Thursday, 26 April 2012

Titanic: A Modern Atlantis

They are alike said to rest beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, reposed as victims of the brutality of nature and humanity's lack of humility. Yet both are resurrected as nostalgic symbols of lost decadence and glory waiting to be reclaimed by a society haunted by its own impending destruction. The one is myth, sought for but unfound in the historical record. The other a concrete reality lying on the sandy detritus two miles deep... The lost continent Atlantis and the lost ship Titanic.

Contemporaneous painting of the
Titanic's sinking, by Willy Stöwer

Some time ago I wrote of the two Atlantises that occupy space in the Western cultural consciousness. The one is the Atlantis invented by Plato: a decadent, haughty, imperialistic race that embodied the antithesis of everything the philosopher believed a society should be founded upon. This despicable Atlantis of wealth and leisure was successfully repelled by Plato's ancient Athenians, the symbol of everything he thought right about social theory, before the Atlanteans were themselves wiped out by the gods.

The other Atlantis is the one cumulatively invented by nearly every fringe pseudo-scientist, fiction author and spiritualist since Plato. This Atlantis of astonishing mental powers, occult wisdom and advanced technology is forever being rescued and rediscovered. That process of loss and reclamation reflects Western cultural anxieties that we are ourselves the decadent society that Plato damned, and whose damnation we see spiraling around us, but that we can be pulled back from that damning tide.

Either Atlantis is a fiction, no such island existing in fact. The RMS Titanic, on the other hand, is hard reality. It was 882'9", weighed over 46,000 tons, was launched on its maiden voyage on the 10th of April, 1912, and sank at 2:20am on April 15th, at 41°43′55″N 49°56′45″W in the Atlantic Ocean at a depth of 4km, with loss of 1,517 lives. It is no myth. Nevertheless, it has taken on mythic overtones worthy of its namesakes.

In fact, just as there are two Atlantises, so are there two Titanics. One rusts at the bottom of the ocean, a scattered and broken human tragedy wrought by corporate greed and calculated risk. This Titanic is replete with lessons about reliance on technology and human ingenuity amidst their sloppy execution, about the need to govern those businesses into whose hands human lives are put, and about making sure never, ever to tempt God or fate. It is a stark, melancholic reminder of an end of an era, about the end of an era's naivete, and a sort of era that could not last.

The other Titanic sails nostalgically, forever. Just as the redemption of Atlantis is predicated on its demise, so too is this Titanic dependent upon its fleeting existence. Though the mere ship itself is known to be decaying on the bottom of the Atlantic, the vessel of dreams gleams eternally in all its polished brass and whitewashed decks. After all, that terrifying night is not the only hard reality of the Titanic. So too is the gilded decadence of Edwardian finery a documented fact.

Before the discovery of the wreck in 1985, there had been serious discussion about how to raise the Titanic were it to be found in one piece. A famous novel and feature film adaptation, Raise the Titanic, were made to that effect. It being ripped in two unrecoverable hulks ended those thoughts, but the ambition to raise her never seriously abated. Instead, the focus was shifted to a burgeoning industry of Titanic recreation.

Compact disks feature music by modern string quartets from the White Star Line's official songbook. Cookbooks offer up menus from the Titanic's own restaurants, or one can join numerous, regularly-performed opportunities to have the last meals served by costumed waiters. Titanic balls and murder-mystery dinners can be found throughout the hemisphere, especially in this centenary season. RMS Titanic, Inc., the explorer-exhibitors who recreate the ship's staterooms in artifact exhibitions, offer replica tableware, jewelery and bedding. The same artifact exhibits even offer patrons the opportunity to dress in Edwardian finery. The grandest of all plans, though ultimately unfeasible, was a working replica of the ship. Still, a Titanic Memorial Cruise did sail for the centennial, arriving at the very site on April 14th.

A question is raised as to why people would be willing to invest so much time, money and interest in reliving a moment in time that no one would want to have lived through to begin with. Titanic recreation can only be fun up to 11:39pm. Accoutrements like tableware allow one to enjoy the luxury of the Titanic at the cost of being constantly reminded of a horrific tragedy over breakfast. Within that luxury lies the key, however.

