get it wrong.

They hit an iceberg going pretty fast and no one knows why they were going so fast.

I think you’re glossing over the idea that the burning coals were thrown into the furnace which in turn revved up the engine which caused the Titanic to speed through the Atlantic and right into an iceberg.

The Titanic was going fast because they were trying to get to New York ahead of schedule for the favorable publicity.

To say that the Titanic was careening out of control through the Atlantic Ocean that by all rights should have been devoid of icebergs because some lowly stokers were shoveling coal into a furnace faster than they should have is both simplistic and flat out wrong.

"The Titanic was going fast because they were trying to get to New York ahead of schedule for the favorable publicity."

Yeah but the article is saying that's not the real reason it was speeding. It was the coals in the furnace.

That's like blaming your fuel injectors for a speeding ticket...

Read the paper linked in justin66 comment below, it are answering all these questions.

> They hit an iceberg going pretty fast and no one knows why they were going so fast.

They were going so fast because going flat out at or near top speed to make or beat schedule was standard practice for passenger liners of the time, even in the face of sea ice, relying on lookouts to spot icebergs and past experience which showed that even direct impacts generally failed to prevent completing the voyage.

Titanic could have easily been venting steam to achieve the same purpose

> it was a necessary death to give us the marine safety regulations we have today

Beyond lifeboat regulations, what other safety improvements resulted from the sinking? Also, why the Titanic versus a previous vessel? (Is it the Titanic or simply Titanic?)


Radio and Distress flare procedures; International Ice Patrol; Ship design changes, including taller bulkheads

What percentage of ships had fires in their coal holds on the day the titanic launched, by your estimation? I'm struggling to understand how rare a persistent coal fire was during that era. Would they in deed be forced to burn the coal, would this also force a high speed? If I'm to believe what LEO has me, speed is an enormous factor in all accidents, one of the most impactful variables, reduce it to 0 and you get the authors point.

Eric Cartman would be proud of this theory. Who sank the titanic? KYLE!!!

This theory comes from a TV documentary broadcast in 2017 that's been pretty thoroughly debunked:


From the article's conclusion:

Hypothesis: The fire played one final, deadly role in the disaster: the fire-damaged bulkhead gave way, causing the ship to sink, and the enormous loss of life.

Actually: Since the ship was doomed from the moment of the collision, whether or not the bulkhead collapsed was more or less immaterial to the timing of the disaster. Lives were not lost because it allegedly collapsed early.

How long it stayed afloat was a critical matter. The RMS Carpathia arrived two hours after the Titanic sank.

"Andrews knew about three-quarters of an hour before that rush of water in Boiler Room No. 5 that the ship was doomed. Once the forward compartments had filled, the ship’s bow would have been so low in the water that the flooding of the next compartment aft, Boiler Room No. 5, would have been a certainty. Whether or not the bulkhead held was of no major consequence in the eventual sinking, or how quickly the ship sank."

The article goes on to show that it's far from clear that the bulkhead did in fact fail, and that it's unlikely that the fire would have been intense enough to damage it significantly.

This article is a criticism of a particular documentary (which admittedly seems to have a number of false and dubious claims), and in some places seems more determined to debunk the claims made in that documentary than to consider whether a bunker fire could nevertheless have played any role.

If the documentary claims the ship was only doomed by the failure of the bulkhead in question, then it is in error, but timing of the essence here: if the ship stayed afloat for one more hour, it probably would have made little difference, but an extra two hours probably would have.

The metallurgical discussion of the effect of fire on the bulkhead looks well-grounded to me (though I know little about the matter), but it might be somewhat moot if, as this article seems to acknowledge, the bulkhead may have been deformed beforehand, as a consequence of a bunker fire at some point. I am curious as to whether the strain on the hull, from having the stern lifted out of the water, could have led to (further) damage to the bulkhead, creating the reported rush of water.

I was confused why the author called it a "new" documentary. It's 2 years old.

Also the link in the article to the documentary is incorrect. Here's the correct link for "Titanic: The New Evidence": https://vimeo.com/198568091

This should be the top comment. Providing a well balanced source, context and clear counter point. Also, the document love nked is one really great read.

It's actually well-known that there were fires in the Titanic's coal bunkers. I remember first reading about this way back in the mid 1990s (1995-1997) when I was somewhat obsessed with the subject. It's also been speculated for just as long that the heat might've affected the hull's properties, though this runs counter to the argument that the cold water might've contributed to making the metal more brittle.

This is by no means extraordinary: coal bunker fires were rather common back in the age of steamships. It was even discussed at the various admiralty inquests into the loss of the vessel.

