14 April 2008 by Published in: General News 13 comments

For nearly as long as I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War, I’ve likewise held a fascination for the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Today is the 96th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. The following article appeared in today’s issue of the New York Times. If true, it explains why she sunk so quickly and finally solves the ultimate riddle associated with the sinking of the great Cunard Line ship.

In Weak Rivets, a Possible Key to Titanic’s Doom

Published: April 15, 2008

For a decade, metallurgists studying the hulk of the Titanic have argued that the storied liner went
down fast after hitting the iceberg because the ship’s builder used substandard rivets that popped their heads and let tons of icy seawater rush in. More than 1,500 people died.

Now, a team of scientists has moved into deeper waters, uncovering evidence in the builder’s own archives of a deadly mix of great ambition and low quality iron that doomed the ship, which sank 96 years ago Tuesday. Historians say the riddle of the disaster has finally been solved.

The scientists found that the ship’s builder, Harland & Wolff, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, struggled for years to obtain adequate supplies of rivets and riveters to build the world’s three biggest ships at once — the Titanic and two sisters, Olympic and Britannic.

Each required three million rivets, and shortages peaked during Titanic’s construction.

“The board was in crisis mode,” Jennifer Hooper McCarty, a team member who studied the archive, said in an interview. “It was constant stress. Every meeting it was, ‘There’s problems with the rivets and we need to hire more people.’ ”

The team collected other clues from 48 Titanic rivets, modern tests, computer simulations, comparisons to century-old metals as well as careful documentation of what engineers and shipbuilders of that era considered state of the art.

The scientists say the troubles all began when the colossal plans forced Harland & Wolff to reach beyond its usual suppliers of rivet iron and include smaller forges, as disclosed in company and British government papers. Small forges tended to have less skill and experience.

Adding to the threat, the company, in buying iron for Titanic’s rivets, ordered No. 3 bar, known as “best” — not No. 4, known as “best-best,” the scientists found. They also discovered that shipbuilders of the day typically used No. 4 iron for anchors, chains and rivets.

So the liner, whose name was meant to be synonymous with opulence, in at least one instance relied on cheap materials.

The scientists studied 48 rivets that divers recovered over two decades from the Titanic’s resting place — two miles down in the North Atlantic — and found many riddled with high concentrations of slag. A glassy residue of smelting, slag can make rivets brittle and prone to fracture.

“Some material the company bought was not rivet quality,” said Timothy Foecke, a team member at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency in Gaithersburg, Md.

The company also faced shortages of skilled riveters, according to archive papers. Dr. McCarty said that for a half year, from late 1911 to April 1912, when Titanic set sail, the company’s board addressed the shortfalls at every meeting.

For instance, on October 28, 1911, Lord William Pirrie, the company’s chairman, expressed concern over the lack of riveters and called for new hiring efforts.

In their research, the scientists found that good riveting took great skill. The iron had to be heated to a precise cherry red color and beaten by the right combination of hammer blows. Mediocre work could hide problems.

“Hand riveting was tricky,” said Dr. McCarty, whose doctoral thesis at Johns Hopkins University analyzed Titanic’s rivets.

Steel beckoned as a solution. Shipbuilders of the day were moving from iron to steel rivets, which were stronger. And machines could install them, improving workmanship and avoiding labor problems.

The rival Cunard line, the scientists found, had switched to steel rivets years before, using them, for instance, throughout the Lusitania.

The scientists discovered that Harland & Wolff also used steel rivets — but only on Titanic’s central hull, where stresses were expected to be greatest. Iron rivets were chosen for the ship’s stern and bow.

And the bow, as fate would have it, is where the iceberg struck. Studies of the wreck show that six seams opened up in the ship’s bow plates. And the damage, Dr. Foecke noted, “ends close to where the rivets transition from iron to steel.”

The scientists argue that better rivets would have probably kept the Titanic afloat long enough for rescuers to have arrived before the icy plunge, saving hundreds of lives.

The two metallurgists make their case, and detail their archive findings, in “What Really Sank the Titanic,” a new book by Citadel Press.

Reactions run from anger to admiration. James Alexander Carlisle, whose grandfather was a Titanic riveter, has bluntly denounced the rivet theory on his Web site. “NO WAY!”

For its part, Harland & Wolff, after long silence, now rejects the charge. “There was nothing wrong with the materials,” Joris Minne, a company spokesman, said last week. He noted that Olympic sailed without incident for 24 years, until retirement.

David Livingstone, a former Harland & Wolff official, called the book’s main points misleading. He said big shipyards often had to scramble. On a recent job, he noted, Harland & Wolff had to look to Romania to find welders.

And Mr. Livingstone called the slag evidence painfully circumstantial, saying no real proof linked the hull opening to bad rivets. “It’s only waffle,” he said of the team’s arguments.

