Shelf Life

What really sank the Titanic

David Brancaccio Apr 13, 2012

David Brancaccio: This weekend, as you’ve probably been hearing, marks a hundred years since the Titanic sank. The tragedy continues to fascinate and to provide lessons for managing big projects even today.

Jennifer Hooper McCarty is a material scientist and co-author of “What Really Sank the Titanic” and she says it’s not the usual answer. Ms. McCarty, good morning.

Jennifer Hooper McCarty: Good morning.

Brancaccio: I watch all these science programs, so I know that the Titanic sank because it hit an iceberg, right? You’re saying it’s more complicated than that?

Hooper McCarty: It’s definitely more complicated. We can track the history and the construction of the ship and take a close look at the materials to help us understand why the ship sank the way it did.

Brancaccio: You think it was like, what, shoddy construction?

Hooper McCarty: You can say that; I try not to use those words. But I have taken a careful look at the materials that make up the rivets on the ship and the rivets are sort of like two-headed nails that hold the steel plates on the ship together. And the wrought iron that the rivets were made from was substandard for the time period, and the problem with that is when the wrought iron isn’t high-enough quality, when it feels certain stresses. In this case, when the iceberg collided with the ship, the heads on those rivets would pop, and as a result, the seams of the ship can open up like a zipper.

Brancaccio: How did it come to pass that the rivets might have been substandard? Was it a cost-saving thing or just a mistake?

Hooper McCarty: What I think happened was the sister ship, the Olympic, needed to be repaired, so they had many employees that were taken off of the Titanic to repair the Olympic. And also that riveters preferred to rivet iron rather than steel, which was a stronger material, because it was easier to rivet and they could do it faster.

Brancaccio: Now to be clear, even with the softer rivets, had the Titanic not hit an iceberg, it might have been able to serve out its career on the high seas without incident?

Hooper McCarty: Oh yes. There are many, many structures in the world that are manufactured with wrought iron, and they do just fine. It was simply a collection of multiple factors. As we all know, when we see the story, we see all the different pieces that kind of came together to cause the demise of the ship.

Brancaccio: Jennifer Hooper McCarty is a material scientist and co-author of “What Really Sank the Titanic.” Jennifer, thank you very much.

Hooper McCarty: Thank you.

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