> ...though this runs counter to the argument that the cold water might've contributed to making the metal more brittle

Why not both? Very high temperatures earlier in the crossing and then very low temperatures in the Atlantic.

Since iron has good thermal conductivity, the cold water would act as a heat-sink. There could be a significant thermal gradient, I suppose...

Perhaps even worse, very high temperatures on one side of a metal structure and very low temperatures on the other side at the same time.

Iron is a very good heat conductor.

How about the popnails used in the hull?

You mean the rivets?


> It's also been speculated for just as long that the heat might've affected the hull's properties, though this runs counter to the argument that the cold water might've contributed to making the metal more brittle.

Does it? There's certainly materials where damage is made worse by rapid temperature transitions and/or a temperature differential across the material than by temperature extremes in one direction or the other alone.

Excessive heat being bad doesn't mean that excessive cold is good, or vice versa, and neither conflicts with the idea that both together, close in time or simultaneously, aren't worse than either alone.

I think theory with the cold was not related to temperature differential embrittlement, but sulfur embrittlement in the fabrication process.

In the case of the steel in the titanic, the theory is that there was excessive amounts of suphur in the steel, which "coats" the grain boundaries between ferrite crystals in the steel and causes brittle failures. Modern steels add Manganese to counteract this effect. Sulphur embrittlement is worse at colder temperatures, but will not be effected by heating/cooling cycles unless the heating is so intense that you get past critical temperature and recrystallize the steel (~2300 F).

Sometimes they don’t go okay.

I can’t seem to find the name but there was a town in Texas, coal delivery ship shows up with fire in storage. They dock, open the hatches, fresh oxygen causes the fire to spread. Then other boats catch on fire. Some explode. Throw shrapnel into town. By the time the fires are out, hundreds are reported dead, almost 40% of the town is left homeless.

You might be thinking of the 1947 Texas City disaster, which killed nearly 600 people. The fire, and the subsequent explosion after failed fire-fighting efforts, were in a cargo hold containing ammonium nitrate, not coal. [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_disaster

I’m not sure what story I’m thinking of. The pictures and events don’t look right, but some Wikipedia lists about disasters don’t include anything else in Texas that’s the right size.

The story I’m thinking of, the captain knew the coal was burning before he docked, and went into port anyway to try to salvage the cargo. The subsequent explosion was due to material on other boats.

I may have heard about this around the Tianjin explosion but more likely when they were fighting the new coal depots on the west coast, someone brought it up while talking about coal self igniting.

Is it possible you're thinking of the Halifax Explosion? That killed hundreds and destroyed a huge portion of the city, but that ship was carrying ammunition.


Ok, which one of you fixed the missing curly brace in "{convert|10|mi}} away" right as I was about to?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_disaster ? Maybe another because I don't see it related to coal or that the ship showed up with a fire per se as opposed to one happening on the ship while in port.

That sounds like the Texas City ammonium nitrate disaster in 1947. One of the biggest industrial explosions in history.

The author mentions a 56 year old coal fire in Pennsylvania for some reason. It's not the most extreme example he could have reached for. The New Straitsville mine fire in Ohio has been burning for 134 years, and is still slowly spreading.


This is just up the road from where I grew up in Australia and has been burning for 6,000 years:


That one is rather refreshing compared to the New Straitsville and Centralia fires, which were both directly attributable to some pretty blatant human stupidity. New Straitsville is attributed to arson by some strikers and Centralia was caused by an attempt at cleaning up a landfill situated in a former coal mine, an attempt that relied on methods worthy of Mr. Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati.

> It is estimated that more than two hundred square miles of coal has burned

Why would they measure the amount burned in square miles??? How thick? This measurement is meaningless!

Well, coal is mostly carbon and its atomic radius is around 70pm. Converting miles to metric and calculating based on that, we can assume at minimum 72 liters of coal was burned, but not more than the total volume of earth.

i lol

Granted, it's not a measure of how much coal has been burned, but it is a measure of how far the fire has spread.

They measure it in square miles because it's most direct impact on our way of life is at the surface. The thickness is unlikely to be uniform and the volume of the coal doesn't exactly tell the lay person much.

It may not be possible to know or accurately estimate the scope of it.

At only 200 square miles, we can fix it. Assuming the area is square, the perimeter is just 56.56 miles. We can go around with a tunnel boring machine, replacing coal with a concrete-lined tube. We can dig a trench, like a road cut or canal, lining it just as we sometimes line our road cuts and canals.

