#031–How long have ships had “watertight compartments” & how were they developed?

I’ve had this question in the back of my mind since I became a Titanic nut around age 5. It’s the mythology as much as the technology that keep me coming back to this piece of history.

My biggest ship question since has been how did watertight technology develop and how was it tested? Titanic’s design always left me scratching my head.

Thanks to pop culture, one might think Olympic and Titanic were the first ships in the world with watertight compartments. I know that’s not the case, but I don’t know what ships first started it and when. That would be awesome to find out…and what were those designs and modifications like?

However, with the shipping journals praising Titanic’s design and declaring her practically unsinkable — mostly because of those compartments — it’s no wonder that “watertight compartments” have to be part of just about any Titanic conversation.

Put the phrase in a search engine and the window is flooded with Titanic links and references.

Seriously–give it a shot. I got tired of sorting through them to answer my question…and never found one. I’m running out of resources to check.

But from what little I could find (mostly not Titanic related), was a segment of an educational article about Chinese junks. Going fast-forward to the 19th and 20th centuries to the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes, though, reveals a huge gap I can’t cross.

And let’s face it, Titanic was built because of the intense competition between shipping lines. She had hundreds of other ships going back and forth in the same era. So, how many of these ships had watertight compartments before Titanic? And when?

I really want to know what they were thinking when they built Titanic, why the compartments weren’t capped with a watertight deck. I suppose it’s an arrangement of physics, the belief that the water could only go so high because of buoyancy and other factors.

Also involved, I’m sure, was money–that it would’ve impeded service to passengers if the deck extended so high into passenger spaces and was capped off to be watertight.

For the record, I’m not a naval architect or physicist–I’m just a fan, so I can’t really explain all the factors involved.

But I’ve been re-watching many Titanic documentaries lately, as well as one of my favorite movies, A Night to Remember (1958), and easily the best Titanic movie ever made.

Down, James Cameron fans, down! I will not retract that statement.

The best, simplest explanation for why Titanic sank, even with her watertight compartments, comes at 0:27 at this clip from the film (and it was so worth it when I bought the Criterion Collection version–the sound is awesome in that one):

And while I loved Victor Garber’s Thomas Andrews in Cameron’s 90’s version–I just love Laurence Naismith’s Captain Smith and Michael Goodliffe’s Thomas Andrews more (and the whole freaking cast– including a young David McCallum for the “Ducky” fans to enjoy).

Better still, I didn’t have to sit through an hour and a half of fictional-character love story and ridiculous suspense moments before the most accurate version of the sinking ever filmed FINALLY came on.

Like I said before, I’m a naval-nut and history buff–I love accuracy when at all possible.

I would just love to know more about the history of watertight compartment development, how far advanced the Titanic’s were, and how much more advanced they would become in the years since.

I just keep remembering that bit of exposition about how the compartments worked (and didn’t) and still wonder why the compartments weren’t capped off. Could she still float if they had been capped? She be really down by the bow, but maybe they could’ve gone half-speed, kept the pumps running, and made it at least close enough for tugs to take the edge off the structural and engine stresses.

That’s the thing that really gets me…even as a little kid it didn’t look like it made any sense.

Then again, I’m not a naval architect or physics major.

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