Today is the Centenary of the launch of the Titanic and I am off to the City Hall to see the beginning of the celebrations there with another launch, this time of a book to mark the occasion, Belfast Shipbuilders-A Titanic Tale by Stephen Cameron. There has also been an exemplary Titanic Newsletter from Titanic-Titanic.com. by Andrew Clarkson,Webmaster.
There no ceremonial breaking of a bottle on the ship’s bow. Instead, the signal to launch was given by the firing of rockets. Shortly after noon on the last day of May, 1911, in warm sunny weather, huge crowds of cheering shipyard workers and spectators witnessed Titanic slide faster and faster down the greased slipway into the water.
It took 62 seconds for Titanic’s huge hull – more than 269m long and weighing 24,360 tons – to slide from its building berth into the waters of Victoria Channel in Belfast Harbour. The most famous ship in history had been launched.
Titanic was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast at the leading edge of Edwardian shipbuilding technology in the largest and most advanced shipyard of the day. The tragic story of the great liner and those who sailed in it is one of the epic tales of modern times.
The shipyard’s tremendously impressive output would have been impossible without efficient practices, a skilled and well-organised workforce, forward planning and the international business expertise of the Harland and Wolff chairman, Lord Pirrie.
At the beginning of the 20th century Belfast was unlike any other Irish city. It was a fast-growing commercial and manufacturing metropolis, exporting to world markets. As a major port with extensive overseas and cross-channel trading links, it took its wealth from industrial shipbuilding, engineering and the production of linen.
Belfast’s modernity and progress were reflected, for example, in its extensive electric-tram system, which, from 1905, connected the city centre to the ever-growing suburbs. The new City Hall, opened in 1906, was a marbled temple to civic pride and commercial success. The confidence and imperial grandeur of its architecture complemented the Queen’s Island skyline, dominated by the great steel gantry where Titanic was taking shape. These iconic structures, municipal and maritime, were emblematic of a city set within a natural frame of mountains, hills, valley and lough.
Design drawings for the building of Olympic and Titanic were agreed on July 29th, 1908. The construction of the new liners required a huge reorganisation of the shipyard, with considerable investment in new plant and facilities. Two huge slips, numbered two and three, were laid out, replacing three existing slipways. The ground in the way of the new slips was piled and covered with almost 1.5m of concrete.
An enormous gantry was then erected over the slips and equipped with a system of cranes, beside four large electric lifts. New workshop facilities were provided and the platers’ shed was remodelled and fitted with new steelworking machinery. A 200-ton floating crane was purchased from Germany to lift propelling machinery and boilers on board the giant ships after their launch.
Belfast Harbour Commissioners, continuing a policy of co-operation with Harland and Wolff, had begun the construction of a new dry dock in 1903. Intended to be the largest in the world, it was completed in time for the first dry-docking of Olympic , on April 1st, 1911.
As ship number 400, Olympic had its keel laid on December 16th, 1908, on the newly built slip number two. Three months later, on March 31st, 1909, the keel of Titanic , ship number 401, was laid on the adjoining slip number three. Construction of the two huge hulls went on side by side, with Olympic being launched in October 20th, 1910. As it was the lead ship there was great interest in the event in both the popular and the technical press. To aid photography of the launch Olympic’s hull was painted light grey.
Compared with that for Olympic there was much less contemporary publicity about the construction of Titanic . As the second ship, Titanic was essentially an improved version of Olympic. However, although the hull dimensions of the two ships were identical, the additional enclosed space in Titanic increased the tonnage figure and made it the largest ship in the world in 1912, at 46,328 tons.
While Olympic was being completed at the fitting-out wharf, construction work on Titanic’s hull continued for the next seven months on slip number three. By May 1911 the liner was ready to be launched, an event timed to coincide with the sea trials of Olympic and its departure from Belfast.
Launches have always been dramatic and emotional events in the life of a shipyard, but the launch of Titanic evoked special feelings of pride in the hearts of the men who built it. As with all ship launches, this was a symbolic rite of passage, a giving-birth as well as a practical operation to move a hull from land to sea. Feelings of relief were tinged with poignancy as, within a few moments, Titanic changed from an inert structure of riveted steel to a proud vessel floating in its natural element for the first time.
A Belfast newspaper described the scene: “Over the bows of the vessel the White Star company’s flag floated, and there was displayed a code signal which spelled the word ‘success’. If the circumstances under which the launch took place can be accepted as an augury of the future, the Titanic should be a huge success.”
Within an hour of the liner’s launch the crowds had disappeared. Its bare hull was towed to the deep-water wharf for the second phase of construction: the fitting-out of the passenger accommodation, together with the installation of all equipment and machinery, including engines, boilers and funnels, necessary to turn Titanic into a seagoing passenger liner.
This phase was completed 10 months after the ship’s launch. Titanic was scheduled to sail from Belfast to Southampton on April 1st, 1912, but a strong north-westerly wind delayed the sailing until the following day.
Again the Belfast press reported the event: “ Titanic , the largest vessel in the world, floated proudly on the water, a monument to the enterprise of her owners and the ingenuity and skill of the eminent firm who built her . . . The mammoth vessel presented an impressive and picturesque spectacle, looking perfect from keel to truck . . . When the tugs were left behind the compasses were adjusted, after which a satisfactory speed run took place and the latest triumph of the shipbuilder’s art then left for Southampton carrying with her the best wishes of the citizens of Belfast.”
On April 10th, 1912, Titanic , under the command of its captain, Edward J Smith, sailed on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, calling first at Cherbourg and Queenstown (now Cobh). With 2,228 passengers and crew on board, the vessel steamed confidently into the Atlantic with lifeboats for only 1,178. The rest is history.