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Transportation Science

Weak Rivets May Have Sped Sinking of Titanic 296

Pickens writes "Metallurgists studying the hulk of the Titanic argue that the liner went down fast after hitting an iceberg because the ship's builder used substandard rivets that popped their heads and let tons of icy seawater rush in. They say that better rivets would have probably kept the Titanic afloat long enough for rescuers to have arrived, saving hundreds of lives. The team collected clues from 48 Titanic rivets and found many riddled with high concentrations of slag, a glassy residue of smelting that can make iron brittle. To test whether this extra slag weakened the rivets, scientists commissioned a blacksmith to make rivets to the same specifications as those used to join steel plates in the hull of the Titanic. When the plates were bent in the laboratory, the rivet heads popped off at loads of about 4,000 kg. With the right slag content they should have held up to about 9,000 kg. Even a few failures because of flawed metal would have been sufficient to unzip entire seams, because as faulty rivets popped, more stress would have been placed on the good ones, causing them to break in turn. The shipbuilder, which is still in existence, denies it all."
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Weak Rivets May Have Sped Sinking of Titanic

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  • by sakdoctor ( 1087155 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @03:55AM (#23074620) Homepage
    Running time: 194 min.

    If only it had gone down faster.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by RuBLed ( 995686 )
      Have you tried riveting it?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Ahem, unless there's been another Titanic film of exactly the same length made since, I believe you're referring to the 1997 Titanic []. Don't feel too bad though, it's only the highest grossing film of all time...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by nmg196 ( 184961 ) *
      It wasn't very riviting.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by paeanblack ( 191171 )
        It wasn't very riviting.

        The sinking of the Titanic may not seem relevant after nearly a century, but it is still a fascinating study on preventable catastrophes and engineering processes. The technology involved may change, but people do not.

        Compare the Titanic to the Challenger shuttle. Replace faulty rivets with faulty O-rings. Compare the hubris of Harland and Wolff ("unsinkable") to NASA management ("the probability of failure is necessarily less than 1 in 10,000") Both were high-pressure, high-publ
    • "I'd hate to spoil it for you, but in the end, the boat sinks" (quote from an ER episode)
  • by Taelron ( 1046946 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @03:56AM (#23074626)
    Since the mid-90's there have been tons of BBC and Discovery Science and History channel specials on the Titanic and they ALL said the same thing, the shipyard used substandard metals in the rivett's to cut back on the cost of building the ship. And these same history shows all said the same thing, to much slag found in the rivets causing them to be extremely week and would pop with minimal, for its size, force.
    • by Kredal ( 566494 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:02AM (#23074652) Homepage Journal
      Tag "oldnews"

      The article states that the rivets were first talked about in 1998, but the shipbuilder disagreed. Since then, more people have looked at the rivets, and they have all said the same thing. Rivets were bad, they failed under pressure, and the ship sank. The only reason this is "news" is because they found corroborating evidence in the shipbuilder's old documents.
    • by JasterBobaMereel ( 1102861 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @05:50AM (#23075028)
      The Titanic has two sister ships the Olympic (built before) was known as "Old Reliable" retired and dismantled after sailing for 24 years, and the Britannic (built after, sunk by a mine)

      If the rivets were such inferior quality why did the Olympic sail without problems (including being rammed by the cruiser HMS Hawke) for 24 years?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jimicus ( 737525 )
        There are so many variables that after all these years, who knows?

        Perhaps the Titanic had one faulty batch of rivets which just happened to be in the wrong place. Perhaps the shipbuilders thought they could save a bit of money.
      • by Noishe ( 829350 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @06:01AM (#23075072)
        Step 1: Build the Olympic.
        Step 2: Crap that was expensive.
        Step 3: Cut costs when building the Titanic.
        Step 4: Profit

        oh and... hit by a mine? I can easily explain how the Britannic went down...... it was hit by a freaking mine!!!
        • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @08:16AM (#23075796) Homepage Journal
          oh and... hit by a mine? I can easily explain how the Britannic went down...... it was hit by a freaking mine!!!