But a naval historian praised the book as solving a mystery that has baffled investigators for nearly a century.

“It’s fascinating,” said Tim Trower, who reviews books for the Titanic Historical Society, a private group in Indian Orchard, Mass. “This puts in the final nail in the arguments and explains why the incident was so dramatically bad.”

The new disclosures, he added, cast Harland & Wolff as “responsible for the severity of the damage.”

Titanic had every conceivable luxury: cafes, squash courts, a swimming pool, Turkish baths, a barbershop and three libraries.

The lavish air extended to safety. The White Star Line, in a brochure, described the ship as “designed to be unsinkable.”

During her inaugural voyage, on the night of April 14, 1912, the ship hit the iceberg around 11:40 p.m. and sank in a little more than two and a half hours. Most everyone assumed the iceberg had torn a huge gash in the ship’s starboard hull.

The discovery in 1985 of Titanic’s resting place began many new inquiries. In 1996, an expedition found, beneath obscuring mud, not a large gash but six narrow slits where bow plates appeared to have parted.

Naval experts suspected that rivets had popped along the seams, letting seawater rush in under high pressure.

A specialist in metal fracture, Dr. Foecke got involved in 1997, analyzing two salvaged rivets. He was astonished to find about three times more slag than occurs in modern wrought iron.

In early 1998, he and a team of marine forensic experts announced their rivet findings, calling them tentative.

Dr. Foecke, in addition to working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, also taught and lectured part time at Johns Hopkins. There he met Dr. McCarty, who got hooked on the riddle, as did her thesis advisor.

The team acquired many rivets from salvors who pulled up hundreds of artifacts from the sunken liner. The two scientists also collected old iron of the era — including some from the Brooklyn Bridge — to make comparisons. The new work seemed to only bolster the bad-rivet theory.

In 2003, after graduating from Johns Hopkins, Dr. McCarty traveled to England and located the Harland & Wolff archives at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, in Belfast.

She also explored the archives of the British Board of Trade, which regulated shipping and set material standards, and of Lloyd’s of London, which set shipbuilding standards. And she worked at Oxford University and obtained access to its libraries.

What emerged was a picture of a company stretched to the limit as it struggled to build the world’s three biggest ships simultaneously. She also found complacency. For instance, the Board of Trade gave up testing iron for shipbuilding in 1901 because it saw iron metallurgy as a mature field, unlike the burgeoning world of steel.

Dr. McCarty said she enjoyed telling middle and high school students about the decade of rivet forensics, as well as the revelations from the British archives.

“They get really excited,” she said. “That’s why I love the story. People see it and get mesmerized.”

Looks like another book on the “to buy” list….

Scridb filter


  1. Steve Basic
    Mon 14th Apr 2008 at 9:59 pm


    Not sure if I ever mentioned this to you, but the pier where Titanic was supposed to dock is still here in NYC, along with the original gate to the pier. Though the paint has faded, you can still see the words White Star line on the original gate.

    Hope all is well, and glad to see you have resumed writing. 🙂

    Take Care.


  2. Valerie Protopapas
    Tue 15th Apr 2008 at 10:32 am

    Used to belong to the Titanic Historical Society. First, the Titanic didn’t go down all that quickly. The Lusitania sank in far less time than the Titanic and that’s because she had her bottom blown out. This was not the result of explosives in her cargo, but by the coal dust that had accumulated in her hold. Coal dust is highly explosive. When the torpedo hit, because the ship was almost at the end of her journey and her bins were almost empty, the dust ignited and the rest, as they say, was history.

    The Titanic, on the other hand, lasted quite a long time. If the ship that stood off five miles away (identified as the California) had responded, probably there would have been very little loss of life and that only as the result of crew trapped when the watertight doors were closed.

    It is true that the Titanic’s iron was high in carbon which made it decidedly brittle especially in cold water (the seawater temperature was 28 degrees that night). The hull wasn’t torn, but the ship “bounced” off what was probably a spur in the iceberg, denting and springing her plates for about 360 feet which, of course, insured that she would sink. Had the steel been of a higher quality, she probably would have survived the impact.

    Interestingly enough, for those who posit that had she not turned but hit the berg almost head on she would have survived, the fact is that the brittle steel would probably have collapsed the whole bow section and she would have sunk sooner than she did. Also, it would have made her list so far forward that launching the lifeboats would have been difficult if not impossible. As it was, the pumps were able to hold back the flooding and give her more time. She also sank “gently” so that – unlike the Andrea Doria – she was able to launch all of her lifeboats and even a couple of “collapsibles” located on the deck (that’ s how Second Officer Lightoller survived after being in the water – he climbed aboard an upside-down collapsible lifeboat and kept the men on her alive until the Carpathia arrived at dawn).

