Titanic: Solving The Mysteries
The authors of Titanic: Solving The Mysteries, were so kind to answer questions for us in such amazing detail!
Many many thanks to authors Mark Chirnside, Samuel, Halpern, Tad Fitch, Steve Hall, and J. Kent Layton for taking the time for us! We really appreciate it!
(We are still trying to get in touch with Ioannis)
Titanic: Solving the Mysteries
J. Kent Layton
& Ioannis Georgiou
1. How did you become interested in the Titanic disaster, and when did interest first awaken?
My interest in the ship goes back some four decades, to a time well before the wreck was discovered. When I became keenly interested in the story would have been around 1979; at the time the tele-movie “SOS Titanic” was screened on TV.
The ship itself was always my principal interest. As most can understand, without the ship, there would have been no disaster; the story of Titanic herself would have remained simply a footnote in maritime history if she hadn't stuck the berg and sank.
In 1996 I helped set up the Titanic Research & Modelling Association (TRMA). It was the dawn of the internet and several Titanic groups were created. This is where I first came into contact with others interested in the ship.
Seeing “Titanic” (1953) and “A Night to Remember” on TV in the early 60s, and reading “A Night to Remember” in 1963. There were no other books or movies available at the time, and I got re-interested in when the wreck was found in 1985. I got online in the late 90s, and met other Titanic enthusiasts.
My father was a Titanic enthusiast since he saw “A Night to Remember” on TV when he was young, and had the 1976 illustrated edition of the book before I was even born. It was one of my first books that I read as a child. Then, when I was about three or four, he came home with the 1/350-scale model of Titanic, which we worked on together. The films “SOS Titanic” and “Raise the Titanic” also had a huge impact. All of this happened in a very short time when I was very young, and I was permanently hooked.
My interest in Titanic started sometime in 1963 when I got to read Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember”. I was fascinated by the concept that a ship, allegedly designed to be unsinkable, actually sank on her maiden voyage after striking an iceberg. I recall reading Lord’s foreword to his book describing Morgan Robertson’s fictional piece “Futility”, and got immediately hooked. He also had a great writing style.
I think the first time I became aware of Titanic’s story was when our class did a school project. I was probably nine years old at the time. A year or so later, “Exploring the Titanic” (the children’s version of “Discovery of the Titanic”) was for sale at a school book sale. My interest deepened when I saw “A Night to Remember” not long before Cameron’s film came out.
I have always had an interest in history in general, something that both my father and I have shared throughout my life. My first memory of Titanic comes from when I was a young child, and my family was on vacation in Virginia Beach. We were eating dinner at a seafood restaurant, which had a model of the Titanic on display, as well as a model of the Lusitania. My father explained what they were and their stories, and how both had sunk in the Atlantic. In my young mind, that meant right off the beach where we were staying, which of course, was a bit off the mark. When the wreck of the ship was discovered, I quickly became hooked on the subject, and the interest has never faded.
2. Do you have any special areas of interest regarding the Titanic disaster? If so, what are those special interests?
My main interest is exactly what happened the night of the sinking, and in particular, the lifeboat launching. That does mean I have to have some knowledge about the passengers and the structure of the ship itself.
There are a number of aspects of Titanic’s story that fascinate me. 1) There is the aura of a completely different age, a very optimistic age where it seemed that anything was possible. 2) I am also fascinated by the technical aspects of the ship, and keen to know and understand these details in great detail. Then there is 3) the excitement and enthusiasm of the construction, trials, delivery trip, the stay at Southampton, of things all coming together, and of the maiden voyage itself going so well! And then 4) I am particularly keen to understand how the jigsaw puzzle pieces of the disaster all fit together, and the importance of telling the story of the ship accurately to dignify the people who experienced these events. 5) Finally, I’m also fascinated with the forensic examinations into how the sinking played out and how the wreck came apart and sank to the seafloor.
My major areas of interest regarding the disaster include understanding the events that led to the disaster, the actions surrounding the moments before, during, and immediately after the impact with the iceberg, what happened to the ship over time as it took on water, and the events leading up to the rescue of her surviving passengers and crew. In addition, I became determined to apply my analytical skills in trying to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the disaster, in particular the whereabouts of the Californian and some of the strange events reported by her crew and captain. I like to separate fact from fiction and not get involved in personalities or the drama that comes along with it. I’ll leave that to the professional psychologists among the community of Titaniacs.
The forensics are of particular interest to me and the lead up to disaster. Although I am not a passenger/crew researcher, there are some remarkable life stories among the many personalities.
My greatest areas of interest are the human aspects of the disaster, and learning what individuals experienced, as well as about their lives. Preserving that information keeps their legacy alive, and helps one relate to the events. I also have a passion for delving into and researching unknown aspects of the disaster, and trying to shed light on events where the details are shrouded in mystery. However, I do feel it is important to have a well-rounded knowledge base about all aspects of the ship and disaster, if you are really going to understand it and determine what really happened. Due to this, I do maintain an interest in the technical aspects of the ship, as well as forensic evidence related to the wreck and sinking.