Unlike the riches of Atlantis dreamt up whole cloth, the Titanic offers up the concrete luxuries of a bygone age. It is the greatest single example of the luxury and appointment of the Gilded Age, the Gay Nineties... Moreso than any first class railway passage, moreso than any grand hotel. The amenities aboard the ill-starred ship were the best that the richest man in America could afford. This mystique even crosses boundaries of class, as three types of ticket mitigates the entirely unromantic crossing of immigrant rail cars and the utter nonpresence of the poor in the swankest seasonal lodging. If one does not care for the stuffy smoking room and its orchestra, then one can simple head down to Irish reels, riverdancing and excessive consumption of Guiness in steerage. There is appeal for blue-bloods and red-necks alike within its iron double-hull.

Such appeal becomes all the more exquisite because it is so fleeting. Not merely for the fact that the Titanic itself sank, but because that was the beginning of the end for the whole broad Victorian-Edwardian Era. The style and way of life represented by the Titanic was utterly burned away in the conflagration of war not long after that specific instance drowned in the frigid Atlantic. After the Great War everything was different, and the realization dawns on the observer that the Titanic was the pinnacle of the Edwardian Era because there was nothing afterwards, save for a deeply broken society roaring through the Twenties and scraping through the Thirties.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Images of Titanic

Construction of the RMS Titanic.

The Titanic at Southampton, preparing to depart.

Sailing away.

The Grand Staircase. Few photos of the Titanic's interior
were taken. Most derive from her sister ship, the RMS Olympic.

The Titanic's First Class lounge.

Gentlemen's First Class smoking room. After dinner,
the men would repair to this room to smoke and discuss
politics over snifters of brandy and cognac.

Gentlewomen's First Class reading room. As women could
not enter the smoking room, this room was set aside for
conversation, reading and letter-writing.

The last lifeboat, one of the collapsibles,
rescued by the Carpatia.

An iceberg photographed by the Carpathia on the day
following the disaster, reported to have red paint
smears on it consistent with the Titanic's hull scheme.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan (1898)

She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession, and trade known to civilization. On her bridge were officers, who, besides being the pick of the Royal Navy, had passed rigid examinations in all studies that pertained to the winds, tides, currents, and geography of the sea; they were not only seamen, but scientists. The same professional standard applied to the personnel of the engine-room, and the steward's department was equal to that of a first-class hotel.

Two brass bands, two orchestras, and a theatrical company entertained the passengers during waking hours; a corps of physicians attended to the temporal, and a corps of chaplains to the spiritual, welfare of all on board, while a well-drilled fire-company soothed the fears of nervous ones and added to the general entertainment by daily practice with their apparatus.

From her lofty bridge ran hidden telegraph lines to the bow, stern engine-room, crow's-nest on the foremast, and to all parts of the ship where work was done, each wire terminating in a marked dial with a movable indicator, containing in its scope every order and answer required in handling the massive hulk, either at the dock or at sea ---which eliminated, to a great extent, the hoarse, nerve-racking shouts of officers and sailors.

From the bridge, engine-room, and a dozen places on her deck the ninety-two doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and so no known accident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable.

Thus begins Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, an 1898 novella by Morgan Robertson that is notorious for its eerily specific prediction of the destruction of the largest and most advanced ocean liner of its day.

The similarities are disturbing, to be sure. That the Titan and the Titanic share nearly the same name and same fate would be enough to warrant a shudder. Both sank in April when transferring passengers between New York and England on the dangerous North Atlantic routes, when icebergs are at their peak. The echoes sound louder still: the 800' long Titan was only 82' shorter than the Titanic, the Titan carried only 300 more passengers than the 2500 of the Titanic, both carried only an insufficient fraction of the lifeboats necessary (16 on Titanic, 24 on Titan), both were considered unsinkable with the same battery of sealed compartments, and both were travelling dangerously fast, with the Titan going four knots faster than Titanic's 21.