If it were laid out on an identifiable surface, then perhaps that could be done. But veins of coal in the earth branch unpredictably in 3D space. You'd be following a fractal surface.

Yeah only 200 square miles

The best case is a circle, giving a perimeter of 50 miles. Some other projects to compare it by:

94 miles total for the three bores of the Channel Tunnel

120 miles for the Suez canal, finished 149 years ago

51 miles for the Panama canal, finished 104 years ago with steam shovels

Clearly, we can do this.

The Centralia fire is the most famous one by far.

I've never noticed this to be the case, but I'm from the area (a few hours from each site). Looking online it appears you're right: one fire is 40x bigger and much older, but the new one gets 20x the google hits.

I think the newer fire, by virtue of its location and having started more recently, is probably a lot more photogenic because of the infrastructure damage it causes.

It depends on your parameters - Yanartas / “Mount Chimera” was in the Iliad, it’s hard to beat that level of fame.


Not as much interesting, but was astonished to know that we know the name of the Titanic paper boy. There’s a incredibly sad story on his death too:


> It’s unthinkable today that a tragedy of this magnitude could occur.

In terms of death toll, there have been worse shipwrecks in this century.

To expand on this:

1987 there was a shipwreck that was 4x as bad as the Titanic (over 4,000 deaths).

In 2002 over 2,000 people died in one (nearly 2x the Titanic)

A 2006 wreck had 1,000 deaths. The same magnitude as the Titanic.

It seems that it is only unthinkable for people who can't use Wikipedia.

To expand on this expansion, here's the wikipedia data:

21st Century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_maritime_disasters_in_...

20th Century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_maritime_disasters_in_...

"Unthinkable" is a subset of "don't bother to check this" though, so it has quite some natural resistance to truth.

However, if you account for the difference in global population, the Titanic disaster looks worse. There's many times more humans on the planet now than there were in 1911.

With some rounding and averages, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates

1910 -> 1.7 billons

1987 -> 5.0 billons (2.9x)

2002 -> 6.2 billons (3.6X)

2006 -> 6.5 billons (3.8X)

So the 1987 case is still worse after adjusting for the global population.

It is, but not nearly as much; after adjustment, it looks pretty close.

Titanic made headlines because it was rich upper class people on board.

Coupled with the absurdity of a situation where the ship sinks slowly and people drown due to lack of lifeboats (among other things).

It was also supposedly unsinkable.

And the largest for its time.

Which leads to my other favorite modern myth that we never built a bigger ship than Titanic since that disaster. It's interesting to point out that very few modern Cruise Ships are smaller than the Titanic.

It reminds me a bit of the Challenger disaster, which was probably the biggest news headline of my childhood. 7 people died. More people die in a typical mass shooting, but we remember Challenger because it was a really big deal with the first civilian in space, and so everyone was watching the launch and had it blow up in front of them. It's likely that people care about the Titanic because it was supposedly "unsinkable" - if it had been the Carpathia that went down with 1500 people, it might've made headlines for a couple days but we wouldn't be talking about it 106 years later.

Hell, I didn't hear about Doña Paz until today, despite being the largest peacetime maritime disaster in history and happening just 2 years after Challenger.

I suspect a big part of the tragedy of the Challenger was a breaking of the "futuristic utopia" myth that many had in their minds at the time. A lot of it has disappeared in the last 20 years (or at least moved over to the singularity/AI myth), but back then things like the L5 Society [1] were popular, and you couldn't read Popular Mechanics without some sort of story about moon/mars bases.

In short, people wanted to believe that we could just go into space and leave all the problems we had and mistakes we made on earth behind. It was a sort-of "salvation". The Challenger was a poignant reminder that this was not the case.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Space_Society

Or Titanic's sister ship Britannic which was larger, thou was never uses as a passenger liner, due to sinking during service in WW1

I wonder if the punishment for murder ought to decrease as world population increases.

Not the punishment, but to make the analogy more precise: society's "interest" in individual murders does decrease proportionally with its own size.

In a village, a murder is the talk of town. In a city, we don't even know.

So, yes; GPs point, while cold and calculating in the way only actuaries can sometimes be, was a fair point nonetheless.

Well, but (by the same metric) the punishment is already reduced. If you execute someone for murder today, you're only executing 1/7.7B of total population.

(I agree, it's kinda silly metric.)

No. For the victim it's still a 100% loss.

And the victim's loved ones.

What if you murder someone that everybody hates, and who in turn hated everybody?

