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The year 1912 must have felt like a tremendous mixture of both enormous optimism and a certain amount of nail-biting," says Jonathan Hyde, who plays White Star Line's managing director, J. Bruce Ismay. "When developments become too rapid, people begin to get breathless and anxious."
Competition was stiff between the trans-Atlantic commercial lines. The Cunard Line enjoyed a large British subsidy while White Star was bankrolled by owner J. P. Morgan. Both lines vied for mail contracts and the lucrative immigrant trade. While Cunard had focused on speed -- the record-holding Mauretania had a top speed of almost twenty-seven knots -- White Star had focused on size. Titanic had a gross tonnage in excess of forty-six thousand tons, fifteen thousand more than Cunard's largest vessel. Twenty-four boilers fed Titanic's twin, four-story-tall reciprocating vessel. A third engine, a steam turbine, allowed for a combined speed in excess of twenty-two knots, or approximately twenty-five miles per hour. The boast of being unsinkable stemmed from the ship's sixteen watertight compartments and twelve watertight doors. If flooding were to occur, the watertight doors could be shut automatically or from the bridge, isolating the affected compartments from the rest of the ship. Any two of these compartments or the first four compartments could be breached and the ship would stay afloat indefinitely, a design consideration that placed the greatest emphasis on the danger of a front end collision -- hardly a surprise in the days before radar and sonar. And while many find it hard to believe, the Titanic actually had more lifeboats than was required by law, even though there were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board. "The British Board of Trade regulations were developed in the late 1800s when few vessels displaced more than ten thousand tons and you could reasonably calculate passenger capacity using tonnage alone," explains Titanic Historian Don Lynch. "No one could have anticipated ships of the Titanic's magnitude. They were complying with a law that no longer made any sense."
In a column on page 44 of a notebook of specifications for the Olympic kept by Thomas Andrews, Master Shipbuilder of the Titanic (portrayed in the film by Victor Garber), a mental exercise in alternate history is briefly played out. In a column showing the total number of lifeboats the number sixty-eight leaps off the page while only twenty lifeboats (including the four "collapsibles") were installed on each ship. Closer examination reveals that this page was added to the notebook after the tragedy, when the Board of Trade revised its regulations to require a lifeboat seat for everyone on board. Historians paint Andrews in a favorable light, however, claiming that the pressure to keep the number of lifeboats to a minimum came from a higher authority and that Andrews had lobbied for more. Given the shipbuilder's reputation as a perfectionist, the theory rings true. "He was obsessed with the ship and was constantly taking notes about things that could be corrected or improved, no matter how big or how small," explains Garber. "He was apparently taken to task in social situations quite often because he was always preoccupied with something or other."
[Director James] Cameron found a kindred spirit in the historical Andrews. "As an engineer he never would have believed his own publicity, so to speak. The ship was made of iron. Of course she could sink if the conditions were right. Imagine what it must have felt like, standing in the foyer of the Grand Staircase -- architecturally the most beautiful place on the ship -- a ship that he had designed -- knowing that in an hour or so all of it was going to be at the bottom of the Atlantic. Can you imagine the responsibility he must have felt?"
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1997 by Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved. All photographs by Douglas Kirkland, copyright © 1997 by Douglas Kirkland. All right reserved. All photographs by Merie W. Wallace, copyright © 1997 Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. All right reserved.