These similarities are not absolute, however. For example, the Titan was not on her maiden voyage. On the contrary, she was heading back to England after receiving passengers in New York. Her use of top speed was not an informal error born of pride but the advertised policy of the company: to make the steamship as reliable as the railway, she would go at full speed at all times. The evening before the collision with the iceberg she sheared a smaller ship right in half on account of said policy. Finally the strike against the berg was far more dramatic. Rather than a gentle tear against the side that caused the ship to slowly sink some hours later, the Titan threw itself upon the ice, tearing out its innards and landing on its side before slipping back into the water. Only two lifeboats could be launched, occupied by 11 people, including the captain and the first mate and only one woman. The protagonist of the story and the woman's young daughter had to make a go of survival on the iceberg itself, when they landed upon it.

John Rowland is our protagonist, a drunken and disgraced seaman trained at Annapolis but working as a deckhand. His ruin was a failed relationship with a good Christian girl who could not abide his atheism. Embittered, he took to the drink. Unfortunately for him, this same woman is travelling on the Titan with her daughter and husband. Already Myra believed him to be a stalker when she found him playing with her daughter on deck, unbeknownst to John. This chance meeting dredged up wretched memories for John, as well as giving ammunition to the captain and first mate. John was the lookout on the night that the smaller ship was destroyed by the Titan and he made the mistake of not allowing his silence to be bought off.

Fixing to frame-up John, the bridge crew sneaks him some hashish. If he appears to all witnesses to be going through delirium tremens during the trip, then no one on land will be convinced that the Titan actually did hit anybody. He is also thrown onto an early watch, out of turn, so that the bridge can keep an eye on his descent into madness. That is, however, when a supermassive iceberg decides to throw itself into the Titan's path. The sinking only occupies a scant few pages of the text, but offers some of the most striking of Robertson's otherwise drear prose. A distraught John paces about deck, meditating on the misfortunes of love and affirming his faithlessness to the cosmos as he falls more and more deeply into hallucinations. Reality and drugged illusions fold unintelligibly about each other up to when somehow Myra's daughter ends up with John again and the Titan runs aground. Our enfeebled deckhand and the girl, also named Myra, land on the iceberg where he must protect her from the cold and polar bears while pondering philosophically on their situation. Meanwhile, the company and the insurers are in a fit as they attempt any and all machinations to deny any liability.

For as weird as the coincidences are, The Wreck of the Titan is more a critique of business practices and the class system. The injuries suffered by John at the hands of others are inextricably tied to his status relative to Myra and the Titan's officers, despite his becoming a celebrity and a paparazzi-magnet in the wake of his return to civilization. Robertson chooses not to dwell on it to any great length, but cannot avoid making certain observations about the nobility and goodwill of John versus the upstanding and Christian people who throw themselves against him. Most disturbing of all, yet the most familiar, is the refusal of culpability by any of the financially vested parties.

Taking the differences into account, how was Robertson so prescient? Even if not all the details are in place, he still predicted the collision of an ultramodern ocean liner with an iceberg, the corporate malfeasance that allowed it to happen, and the human drama that ensued. Most probably, the author attempted to make his statement using the most fantastically horrifying sort of event he could imagine, the sort of symbolic disaster that could perfectly encapsulate the agenda of monied interests. It was such a fantastic idea that the novel itself went unpublished until 1912, because up to that point no one thought such an event was plausible. It just happened that those very social ills that Roland critiqued manifested themselves in almost exactly the way he had predicted.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

John Jacob Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds (1894)

Some people, despite their best efforts, celebrity or wealth in life, are best remembered for the manner of their death. John Jacob Astor IV is one such man: a millionaire born to a wealthy American dynasty, he graduated Harvard and a rank of colonel in the Spanish-American War to become the richest man to die aboard the Titanic.

Born to the blue-blooded Astor family in 1864, John Jacob inherited the best possible circumstances for the time. He went to the best schools and utilized the skills learned there to increase his wealth through real estate. He built New York's famous Astoria Hotel, which adjoined to the hotel built by and named for his cousin, William Waldorf Astor. With this wealth he indulged his love of invention, patenting a type of bicycle brake, a turbine engine, a pneumatic road improver, and a means of producing gas from peat moss. In 1898 he joined the ranks as a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish-American War, fought in Cuba. As a celebrity capitalist, he was no stranger to scandal: Astor divorced his wife of 18 years to marry 18 year old Madeleine Talmadge Force in 1911. Shunned and gossiped about, the pair went on a tour of Europe and Egypt in the company of Molly Brown, herself a nouveau riche outside of the aristocratic cliques of New England society. Madeleine became pregnant on the trip and they were forced to return home aboard the most luxurious ocean liner ever built. Madeleine returned to New York. Astor did not.