It's hard to argue the world wouldn't be a better place, but I think it's hard to know where to draw the line. It's all fine until you're in the minority, then I can't imagine you'd want people killing someone you like and respect even if they're nearly universally despised. It's a slippery slope probably best avoided.

Those are the murders that the police frequently don't expend a lot of effort in investigating.

There's actually a lot of murders that never get solved.

The damages from murder aren’t calculated relative against population count.

I think that was his point. It was a subtle jab at the GP's comment of using global population as a benchmark for the severity of a sinking ship.

But it's a thought provoking question because the impact to society is.

(from a purely; sociopathic standpoint anyway)

Perhaps it should instead increase as the average lifespan increases.

Which would imply that the punishment for killing a child should be more severe than the punishment for killing an old man. And that killing a cancer patient shouldn't be punished as harshly as killing a healthy person.

There is definitely a good argument there. A child has far more potential years of life left than an elderly person, so killing them seems worse. Perhaps that's one reason why we tend to think so badly of child murderers.

Of course, in reality (at least the American judicial system), punishment is usually based more on other factors, such as motive. So premeditatedly killing an old man because you wanted to steal his stuff is punished more than killing a child purely by accident.

FWIW, I don't really believe that the punishment should increase with increased lifespan, I was just giving a contradictory example based on different numbers.

I reacted to that, too, and it made me think.

Had this happened in 1919, I think it would have been forgotten already, as it would seem pale compared to WW1. In 1912, people were quite innocent, so this was seen as a big event.

Was WW1, at least in part, something that was allowed to happen before most people had forgotten earlier big wars? Roughly 100 years had passed since Napoleon, after all.

When authors today again consider Titantic to be "unthinkable", what does it mean?

I consider it perfectly thinkable that something in our lifetime will trigger a nuclear war, killing billions of people.

Especially if we start to take global stability for granted.

The RMS Empress of Ireland sinking on 29 May 1914, with over a thousand fatalities despite the changes made in response to the Titanic sinking, is almost forgotten. The day after the commission of inquiry concluded, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and the events leading to WW1 began to dominate the news.


> In 1912, people were quite innocent, so this was seen as a big event.

> Was WW1, at least in part, something that was allowed to happen before most people had forgotten earlier big wars? Roughly 100 years had passed since Napoleon, after all.

There's a little mentioned XIX century war that exacted WW2-scale casualties: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiping_Rebellion

> Had this happened in 1919, I think it would have been forgotten already, as it would seem pale compared to WW1. In 1912, people were quite innocent, so this was seen as a big event.

Also because of this I think it became sort of a shared generational experience. A single, big, widely reported and discussed tragic event, that made people able to recall "what were you doing when you learned about the Titanic" for years to come. Similar to 9/11 for my generation.

And then the Spanish Flu killed even more people than WW1 in 1918/1919.

> When authors today again consider Titantic to be "unthinkable", what does it mean?

That the thip wath not going to think, same ath in the patht?

In 1912, people were quite innocent, so this was seen as a big event


40 million people died in The Great War, which just ended. And there were world events which killed people on a much larger scale than the Titanic before that.

It's a very modern and naïve viewpoint to think people of years past were "innocent," as if tragedy and large-scale loss of life is somehow a new invention.

The Great War ran from 1914 to 1918.

Thanks for that. I knew the dates for WWI. For some reason I had it stuck in my head that the Titanic was 1919, not 1912.

Still, my point stands — "innocent" is simply a false way to describe people of that age.

Uhhh...the great war wouldn't start for another two years in 1912....it went from july 28 1914 - November 11 1918 and world war 1 did totally change the way greater society looked at war, death and horror. Actually I read a pretty great article on hn recently that gets into how ww1 changed our perception of horror in general.


Most people of a certain age also remember OJ Simpson's famous highway chase and the subsequent murder trial. A nationwide, shared cultural memory doesn't even require large scale tragedy, let alone innocence.

As others have suggested, I would think interest in the Titanic had much to do with the celebrity status of its victims and the ship itself.

"The Great War"/"World War I" started in 1914... so in 1912 it had not happened, that's where the "quite innocent" came from.

Huh? What is "The Great War"? My search engine points me to WW1 which ended 1918 - so it's not what you mean, is it?

The big issue was that ocean liners were the method of crossing the Atlantic for the rich and poor.

There was a strong sense of "That could have happened to me!", especially among the elite.

Imagine how terrified the tech community would be if a major accident at SFO killed 1000 people trying to get on or off flights.

