What Really Sank the Titanic

The Titanic sank into the North Atlantic 97 years ago. Since then, as Harvard historian Steven Biel quipped, "Only Jesus and the Civil War have been written about more." In close to 200 books, documentaries and movies—and the highest-grossing film of all time—historians, scientists and Titanic buffs have fervently debated what really caused the biggest passenger ship of her day to sink just two hours and 40 minutes after hitting an iceberg, carrying 1,522 people to their deaths.

It turns out they needn't have bothered. As Brad Matsen explains in his new book "Titanic's Last Secrets," those questions were answered long ago, in a confidential investigation by the ship's builders. To date, experts have amassed enough evidence to demonstrate that the ship broke into three pieces, not two—before sinking, not after—and she went down faster and at a much lower angle than James Cameron would have ever guessed—all thanks to skimpy rivets and a flimsy hull. But a trove of documents from Harland and Wolff—the Belfast, Ireland, shipyard where the Titanic and her sisters were born—reveal that the problem was not just one of incompetence and poor construction. It was negligence: the ship's builders suspected that the ship's hull was too flimsy, but they overrode the concerns of their engineer in a bid to get the Titanic on the seas in time. An investigation held after the ship sank was not made public; the heads of Harland and Wolff allowed two formal government inquiries to lay blame for the wreck on the shoulders of the ship's captain. The lawsuits of so many victims would have bankrupted the Titanic's owners—J. P. Morgan among them.

In an era when hundreds of liners bore millions of people across the Atlantic every year, shipwrecks were not unusual. Even as the Titanic was being built, a crash near Nantucket, Mass., between the luxury liners Republic and Florida made headlines globally. Both vessels sustained far greater damage than would ultimately sink the Unsinkable. But the Florida made it to New York on its own power and the Republic stayed afloat for 38 hours—all 750 passengers were rescued. Why the Titanic fared so much worse has remained a mystery. Not until 2005 did divers working with Matsen find two large sections of the ship's bottom—enough for forensic scientists to determine that the flimsy hull and skimpy rivets were, in fact, responsible for the ship's fate.

But we did not know, until now, that the shipbuilders knew that too. When Tom McCluskie, a retired Harland and Wolf archivist, got wind of Matsen's findings, he forked over details of the company's 1912 investigation, which had been hidden until then. "What we figured by doing forensic analysis on the extra pieces of hull matched exactly with what Harland and Wolff calculated based on their detailed knowledge of the ship's construction," says Matsen. "McCluskie said he had been waiting for someone to piece it together before he turned the documents over." Both Matsen's team of divers and scientists and Harland and Wolff's engineers concluded that a stronger hull and rivets would have kept the ship afloat much longer, resulting in a dramatically lower death toll. (Harland and Wolff then retrofitted the hull of Titanic's older sister with extra steel. They also built Britannic—the sister ship that was under construction when the Titanic sank—to the original specifications.)

The Titanic had been the product of a colossal rivalry spurred by the growth in shipping profits from the Spanish American War. In the hopes of controlling the North Atlantic, J. P. Morgan bought controlling interests in a handful of British and American shipping companies. The federal government supported him with subsidies and tax breaks. The British government then subsidized Cunard Shipping, one of the only companies to resist Morgan's takeover. "There was all this money being thrown at an industry that was virtually unregulated," Matsen says.

Making the hull plating a quarter of an inch thinner and the rivets an eighth of an inch thinner than the original designs called for would reduce the ship's weight by 2,500 tons, enabling her to cross the English Channel faster than the competition. Because shipbuilding regulations had not kept pace with the push toward larger vessels, the thinner specifications still met the standards of the day. "It was a matter of keeping the customer happy," says Matsen. "If J. P. Morgan wanted a boat made out of papier-mâché, they would have made him a boat out of papier-mâché." Happily, he didn't ask.