"…gradually the skeleton in the scaffolding began to take shape. It was the shape of a ship; a ship so enormous that men held their breaths at the sight of it. With propellers the size of windmills and a rudder the size of an elm tree; everything was on a nightmare scale."

     It was true that the world had never seen the likes of Olympic and Titanic. No moving object had ever been crafted by the hand of man. No ship had ever been constructed in such a manner. It was with great pride that Lord Pirrie watched the two ships rise up from the steel work. Everything about them, from their very construction to the gantries over top of them, was sure to propel Harland & Wolff to the forefront of the shipbuilding industry. Through it’s use of new and innovative technology, the ship builders were hoping to set a precedent that all other shipbuilders would follow or die trying (the latter was preferable). As Titanic’s frame work was built, Olympic was being plated. The steel plates were 1 in. thick, 30 ft. long and 6 ft. wide. The plates were exceptionally heavy as compared to those used on other ships, but as speed was not a consideration, they were necessary to provide the strength needed. The plates were riveted to the frame of the ship in horizontal rows known as strakes. The strakes overlapped each other in joggles, with each strake having an in or out joggle. This was necessary to provide enough material to rivet the strakes together but prevented the ships from having a smooth outer hull. Interestingly enough, today’s ship use steel plates in the same 30 ft. by 6 ft. dimensions but the plates are welded together at the edges to provide a smooth, seamless hull profile.

     Olympic and Titanic had a classic triple-deck superstructure, the uppermost decks comprising the Boat, Promenade and Bridge decks. Although standard shipbuilding practices allowed for the use of lighter materials to be used in this design to avoid making the ship top heavy and susceptible to rolling in heavy seas as well as making the ships lighter and therefor faster, the builders again noted that speed was not the consideration and that the ships were perfectly square amidships and therefor extremely stable. The superstructure was constructed according to the same specifications as the outer hull and internal structure so as to provide the highest level of structural rigidity. An additional design feature was the incorporation of expansion joints above the Bridge deck that completely severed the superstructure. As large and complex as the ships were, provisions had to be made for the structure to flex. Without the expansion joints, the ship would snap like a twig. The joints were literally hinges, composed of leather, steel and iron riveted to the deck plates. They allowed for as much as two feet of hull deflection from the horizontal plane. The expansion joints were designed to counter the stresses placed on the hull when the ship hogged or sagged. Hogging is when the hull is supported in the middle by a large wave, leaving the bow and stern unsupported. Gravity then pulls those areas of the ship down, causing the vessel to take on a banana shape. Sagging is the opposite; a ship is supported at the bow and stern by waves, leaving the middle of the hull unsupported. The ship’s midsection then sags down into the trough of the wave. Today, in lieu of expansion joints, special steels and internal bracing compensate for this flexing on large vessels.

     The two White Star sisters were constructed by over 15,000 men who worked long hours hammering the ships into being. They were skilled craftsmen who took great pride in their work. They were accustomed to working on a tight schedule and work proceeded at a lightning pace. According to legend, it was during the plating of Titanic that she claimed her first victim. A worker was accidentally sealed inside the lining of the hull when he crawled between the layers of the double bottom to check the internal riveting. As horrifying as it sounds, this was not uncommon for the period, given the pace at which new ships were constructed. Unfortunately, once the plates had been riveted, there was no way to rescue the man. The cost of removing the rivets and the damage to the hull and frame work in doing so made for a hopeless situation. His screams were inaudible through the heavy plates, the banging of his hammer was the only indication that he was still alive. That soon faded and stopped altogether as he ran out of air.
Accidents and mishaps aside, construction proceeded at breakneck speed. Nothing was allowed to impede the progress of construction. Too much was at stake. The Cunard Line’s new ships were dominating the North Atlantic and White Star needed to get it’s new liners into service as soon as possible. Olympic’s hull was completed and launched on October 20, 1910. Titanic was not alone for long, though. The keel for Gigantic was laid not long after Olympic’s launch. After being towed to the new Thompson Graving Dock, Olympic underwent seven months of fitting out before she was completed. Then, after two days of sea trials, she was handed over to White Star on May 31, 1911 in Belfast Harbour. This same day, Titanic’s completed hull was launched into the River Lagen.

     Titanic’s launch was witnessed by thousands of people who gathered on ships and on the shore of the River Lagen to see White Star's newest leviathan go into the water for the first time. No doubt hundreds of ships had been launched from the Harland & Wolff shipyard. I'm not sure but am fairly confident a crowd was gathered for each and every launch. None, I doubt, drew as much as attention as the launch of one of the world's two largest liners. None of those could imagine, however, just how pivitol a role this particular ship would play in history. Also on hand to for the event was Bruce Ismay, Lord Pirrie and J.P. Morgan. At 12:13 on May 31st, 1911, the order was given to release the hydraulic launch triggers that held the hull in place as the workmen knocked away the wooden supports. James Dobbins, a worker in the shipyard, was struck and fatally injured by one of the falling timbers. Titanic claimed her second life as she
began to move down the slipway, which was lubricated with 22 tons of slick tallow, oil and soap. It took Titanic 62 seconds to slide down the slipway and into the water. In that time she traveled nearly twice her length and achieved a speed of 12 knots before being brought to a halt by six anchor chains and two piles of drag chains that weighed 80 tons each. For a few short hours she and the newly completed Olympic could be seen floating together. At 3:00 Bruce Ismay and his party sailed for Liverpool aboard Olympic and Titanic was towed to the fitting out basin for the next phase of her construction.