          But the damage might of been survivable if a number of features had worked or been used. It was noted that a number of doors couldn't be sealed. Damage to two watertight compartments I can understand, maybe even three, but a couple more compartments remaining water tight might of made a huge difference. Another thing noted was that the nurses aboard had opened most of the portholes to ventilate the wards. If those had been closed, it would have slowed things as well.

          Still, they did manage to get everyone off the ship, though there were casualties from boats launched without authorization that got hit by the propellors.

          I do like your steps 1-4, they do make sense. Note: The Iceberg might of been the primary cause of the loss of the titanic, but I'll view it like a car and crash safety standards - sure, a crash isn't normal operating procedure, but safety in a crash is a required design measure for cars. Sturdy rivets not only increase the life of the ship, they also help it survive damage - whether that allows the ship to be saved like the USS Cole, or simply keeps it above water long enough to be evacuated.
      • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @10:06AM (#23076908)

        If the rivets were such inferior quality why did the Olympic sail without problems (including being rammed by the cruiser HMS Hawke) for 24 years?

        Perhaps precisely because it sailed without problems ? That is, it never ran into situation where the strength of the rivets might be tested.

        It's similar to how most people who don't use seatbelts don't die in traffick accidents. It's a risk-increasing factor, not an automatic death sentence. It only becomes the latter when an accident happens.

      • by Tsu Dho Nimh ( 663417 ) <> on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @10:21AM (#23077138)
        During 1912-13 the Olympic returned to Harland & Wolff for six months safety rebuilding. The double bottom was extended up the sides to the waterline, full height bulkheads were fitted, as were additional lifeboats.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          The Olympic was returned Harland & Wolff for six months safety rebuilding because it had been hit by HMS Hawke! and did not sink but limped back to port...

          Obviously not much wrong with the rivets then?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        The Titanic had the extra bad luck of (1) hitting an iceberg which put extra stress on the rivets, (2) doing so in cold water which made the metal weaker, and (3) scraping the entire length of the hull against said iceberg. I don't know how Olympic was hit, but even if it was a sideways scrape, no ship can exert anywhere near the same sideways pressure as a big iceberg. The Olympic was also hit in a harbor where she could get back to help prety quickly. Titanic didn't sink immediately.
    • The ship was doomed before it ever left the shipyards. It seems the steel used for the hull was also substandard. In the cold, icy waters, it seems the low grade steel becomes extremely brittle. This is believed to have made the collision damage much, much worse. It is also believed to be the cause of the ship breaking up.

      Many Merchant vessels used during WWII are also believed to have been lost in the Atlantic because of the same low grade steel used to speed construction. During the way, at least it was a
  • Old news? (Score:4, Informative)

    by RuBLed ( 995686 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:00AM (#23074638)
    I had seen this early last year on one of those National Geographic "investigations" regarding the possible causes of Titanic's sinking. They arrived at the same conclusion, weak rivets on bow and stern.
    I havent read this in TFA but the show said that the reason a weaker rivet was used on the bow and stern is because their riveting machine cant access those parts correctly, thus the need to use manual riveting which uses weaker rivets. ( human force machine force)
  • I remember in a Discovery Channel special about the Titanic they mentioned that the plates were torn apart at the seams rather than gashed through by the ice. The amount of force with which the ship hit the ice was low enough that it should not have ruptured.

