An outdated safety law may have cost hundreds of lives.
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Ever since the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, a major suspected culprit for the high death toll has been that there weren’t enough lifeboats on board. It’s a decision that's been dramatized as hubris on the part of the White Star Line - but the ship actually surpassed safety standards for the time.
The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 required the largest-class ships, those weighing over 10,000 tons, to carry at least 16 lifeboats. Even though the Titanic, which launched in 1911, weighed 45,000 tons, that minimum was the same. The Titanic carried 20 lifeboats, with a capacity for roughly half of the people on board the night the ship sank.
Until the Titanic disaster, lifeboats weren’t seen as a substitute for an entire ship. The giant liner itself, which featured 16 compartments separated by watertight bulkheads, was supposed to stay afloat even after taking on water. Then, using a brand new piece of technology - the Marconi wireless telegraph - signal for help from a nearby ship, using lifeboats to methodically ferry passengers off the sinking ship.
This scenario played out perfectly just a couple years before the Titanic disaster, when a ship accidentally rammed RMS Republic in 1909. The Republic sank, but nearly everyone on board was safely ferried off. The prevailing thought at the time was that disasters at sea had become a thing of the past.
When the Titanic went down, that all changed. Just two years later, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) mandated all passenger ships carry lifeboats for everyone on board. Today, the SOLAS requirement is 125% of a ship’s capacity.
Check out Sam Halpern’s work analyzing the permissible flooding conditions on the Titanic:
Read the 1909 news articles explaining the sinking of the Republic:
Dive into a wealth of Titanic research in “On a Sea of Glass” by J. Kent Layton, Bill Wormstedt, and Tad Fitch:
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