This almost happened last July[0] at SFO - an inbound Air Canada flight lined up against a taxiway (with five full flights on it, over 1000 people actually) instead of a runway, and missed the planes on the ground by about five vertical feet.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Canada_Flight_759#Incident

That article says "There was less than 14 feet (4.3 m) separation between the bottom of the Air Canada aircraft and the tail of the Airbus A340." That's still far too close, but it's more than five feet.

I got my figure from this part of the entry:

> AC759 reached a minimum altitude of 59 feet (18 m) above ground level, comparable to the 55 ft 10 in (17.02 m) tail height of a Boeing 787-9, two of which were on Taxiway C

I think what happened is that it reached that minimum, but not while directly above the tail of a 787. By the time it was directly above one of the 787s, it had gained another 9 feet.

But I could be wrong in my interpretation...

In fact the worst shipwreck in history just occurred in 1987, killing more than 4,000 people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Do%C3%B1a_Paz

"was found to be unseaworthy, and operating without a license, lookout or qualified master"

I think one of the shocking things about the Titanic is that it was considered to be top of the line and operated in a professional manner. I don't think anyone is shocked that third world countries operate unsafely.

FYI, the quote is about the Oil Tanker that collided with the ferry.

ok, "vessel was seriously overcrowded, with at least 2,000 passengers not listed on the manifest", "it was claimed that the ship carried no radio and that the life-jackets were locked away".

It's been a few years since I read this article about the 1994 sinking of the Estonia in which 850 drowned in the Baltic, but it still feels contemporary: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/05/a-sea-s...

After reading that article not only was such an occurrence not unthinkable, I almost felt like a survivor.

Perhaps, but the real tragedy of the Titanic is ego and bad safety procedures, in my opinion. The conception of the ship being "unsinkable" led to the lack of lifeboats, and when the ship sank...

The Titanic made history in large part because rich people where impacted and survived to talk about it. By comparison many slave ships with 800+ people sank with little impact.

My understanding is that the "unsinkable" claim was never really made. Also, it had more lifeboats and other safety features than were typical of the time.

It certainly is notable and probably ironic that the Titanic was touted as unsinkable, but in my opinion that doesn't really detract or add to the magnitude of the tragedy.

I see what you mean with the bad safety procedures, but now that much better safety procedures are mandated by law and we have radar and real-time weather reports, you could turn that around and say that a disaster with a comparable death toll is even more tragic, given that it's much more easily preventable.

How do you think the unthinkable?


With a great big itheberg.

MV Wilhelm Gustloff - 9,4 thousand people (including 5 thousand children) died. Another forgotten episode of WW2.


Ah, but the Titanic was full of rich and famous people, who count for more /s

"Another issue that has always caused confusion was the Titanic’s speed. It was running at full speed when crossing the Atlantic Ocean, even when there were warnings of icebergs in the area. There were rumors that the ship was trying to break some kind of speed record, but the Titanic was not built for speed. This mammoth ship was a luxury liner. Molony indicates that this could have been caused by the fire-fighting activities."

I think Molony and the author need to do more research on transportation in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Liners were the only way to cross the ocean. If you're in America and need to do business in Europe, you take a ship. The faster that ship gets there, the better.

The title is factually incorrect: the iceberg didn't hit the Titanic. The historical record clearly indicates that it was just chillin' out.

> The title is factually incorrect: the iceberg didn't hit the Titanic.

That's just a matter of your chosen frame of reference.

They may have meant the word 'hit' as a noun.

If the title was "The Titanic Was On Fire For Days Before The Iceberg Hit it" I would agree with the parent comment, however as it is now, I read it as you would read "We hit an issue".

Clearly we didn't "hit" any issue, but we started experiencing an issue.

"We hit an issue" is still using "hit" as a verb. And making it metaphorical doesn't help the problem of the iceberg being the subject of that interpretation.

Using it as a noun is like saying "before the hit" or "before the issue". "Iceberg" is an adjective describing the type of hit.

"the Iceberg Hit" is a gerund phrase -- a phrase derived from a verb but acting in as a noun. It's like saying "We went to the charity run". "Charity run" is acting as a noun.

And without global climate change that iceberg would have never been there. It would be happily attached to its ice shelf chillin' with its friends instead of escaping to the open sea.

Any sufficiently complex system has a hidden barely contained coal fire burning somewhere. Working as intended.

Milovanov's Law.

No, according to this the fire broke out in the coal storage. It's not referring to the furnace.

Exactly; the furnace is where you'd expect it to break out, so it won't. Somebody didn't write their integration tests for the coal storage though.

Can someone explain the comment in the article about the ship going at full speed because they were fighting the fire by throwing the burning coal in the furnace?