    So many years later, I wonder if it is worth it to hold the shipmaker accountable for the tragic loss of life. The stowaways in the galley climbing the railing at the bow shouting their claims to the throne of the earth were all taken under, and though they found love in the last hours of the Titanic, I can't help but wonder what sort of lives such rapscallions would have lived had they landed in New York City. Instead, at the bottom of the sea is the blue gem, shining brightly in the ghostly beams of the research submarines, so far away from the hands which let it fall to the seafloor in remembrance of the short, brilliant, flash of love in those few hours whose imprint upon Rose lasted her whole life.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      But just think how different things would be had they used stronger rivets that would never let go, Jack, they'd never let go...
  • by Dunbal ( 464142 )
    I saw that program on the Discovery channel too last year. Wow, slashdot, really on the cutting edge of tech news.
    • by jspey ( 183976 )
      Yeah, but now Jen McCarty has a book out (not mentioned in TFA) that talks about the same stuff as TFA. The article is likely related to publicity for the book.
  • Those damn terrorists attacked the titanic by planting an ice burg in the middle of the ocean. Solution? Attack Iran.
  • by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:10AM (#23074684)
    ... And here was me thinking that was just a nationalist myth. You mean the Belfast shipbuilders really did say that stuff about the Pope when they put 'em in?
  • by gandhi_2 ( 1108023 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:13AM (#23074704) Homepage
    You really expect us to believe there were material defects sometimes in 1909? I call shenanigans!

    Now...if we can start second-guessing some more disasters, we can really get the lawsuits going.

  • by Hamster Lover ( 558288 ) * on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:21AM (#23074748) Journal
    Except in the version I saw the Titanic looked like a giant hot dog running aground in a sea of ketchup. Also, LSD was involved.
    • Pfft, amateur. The version I saw included a police box and Kylie Minogue.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by gbobeck ( 926553 )

        Pfft, amateur. The version I saw included a police box and Kylie Minogue.

        Yeah, and I bet the Queen of England was in it too...
    • Except in the version I saw the Titanic looked like a giant hot dog running aground in a sea of ketchup. Also, LSD was involved.

      I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but I drew the short straw...

      We actually changed the station to The Food Channel and you were watching Emeril. Sorry, we were hoping for the outcome to be strangely confusing, not strangely enlightening as it were.

      Also, that wasn't LSD; we sold you pieces of notebook paper that had accidentally been left underneath a leaking car battery.

  • I also had complaints about how riveting the movie was not.
  • by SystematicPsycho ( 456042 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:46AM (#23074836)
    Why do people find the Titanic so fascinating? I still see documentaries come up every now and then. There were worse tragedies and boat disasters than the Titanic. Is it because it was a ship mainly for the rich that they said was unsinkable but did? For all the Titanic buffs, build a bridge and get over it... or will that have cracks too? Oh the humanity.
    • by Turn-X Alphonse ( 789240 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:54AM (#23074866) Journal
      Because the Titanic was labeled as "the best thing since sliced bread" and went out of it's way to seem grand and impressive. Then it sunk on it's first voyage and proved that even the grandest of things are but a paper weight should you have no luck. It is the ultimate in luxury and a bad luck story rolled into one, so people find it fasinating.
    • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @05:35AM (#23074994) Journal
      There are several reasons why:

      1. Schadenfraude: the immense hubris of the builders and operators of the Titanic were key factors in the loss of the ship. Stories where supreme arrogance is dealt a blow by nature are always fascinating to people.
      2. A grand supposedly unsinkable ship sinking on her first voyage.
      3. This accident prompted a sea change (pun intended) in maritime safety practices.