John Jacob Astor is also notable for having tried his hand at writing a Scientific Romance in the style of Jules Verne, entitled A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future. This 1894 novel is a work of retro-futurism, being set in 2088, and exposes Astor's grounding in his time and situation as only a work charting the future course of humanity can reveal. The first two-thirds wax on history and exploration from the very defined perspective of a millionaire capitalist, and the last third expands into a strange but sympathetic treatise on philosophy, morals and life after death.

After a first chapter hook describing the arrival of our protagonists on Jupiter, Book I acquaints us with the future according to Astor. A massive project has been initiated to alter the axis of the Earth, reducing its tilt so as to make its climate more uniform. Environment be damned! That said, science has advanced to to utilize alternative energy, well as revolutionized technology, transportation, medicine and the structure of society itself. In politics, the United States of America came to encompass all the territories of North and South America as the influence of Europe went into decline. English has become the universal language.

Book II picks up the interstellar narrative. A ship has been developed, dubbed the Calisto, which uses a form of energy called "apergy" to cross the Heavens. Bypassing Mars and other celestial bodies, they arrive where the first chapter left us. Jupiter, Astor says, is in its equivalence of the Carboniferous Period: a vast jungle not unlike those of Earth. Not exactly, of course, as one of their first encounters is with a rampaging mammoth. In the same chapter they encountered a type of flying jellyfish that was not entirely dissimilar to certain recent movies taking place on alien worlds. The crew rides atop Glyptodon and hunts dinosaurs, and altogether have a jolly good expedition in the vein of Scientific Romances of the time. Its when they leave Jupiter that things become even more interesting.

Next stop is Saturn, which has a unique property. It is to this orb that the spirits of departed people go. Before long our explorers are embroiled in a conversation with one such entity, once a parson in the Atlantic States. They ask him a battery of questions, including whether there is any limit to human progress:
"Practically none," replied the spirit. "Progress depends largely on your command of the forces of Nature. At present your principal sources of power are food, fuel, electricity, the heat of the interior of the earth, wind, and tide. From the first two you cannot expect much more than now, but from the internal heat everywhere available, tradewinds, and falling water, as at Niagara, and from tides, you can obtain power almost without limit. Were this all, however, your progress would be slow; but the Eternal, realizing the shortness of your lives, has given you power with which to rend the globe. You have the action of all uncombined chemicals, atmospheric electricity, the excess or froth of which you now see in thunderstorms, and the electricity and magnetism of your own bodies. There is also molecular and sympathetic vibration, by which Joshua not understandingly levelled the walls of Jericho; and the power of your minds over matter, but little more developed now than when I moved in the flesh upon the earth. By lowering large quantities of high-powered explosives to the deepest parts of the ocean bed, and exploding them there, you can produce chasms through which some water will be forced towards the heated interior by the enormous pressure of its own weight. At a comparatively slight depth it will be converted into steam and produce an earthquake. This will so enlarge your chasm, that a great volume of water will rush into the red-hot interior, which will cause a series of such terrific eruptions that large islands will be upheaved. By the reduction of the heat of that part of the interior there will also be a shrinkage, which, in connection with the explosions, will cause the earth's solid crust to be thrown up in folds till whole continents appear. Some of the water displaced by the new land will also, as a result of the cooling, be able permanently to penetrate farther, thereby decreasing by that much the amount of water in the oceans, so that the tide-level in your existing seaports will be but slightly changed. By persevering in this work, you will become so skilled that it will be possible to evoke land of whatever kind you wish, at any place; and by having high table-land at the equator, sloping off into low plains towards north and south, and maintaining volcanoes in eruption at the poles to throw out heat and start warm ocean currents, it will be possible, in connection with the change you are now making in the axis, to render the conditions of life so easy that the earth will support a far larger number of souls.