    What sunk the Titanic, however, wasn’t poor quality steel, but high quality hubris. One woman boarding the ship asked the sailor at the gangplank if the ship was “safe”. He assured her, “Madam, God Himself cannot sink this ship!” Attitude is by far the most dangerous factor involved in human history.

  3. Chuck
    Tue 15th Apr 2008 at 10:51 am

    I agree with Valerie. Traveling through Icy waters at an excessive speed was just foolish and arrogant.
    The idea that if they used a different type of rivet the ship would have stayed afloat longer is just guesswork with little factual basis to back it up.
    It should also be noted the same type of rivets were used on “Olympic” and it managed to have quite a long career. According to these theories the rivets should have been popping off in the middle of the ocean due to the cold water.
    These “why the Titanic sank” blame books are simply to try to make money.

  4. Jim Morgan
    Tue 15th Apr 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Doesn’t sound convincing to me.

    I read not long ago (don’t remember where) that an intact, 60-foot long section of Titanic’s keel has been found a couple of miles from the main wreckage site. It apparently was torn off during the collision which indicates that the bottom of the ship, not just the side, hit the iceberg.

    If only one side had been breached, wouldn’t the ship have listed heavily to that side? My understanding is that she settled more or less evenly by the bow. Is that not correct?

    Doesn’t seem to me that any number of popped rivets would have added much to the damage done by that missing chunk of keel.

    Nor does the Olympic’s experience seem relevant here. It isn’t likely that she ever hit anything remotely as hard as the Titanic hit that iceberg. I’d think that the rivets might well have been fine for the normal design stresses but that even much higher quality rivets would have popped from the impact with an iceberg.

    Just my thoughts.

    Oh, and I do know that during that most recent, godawful movie I was rooting for the iceberg. I’ll take Clifton Webb and Barbara Staywyck any day.

    Jim Morgan

  5. Chuck
    Tue 15th Apr 2008 at 5:20 pm

    I only brought up Olympic (as did Harland & Wolff) because the claim is being made that the ships were built with “cheap” materials. The fact that the so-called “cheap” rivets lasted 24 years on Olympic without an issue is absolutely relevant in refuting the “cheap” charge.
    To be honest it wouldn’t have mattered what rivets they used the Titanic was doomed when it crashed into the iceberg at the speed she was traveling.
    It is unfortunate that these folks wish to blame the builders for the negligence of the captain and officers.

  6. Tue 15th Apr 2008 at 10:06 pm

    How about a Civil War “hook”? Seems that many cannon made prior the Civil War also suffered from similar brittleness and a general lack of endurance. The most famous episode perhaps the bursting of a gun on the USS Princeton in 1844. Years of scrutiny and trials pointed to the use of hot-blast furnace techniques (introduced in the 1820s) and high carbon content. Eventually, through continued testing a process for measuring the specific gravity of iron samples to determine the best blend, was developed. William Wade at the Fort Pitt Foundry in Pittsburgh was the leader in this discovery. Ultimately, this supported the later developments of John Dahlgren, Thomas J. Rodman, Robert Parrott and John Griffen, who collectively were responsible for most of the patterns of iron guns used during the Civil War. Of course this was all before the Bessimer Process. Yet I have to wonder why the lessons learned with stress patterns and high carbon content iron alloys were not heeded.

  7. Alton Bunn
    Wed 16th Apr 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Here’s a civil war hook: Col Archibald Gracie, a Titanic survivor, wrote a detailed book about the Petersburg campaign. Also, his father died at Petersburg.

    As for the keel pieces found, they came off when the ship broke apart. In the videos they showed no signs impact damage.

    As for the Olympic she had problems with hull cracks that developed after a few years. She eventually had to operate under speed restrictions.

  8. Alton Bunn
    Wed 16th Apr 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Correction: Col Gracie wrote about Chickamauga.
    As for the rivets, a contributing factor not the sole reason.

  9. Valerie Protopapas
    Thu 17th Apr 2008 at 12:31 pm

    The bottom was torn out of the Titanic when her massive boilers and engines dislodged as she went to the vertical and plunged through the ship exiting through the bow section. The original damage was along a 360 foot section of (if I remember aright) the starboard side but certainly did not tear off any part of her. Yes, the ship sank slowly and though she did list to starboard (if that’s the side the incurred the injury), the slow advance of the water through the watertight compartments along with her excellent pumps kept her fairly level until she finally raised up, stern high in the air, bow under. That is when the boilers and engines plunged through the ship and out of the bow. She then settled slowly and so gently that a cook standing on the end of the stern simply stepped into the water and didn’t even get his head wet. He was picked up afterward very little the worse for wear having fortified himself with almost an entire bottle of brandy!