      From an accident investigation standpoint, it is also the classic demonstrator of the accident chain. Many maritime and aviation accidents consist of a long chain of direct events that occur over a considerable period of time, and if any of the links been broken, the accident wouldn't have occurred.
    • It was yet another example of how technology makes us feel invincible, then we see it fail spectacularly
    • If you know of a greater loss of life in a civilian ship sinking (not counting the Lusitania and suchlike) in the last 150 years, I'd be interested to hear about it. The fact that she was a hugely prestigious vessel on her maiden voyage and carrying hundreds of the social elite of the day also helps.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Animedude ( 714940 )
        The combination of glamour and a huge catastrophe definitely helped creating this incredible fascination. Because they eyes of the world were on that ship, the catastrophe is far more well-known than e.g. the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, where over 9000 died. As for a larger civilian ship sinking, look up the Dona Paz (sunk 1987).
        • The Gustloff wasn't a civilian vessel at the time it was sunk, and it was sunk by U boats not through shipwreck. "During Operation Hannibal, while evacuating German soldiers, U-boat personnel, and refugees trapped by the Red Army in East Prussia, she was hit by three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea" - Wikipedia. Predictably (but reprehensibly) an overloaded Philippine ferry going down doesn't cause much by way of press over here, which is probably why I'd forgotten it: thanks fo
        • Maybe he should of said 'accidental sinking'. The Wilhelm Gustloff wasn't an accident, seeing as how the Russians hit it with torpedos. It was also transporting combat troops at the time, had anti-aircraft guns, and was traveling blacked out. In other words, the sort of ship you try to avoid for transporting refugees. I'd count it as a military ship.

          As for the Dona Paz, I can only guess that the rich and famous of the Titanic combined with the hubris of it's builders has made it more famous than the Don
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Dannkape ( 1195229 )
        According to the list on wikipedia, the Titanic is in fact only the 5th most deadly peacetime ship accident. And two of those happened in the last 25 years!

        MV Joola capsized near Gambia in 2002, with 2002, killing at least 1863 people.

        And there there is MV Dona Paz. After a collision (and subsequent fire) in the Philippines in 1987 it sank, officially killing 1565 people (titanic was 1517), but the true number is likely way over 4000.

        Of course those are forgotten as soon as the media has another "trag
      • it lists 4 with a higher deathcount,
        the greatest of which both triples titanic and was in the last 20 years []

        4,300 - 4,500 - Doña Paz, (Philippines, 1987)(Estimates vary because of overloading and unmanifested passengers, only 21 survived [3][4][5])
        3,920 - Jiangya ship explosion off Shanghai, (China, 1948)
        1,863 - MV Joola (Senegal, 2002)
        1,547 - Sultana (Mississippi River, 1865)
    • Some people romanticize the idle rich of the 1800s, who did nothing but travel around with an army of servants to carry their steamer trunks around, that were filled with clothes that they'd use to dress up and go to dinner parties. And the Titanic was the newest fanciest liner when it was built, and it had societies elite on board. Think of a disaster on a similar scale striking the Oscars, and how that would be covered in the news.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Well, with global warming, we solved the iceberg problem anyway.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @04:56AM (#23074874)
    If not for the weak rivets, we wouldn't have gotten to see Leonardo DiCaprio drown.

    Why is the ship-builder hesitating to claim such progress?
  • My grandfather, who was a Marine in WWII, told me all sorts of stories of how the Navy's ships back then were pretty rickety. Reason being, aside from cheap labor, was that the assembly crews would have races in building the ships. The quality went down with the speed, like anything hand-crafted, and I'm not surprised to hear the same thing about the Titanic. While the Titanic was made by completely unlike laborers, they were probably/most likely under the same kind of stress that one normally expects when
    • by v1 ( 525388 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @07:42AM (#23075558) Homepage Journal
      Ship building in early and mid WW2 was a race to make ships faster than the U-boats could sink them. Keep trading quality for quantity until the number that sink on their own approaches the number that the enemy sinks for you, and you have hit the right tradeoff.

      I wonder how many of those ships made in the early supply of Britain survived more than a couple crossings before soaking up a torpedo? Need to find some statistics on how many ships simply sank due to defect vs attack.
  • Denial (Score:3, Informative)

    by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @05:31AM (#23074980) Journal
    I find it interesting that after so many years, and so much evidence, that the company still strenuously denies any wrongdoing. It's not like they can be sued this long after the fact; indeed it's like a vestigial remaining piece of the very arrogance that doomed the Titanic in the first place.
    • At some point, after enough decades, I think it's time to say "forgive and forget the grudge." Yes, 100 years ago, the company made mistakes. Bad mistakes. But how many of us had ancestors who were slaveholders? How many had ancestors who were part of repressive regimes? Or who opressed women or despised various minorities?