It is not merely material progress that the spirit forsees, now that time has little meaning to him:
"With the powers at your disposal you can also alter and improve existing continents, and thereby still further increase the number of the children of men. Perhaps with mild climate, fertile soil, and decreased struggle for existence, man will develop his spiritual side."

Spiritual progress is evidently of as much interest to Astor as is technological progress. The spirit goes on to say, in a later visit:
"But while you have still your earthly bodies and the opportunities they give you of serving God, you need not be concerned about hell; no one on earth, knowing how things really are, would ever again forsake His ways. The earthly state is the most precious opportunity of securing that for which a man would give his all. Even from the most worldly point of view, a man is an unspeakable fool not to improve his talents and do good. What would those in sheol not give now for but one day in the flesh on earth, of which you unappreciatives may still have so many? The well-used opportunities of even one hour might bring joy to those in paradise forever, and greatly ease the lot of those in hell...

"I will show you the working of evolution. Life sleeps in minerals, dreams in plants, and wakes in you. The rock worn by frost and age crumbles to earth and soil. This enters the substance of the primordial plant, which, slowly rising; produces the animal germ. After that the way is clear, and man is evolved from protoplasm through the vertebrate and the ape. Here we have the epitome of the struggle for life in the ages past, and the analogue of the journey in the years to come. Does not the Almighty Himself make this clear where He says through his servant Isaiah, 'Behold of these stones will I raise up children'?--and the name Adam means red earth. God, having brought man so far, will not let evolution cease, and the next stage of life must be the spiritual."

Such a gloomy place and such discussions with metaphysical beings prompts the explorers' own speculations, at least when they are not fleeing the assaults of dragons. More visitations occur, as well as visions. One member of the group sees his own death, while another experiences it firsthand.

One can feel a certain sympathy for Astor as he attempts to go beyond the regular framework of the Scientific Romance to expound on spiritual issues as well as technological and exploratory ones. His cosmology is not a secular one: other planets, in this solar system and beyond, are repositories of spirits and waystations on the journey towards the Almighty. His specific ideas on the nature of the afterlife and its coherence with life are as odd and dated as his speculation on apergic energy, that being a kind of atomic ether. Overall, his point of view is perhaps the inverse of someone like an H.G. Wells. The future evolution of humanity cannot be merely biological, social, economic or technological. It must also be spiritual.

Such a book reveals otherwise unhinted at depths in a person who is basically known to posterity for having been rich and having died horribly in an ironic manner that only his wealth could have bought him.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Titanic Literature, 1912

Amongst many, the Information Age is considered a product of the digital revolution. Instantaneous news can be disseminated across a series of satellites and fibre optic cables to nearly anywhere in the world, allowing people to follow tragedies, disturbances and discoveries second-by-second. Yet the Information Age began a long time ago, with the invention of the telegraph. Never before had so many people been connected so immediately, and in the case of the Titanic, it was the first major news event to be transmitted via the medium. The Internet is merely an innovation on the type. Arguably, though, it began some time before even the telegraph. With the great invention of the Gutenbergs, text could be rapidly printed, copied and spread. News could travel fast, from religious theses to sensationalist books about maritime disasters.

Presses sprang into life with survivors accounts of the Titanic sinking, as well as "true stories" by people who were no closer to the iceberg than the engraving on a newspaper frontpage. Quality varied, and it was consistent integrity that pushed the New York Times from one of a dozen local papers into a national media outlet. Lawrence Beesley, a schoolteacher and survivor, prefaced his 1912 book The Loss of the SS. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons with this very issue of accuracy:
Some five weeks after the survivors from the Titanic landed in New York, I was the guest at luncheon of Hon. Samuel J. Elder and Hon. Charles T. Gallagher, both well-known lawyers in Boston. After luncheon I was asked to relate to those present the experiences of the survivors in leaving the Titanic and reaching the Carpathia... When I had done so, Mr. Robert Lincoln O'Brien, the editor of the Boston Herald, urged me as a matter of public interest to write a correct history of the Titanic disaster, his reason being that he knew several publications were in preparation by people who had not been present at the disaster, but from newspaper accounts were piecing together a description of it. He said that these publications would probably be erroneous, full of highly coloured details, and generally calculated to disturb public thought on the matter.