3. What are some of the most important (or most surprising) historical discoveries you've made while researching the Titanic disaster?
In 2000, with Tad Fitch and George Behe, determining a revised lifeboat lowering order, as the original British Inquiry lowering order was obviously flawed. https://wormstedt.com/Titanic/lifeboats/lifeboats.htm
Where do I even start? We’ve learned so much over the past 15-20 years. I love how the incredible research that Tad, Bill, and George did into the lifeboat launching sequence has proved so accurate over the years. I also love how that research has dovetailed into the work that Sam has done into the events seen from Californian and also the work that we’ve all done together on the order and timing of events experienced by many people on the ship that night. Although there’s a little wiggle room on specific timing of a number of things, and there is still much that remains unknown, it amazes me how much we have been able to piece together considering the fact that only ⅓ of the stories were even available to begin with.
For me personally, my favorite discovery has to do with how the popular depiction of Thomas Andrews being in the Smoking Room at the end of the disaster, in a daze, is inaccurate. To me, Andrews has always been a personal hero of sorts, and I was very attached to those depictions, that concept; however, seeing hard evidence that proved he was seen later on in other locations helped to teach me never to get so emotionally involved in a conclusion that I can’t let go of it if new, reliable, evidence comes to light.
I’ve also been horrified at how Titanic has become a cash cow in the last 20-25 years; how so many bad news stories, books, television programs, miniseries, and films have been cobbled together that are filled with myth, innuendo, rumor, and just bad research, and then how these are packaged together and made to look convincing to the unsuspecting average enthusiast. Quite simply, people like conspiracy theories, splashy headlines, bold claims of “new discoveries”, and so when they see what looks and sounds like good research packaged up so neatly, they don’t always tend to ask a lot of questions and look to see what the real story is.
Seeing grave distortions, bad or lazy research, and what sometimes appears to be deliberate falsehoods, all being passed off as fact? That really bothers me; it motivates me to make sure that my research, and the work that we all do as a team, is made available to help correct the historical record and keep it grounded in fact as we move further from the disaster.
I’ll just list a few:
The actions of William Murdoch at the time the iceberg was first spotted was more deliberate than it was instinctive. He nearly pulled off a miracle. http://www.titanicology.com/Titanica/NarrowShave.pdf
That the error in the SOS position made by 4/O Joseph Boxhall was directly linked to an error in time. http://www.blurb.com/b/9788580-titanic-solving-the-mysteries
That the recent MAIB investigation did not take the time needed to adequately investigate the Californian affair and made several assumptions that can be shown to be wrong. http://www.titanicology.com/Californian/StrangersOnTheHorizon.html
The lights of Californian were within sight of Titanic between 12 to 14 miles away to the NW. Because of the extreme clarity of the night, the lights of both vessels as seen from the other gave the impression that the vessels were closer to
each other than they really were. http://www.titanicology.com/Californian/StrangersOnTheHorizon.html
Capt. Smith did not take Titanic 10 miles southwest of the Corner point before turning for NY as Boxhall and Pitman said. That story came about as a result of the SOS position being in error. http://titanicology.com/Titanica/PitmansCorner.html
Capt. Smith knew the danger that lurked ahead and knew approximately when they could expect to encounter ice. He could have taken his ship well to the south and avoided all ice before turning for NY, as the captain of the Mount Temple did, which would have extended his arrival time in NY by only a couple of hours at most. But he didn’t. Instead, he took an unnecessary risk without adding extra lookouts or placing his engine room on standby status. The rest was history. http://www.titanicology.com/Centennial/CentennialBookPage.html
I find it horrifying how much of the ship’s popular history is simply incorrect. This has driven home to me the importance of primary source research, because so many claims simply get repeated from one book or television programme to another even though the evidence does not support them. They become accepted as fact and therefore go largely unquestioned. What is even worse is a media desire for sensationalism. Conspiracy theories, in particular, flourish.
Many people might be surprised to know that:
Olympic and Titanic’s lifeboat capacity was increased between July 1908, when White Star signed off Harland & Wolff’s ‘Design “D”’ concept, and their respective completions in May 1911 and April 1912;
J. P. Morgan or IMM did not finance construction, rather White Star had to raise the finance and, in fact, it was British capital supporting the combine;
Titanic’s lifeboats were not reused on Olympic;
Titanic was not ‘short of coal’ on her maiden voyage but had ample in reserve;
Captain Smith gave his age as 59 when he signed on, although he was 62.
There are probably hundreds of similar examples!
My personal interest is in the ‘Olympic’ class ships more broadly, which is invaluable in understanding the wider historical context. In terms of Titanic herself, a noteworthy discovery came from my work with Harland & Wolff’s records, assisted by Jennifer Irwin. The records included an engineering notebook maintained by the shipbuilder which had the technical specifications of hundreds of ships they completed over the years. This documentation revealed that, contrary to the popular assumption that Titanic’s propeller configuration was identical to her sister Olympic’s 1911 arrangement, her port and starboard propeller pitches had been altered and her centre propeller was distinctly different with a 3-bladed configuration. Evidence uncovered by other researchers since that discovery in 2007 has only reinforced this conclusion. (It is deeply disturbing how many people refuse to acknowledge this evidence because they prefer to rely on outdated assumptions which became accepted as fact simply by repetition over decades.)