    There is no doubt, however, that the high carbon steel was brittle and certainly contributed to the disaster. Another thing that also contributed was the way the ship was designed. When the berg was sighted, the Officer of the Watch order her “full astern” to slow her down as well as ordered her “hard to port” (again, if I remember aright) to turn away from the berg. Now to go full astern from almost full ahead required the engines to come to “all stop” and then on to “full astern” just as with a car you cannot go from drive to reverse without stopping the car. The Titanic was designed so that when the engines went to “all stop” THE RUDDER WAS DISENGAGED. That meant that the ship did not begin her turn (it only took second to bring the device on the bridge to “all stop”) until the engines stopped and then restarted backing water. That period of about 12 to 15 seconds was enough to insure that she traveled too far to miss the berg. Had Murdoch (the Officer involved) brought the ship to “slow ahead”, she would have begun to turn immediately and MAY have missed the berg altogether even though she continued moving forward. It’s, of course, speculation, but the fact is that by moving the “throttle” (don’t know what you call the device) to “all stop”, the rudder was disengaged and the ship continued on her original course until the engines began to move again at “all back full”.

  10. Dan
    Sat 19th Apr 2008 at 11:01 am

    The 1997 movie seemed to take the same “anti-corporation” tone, I noticed. Bruce Ismay, the ship’s designer, is portrayed as the insufferably arrogant “company man” who seems to have a hand in deciding on the ship’s dangerous, high-speed passage through the sea. Captain Smith, on the other hand, seems to be a pawn, resigned to his fate, unable to make his own decisions. The previous film, “S.O.S. Titantic” (1978) took exactly the opposite tack: there, Captain Smith is firmly in charge, and Ian Holm’s Bruce Ismay is the one who is quite powerless to effect events. I wonder which version was closer to the truth…

  11. Valerie Protopapas
    Sun 20th Apr 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Ismay wanted the Titanic to break speed records, certainly. It was a very competitive field and the company with the biggest, most luxurious and FASTEST boats got the most wealthy clients. HOWEVER, the real money came from the steerage passengers and there was no hurry getting them to Ellis Island.

    Smith was in charge. It was his last voyage before his retirement and they had asked him to stay on to take Titanic on her maiden voyage because he had fulfilled that role for a number of years as the “senior” captain. But Smith was not a bad captain. Luck was against him. Remember, there were any number of EXTREMELY unusual circumstances that night. First, the North Atlantic was a mill pond; there were not only no waves, BUT NO SWELL. Had there been swell, water would have broken on base of the berg and made it visible for miles. Secondly, the berg had just “turned over”, that is, it was upside down and the area exposed to view was made up of “black ice” rather than the very visible white coloring with which people are familiar when they think of ice bergs. Third, there was just a hint of mist in the air which is rather natural as it was dead calm (hence, no swell). There was just enough mist or fog that the “black burg” with no wavelets at its base was VERY difficult to see. There was no moon although the night was fairly bright with stars. However, the lighting on the ship was such that it would have been difficult for the men on lookout to be able to see without any moonlight to assist. There were no binoculars in the crow’s nest; along with many other things on the brand new Titanic, the matter of insufficient binoculars had yet to be addressed. The problem of the “newness” of the crew also did much to cause problems with filling and lowering the lifeboats as many crew members – and even some of the officers – were not well versed in their lifeboat duties. Captain Smith had chosen not to have any life-board drills on the ship because (and this may have been Ismany’s doing) it was believed that such drills made the passengers uneasy, making them think about disasters – NOT the atmosphere the White Star Line was attempting to create for its VERY well paying customers.

    The biggest problem with Ismay is that he did not – like Smith and the other officers – go down with the ship. Andrews, the designer, chose to remain on board and was drowned, but Ismay got into a half empty life boat and was saved. Of all the incidents that night, Ismay’s perceived cowardice in taking a place in one of the lifeboats (though the boat was only half filled and other men were in it) forever sealed his doom as at least one of the scapegoats of the tragedy. But there was blame enough to go round, frankly.

  12. Daniel Victor
    Thu 10th Sep 2009 at 5:29 pm

    “The iceberg wrongly (and in this case the rivets*) gets all the attention of, books, movies and TV documentaries, because the crucial event of the Titanic tragedy actually several minutes after the accident. The pivotal event that night was a decision to get the ship moving again.” David G. Brown “The Last Log of the Titanic” 2001 *mine. The amount of water taken on that doomed the ship during the time that the ship started to move forward after the collision is illustrated in Mr. Brown’s book. Also the introduction to the above introduction to this topoc ends with, “If true, it explains why she sunk so quickly and finally solves the ultimate riddle associated with the sinking of the great Cunard Line ship.” Not Cunard, please, it was the White Star Line. Thank you. DVC

  13. Karen Buckley
    Wed 09th Jul 2014 at 1:20 am

    Still confused about the iron gate mystery. Did gates prevent steerage passengers from getting to the lifeboats or not?

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