Published in June 1912, Beesley's account was released only nine weeks after the disaster. Yet it was in response to even earlier released and contemporaneously planned books. The Loss of the S.S. Titanic can be read by clicking on the frontispiece below, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Amongst the most interesting and lurid of 1912's Titanic publications is the following. Sinking of the Titanic advertised itself as a memorial edition with the byline of "Thrilling Stories Told by Survivors". The frontispiece, reproduced below and far more resplendent than the tastefully understated Beesley book, describes it in considerably greater detail. As a whole, it is rich with hymns, poems, survivors accounts, moralizing, photographs, drawings, memorials, news articles, urban legends and ample blame, organized in a fashion nearly devoid of reason. The following excerpt from the preface exemplifies the violent hue of the prose:
Sorrow that is too deep and strong for words clutches the heart-strings of humanity and the Nation mourns for the heroic dead, who were carried down into the sea with the crushed "Titanic." They faced death with high hearts, making the Supreme Sacrifice so that the women and the helpless little ones might live.

It is a heart-rending story, redeemed and ennobled by the heroism of the victims. Its details are appalling. The world is full of mournings for the dead. Nature has conquered again destroying with ruthless hand the most marvelous ship that ever floated on the bosom of the deep.

It is the worst disaster that ever befell any vessel. It is the wrecking of a whole armada within one hull of steel, vaunted as unsinkable.

The sinking of the "Titanic" is an appalling catastrophe, in the contemplation of which any words that can be uttered are as futile as in the presence of the awful majesty of the Angel of Death.

Click on the frontspiece below to read a copy of Sinking of the Titanic.

In much the same vein is Marsahll Everett's Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic, also claiming to be replete with thrilling survivor's tales, religious admonitions and reprinted editorial cartoons. It can also be read by clicking on the frontispiece.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Titanic Newsreel (1912)

Many are the people who look upon sensationalist modern media as predatory and a blight upon the otherwise important heritage of investigative journalism. If only it had ever been different! In 1912, there was still a public hungry to devour any available information on a disaster the magnitude of the Titanic sinking and there were still media conglomerates ready to shovel whatever was handy into those gaping maws.

Inconveniently, the Titanic left little actual footage of itself. Most of the scenes of the Titanic in this newsreel were played by her sister ship, the Olympic, as it left New York's harbour. This is not only true of the ship, but of its captain, Edward Smith. Before ending his life aboard the Titanic, Smith was captain of the Olympic, and during his tenure, the ship had collision incidents with a New York tugboat and the Royal Navy HMS Hawke.

The later half of the footage is legitimate, consisting of scenes from the returning rescue ships and the handful of surviving Titanic passengers. Had it been the modern day, these would no doubt have taken immediately to the circuit of talk shows.

Thursday, 5 April 2012


Since the White Star Line's Titanic - the unsinkable pinnacle of human technology - sank to the depths of the North Atlantic, there has never been a shortage of morbid personalities looking to exploit it. That is the problem when an event transcends mere historical circumstance and becomes a powerful cultural icon: symbolized and mythologized, the event's horrifying gravitas can be diluted, resulting in mere consumer aesthetic.

Being exploitative is one thing. Often, exploitation can serve a useful documentary function. For instance, nickelodeon operators in the days following the disaster whipped up compilations of any Titanic-related footage that could be found, even substituting her sister ship, the Olympic. One Titanic survivor, actress Dorothy Gibson, played herself in the silent film Saved from the Titanic, performing in the same dress she wore that night. Publishers raced to enlist survivors for lurid written accounts of the tragedy. While exploitative at the time, it served an important historical purpose in the long run.

To be truly tasteless goes above and beyond. It is not being merely exploitative in a way that, nevertheless, can be considered appropriate. CDs of music performed from the White Star songbook, nautical items and shadowboxes emblazoned with the ship's name, puzzles and posters and other images... No, the truly tasteless exploits the tragedy in ways that are tackily inappropriate. Masterworks of kitsch, they're the sort of thing that lead people to ask if it occurred to anyone involved that over 1,500 people lost their lives.

