The story of the Titanic is a story of ambition, hubris, and tragedy. The Titanic story could fill many volumes, and indeed it has. Most people have some familiarity with the history of the Titanic, or at least they know of the history of the Titanic wreck. Less is known about how the Titanic ship actually came to be. This side of the Titanic story is quite interesting, however, even if it isn’t as captivating as the shipwreck itself. (Few stories are.) So, in this article we tell the history of the Titanic before it took its maiden voyage; that is, we tell the part of the Titanic story that is so often overlooked, and we do this simply because the full story of the Titanic demands to be told. Why was the Titanic built, and how did its creation come about?
(Note: If you really don’t care about this part of the Titanic’s history, you can check out our article about the Titanic wreck, but we really do think the whole story of the Titanic is worth looking into.)
Although the Titanic set sail from England (Southampton, more precisely), the ship was actually built in Belfast, Ireland by a company based in that same city: Harland and Wolff. Harland and Wolff is still in operation, and they continue to specialize in shipbuilding. The Titanic is by no means the only noteworthy or large ship the company built. Most relevantly, the company also built two other vessels – Olympic and Britannic – that were in the Olympic class, to which the Titanic belonged. Indeed, these three ships make up the entirety of the Olympic class, and Harland and Wolff constructed all three. Harland and Wolff was the natural company to choose, as the British shipping company that commissioned the vessels to be made, White Star Line, had been working with the builders since 1867. (As an interesting side note about the Olympic class, only the Olympic vessel had a long career. Like its sister ship the Titanic, Britannic met a tragic end when it hit a mine off the coast of Kea, a Greek island. The ship sank, resulting in 30 deaths.)
Harland and Wolff were given a lot of freedom in designing the Olympic class, and after many months of work by a team of skilled designers, the company produced drawings of the ships that were given to White Star Line for approval. They were approved, and the ships were built over the next several years. But why exactly were the ships built in the first place?
Basically, because White Star Line felt pressure from their competitors. Cunard, another shipping company (and in fact it is still a shipping company that is now owned by Carnival), had recently released the two fastest passenger ships then in existence, Lusitania and Mauretania. Two German lines were also encroaching on the shipping market. To address the competition, J. Bruce Ismay, White Star Line’s chairman, decided that the company need to literally go big. After discussions with famed American financier J.P. Morgan, who controlled International Mercantile Marine Co., a trust that owned White Star Line, the company moved forward and commissioned the creation of the Olympic class. The rest is history. (As another interesting side note, not only the ships in the White Star Line fleet met disaster. Lusitania, the shipped owned by Cunard, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1915. The attack killed over half of the people on board [1,198 of the 1,959], and is said to have contributed to United States’ entry in WWI.)
That is the story of the Titanic, or rather the largely ignored first chapter of the story. The history of the Titanic starts with a bold business decision laboriously executed and ends with utter catastrophe, and there is only the briefest moment of satisfaction – four days of successful sailing on the Atlantic – in between.