Who was the captain of the Titanic? This is a simple question about a complicated man: Edward Smith, or, if you please, Edward John Smith. The legacy of Captain Smith is hard to ultimately make sense of because he, as the Titanic captain, bears at least some of the responsibility for the Titanic shipwreck, but Smith was also a gifted captain with an extremely impressive career at sea. (You don’t become the captain of the Titanic, a major transatlantic vessel, without first earning your stripes.) We all know about the Titanic shipwreck, and we also know that Smith was the captain of the Titanic, but what of the rest of his career? What did he do before he become the captain of the Titanic, and why was he made the Titanic captain anyway? To these questions we seek answers as we explore the life of Edward Smith, Titanic captain.
Edward Smith was born in England to a father of the same name and a mother by the name of Catherine Hancock. Until he was 13, he attended a British school in Etruria, a suburb of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. At first, he worked at the Etruria Forge, where he operated a steam hammer (a power hammer driven by steam). But by the time he was 17, he made a decisive move toward his future career at sea, moving to Liverpool to begin an apprenticeship on a ship.
In 1880, when Smith was 30, he began working for White Star Line, the shipping company that owned the Titanic. At first, he was a Fourth Officer on the SS Celtic, but after only seven years of service for White Star, during which time he worked on the company’s liners that went to Australia and New York, he was placed in command of his first ship, the Republic. A year later, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve, meaning he could be called to serve in the Royal Navy (just like reserve members in other armies or navies).
The next two decades of Smith’s career consisted more or less of a string of successes. In 1895, he was put in charge of Majestic, a ship that was used to transport troops to South Africa. He made the voyage twice, and both times without incident. For his efforts, King Edward VII awarded him the Transport Medal. Smith was so well-regard as a captain that starting in 1904, he commanded any new ship in White Star’s fleet on its maiden voyage (eventually including the Titanic). This started with his commanding of Baltic, then the largest ship in the world, which he sailed for three years until moving to Adriatic.
Given his success, Smith was the natural captain to call upon to command the ships in the Olympic class, to which the Titanic belonged. His service for the Olympic class began with his commanding of the Olympic ship, at the time the largest vessel in the world. With Smith captaining the Olympic, two incidents occurred. The first was a minor event involving a tug boat that was sucked into the backwash of the Olympic as it pulled into port. The tug boat was able to get back to shore, however. More seriously, on another voyage the Olympic collided with HMS Hawke. The collision did damage to Smith’s ship, which had to return to shore after the event occurred, delaying the Olympic’s planned voyage considerably.
Despite these incidents, Smith was put in command of the Titanic for its maiden voyage, and we all know how that voyage ends (but if you want to learn more about it, check out our article about the Titanic disaster). The extent to which Smith is responsible for the Titanic shipwreck is a question for another article (and we are working on that article, so stay tuned), but regardless, Smith was much more than the captain of the Titanic. He was one of the most respected captains in the world and commanded some of the finest ships of his era. At least this much ought to be remembered.