For example, one could rent the inflatable Titanic Adventure Slide and Iceberg Challenge. Heralded as "the most exciting inflatable ride in the industry in the last 15 years" and "the highest revenue generating slide ever made", this 33' tall amusement lets you enjoy the thrill of sliding to your icy doom!

The particular subject of this article is the Titanic-Bot. Produced by China's Flying Dragon Toys, Inc. and available in all finer flea markets and dollar stores in the wake of the James Cameron film, Titanic-Bot is certainly a feverish creation. It answers the burning question that no-one asked about what would a cross between the Titanic and a Transformer look like. Here is your answer: a majestic 6-inch tall piece of plastic insanity. And not only does it transform from ocean-liner to robot and back again, with a pair of battle-axes, but it also has a wind up propeller and floats on water!

I can just see it now: April 14, 1912, shortly before midnight, the direct line from the crowsnest to the bridge of the mighty SS Titanic rings with those fateful words "Iceberg ahead". Immediately, Captain Smith shouts the command: "Engage the transformation cog!" With the grinding of steel gears and scraping of metal plates, the hulking mass of ship lifts up in the water, its forward end separating and revealing a cold robotic head. From its sides a pair of articulated arms emerge, grabbing the deck's towers and turning them into deadly weapons. With a swift crash, the Titanic-Bot swings its axe against the iceberg and shatters it into a million pieces. Impressed, the securely locked-down First Class passengers scoop the crystals of ice into their drinks and make merry. Clear sailing ahead, the ship continues its journey to New York. Captain Smith, drunk with the unstoppable power at his command thinks silently to himself "Now I'm king of the world!"

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Titanic: The End of the Edwardian Era

The Titanic, if one may believe the last reports, has only scraped against a piece of ice which, I suspect, was not an enormously bulky and comparatively easily seen berg, but the low edge of a floe--and sank. Leisurely enough, God knows--and here the advantage of bulkheads comes in--for time is a great friend, a good helper --though in this lamentable case these bulkheads served only to prolong the agony of the passengers who could not be saved. But she sank, causing, apart from the sorrow and the pity of the loss of so many lives, a sort of surprised consternation that such a thing should have happened at all. Why? You build a 45,000 tons hotel of thin steel plates to secure the patronage of, say, a couple of thousand rich people (for if it had been for the emigrant trade alone, there would have been no such exaggeration of mere size), you decorate it in the style of the Pharaohs or in the Louis Quinze style--I don't know which--and to please the aforesaid fatuous handful of individuals, who have more money than they know what to do with, and to the applause of two continents, you launch that mass with two thousand people on board at twenty-one knots across the sea--a perfect exhibition of the modern blind trust in mere material and appliances. And then this happens. General uproar. The blind trust in material and appliances has received a terrible shock.

These words by author and seaman Joseph Conrad on the sinking of the Titanic are ultimately less critical of the fact that the ship sunk that they are critical of the fact that people were surprised. Of course there are inherent dangers to oceanic travel, and the larger the ship the more potent the possibility of danger. A ship deemed unsinkable is the one you must best prepare to have sunk. However, in stating the obvious, Conrad was speaking contrary to the spirit of his age.

The Late Victorian and Edwardian Eras were periods of incredible progress in science, technology and society. The Titanic was the last in a chain of innovations in transportation technologies that included the mass production of the automobile, the creation of the bicycle, the invention of the diesel locomotive and the conquest of the air. The Wright Brothers launched their historic flight from Kittyhawk, North Carolina on December 17th, 1903. Ford's first automobile, the Model A, rolled off the assembly line the same year. It was Ford's Model T, however, that began a phenomenon. Observing a basic rule that has seemed to escape modern corporations, Henry Ford set the production costs and price point of his automobile low enough so that his employees wages could be high enough to purchase the product, in turn creating the culture of the car. For those that could not afford the horseless carriage, the bicycle craze initiated by the 1885 invention of the modern bicycle was still going strong, in all its wonderful and strange variety. Though not widespread until after the Second World War, the diesel locomotive originated in 1912.

