That would the number of people who died in the Titanic disaster 98 years ago – at time far removed from today’s information-powered world.
Yet, even today, the disaster ripples through society.
It gives us all a moment a pause – whether outright or in our thoughts – on a scale that only few events in history can.
The World Wars.
The public at large remembers these, unlikely to ever forget entirely – forming an emotional resonance and attachment that is hard to equal in history.
People don’t really connect to the death of Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson the way they have to the epic tale of Titanic’s demise.
Why is that?
What is that secret ingredient that allows the world to mourn something forever?
It’s the common factor – how events effect the common person in society that matters in these instances.
The majority of the people who died aboard Titanic were of common stock – 3rd class citizens during the Edwardian era where the tragedy took place – who were the working poor, or those who could at least break even.
Sure, there were a small cadre of tycoons who met their doom – some by choice, other by the rules of a polite and enlightened society (women and children first).
But by and large, the dead were comprised of people who had nothing – who were traveling to the New World in hopes of a better life.
A better life that never came.
Dreams, wishes, and lives extinguished due to the hubris of a society who thought iron could do them no wrong.
So emboldened by technology that they flew in the face of fate – practically daring it to strike them down – and Fate was more than willing to engage them, sending the largest ship that had ever been built (at the time) to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Of course, as with many human dramas, money was at the heart of this terrible misadventure.
Despite the sheer opulence of the floating palace that Titanic represented to it’s 1st and 2nd class passengers, Titanic was built for one purpose: transporting mass numbers of 3rd class passengers to North America.
Back then, the large ships were meant to make companies like White Star Lines and Cunard Lines money by fulfilling the dreams of the poor to start their lives over in the land of milk and honey – much in the same way cattle are moved around from place to place in today’s commodity markets.
In fact, the 3rd class passengers were referred to as ‘steerage’ in the common industry parlance of the day.
Moving these dreamers in bulk maximized profits for White Star, so the push was for bigger and bigger ships was good for business – without the foresight to see problems in the design work, or the will to spend extra money of safety measures beyond the headline-grabbing technologies.
Yes, Titanic had the revolutionary water-tight bulkheads that made the literature of the day declare her ‘practically unsinkable’ – which was a fantastic feature given the era – but it also had design failures that were either not foreseen by the same authors, or were purposely left out of the articles after insistence by White Star.
The biggest design failing that was incorporated into the Olympic-class ships was the pitifully small rudder when compared to the length of the ships – which meant the ships couldn’t corner worth a damn, and meant Titanic could not steer her way out of a collision with an iceberg on short notice.
Of course, this is knowledge determined over nearly a century of hindsight.
The painfully obvious – and hammered upon in James Cameron’s movie – fact was White Star’s refusal to install the number of life rafts allotted for in Thomas Andrew’s designs due to the unseemly appearance of a crowded deck where the 1st and 2nd class passenger would stroll about.
I’m sure this wasn’t an explicit swipe at the 3rd class citizens – who were quite disposable in that era’s social hierarchy, despite them carrying the upper crust on their backs – but more in line with the hubris I mentioned earlier.
Like I said, Titanic and her sisters were built with catering to the 3rd class in mind – not to endanger or belittle them.
It’s a common fact that White Star’s accommodations for the 3rd class passengers were classier than the competition – almost worlds apart, in comparison.
The dining areas of Titanic’s steerage sections were staffed by friendly people and appointed quite well: tablecloths, porcelain dishes, good silverware, and a fairly robust menu given the social circumstances.
White Star depended on the 3rd class enjoying their experience on Titanic so much that the menu cards that those passengers ordered from were designed with postcards on the reverse side – so not only would the people write home to their relatives in the Old World about how happy they were with their treatment aboard ship, the postcard itself would be an advertisement of what a prospective 3rd class passenger could expect to dine on during their trip (a rather ingenious marketing ploy – even by today’s standards)
Even the 1st and 2nd class appointments of Titanic were secondary considerations to the development of better and faster ways to deliver 3rd class citizens to America’s shores – designed to give social sizzle to the endeavor so it would stir the public’s imagination.
