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Titanic Design & Construction

Why was the Titanic built?

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Titanic was purpose-built by White Star Shipping to be the pride of its fleet of commercial shipping liners to meet the demand of travel from Europe to the United States.

Many ships already offered passage across the Atlantic regularly. Still, White Star was determined to capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of travellers by building the grandest liner of them all.

Where was Titanic Built?

Titanic construction occurred in Belfast, Ireland. This location was selected due to the close allegiance between Belfast shipbuilders, Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line. An exclusive contract existed whereby White Star could only go to Harland’s to have their ships built, and Harland and Wolff would not build rival ships.

Pirrie and Ismay survey the construction site in Belfast.
Pirrie and Ismay survey the construction site in Belfast.

A Complete Titanic TEACHING UNIT

A complete unit of work to teach students about the historical and cultural impact Titanic made upon the world both back in the early 20th century. This complete unit includes.

  • Digital Text Response Tasks
  • Fact Vs. Opinions
  • Interactive Video Tasks
  • Interactive Writing Tasks & Templates
  • Titanic Data & Statistics Tasks
  • Digital Assessment Tools
  • Titanic Timelines & Research Tasks
  • Independent, Group & Remote Tasks
  • Key Players in Titanic’s History
  • Open-ended Titanic Assessment Tasks

The shipyard chairman from 1895 was William Pirrie, later Viscount Pirrie of Belfast.  These two men concocted the idea for the Olympic class liners to compete with their rivals, Cunard.

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J. Bruce Ismay – Head of White Star and eventual Titanic “villain.”

In the early 1900’s White Star were perceived as the poor cousins to its main rival in British based Cunard Lines had a dream of dominating the lucrative route between the well cultured and wealthy European ports and the opportunity and expansion of a burgeoning United States.

In 1907 Cunard’s Lusitania ruled the Atlantic Ocean as the largest and fastest liner in the world which did not sit well with J. Bruce Ismay – head of White Star Lines who commissioned the building of not one but three ships which would all dwarf the Lusitania and her larger and unfinished sister ship the Mauretania.

“Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption.”

The Bishop of Winchester, preaching in Southampton, 1912.

 How long was Titanic?

Titanic was 882 feet (269 meters) long, she measured in at over 100 feet longer and over fifty percent heavier than their nearest rival. The R.M.S (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic and Olympic were to be built in Belfast, Ireland by the Harland, and Wolff shipping to offer passengers the most luxurious passage across the Atlantic. To learn more physical statistics and facts about RMS Titanic read our article here.

Speed was deliberately compromised on Titanic to provide passengers with a smoother ride without its competitors’ vibration caused by outdated propeller design and the desire to push them as fast as possible. Titanic was by no means slow and could complete Southampton’s journey to New York in just under a week.

The Titanic would be the largest moving object man had ever built and a project so mammoth it would cause a revolution in shipbuilding that would continue for the next two centuries. The project was so ambitious there was no dry-dock in the world to build the Titanic, so Harland and Wolff had to convert its existing three dockyard layout to two to accommodate the massive dimensions of the two ships. The massive gantries required to lift materials into a position were again the world’s largest.

Ismay and Pirrie were not content with just building the most giant ship on earth,  demanding it also be the most luxurious. Titanic would deliver upon this promise providing unimaginable luxury to her socially elite wealthy passengers.

The pre (1900’s) great war elite of and wealthy of society coveted luxury at any expense.

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Titanic’s designer Thomas Andrew’s

Thomas Andrews, an experienced shipwright, and head of Harland & Wolff design were given the task as the man to oversee the design and construction of Titanic.

To build a safe ship 882.5 feet (268.8 meters) long and 92.5 feet (28.2 meters) wide with a gross weight of nearly 45,000 tons (40,824 metric tons), some innovative shipbuilding techniques and materials were required.

The design submission for Olympic and Titanic was approved in Belfast on July 29, 1908, by Bruce Ismay and other White Star directors. Andrew’s drawings show that Titanic incorporated several cutting-edge naval features, including the hull’s division into a series of virtually watertight compartments. This innovation would lead to the media branding Titanic as “unsinkable.” A tag that would haunt it forever.

“Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.”

 J. Bruce Ismay, Director of the White Star Line

The dream of the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic.

The revolutionary “unsinkable” hull was divided up into 16 watertight compartments. The ship was built to stay afloat even if two of the middle compartments or four front compartments flooded. It cannot be overstated that this was an ingenious stroke of engineering and design fatally let down by poor budgeting and execution.

These watertight compartments offered potential passengers a genuine sense of security in travelling the high seas and were a brilliant marketing tool for White Star Lines to sell tickets. The Titanic was actively marketed as the world’s first and last “Unsinkable Ship.”

Titanic infamously had too few lifeboats to evacuate all those on board; the 20 lifeboats that she carried could only take 1,178 people, even though she had about 2,223 on board at the time of her sinking and could carry up to about 3,300 people. This was not of major concern in this era of highly unregulated transport, and shipping design were shipping companies made the rules up as they liked with little interference from government bodies.

Unfortunately, some elements of Thomas Andrew’s original design ideas were altered or removed as Titanic went over the construction budget. This included removing some of the more extravagant luxury features such as extra swimming pools, more electric lifts, and amazingly completing its sixteen watertight hulls. This decision was obviously not well-publicized at the time.

Original Titanic Design Blueprints and Technical Drawings


Titanic’s construction begins

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Harland & Wolff’s Belfast shipyards were a hive of activity

Construction of the Titanic began on March 31, 1909, when designer Thomas Andrews laid the first keel plate in the Harland & Wolff Shipyards Belfast, Ireland. Titanic’s sister ship The Olympic had begun some three months earlier, and the two ships were essentially constructed simultaneously by over 15,000 workers. This project would cost 8 employees their life working on such a mammoth and often dangerous construction site.

When Titanic was designed, no facilities existed to build or berth such a large ship. Harland & Wolff set about building the two new slipways required, demolishing three smaller ones to make room. They constructed two huge gantries, with moving cranes and lifts, called the Arrol gantries. They also purchased a massive 200-ton floating crane to lift the huge boilers and other mechanical items into place on the ships.

The Gantries

A gantry is a crane system that manoeuvres over the top of a ship in the dockyard carrying materials and workers to the heights and depths. Titanic’s 220-foot Gantries were custom built to meet the needs of such a monstrous vessel.

The huge Olympic and Titanic structural silhouettes could be seen across most of Belfast City, shrouded by the even larger gantries in which they were constructed.

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A coloured Postcard showing ‘The Great Gantries’ in which RMS Titanic & Olympic were built: Harland & Wolff shipyards, Belfast 1911

Titanic’s Boilers:

To power, the largest movable structure ever made would require an enormous power source, and in the early 1900s that source was coal-powered steam. There were twenty-four double-ended Scotch class boilers and a further five single-ended boilers housed in six boiler rooms. The double-ended boilers measured 20 feet long, with a diameter of 15 feet 9 inches, and contained six coal-burning furnaces. The single-ended boilers were 11 feet 9 inches long with the same diameter. With all boilers firing the Titanic produced around 46,000 horsepower.

Titanic had 12 Scotch class boilers
Titanic had 12 Scotch class boilers

Titanic’s Funnels:

Titanic’s funnels were built off-site.
Titanic’s funnels were built off-site.

Thomas Andrew’s original Titanic design was so efficient that it was originally conceived with only three funnels to service the massive boilers some 150 feet below. White Star thought it a necessity a ship of such grandeur must possess four funnels. As a result, only three of the funnels were functional, and the fourth was to serve as an aesthetic element and provide fresh air to the engine rooms. The Funnels were constructed off-site and attached after the Titanic had left Dry-dock.

The Propellers (or Screws) of Titanic:

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Titanic was equipped with a steam-powered triple screw propulsion system ensuring it moved across the ocean at a respectable pace of approximately 22 knots, but the blades were deliberately pitched at such an angle that the ship would not vibrate, discomfort, or distract the passengers from the more elegant points of Titanic’s voyage on board when enjoying the smoking and dining rooms.

