In the first years of the 20th century, the White Star Line dominated the North Atlantic passenger trade with a quartet of sister ships known collectively as “The Big Four”: the Celtic, the Cedric, the Baltic, and the Adriatic.
And when they were called “big” it was no exaggeration–-each of them were over 700 feet long and displacing more than 20,000 tons; in succession they were the largest passenger ships in the world when they went into service. More importantly, they were fast for their day, with top speeds around 21 knots—not quite as fast as the German greyhounds, but fast enough to be competitive on the North Atlantic. Handsome ships, they continued the White Star Line’s tradition of elegant, yacht-like hulls topped by carefully balanced superstructures—and their outward elegance was matched by the opulence of their interiors.
But in 1907, the Cunard Line, White Star’s chief British competitor, introduced two new ships which changed everything–the Lusitania and the Mauretania. Faster, more luxurious, and even more imposing than any other ships of their time, they became the most celebrated passenger steamers on the North Atlantic passage–and no one else had anything that even remotely compared to them. They were 790 feet long, with a beam of 88 feet, and displacement of 43,000 tons. The Big Four were big–these ships were HUGE.
It was this stark reality that Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line and Lord William Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff, the shipyard that was the White Star Line’s exclusive supplier of ships, confronted in their impromptu after-dinner business meeting in the fall of 1907. Together they confirmed the details of design of a trio of ships that they had been contemplating building for the previous two years. All constructed to the same design, dimensions, proportions, and appointments, they would become White Star’s response to the Lusitania and Mauretania.
If Cunard wanted to build big, White Star would build bigger; if Cunard wanted to offer luxury, then White Star would offer luxury to a degree never before seen on the North Atlantic. Speed would be the only concession that White Star would make: the Cunard ships had been designed using Admiralty expertise with the latest high-pressure turbines, an area where Harland and Wolff’s experience was limited.