Electric light became widespread, replacing gas lighting all over the Western world. Madame Curie discovered radium in 1898 and synthesized as a metal in 1910. Through the Late Victorian Era the hunt was also on for X-rays, on which Wilhelm Röntgen published in 1895. In 1905, a young German patent office clerk and student published a series of groundbreaking papers in physics, including the theory of special relativity. Einstein followed this up in 1911 with a theory of general relativity. Experiments by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden in 1909 led to Ernest Rutherford overturning established models of atomic structure. Humanity, it seemed, was finally probing the true scientific mysteries of the universe.

The arts and entertainment entered new phases of creative expression. In fact, this period saw the invention of an entirely new and heretofore impossible medium of artistic expression: motion pictures. The Lumière Brothers inaugurated cinema as a form of popular entertainment in 1895 and D.W. Griffith filmed Hollywood's first movie in 1910. With the advent of photography, traditional visual arts broke away from Victorian conventions of representation: Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Expressionism and Post-Impressionism built on a foundation of Impressionism. New materials allowed for the invention of whole new styles of design and architecture, such as Art Nouveau. Literature, drama and music began to express new ideas of social and democratic freedom.

New religious movements fermented and broke out in tent revivals and Spiritualist sessions across the Western world. Within them was found the infrastructure and impetus for new social movements. The Temperance movement entered a new phase of activity which, for good or excess, recognized that the social ills faced by women were solvable. Though criticized in modern, free societies as moral busybodies imposing their religious views on society, we forget that the cry of temperance was more so a rally against the predatory victimization of men that in turn resulted in men's violent victimization of women. It is not religion that is the opiate of the masses, but opiates that are the opiate of the masses.

This activity empowered the movement towards women's suffrage. More so than moral arguments or legal sanctions, the full legal equality was seen as the fundamental necessity to solve the victimization of women. Not long after, hemlines went up and corsets went in the bin. The rigidity of classism came under fire from within as the British Empire came under threat from without. Imperial exhaustion set in after the death of Queen Victoria, providing avenues for substantive inroads by socialists and pacifists. The old European powers began to falter as news powers like the United States and Japan rose to ascendancy. In 1907, Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis, outlining the tenets of the now-forgotten Social Gospel Movement that defined early twentieth century Christianity, proclaiming that any form of Christianity that has neglected the causes of poverty and oppression while ministering to the poor and oppressed has neglected the full message of Christ. The magazine Christian Century began publishing in 1900, articulating a new optimism in widespread moral, political and academic progress, and the belief that "genuine Christian faith could live in mutual harmony with the modern developments in science, technology, immigration, communication and culture that were already under way."

The whole idea of an unsinkable vessel was perfectly in step with the prevailing attitude of progress and a "Christian Century". It was for this very reason that the RMS Titanic took on its symbolic status. Proclamations about such a technological marvel were not so much an expression of humanity's hubris as they were an expression of its hopefulness. It is not so much what the ship itself was as what it represented, both to those who watched its journey and to those aboard her: the richest of the rich and the immigrants aspiring to a new and better life.

Then, as if struck by God's chief archangel in charge of irony, the Titanic hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank to the bottom of the ocean, carrying over 1500 people to their grave.

Only the wisest and most cynical could have foreseen it. As Conrad observed, there is no progress to which danger is not implicit. Another to have foreseen it was Morgan Robertson, whose 1898 novella Futility; or, The Wreck of the Titan chillingly predicted with some astonishing accuracy the marriage of technological advancement without wise precaution. John Jacob Astor wrote his own Scientific Romance in 1894 - A Journey in Other Worlds - which trumpeted the march of progress, but other contemporaneous writers turned their attention more presciently to the question of global mechanized warfare. With new technologies come new weapons, as in H.G. Wells' 1907 novel The War in the Air.

For while the Titanic sounded the cloister bell, it was The Great War that truly dashed the Edwardian Era on the rocks. The restructuring of European power exploded in gore and shrapnel, ending the hope of the inevitable marriage of technological and scientific progress with moral progress and a "Christian Century". This globally traumatic experience served the functional purpose of that which the sinking of the Titanic symbolized: the end of the Edwardian Era and the birth of the modern age.