Titanic sets sail

On April 10th, 1912, the RMS Titanic set sail on her ill-fated and only voyage. She struck an iceberg near Newfoundland and sank with the loss of 1,523 of her 2,200 passengers and crew. The Titanic is widely hailed as an example of hubris, with many relating (incorrectly) that she was deemed “unsinkable.” The story of her voyage has made the ship something of a totem for human tragedy, and has earned her a place in legend. Since the wreck was finally located in 1985, many exploratory visits have been made to explore it and salvage items scattered beside it. I myself booked a place on such a descent, but had it cancelled when the Russians withdrew the submersible for work in the Baltic ten days before my trip down was scheduled.

In 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic sailed, a writer named Morgan Robertson published a novella about the world’s biggest liner sailing the Atlantic and hitting an iceberg off Newfoundland on its maiden voyage with great loss of life. His ship was roughly the same size and displacement of the Titanic, and like her, had not enough lifeboats to take all of the passengers. There were other similarities, such as its speed and propulsion, and in the fictional version the ship was called “Titan.”

At first blush it looks uncanny, but the reality is less remarkable. People were building bigger and bigger ships, and the largest would obviously have to ply the lucrative Atlantic route. Robertson needed an accident to make his story, and had a choice of three realistic ones. It could have been a collision with another ship in the fog and dark, a catastrophic boiler explosion, perhaps, or maybe an iceberg. He chose the last of these.

The biggest ship has to have a name reflecting its size. It could have been Atlas, maybe, or Hercules, but he chose Titan. When America built its biggest missiles, it called one Atlas and the other Titan. What looked like precognition of events that were to happen fourteen years later is seen to be just intelligent anticipation. Robertson himself said that the similarities were explained by his extensive knowledge of shipbuilding and maritime trends.

The future is impossible to predict accurately; it wouldn’t be the future if it were. But it is possible to project trends forward. I find the best method is to look at what people want to do, and work out ways in which resources and human ingenuity can achieve those goals. The results are often surprising, but then so is human progress. The doom-mongers, from Malthus to Erlich and today’s environmental alarmists, are confounded by human determination and creativity. We see a problem and we solve it. That’s what people do.