     The installation of Titanic’s majestic interiors as well as her heavy machinery and other fittings took ten months and several million man hours. It was intended that she be even more luxurious than her predecessor. Between teak from Siam and fabrics from Holland, every aspect of Titanic’s fitting out was aimed at making her the most amazing vessel the world had ever seen. In place of Olympic’s hard wood floors, Titanic was given thick carpeting that one worker described as "so thick you sank in it up to your knees." Craftsmen worked long hours to adorn her with stained-glass and ornate chandeliers and intricately carved oak paneling. In a special edition devoted to the new liners, the prestigious industry journal The Shipbuilder reported that the greatest pains were being taken "to provide passenger accommodations of unrivaled extent and magnificence…the excellent result defies improvement." Improving on Olympic’s design, many additions were made to Titanic that would redefine the ocean traveler’s experience even more so than her predecessor. Already a thousand tons heavier than her sister ship, Titanic boasted many refinements that made her far more luxurious as well. Her first class restaurant was enlarged and included a trellised replica of a French sidewalk café; the Café Parisien. Two First Class suites were built on B Deck, these staterooms had private promenades, which necessetated alterations to the B Deck window arrangement. The forward half of the first class promenade on A Deck was also enclosed with glass to eliminate the annoying sea spray that some of Olympic’s first class passengers had complained about. These two differences between the sisters is the easiest way to tell them apart when looking at photographs.

     In January of 1912, Titanic’s lifeboats were installed. The original design had called for 64 wooden lifeboats. The new Walin Davits being used on the ship were capable of carrying up to three boats each. A number of factors, however, lead to the drastic reduction in the number of lifeboats installed on Olympic and subsequently Titanic. First was the fact that so many boats would hardly be necessary because even in the event of a catastrophe it would take some time for the ships to sink. The lifeboats would be no more than ferries to carry passengers to nearby rescue ships. Lifeboats would also clutter up the deck and make it difficult for first class passengers to move about the Boat Deck freely. The deciding factor was the fact that the British Board of Trade regulations regarding such matters required that any boat over 10,000 tons carry a minimum of 16 life lifeboats.

     The regulations had not been updated in decades and Titanic’s registered weight was 46,000 tons. When all was said and done, Titanic was fitted with 14 standard design lifeboats capable of carrying 65 people apiece and were stowed on launch cradles, 2 emergency cutters which carried 40 people each and were permanently swung out on either side of the bridge, and four "Engelhardt" boats with collapsible canvas sides that could hold 47 people and were stowed on the roof of the officer’s quarters on either side of the forward funnel. The total capacity of these boats was 1,178 people if they were fully loaded. Titanic’s total capacity; passengers and crew, if fully loaded was 3,300. Despite this scandalous ratio of lifeboats to people, the regulations set forth by the B.O.T. were actually exceeded.

     Titanic was successfully dry-docked at the Thompson Graving Dock in Belfast Harbour on February 3rd, 1912. Here she was fitted with her three propellers and a final coat of paint was applied. Red anti-fouling paint was applied from her bottom to just above the water line. The rest of the hull was painted black and the superstructure white. The funnels were White Star's traditional beige with a band of black on top. In early March 1912, Titanic is removed from drydock so that Olympic can be repaired; she lost a propeller to an underwater obstruction. Titanic's starboard propeller is removed and fitted to her sister ship to quicken the repair. A new propeller is soon fitted to Titanic and she is completed at the end of March.
On April 2, she leeaves Belfast on her sea trials. Under the command of Captain Bartlett, her various equipment is tested, and speed and handling trials are undertaken, including turning and start-stop maneuvers. Titanic is run full speed at 20 knots and then stopped with engines at full astern. For the next few hours she runs at 18 knots out in the Irish Sea before returning to Belfast in the early evening. Titanic meets all B.O.T. criteria for sea-worthiness in less than a day and is granted permission to sail for her point of embarkation, Southampton.

Click on image to enlarge

The skeleton of a ship...

Olympic and Titanic side by side on the stocks

Olympic cross section

Strakes and Joggles

Construction workers

Olympic's Launch

Titanic before launch

Titanic's launch

Titanic after launch

Titanic with only 3 funnels

Titanic during outfitting

Titanic during outfitting

Titanic in dry dock

Titanic during sea trials


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