      If we can't forgive and forget the grudges, we are doomed to keep fighting over the same grudges for thousands of years. Bad idea.

    • I wouldn't say there was anywhere near enough evidence at the moment that the ship builders did anything wrong at all, first of all how sure are the scientists that the majority of the rivets on the ship had this flaw, how do they know they haven't been looking at rivets from some non saftey critical component, how do can they even prove the rivets are from the Titanic and aren't a consigment of bad rivets someone dumped at sea. Basically there seems to be an awful lot of unknowns which wouldn't provide any
      • Re:Denial (Score:5, Interesting)

        by jspey ( 183976 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @08:56AM (#23076122)
        Jen McCarty was my labmate in grad school (we had the same adviser), so I heard about the Titanic rivets a lot.

        Jen didn't know if all of the rivets were made of poorer-quality iron. She only had 48 to test (they're expensive to retrieve). I have no idea how those rivets were distributed about the ship. A statistician might be able to tell you how confident you can be with 48 sample out of population of hundreds of thousands. However, IIRC every single rivet tested was of the poorer quality.

        I believe the rivets were pulled out of the Titanic itself. Even if they were gathered from the ocean floor around the wreck, I think it's highly unlikely that someone happened to dump bad rivets from the early 1900s in the middle of the North Atlantic right where the Titanic sunk.

        Both Jen's grad-school research and TFA mention higher quality iron being used in ship rivets normally. While it was more difficult to test for slag in rivets 100 years ago, they were very good at knowing how to make better (read: stronger) iron, because ultimately you can just test the iron to failure and see how strong it was. Jen looked at iron from other structures built around the same time as the Titanic and they were definitely of a higher quality (I think TFA mentioned the Brooklyn Bridge).

        Finally, slag doesn't grow in iron because they sit on the ocean for 100 years. These rivets are roughly an inch in diameter, and Jen cut them in half and looked inside them. There was corrosion on the outside, sure, but the impurities that are at issue here are embedded in the rivets. IIRC, slag is almost a glassy substance. It has different mechanical properties than iron, leading to stress concentrations in the iron surrounding chunks of it. These stress concentrations result in the iron failing under less overall stress than it would have otherwise.
    • It's not like they can be sued this long after the fact;
      Ha! And what color is the sky on your home planet?
  • You mean the Titanic was real? I thought it was just a fairy tale parents told their kids to make sure they would do quality work when they grew up. Next you'll be telling me Apollo 13 was a real spaceship!

    Just kidding... but I wonder how long it will be until this is a common reaction?
  • by threaded ( 89367 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @07:04AM (#23075332) Homepage
    Even if the rivets had been perfect it would still have sunk. The design was such that once a big enough hole was made, i.e. weren't enough pumps to keep the water level down, the water filled to above the bulkheads and swamped the next cell, and onto the next. It was a poor design when faced with the accident it had. IIRC the ships designer was on board and once he was told the size of the hole he was able to tell the captain how long it would take to sink.
    • by Alrescha ( 50745 )
      "Even if the rivets had been perfect it would still have sunk. The design was such that once a big enough hole was made, i.e. weren't enough pumps to keep the water level down, the water filled to above the bulkheads and swamped the next cell, and onto the next."

      One would expect that with stronger rivets the hole would have been smaller, in which case the pumps would have been able to keep up. Icebergs don't just punch nice round holes in the steel plate...

    • by Nimey ( 114278 )
      I'm told by a Navy man that the fault wasn't with the bulkhead design -- a cruise ship had been built in the mid-late 1800s with warship-style complete compartmentalization, but it wasn't profitable to run because the customers thought it too inconvenient to get around in, and only stayed in service for two years. So cruise ships went back to less-complete compartments because that was the only way to please the customers.
  • The lack of lifeboats, the "woman & children first" and "rich people first" attitudes around that resource, the freezing cold of the water that killed within half an hour anybody floating in it, and the fact that the first ship to arrive arrived hours later 'cause the nearest ship wasn't paying attention to its radio.