Since some of my coauthors have responded prior to me, I would say that our research into the lifeboat launch sequence and timeline in general is one area that I am very proud of. Also, our research into controversial topics such as whether an officer committed suicide, whether anyone was shot, how did the ship actually break apart, what were the true fates of Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews, etc. In general terms, I am thankful that we have been able to bring to light some lesser-known accounts of the disaster and familiarize readers with more of the people who were aboard, as opposed to many works, which simply use the same handful of eyewitness statements again and again. There are lots of accounts and raw material that has not been properly examined before. I also am proud of the work we have done in debunking and correcting the historic record on conspiracy theories such as the recent coal fire claims, claims that the ship was constructed of shoddy materials, that Mount Temple was the ship seen from Titanic, repeated claims about what the time indicated on the recovered
chronometer means, when we have shown the hands were not in their current position prior to conservation, etc.
4. Does your study of the Titanic and/or her passengers overlap with any of your other historical interests? If so, what are those other areas of interest?
The study of Titanic has led me into studying some other collisions at sea, namely the Andrea Doria/Stockholm collision in 1956, and the Olympic/Hawke collision in 1911. The first one resulted in a lecture at the Maine Maritime Academy, where I presented a detailed report into the causes and events behind the accident, http://www.titanicology.com/AndreaDoria/LightsToPort-LightsToStbd.html.
The second one resulted in a book I wrote with Mark Chirnside that described and analyzed the events that took place causing HMS Hawke to slam into the Olympic, http://www.titanicology.com/Hawke/StingOfHawke.html
I have a broader interest in the Atlantic liners in general. I’ve done extensive research work on the Lusitania -- both her life and her tragic fate in 1915; the Mauretania and Aquitania, Titanic’s two sisters, Olympic and Britannic, and the German trio from that era, Imperator, Vaterland, and Bismarck. Ships like the Empress of Ireland, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Normandie, SS United States, Andrea Doria, and so many others -- each has a different, and unique, appeal to me. Whether it’s the story of their life or the tragic fates they met, these liners just fascinate and intrigue me.
As an aside, the music from SOS Titanic, Raise the Titanic, and James Cameron’s Titanic all helped spur an enthusiasm for film scores and classical music, and even of period music from the past.
I have an interest in history in general, although Titanic has always fascinated me. And no, my interest does not come from the movie, but predates that by many years. Other subjects that I have researched and published material related to are liner history and U-boat history during World War I and the First Battle of the Atlantic, the RMS Aquitania, as well as delving into some areas from World War II and my family's personal genealogy. I’ve gotten as far back as the 1000s for one branch of my family.
5. Do you have any new Titanic-related projects in the works? If so, could you give us a sneak peak about the type of subject matter they involve?
Tad, Kent and I have a new book coming out in time for the 110th Anniversary in April 2022. Titled “Recreating Titanic and Her Sisters: A Visual History”.
6. From Terri Bey - “One of the subjects in the book is the coal fire. Did you write about the so-called “coal fire theory” in direct response to the “Titanic’s Fatal Fire” TV documentary, featuring Senan Molony and others?
6. How did the seven of you contribute to creating the whole of the book? It is tremendously thought out, w/o missing anything. (from Mark Hopkins)
Modern technology has completely revised the way we are able to work on projects like this as a team. This team was quite literally spread across the globe and when some were awake, others were just headed to bed.
However, cloud documents give access to all members in real time so that they could work on something when they were awake and it could be reviewed and/or refined by the rest of the team as soon as they were done with it. Group chats also allow for coordination and back-of-house discussions between the team members about pinning down the most difficult subjects and sharing research as it is turned up, and in determining how best to slide things together so that it makes sense to readers.
7. As I understood the book, the slave clocks couldn’t be “adjusted” backwards—they just had to be stopped temporarily until their time was accurate again. This arrangement boggles my mind. Doesn’t it mean that for a roughly 45-minute period each night on every westbound crossing, no one on the ship (except the bridge crew who had access to the chronometers) really had any idea what “time” it actually was? Didn’t it conflict with the public notice boards that supposedly said “this clock will be set *back* at such-and-such a time”? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to just set the clocks *ahead* 23 hours and 15 minutes (a process that I imagine would only have taken a minute or two), rather than suspending their forward movement for a whole 45 minutes? Or did I misinterpret what the authors were saying? (from James Smith)
You are correct in that the electric slave clocks could only move forward. To set them 23 hours and 15 minutes ahead in your example would have required pulling the advancement chain on the master clock 1395 times. It was much easier to stop the movement of the slave clocks for 45 minutes. This took place around midnight and was expected by both passengers and crew.