As a result, the Titanic ran slightly slower than it could have, but there were alternatives if you wanted sheer speed. If it was unrestricted elegance and dominance of the ocean, then the Titanic was the ticket you sought.

This is an iconic shot of Titanic's triple screw propulsion system.
This is an iconic shot of Titanic’s triple screw propulsion system.

The Hull of Titanic:

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Constructed from over 3 million rivets to connect the 1-inch-thick iron plates the hull had over 2000 portholes in it for the wealthier guests to view the waves rolling by. After the Titanic sinking inquiry some would blame the quality of the rivet installation and metalworking on the Titanic for succumbing to an iceberg so quickly.

Overall, both Titanic and Olympic’s construction was relatively unspectacular compared to others, albeit larger and grander. Their sheer presence each day at the drydock drew attention from the media who lapped up any ounce of news on these two behemoths of the industrial era to build hype and ensure both ships would be entirely sold out for years to come.

The Hull would measure 882.9 ft in length and 92 feet wide requiring 59 feet of water to float unobstructed. (See the Facts and Statistics Section for all Titanic Data. )

On May 31, the 26,000 Ton hull of the Titanic still smelt of fresh black enamel as it descended down the slipway assisted by 25 tons grease and soap into a fitting basin for internal fitting and completion.  Large crowds, press and dignitaries came to witness this auspicious event with some members of the audience doubting that such a mass of steel would actually float. 

“Not even God himself could sink this ship.”

White Star Employee

Titanic Engineering Facts Video

Was Titanic’s steel to blame for her sinking?

Many combining factors led to the magnitude of Titanic’s disaster at sea, including lack of lifeboats, flaws in the design of the ship and negligence of the crew. One factor that we can accurately evaluate with today’s technology is the quality of steel that was used for the Titanic, and if any shortcuts were taken during construction that may have contributed to the disastrous event.

All three million of Titanic's rivets were driven by hand.
All three million of Titanic’s rivets were driven by hand.

According to a study conducted in 1998 and published in 2008 by Dr. Phil Leighly, a professor emeritus of metallurgical engineering at the University of Minnesota Rochester, the steel used for the Titanic did in fact play a role in the sinking of the Titanic. Using a recovered piece of steel from the ship’s hull and bulkhead that was larger than any others previously found, they were able to determine why the steel cracked on the hull.

The Composition

After doing a series of impact tests based on their steel sample, the team was able to determine that the steel used to build the ship was much more inferior to modern steel. About 10 times more brittle in fact compared to the steel used to make today’s ships. Test results showed high concentrations of sulfur, oxygen, and phosphorous, and low concentrations of manganese, nitrogen, and silicon.  This was mainly a result of producing the steel using open-health furnaces. Pieces of steel from the hull have also appeared almost shattered, with no evidence of bending or deformation.

The Temperature

The frigid waters in which the Titanic struck the iceberg most likely had a big impact on the time it took the Titanic to sink, which was about 2 hours and 40 minutes. The below-freezing temperature water made the steel abnormally brittle and less impact-resistant and contributed to the size of the hole and the rapid sinking of the ship. Passengers on the Titanic recalled hearing loud cracking noises coming from the ship’s structure while it was sinking. Leighly noted that you would expect groaning instead of cracking sounds when steel breaks unless the steel is brittle.

The Design

Because steel welding was still in its infancy, the colossal steel plate structure of the Titanic needed to be held together by over three million iron and steel rivets, which were hammered into place by hand. However, there were many additional flaws in the design of the ship that had little to do with the quality of the steel used, including compartments that were meant to be watertight, and lack of welding technology.

The steel used for the Titanic was far inferior to the steel typically used today, and was much more brittle and not nearly as impact resistant. However, it was certainly the best steel that could be produced at the time. Leighly concluded that flaws in the design of the ship were a much bigger factor of the sinking of the Titanic than the actual steel used in production.  – Thanks to Capital Steel for the information about Titanic’s steel.

Titanic Construction Gallery