Titanic myth is sunk
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Sunday 16 May 1999
Claims that one of history's greatest ships could never sink were never made during the Titanic's short lifetime and are a classic example of myth creation, according to a British academic.
Richard Howells, lecturer in communications studies at Leeds University, says in a new book, The Myth of the Titanic, that it was only after the liner had gone down that she was described as being unsinkable.
"As soon as the Titanic sank, everyone decided it was the great unsinkable ship, but it was never, in fact, publicised as being an unsinkable ship," he said.
The belief that the Titanic's builders had promoted her as the world's first unsinkable ship has been repeatedly reinforced over the years in books and films about her maiden voyage in 1912, when she sank after hitting an iceberg.
James Cameron's film Titanic has the heroine's mother looking up at the ship before she set sail and remarking: "So this is the ship they say is unsinkable?" Beryl Bainbridge's book Every Man for Himself refers to the "unsinkable vessel".
Yet, Dr Howells claims that an extensive search of the Titanic literature at the time has revealed only three instances when the word "unsinkable" was mentioned in print - and then only with the proviso "practically".
Two publicity leaflets mentioned that the captain could close safety doors on the ship whenever danger threatened "practically making the vessel unsinkable". An article in The Shipbuilder repeated the claim.
"The population as a whole was unlikely to have thought of the Titanic as a unique, unsinkable ship before its maiden voyage," he said.
"Once the news of the disaster broke, however, it was an entirely different story: it was as though the Titanic had been universally hailed as unsinkable all along."
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