Julie Hedgepeth Williams on why Titanic’s story is unsinkable

Julie Hedgepeth Williams, author of A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells’ Story of Survival (NewSouth Books), joins us again today, so close to the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic, to share her thoughts on why the story lives on. You can read Julie’s previous guest post about her great-Uncle Albert’s experience on the sinking ship here. If you’d like to hear the Caldwells’ story straight from Albert, head over to Parade, which has an exclusive interview with the man himself (a few years before his death in 1977, Albert recounted his memories of the disaster for his nephew Bill Romeiser, who recorded his comments).

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April 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage.

The story, though, is unsinkable.

I’ve been arranging a speaking tour all over the country about my book, A Rare Titanic Family. As I set up a stop in Kansas City, one librarian commented, “There are some subjects that people can hear about once and be satisfied. But there are a few subjects out there that they can’t get enough of. The Titanic is one of them.”

Why is that? It’s a question many are asking as the century mark approaches. There are, no doubt, many answers, but I believe communication technology of the era deserves some credit.

One reason the Titanic endures in our imagination is that so many people survived. That’s contrary to your expectation, probably. The Titanic caused an awful loss of life with some 1,500 victims, some among the most rich and famous in the world. And yet, the approximately 700 people saved, including my great-uncle Albert Caldwell, lived to tell the tale, and they are the ones who compelled the Titanic into our imagination with their vivid stories of the shipwreck.

Think about it. For millennia, people had gone to the sea in ships, and their loved ones only realized the ship had sunk when it was late to port and then failed to arrive at all. People involved in a shipwreck at sea could get into a lifeboat, but it would only be dumb luck that they would ever be found. In most cases, getting into a lifeboat would only prolong an inevitable death. That fact is perhaps one reason the regulations for lifeboats on the Titanic did not include one seat per person – regulations had not caught up with the fact that by 1912, help could be summoned by “Marconi wireless.”

Luckily for my great-uncle, the Titanic had indeed been equipped with the wireless, with which it sent out CQD (a traditional distress call) and then switched to SOS (the newer version of the distress call). However, as Albert told me, the survivors shivering in Lifeboat 13 on April 15 after the Titanic was gone were skeptical that the new technology had worked. They all had been told that ships had been summoned. And yet, the Titanic had not been able to awaken the ship the passengers had all clearly seen for awhile on the horizon as the Titanic struggled to stay afloat. Thus, the survivors in the lifeboats worried that the wireless might actually bring no one to their aid.

They didn’t know that, indeed, the wireless message had been picked up at Cape Race, Newfoundland, and sent inland, where the Titanic’s distress call was pulled out of the air by the wireless station on the roof of Wanamaker’s department store in New York. From there the information went to the Hearst newspaper chain, and the news quickly rolled inland.

This led to another reason the Titanic still holds such resonance: Thanks to the news via wireless, the sinking of the Titanic unfolded almost in real time. It wasn’t as instantaneous as, say, watching the second hijacked flight slam into the other World Trade Center tower. But for its time and place, the news of the Titanic was practically instantaneous. Albert Caldwell’s parents, back home in the small town of Biggsville, Illinois, read in their newspaper that the Titanic had sunk only a few hours after it went down. They frantically scanned the partial list of survivors. Not seeing the name of their son, their daughter-in-law, or the grandson they had never met, they got down on their knees and prayed earnestly for their family on the Titanic. They spent an anxious day waiting for the next day’s newspaper and were relieved to see that all three were on the “saved” list. For the senior Caldwells and so many around the world, the news played out with a tension seldom known in news events up until that time.

We’re used to that now – we often see news events unfold tragically via the live shot of a TV crew on the scene or a citizen journalist who posts images taken on his or her smartphone to the web. In 1912, though, the nearly instantaneous news by wireless was so novel and the tension so high that it seared the Titanic story deeply into public consciousness as a horror more real and more immediate than such things had been before. And when the survivors got home, they added to that realistic drama by telling the story, the deep details making the shipwreck even more tangible to those who weren’t on the ill-fated voyage.

I know there are many other reasons the Titanic fascinates. But certainly the new wireless technology contributed in two significant ways to making the Titanic the story that long outlived the ship itself.
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Julie Hedgepeth Williams is a journalism professor at Samford University. She received a B.A. in English and history from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and a Master’s in journalism and a Ph.D. in mass communications from the University of Alabama. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

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