100th Anniversary of Historic Event
When the Titanic sank 100 years ago, it was not only a ship that went down. It was a way of life.
Stephen J. Spignesi, a practitioner-in-residence in the English department and the author of "Titanic for Dummies," says the sinking marked the end of an era of tremendous growth and opulence in the United States following the Civil War and marked the beginning of a new era of uncertainty.
"The sinking was the line of demarcation between post-Civil War Gilded Age and modernity. It happened in an age where there was no income tax, no depression (or even foretelling of a depression), and an incredible sense of ebullience and optimism on both sides of the Atlantic," he says. "That period was never duplicated in history except perhaps for a short period after World War II."
But after the ship sank, both the stock market and the transportation industry were affected and people began to realize that both engineering design and human errors could affect their lives.
The Titanic, which had two sister ships, was on its maiden voyage when it sank after hitting an iceberg on April 15, 1912. The ship was legendary at the time because it was the biggest moving object in the world and was considered "unsinkable." It was also filled with numerous upper class, wealthy individuals.
"An analogy to today would be having the Concorde fly across the Atlantic with Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, the Walmart heirs and others of their wealth on board," Spignesi says. "It really captured people's imagination."
The death rate on the ship was high because of engineering problems – water washed through the "waterproof" compartments – and a lack of preparation. The ship was considered so invincible that it was to be its own lifeboat. The number of lifeboats on board was inadequate and the crew, many hired at the last minute, had no idea how to use them. Worse, the boats were launched half empty with many of the rich choosing who they would sit next to in the lifeboat, Spignesi says.
A writer from the time he was nine years old, Spignesi, who this semester is teaching a special topics course on the Titanic, notes that the ship sunk in such a leisurely way that many people found time before getting on the lifeboats to retrieve their jewels and save their dogs.
"There was complacency on the ship," he says. "The ship did not even have a public address system or a warning siren." People in first and second class were warned but people in steerage, some of whom did not even speak English, were not and had no idea where the lifeboats were.
The author of 50 books, Spignesi is considered, according to Entertainment Weekly, the "world's leading authority on Stephen King." He is also the author of numerous articles in Harper's, the New York Post, and other publications, he wrote another book about the Titanic published in 1999, "The Complete Titanic: From the Ship's Earliest Blueprints to the Epic Film" He is the author of three other "dummy books" and a novel.
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