The Titanic: What Really Happened?

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13501

We all know the Titanic hit an iceberg, but there is more to its sinking than that. The ship was actually not fit to sail; however, too much was riding on the maiden voyage to back out.


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


If the Titanic had not already been damaged before it set sail, it probably could have withstood that hit from the iceberg.

Let's find out what happened to the ship before it set sail to uncover the real story behind this disaster!


RMS Olympic

The RMS Olympic was the first of its series and the sister ship to the RMS Titanic. Being the largest and most luxurious ocean liner ever built at its time, this ship cost the White Star Line very much to construct.

After many successful voyages, the Olympic suffered a collision with a British naval ship, the HMS Hawke.

As you watch this Olympic Hawke Collision animation, from Blue Star Line, pay attention to whom you think is at fault:

  • It looks obvious that the HMS Hawke was at fault right?

It got too close to the Olympic and was sucked into her wake. Because of this, the White Star Line sued the British government to pay for the damages suffered by the ship.

However, the company lost the lawsuit and had to pay for the repairs out of pocket. Not only did the company suffer financially from this incident, but it was also humiliated and lost credibility for its ships.



These ships were unique in that they had two hulls, essentially one ship body (or hull) on top of another.

This separation allowed for the bottom of the ship to be separated into 16 sections by 15 waterproof bulkheads. It was this construction feature that gave the Olympic and Titanic the title of unsinkable because even if four of the 16 compartments flooded fully, the ship would not sink.

Moreover, this construction made the ships all the more expensive to build. After the Olympic incident, the White Star Line could not afford to suffer another failure.

  • So, what caused the Titanic to needlessly speed through the North Atlantic when the captain knew icebergs were all around?

Watch Titanic Iceberg Collision CGI, from Andy Snowslayer, and notice how fast the ship is going:

Normally, the engines would have been going more slowly, and the furnaces would have had less coal. At a slower speed, the Titanic likely would not have hit the iceberg.

The Titanic was traveling almost at its maximum speed of 23 knots, and many at the time thought the ship was trying to show off how fast it could travel across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Fire

burning coals

While showing of speed seems like a reckless but reasonable explanation, this had nothing to do with it.

Look at this image of the Titanic below and look for the black spot just above the water. Note that this was the side of the ship not facing the dock when it set out on its maiden voyage.

Titanic at Belfast, 1912

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

That black spot was the result of a coal fire raging inside one of the coal storage beds within one of the bulkheads before the voyage to America.

This three-story bed of coal somehow caught on fire. This was not unheard of, but with such a large collection of coal, it was very difficult to get the fire under control.

Ultimately, the White Star Line kept this fire a secret because, in many ways, they could not afford to postpone this opportunity to prove the ship's worth.

In an attempt to put this fire out, the ship was going as fast as possible because that would burn more coal and get to the center of the raging fire. If they could burn enough coal, the fire would go away.

This is the reason the Titanic was going at full speed through the field of icebergs.

Beyond causing the ship to go so fast, the fire had also weakened a bulkhead and the entire front side of the ship, which is where the iceberg happened to strike.

Titanic and iceberg


The fire in the coal had weakened the metal both on the outside and the inside of the ship, resulting in even more damage from the iceberg than should have been suffered.

The weakened, less-than-watertight bulkheads could not withstand the pressure from the flooded sections, as they had been designed to do. This resulted in five sections flooding with water.

Once this was discovered, the designer of the ship, Thomas Andrews, knew the ship had only hours before it sank. Because of this urgency, distress calls and flares were used to try to rapidly get a rescue ship.

  • The USS California was only 20 miles away, so why did they not show up as a rescue?
  • Why was the RMS Carpathia, which was 58 miles away, the one to respond?


Sending telegrams over the air in 1912 was a very new thing and, therefore, quite popular.

The rich people in the Titanic's first class were willing to spend the money to send messages to people back home and in the U.S. just to say hello. Because so many people wanted to do this, the operator for the Titanic was very busy.

To learn more, watch Titantic Archive - Jack Phillips from BBC South Today:

Incredibly, Jack Phillips' dismissal of the USS California operator caused him to shut off the ship's radio, which meant the Titanic passengers would not have a rescue ship until the morning.


sinking of the Titanic

With the Titanic's fate sealed, people scrambled to the lifeboats. While the ship did not have enough for every single passenger, it actually had more than was required by British regulations.

After seeing all the issues that lined up to make this unsinkable ship sink, let's move on to the Got It? section to figure out what could have been done differently.

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