The Titanic’s story can be said to have begin, along with that of her two sisters, on a warm summer evening in 1907. A large Daimler-Benz towncar with elegant Roi-de-Belge coachwork stopped at the front entrance of 27 Chelsea Street in the fashionable Belgravia district of London. A gold- and-green liveried chauffeur ushered Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Bruce Ismay into the automobile, then drove them the short distance to Downshire House, Belgrave Square, home of Lord and Lady Pirrie. The Ismays were to be the dinner guests of Lord and Lady Pirrie that evening. Bruce Ismay was the Managing Director of the White Star Line; Lord Pirrie was the senior partner and Chairman of the Board of Harland and Wolff, a Belfast shipyard.
After dinner the ladies withdrew, as was the custom of the day, leaving Ismay and Lord Pirrie to their Napoleon and Havanas, the social occasion becoming an impromptu business meeting.
A special relationship existed between the two firms these men represented, had done so for nearly forty years and would continue for another quarter century. But the consequences of this informal meeting would be the high–and low–points of that relationship.
The subject of Ismay and Pirrie’s conversation was the projected White Star response to two new liners that the Cunard Line, White Star’s largest British competitor, was about to put into service. Built using Admiralty assistance in high-speed turbine propulsion, they were intended to outstrip any other vessel on the North Atlantic in sheer speed and outdo White Star’s best in pure luxury.
Launched in 1906, they were the Lusitania and the Mauretania.
Immediately they presented a challenge to the White Star Line that could not go unanswered. Big (over 790 feet in length, 88 feet in beam, with a displacement of 43,000 tons), fast (their designed speed was 26 knots–both ships would prove to be even faster in service), luxurious, imposing (it would be stretching the truth to call them beautiful), they would become the most celebrated ships on the North Atlantic passage–and no one else had anything that even remotely compared to them.
It was this stark reality then that Ismay and Lord Pirrie confronted on that summer night in 1907. Producing a pad of paper, Pirrie began taking notes, confirming the dimensions, proportions, and appointments of a trio of ships, all built to the same design. Speed would be the only concession that White Star would make, as Harland and Wolff’s expertise with the latest high-pressure turbines was limited. As a result, the White Star ships would be a knot or two slower than Cunard’s two speedsters. Beyond that the Lusitania and Mauretania would be beaten at their own game. 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.
Pirrie and Ismay had actually been contemplating building such mammoth ships for some time: four years earlier, the shipyard had built an immense new drydock capable of holding the very ships the two men were presently discussing. Now those ships’ time had finally come, and with this trio of new liners the White Star Line could offer weekly sailings east- and west- bound and maintain a cargo and passenger capacity that would nearly double that of the two Cunard ships. By the end of the evening Pirrie and Ismay had more or less finalized the design of the ships that were to become the Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic.
The new liners were so huge that the space previously used to build three hulls was devoted to the construction of two of the new giants. The construction of the trio was to be staggered: the Olympic being laid down first, followed a few months later by the Titanic. Once the Olympic was launched the Gigantic‘s keel would be laid in her old slip. The new liners were projected to be ready to go into service in the spring of 1911, 1912, and 1913 respectively. In the remarkably short time of fifteen months, ideas from that night had started to become reality, and 0n 16 December 1908 the keel of the Olympic was laid in the newly designated Slip No. 2 at Harland and Wolff; the Titanic‘s keel was laid down on 16 March 1909. Simultaneously with the laying of the Olympic‘s keel, construction began on an enormous gantry that would surround Slips No. 2 and 3. This huge latticework of timber and steel was to be the largest such gantry ever constructed, standing until 1973, when it was demolished for scrap. The gantry served as a cradle of sorts, allowing workmen access to all parts of the ships as they were being built.
The size of the new ships was astonishing. Built in an age that was impressed by size, the shipping world recited their dimensions from memory: 882 1/2 feet in length, with a beam (width) of 98 feet, the ships stood 175 feet from the keel to the top of their four tall funnels. With a displacement of 45,000 tons, the three new sisters would be in every way the largest ships in the world, over 90 feet longer than the Lusitania and Mauretania, and more than 12,000 tons larger. Within their hulls would be nine decks, accommodating 3,300 passengers and crew.
Despite their immense size, the ships were strikingly beautiful. The Olympic-class ships were the final expression of the traditional yacht-inspired shapes that had been the hallmark of Harland and Wolff ships for forty years. Elegant, unbroken lines flowed from a gently angled stem to a dignified counter stern, with a carefully proportioned superstructure topped by four gracefully raked, equally spaced funnels imparting a sense of power and balance to the appearance of the ships. Years later retired Harland and Wolff executives would regard the Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic–especially the Titanic–as the yard’s finest shipbuilding achievements.
(A great deal of ruckus has been raised over the years about the name of the third ship. When launched she was given the name Britannic, an old and respected name in the White Star Fleet, and many historians have maintained that this was always intended to be the third sister’s name. But authoritative contemporary accounts, including The New York Times, Scientific American, and Lloyd’s Register all identify the ship as the Gigantic, as do orders for various pieces of equipment for the ship. Moreover, at least one former manager at Harland and Wolff has gone on record saying that Gigantic was indeed the proposed name for the third sister. Most convincing of all though is that when taken together the three names, Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic, all convey a sense of enormous power, size and grandeur, something that Britannic, however dignified, does not–it just doesn’t fit. After the loss of the Titanic, when sheer size was no longer a drawing card for passengers, the more subdued Britannic was substituted for the name of the third vessel. White Star felt it best not to tempt fate again.)