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Tired of Titanic coverage yet? Don’t run away–we’re delving into Congress’ response to the maritime disaster.

–by Allie Swislocki

On April 10, 1912, the most famous ship in the world began its westward cruise from Southampton, England, towards New York City. The RMS Titanic, owned by the White Star Line, was not to reach its destination. Just four days into its maiden voyage, it struck an iceberg off the coast of Nova Scotia: 160 minutes later, this “unsinkable ship” was at the bottom of the North Atlantic, and had taken 1,500 people—over half its passengers—down with it. When the world woke up on the morning of April 15, 1912, everything had changed.

The largest man-made disaster to date, the Titanic sinking was not only a huge tragedy that touched every corner of the map, it was hugely influential in changing laws regarding transportation. While the ship was British-born, it was traveling towards the United States. Many Americans were on board, including some very influential figures: millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim; real estate magnate John Jacob Astor IV; silent film starlet Dorothy Gibson; Isidor Strauss, owner of Macy’s in New York, and his wife Ida; Major Archibald Butt, aide to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft; and the wife of a wealthy Denver miner, Molly Brown (often referred to as “the Unsinkable Molly Brown“). Of that illustrious group, only Dorothy Gibson and Molly Brown would survive the wreck.

"I'm flying, Jack!"
Was James Cameron inspired by this Congressionally-approved memorial, dedicated to the men who gave their lives when the Titanic sank? You can visit it on P St. SW in Washington, DC. (Great Lakes Titanic Society)

U.S. Senate hearings on the disaster began on April 19, 1912, less than a week after the sinking. The goal of the hearings was not only to determine exactly what happened when the Titanic went down, but to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. Eighty-two witnesses were called in front of a special subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, organized by Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan. The witnesses, survivors just disembarked from the rescue ship, the RMS Carpathia, “testified about ice warnings that were ignored, the inadequate number of lifeboats, the ship’s speed, the failure of nearby ships to respond to the Titanic’s distress calls, and the treatment of passengers of different classes.” (Senate.gov) Among those brought before the Committee was J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who infamously pressured the Titanic’s captain to increase the ship’s speed despite ice warnings and then escaped the sinking ship when all other officials onboard went down with it.

The hearings, which concluded on May 28, ended with many recommendations regarding ship safety. These included the basis for the Radio Act of 1912, which required all radio stations in the US to be licensed by the federal government, and all seagoing vessels to continuously listen to their radios for distress frequencies. A push to monitor ice in the North Atlantic created the International Ice Patrol, established in January 1914. Additionally, both the American Senate committee and their British counterpart made suggestions to amend lifeboat requirements, including ensuring enough lifeboats for everyone on board and training crews in how to handle them. In hindsight, these regulations seem obvious, but turn-of-the century ship magnates did not see them as necessities. What are some regulations that we may be overlooking in our own modern era?

The sinking of the Titanic is an infamous part of our global canon. Countless movies, TV specials, and stage productions about it were produced in the century following the wreck. It has become such a part of pop culture that the huge tragedy itself is often overshadowed by the drama, romance, cowardice, and heroism that are associated with the Titanic. While these were all factors in the story, it is important for us to remember that this weekend marks the anniversary of a true global tragedy. One calm night in mid-April, a few years before World War I would truly shock the planet into the twentieth century, the largest, most luxurious vessel ever built would sink to the bottom of an icy Atlantic in a matter of hours, taking 1,517 of its 2,223 passengers into the ocean with it.

For more information
Information on regulations following the wreck

On the Titanic in general

Titanic memorials in DC:
Specifically, the Women’s Memorial pictured above

Regarding the Titanic Memorial Cruise currently underway

Other interesting articles and links can be found on the Washington Post website