I would have thought there would be some valve somewhere that can be opened to vent excess power (steam?) into the atmosphere rather than being forced to drive the propellers faster, is that an incorrect assumption?

Running out of fuel aside (as mentioned by rypskar), they may have also needed to conserve the boiler feedwater[0].

The boilers need well distilled water to turn into steam without leaving scaly residue all over the place. During normal operations the steam is routed through engines where it expands and cools and eventually through condensers where it condenses back into water to be fed to the boilers back again.

If they throttled the engines down, the excess steam would have kept gathering, increasing pressure. They'd need to either lower the coal feed rate - which they did not want - or blow off steam [1]. Ability to blow off steam is a safety measure not meant for regular, extended operations. Think "analogue of nuclear reactor SCRAM". It causes loud release of huge unseemly clouds of steam, but more importantly it causes loss of the valuable distilled water for the boilers.

Btw, operations of marine steam powerplants is surprisingly complex and fascinating subject; consider having a look at this WW2-era navy manual [2] if you ever wonder what it takes to run one such at top power or efficiency.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiler_feedwater

[1] perhaps they could route some of the steam directly from boilers to condensers, but I don't think typical condenser installations are capable of directly taking in HP steam

[2] https://archive.hnsa.org/doc/destroyer/steam/index.htm

While not a marine vehicle, I found this video on starting a steam locomotive fascinating. So many manually operated subsystems.


That's a great video but it rushes through the process, and that K-37 is a complex beast. My favorite video along these lines is this detailed step-by-step narration of how to fire up a small 0-4-0T:


Pretty much everything in Keith Rucker's Vintage Machinery channel is interesting.

Given that all you need to create more distilled water is heat, I'm surprised they didn't have a way of generating distilled water with excess heat from the boiler.

>all you need

Not at all that simple. As already mentioned in the thread, they had limited fuel. Boiling 100s if not 1000s of gallons of water takes more fuel they already don't have.

SWAG: they probably weren't just using distilled water. There was likely some pH additive or other chemical treatment that water uses for a multitude of factors (scaling, corrosion, erosion, foaming, etc etc) that gets lost if you just vent water overboard - lost physically as volatile chemicals are vented or lost logically as new water must be treated.

Also, the boiling process itself is much more complicated than a pot and a fire. To achieve any reasonable amount of efficiency at all requires a multistage process with heat reclamation. If you plan on transiting salt water, the boiling process produces a thick, salty effluent that can be difficult to pump and is strongly corrosive. The weight, complexity, training, parts inventory, etc are all large costs. These are all hard sells for relatively short voyages.

Honestly I am speculating here wrt distilled feedwater, essentially just geeking on a subject I happen to enjoy :^)

Any ship installation is limited in size, weight, and power, so you carry machines only big enough to produce sufficient supply for normal operations plus a bit of spare capacity. Even if they had a distilling machine(s) on board, they would certainly not be able to supply as much water as they'd be able to boil off in the main boilers.

Also, the apparent ease of distillate production is a bit misleading. In fact, it is a bit of an involved subject, with multi-stage processing, and delicate balances of pressures and the occasional thorough cleaning. At least in the submarine world[1], that is...

Basically you want to heat up the water only as much as you need to, but later on recover as much as possible of the heat from both the distillate and the condensed discharge. This is helped greatly by maintaining proper pressures at different stages. Otherwise you'd be running exceptionally inefficient process, and at scale & over span of weeks things add up to real numbers.

[1] https://archive.hnsa.org/doc/fleetsub/still/index.htm

If I remember correct from reading about this some years ago. They where low on coal and with the rate the fire did burn coal they needed to burn it in the furnace to get as much speed as possible, to get to the harbor before running out of coal.

Sounds like an analogy to an economy and how the money in it is borrowed, created, and spent.

I don't know, but I do know (based on reading old Engineering text books from my Dad) that steam power is way more complicated than you might imagine. So I suspect it is possible there is no easy way to vent it while still maintaining acceptable forward motion. It is also possible they just liked the idea of going fast.

Most things people don't have experience with are much more complicated than they imagine. It is a valuable concept to keep in mind.

Maybe they didn't want to let good fuel go to waste.

Given that they need a certain amount of fuel to cross the Atlantic, this makes sense - I suppose that disposing of it otherwise would run the risk of running out of fuel.

That part didn't really make sense to me either. I believe there's a throttle valve leading to the engines, and there are relief valves to vent excess steam. It might be that those valves aren't meant to operate continuously, however.

I suppose a visit to archive.org's collection of old steamship books could yield a definitive answer.