A ploy to give even the poorest of people dreams of what it would be like to move to America and make their own fortunes – fortunes that would allow them to book a return trip one day in that very luxury that inspired them in the first place.
However, in the end, it was all for naught – at least for Titanic’s passengers.
The mountain of steel and iron was no match for an equally massive mountain of frozen water – especially at the speed that Titanic’s owner, whom was aboard the ship on it’s maiden voyage (Robert Ismay), had demanded she be going.
All 46,328 tons of the ship were heading to the bottom of the ocean as of 2:20 A.M. in the morning of April 15th, 1912.
Never to be seen again – at least, not until the wee hours of the morning on the 1st of September in 1985.
Since that date, Titanic’s wreck has become a popular destination for those who are curious and who have the technological know-how to dive the 2.33 miles to the bottom – risking their lives in the process.
For many of the people who have been to Titanic’s grave (or a seeking a way there), the rusting hulk represents the human failure to realize that we as a species do not rule the universe – but it also reminds us of the pettiness that our society is capable of… how easy it is for us to belittle those who don’t have the same advantages in life that we do.
Titanic’s wreck is also a time capsule – a time capsule that is slowly dissolving away in the frigid depths far from the eyes of the everyday people.
It’s a view backwards through time – even if it’s a rust-coloured view – towards a time where there were no computers, no internet, no cell phones, no video games… towards a time where mankind sought to fashion technological wonders out of the Earth’s raw materials with his bare hands and the strength of his biceps (there were no robots and complex hydraulic machines to assist in Titanic’s construction – each rivet in her hull was brutalized into shape my men swinging massive hammers).
It’s a time capsule that captures the immense hopefulness that existed in the world prior to World War One and the following Great Depression – what humankind hoped that the future would look like.
However, the wreck is also the tomb and grave marker for those 1,517 souls – and this lends the Titanic’s remains a complexity that interests people on a fundamental level… a paradox in attitudes.
The man who led the team who located Titanic’s wreck, Dr. Robert Ballard, is of the view that Titanic should be left alone as the grave that it is – instead of being poked and prodded (and plundered by some).
Others insist the wreckage be archaeologically cataloged before it completely collapses in on itself – which is entirely inevitable – and becomes nothing more than a rust stain on the bottom of the Atlantic.
It’s a moral battle suited to philosophers, but often boils down to money and the will to do something.
The money flows in two basic directions: RMS Titanic Inc. and the Russian Academy Of Sciences.
RMS Titanic Inc. is the legal owner of the wreck and has the right to salvage anything that it finds of interest from the wreck, sending the collection of over 5,000 artifacts (including a 17 ton section of the ship’s hull) around the world on tour – allowing people to visually connect with the history and tragedy of the Titanic for a modest fee.
The Russian Academy Of Sciences is the go-to agency for hiring submersibles able to dive to Titanic’s depths – of which there are few – and business is fairly brisk at the pace of up to five expeditions a year departing from St. John’s, Newfoundland in Canada (the closest major port to Titanic’s resting place).
There are other people and agencies that profit from Titanic – mainly media corporations that create documentaries for the masses, and of course, Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox who released the 2nd highest-grossing film in history based on the Titanic story.
So, again, Titanic boils down to money.
And yet… amusing when you consider the futility.
In the end, I’m asking that you ignore all my meandering in this blog, and for you to just set aside a moment and try to take your mind to a place that can truly appreciate the human tragedy of Titanic for a few moments since there’s not a single Titanic survivor left to do so.
As the old Native American saying goes, something exists only as long as the last person who remembers it.
Those 1,517 people existed because I remember them – and I hope you will remember them, too.
For more Titanic facts, please consult the following links: