Historian kicks off museum’s Titanic Tuesdays lecture seriesWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
Author and scholar Edward Tenner is fascinated by the unintended consequences of innovation.
One of the most compelling examples is Titanic, the luxury liner thought to be unsinkable that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank, killing more than 1,500 people.
The belief Titanic was unsinkable was so ingrained many passengers left valuables in their cabins.
“In a sense, it was lucky Titanic had its architect aboard,” Tenner told Toledo Free Press. “He was able to do some quick calculations and see the ship wasn’t going to make it. If the architect hadn’t been there, who knows how many people would have died because there would have been more optimistic assumptions about the ship’s ability to manage the inflow of water.”
Tenner, who recently spoke at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn to kick off its Titanic Tuesday lecture series with a lecture titled “Thinking about the Unsinkable,” said he helps people put historical events into context.
“It’s impossible to unlearn or disregard everything we have seen or heard, but what I hope is that people can at least partly suspend the extremely powerful visual images they have seen of Titanic and try to put themselves into the mentality of people who have not yet seen those images and to revisit the actual world of April 14, 1912,” Tenner said.
For example, many believe Capt. Edward Smith acted rashly by continuing to travel despite iceberg warnings, but Tenner said it was not unusual for ship captains to proceed at normal speeds in such conditions.
“When you see in films he was getting warnings about ice and kept going you think, ‘What an idiot,’ but at the hearings in London, captains testified they were all doing it. Where ships collided with sea ice, ships did pretty well,” Tenner said. “Of course, they had never seen ‘A Night to Remember’ or ‘Titanic.’”
Fog was more feared by captains than icebergs, Tenner said.
“It wasn’t that captains were unconcerned about the risks, but they happened to be focusing on the wrong risks,” he said. “I believe everyone thought they had that part under control and were worried about other things, like fog.
“My own conclusion is that although there were many serious omissions, the big problem of Titanic was really an unusual set of conditions that were hard to foresee, none of which in itself would have been fatal, but together made the disaster such a stunning one.”
Overconfidence is another factor in many disasters. Paradoxically, leaders with the most experience may be most at risk for accidents.
“They discount a lot of risks that terrify younger captains,” Tenner said. “The captain of the Californian, for example, was in his 30s and absolutely terrified of sea ice.”
Overconfidence plus too much faith in modern navigation software may also have been factors in the recent fatal wreck of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, which ran aground in January under the command of an experienced captain, Tenner said.
Sometimes fixing one problem can lead to a different problem.
The Titanic disaster prompted many new regulations, including a requirement ships carry enough lifeboats for everyone aboard. Ironically, the weight of additional lifeboats likely caused the already top-heavy SS Eastland to topple on the Chicago River in 1915, killing more than 800 people.
The Titanic Tuesday lecture series debuted in conjunction with the museum’s new exhibit, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, which runs through Sept. 30.
The series will continue 7 p.m. May 8 when filmmaker Stephen Low will discuss the making of his IMAX film “TITANICA,” which features archival photos of the ship’s construction and footage of its wreckage combined with recollections of Titanic survivor Eva Hart.
Other upcoming speakers include:
- 7 p.m. June 12, “The Philadelphia Experience: Time Takes its Toll”: Shipwreck sleuth and underwater photographer Tony Gramer will discuss his film about the search for an 18th century Great Lakes schooner.
- 7 p.m. July 10, “Michigan Connections to R.M.S. Titanic”: Underwater archaeologist Ken Vrana will compare the Great Lakes to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and discuss Michigan’s connections to Titanic.
- 7 p.m. Aug. 14, “The Ship Magnificent”: Author and Titanic historian Bruce Beveridge.
- 7 p.m. Sept. 11, “RMS Titanic: A Century in Cinema”: Ron Bartsch, senior projection manager for the Henry Ford IMAX Theatre, will discuss how the disaster was portrayed in films leading up to James Cameron’s 1997 film.
Lectures are free with admission to the museum. Museum admission is $17 for adults (age 13-61), $15 for seniors (62 and older), $12.50 for youth (age 5-12) and free for members and children (age 4 and under). The museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Tuesdays.
The Titanic exhibit is a separate admission and has timed tickets. Cost for both the museum and exhibition is $27 for adults, $22.50 for youth, $25 for seniors (62 and older), $10 for members and free for children. Reservations are encouraged.
For more information and a full listing of lectures, visit www.hfmgv.org/events/titanicTuesdays.aspx.