According to one theory presented they were simply trying to use up the coal in the smoldering bunker, thereby putting out the fire.

I checked Snopes and it seems this is not entirely bogus. A bit speculative perhaps.


My grandfather mentioned having to deal with a coal fire in the bunker at the high school he managed, over the winter break. If it'd been during the school year he could have got 25 teenage boys to do it. But it was just him and the maintenance guy shoveling out 20 tons of coal.

Smoldering coal bunkers had to be a common occurrence on steam ships.


But it is as if Snopes carefully sets out the reasoning, evidence and sources used to reach its comnclusions. Which means that you can look at the evidence and decide whether you wish to come to a different conclusion.

Do you?

Except the site specifically tries to debunk incorrect narratives.

So like any e.g. conspiracy theorist site out there?

They too try to "debunk incorrect narratives" (as they see it).

Why trust some random non-expert volunteers running a site and their citations (which could be biased).

At least they make an effort to support their arguments with some research. Calling them non-expert volunteers is prejudging them before even considering their position and determining whether it is valid or not by providing supporting or opposing citations.

Or maybe we are not prejudging enough.

"If an organization like Snopes feels it is ok to hire partisan employees who have run for public office on behalf of a particular political party and employ them as fact checkers where they have a high likelihood of being asked to weigh in on material aligned with or contrary to their views, how can they reasonably be expected to act as neutral arbitrators of the truth?"


Or maybe we are just focusing on who is weighing in on matters instead of measuring it ourselves.

We went from

"Except the site specifically tries to debunk incorrect narratives"


"employees who have run for public office on behalf of a particular political party and employ them as fact checkers"

I think we achieved something important here, in spite of it all.

I've stopped reading all those "fact check" web sites. They seem to be literalists who can't hear the actual meaning of things being said. Everything is just about measurements while ignoring reality. (Now that I think about it, that is also a common problem to technical people too. Failing to recognize the shortcomings of data and measurements.)

>They seem to be literalists who can't hear the actual meaning of things being said. Everything is just about measurements while ignoring reality.

"Facts" are about literal, objective, measurable reality. If it depends on a subjective interpretation and reading between the lines, then it isn't a fact.

Howard Zinn pointed out that History is always biased. In my own work, I've noticed that Machine Learning is always biased. Basically, any historian picks out which facts to discuss, and is not immune from social pressures when they interpret those facts. Similarly, after running enough machine learning algorithms, I realized that the features measured, the way they are measured, and their relationship to other features is considered "factual raw data" - yet it is the very essence of subjective while often ignoring the greater and more important reality.

>"Facts" are about literal, objective, measurable reality. If it depends on a subjective interpretation and reading between the lines, then it isn't a fact.

In physics, chemistry, math, etc. facts are the order of the day, yes.

But raw facts are few and far between in human affairs and even less so in politics.

When people say something in non-hard-science domains, it more often than not depends on a "subjective interpretation", and depending on their phrasing, hidden motives, and eloquence might also need some "reading between the lines" or some charitable interpretation.

Nerds applying Vulcan-style logic to such claims just confuse matters more.

>Nerds applying Vulcan-style logic to such claims just confuse matters more.

I don't see Snopes doing that, though. I see them making an argument based on evidence and (in the specific case related the linked article) not even making an absolute claim about it at the end.

The people applying "Vulcan-style logic" are those who dismiss sites like Snopes out of hand as being politically biased, or propagandist, and therefore entirely useless.

Sadly a necessity of the way the culture wars are fought - everything has to be airtight or people will denounce you as a liar.

The myths of invincible heroes and the factors and flaws of their downfalls are instructive for any emerging leader, also of the fates of those who journey through the seas of reflection and those in the fog without their binoculars.

Sometimes ya gotta flip the script.




One of my favorite short stories is Youth by Joseph Conrad, which has as a central event a ship sinking because of a coal fire...


People must have felt that Engineering products gave humans god-like powers. It must have been fun to completely ignore Physics.

People at the time were aware of the issue:


Some people feel that way about software today.

What do you mean you have to spend time engineering it? Just write it the way I imagine it working (but also I can't tell you what I'm imagining, but trust me it's amazing)!

I'm not bitter, I promise.

You can see that even when people drive cars. People will do really stupid things like drive through deep puddles or over uneven ground because they essentially trust the car to do what it does under normal conditions.

Or the guy who, when his engineers say the building design isn't safe, fires them and gets someone else to do it:


>People will do really stupid things like drive through deep puddles or over uneven ground because they essentially trust the car to do what it does under normal conditions.