    Another hour or two on the surface would have just delayed the inevitable, but there was still nowhere else for the people to go.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Firethorn ( 177587 )
      Another hour or two on the surface would have just delayed the inevitable, but there was still nowhere else for the people to go.

      Like anything, it might of made quite a bit of difference. Given a couple hours a dedicated crew might of been able to start fashioning crude lifeboats out of the very fixtures and boat superstructures. They might of been able to get some patches in(ala USS Cole) that delayed or even stopped the sinking.
    • by Ihlosi ( 895663 )
      Another hour or two on the surface would have just delayed the inevitable, but there was still nowhere else for the people to go.

      Weren't the first survivors picked up by another ship roughly two hours after the Titanic sank ?

  • Maritime riveting (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ddrichardson ( 869910 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @08:05AM (#23075724) Homepage

    The big thing here though is this "unzipping" thing I've seen quoted.

    I'm interested if anyone knows about maritime riveting and can correct me because in aviation we not only use rivets of a standard design specification (predominantly) to reduce dissimilar metal corrosion but also they are riveted in set patterns that mean should one rivet fail then the resulting weakness and is to a greater degree minimised by the placement of other rivets. For example the most simple battle damage repair would be two sheets overlapping with a double row of staggered rivets at set distances (I forget the exact inches) - and that's a patch repair!

    Unzipping, to me, implies that the metal was riveted in straight lines which would seem like an engineering faux pas of the highest order.

  • The Titanic has struck a BF iceberg in mid-Atlantic and sunk with a substantial number of casualties.
    Rivets are already being lined up to take the blame.
    Also in the news: The scores are in for Piltdown man's final test series
    and why experts now think the walls of Jericho fell down as a result of poor quality mortar.
    But first today's big story on how Global Warming brought an end to the Roman Empire.
    .. it says here.
  • It's news because this is the 95th anniversary of the sinking. I only know that because I worked W0S, the Titanic memorial amateur radio station over the weekend.
  • What is with the obsession with the Titanic? I don't get it, it was really interesting when I was in the 3rd grade but 16 years, a few bad books I was forced to read and one HORRIBLE movie later I just don't see why people continue to resurrect this little piece of history.
  • The might-have-beens (Score:3, Interesting)

    by westlake ( 615356 ) on Tuesday April 15, 2008 @10:08AM (#23076948)
    They say that better rivets would have probably kept the Titanic afloat long enough for rescuers to have arrived, saving hundreds of lives

    The Olympic, five hundred miles off, make perhaps twenty-four knots in a pinch.

    There were very few vessels that could match her speed. Carpathia, sixty miles off, could be pushed to fifteen - a nightmare four hour run through the arctic ice fields.

    The North Atlantic is a mighty big ocean. Titanic had other problems.

    The 24 hour radio watch was not standard. Titanic had a 500 KHz 5 KW Marconi spark-gap transmitter with a nominal range of 250 nm. She had far greater reach at night - but much would depend on the relative orientation of antennas and so on.

    The best you could hope for in a receiver would be a very early vacuum tube design.

    But operation burnt through your stock of tubes very quickly.

    The Marconi Wireless Installation in R.M.S. Titanic []

    Titanic's watertight compartments did not reach full height, as one flooded over, the next would begin to fill.

    She was going down by the head, not on the level, which meant that evacuation was going to become progressively more difficult and dangerous.

    It was a sloppy business from the start.

    Titanic's crew poorly trained - if trained at all - in the use of her new and more efficient davits.

"The eleventh commandment was `Thou Shalt Compute' or `Thou Shalt Not Compute' -- I forget which." -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982