Or because it makes an otherwise mundane task entertaining.

> People will do really stupid things like drive ... over uneven ground

Cars tend to be able to drive over uneven ground. I'd say that people only used to driving on smooth asphalt underestimate this.

I've seen people rip off entire pieces of bodywork because they've overestimated this.

There was an excellent Channel 4 UK documentary about this, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORUKjNZzPbQ

It's been debunked.

>There were rumors that the ship was trying to break some kind of speed record, but the Titanic was not built for speed.

not exactly. Longest hull means highest hull speed.

Something I learn quite recently and most Titanic articles tend not to mention: "The Olympic-class ocean liners were a trio of British ocean liners built by the Harland & Wolff shipyard for the White Star Line during the early 20th century. They were Olympic (1911), Titanic (1912), and Britannic (1915).

Unlike the other ships in the class, Olympic had a long career spanning 24 years from 1911 to 1935. " [1]

The Britannic was sunk by an explosion caused by a naval mine, apparently planted by a WWI German submarine.

And the Titanic... well, we all know what happen to the Titanic, don't we... :-P

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic-class_ocean_liner

EDIT: More wiki-trivia [2]

* The titanic was 269.1 m long.

* The largest ship these days (the Seawise Giant) is an oil tanker 458.46 m long.

* The largest passenger ship: the Oasis (362 m long).

2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest_ships

Coal fuel can't melt steel ships.

No need to melt it, just decrease the structural integrity so that when stress was applied it would fail.

This article keeps referring to the bulkheads as watertight, which they were far from...

The article says that delaying sinking would have saved lives.

Ships are frequently pumping out water. They don't need to be 100% watertight.

Thats aside the point i was making -- the bulkheads were not watertight. If they were actually watertight, as incorrectly stated, then we wouldn't be discussing the Titanic at all.

Even recreational boats do this. Modern ones. Today.

I mean any surprise really? Even if the hull of a recreational ship was completely water tight, large waves or rain would cause water to enter the boat, so having a way to get rid of that water is a good idea.

While boats usually add drainage to the deck, and try to minimize the water that gets "inside" (say in the cabin, or the hollow hull of many small motorboats) not all ingress can be avoided.

Combined with the possibility of anything below the waterline being even slightly less than watertight, and it is not a surprise that a bilge pump of some kind is pretty common equipment on most boats with an electrical system.

In simpler times, bailing out was only done with buckets in boats (or even ships) ...

This is neither new nor surprising; I remember reading about this years ago. Apparently this was common for steam powered vessels back then, which is the reason why they proceeded with the voyage.

It was a feature and not a bug - such slow burning starved of oxygen would produce the coal burning with higher temperature and thus increase the power produced per volume unit of the burner.

We have proof that too many watertight compartments were open to the sea, that alone doomed the ship, the coal fire is an also ran.

Yup. Occam's razor here.

This piece talks about the subject, but can anyone explain in more detail why they couldn't put out a coal fire on a ship?

Not trying to be snide, but why do you type this into a comment field and wait up to an hour for someone to summarize it for you rather than googling "coal fire"?

I did and I still did not understand it well. I thought someone could explain it better and it'd maybe start a dialogue. Thanks for a worthless comment.

Boy, what James Cameron could have done with this news...

The short, stilting sentences make this article read like a fifth grade book report.

It is possible the author ran his post through an SEO tool like Yoast. I know we have that on our company blog (I didn't install it), and it is constantly telling me to shorten my sentences for maximum SEO ranking. I usually ignore it because by following its suggestions, it makes my writing read like a fifth grade book report.

Short sentences help search engines 'understand' the text, because they can easily parse each sentence to get direct meaning out of it. If your article says 'Fire caused titanics sinking.", and someone searches Google for "Why did titanic sink?", then Google can return that snippet of your article directly. They can also look for similarities in meaning between your sentences and all other sentences on the web to find contradictory information.

If you use long sentences with twists and turns and double negatives, it's rare that such a direct match can be made to a search query, and your article won't be returned.

Finally I understand why a lot of online content (particularly that of a more obviously derivative nature) has become so relentlessly uniformly elementary over the course of the past three/five years.

I dunno if that's a bad thing. I would endeavour to write all your documents as simply as reasonably possible.

I read for fun and mental enhancement. If articles become simple just for SEO optimization, I'm quitting the internet.

Even Wikipedia is starting to reflect this.

Let me guess, the report is on a book by Kurt Vonnegut.

Or Ernest Hemingway

Titanic 2: Backdraft.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact