Loose Lips Sink Ships: The Titanic’s Achilles Keel

I couldn’t let the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic pass without a mention.

I was in second grade when my brother borrowed from our grade school library the then-definitive account of the sinking: Walter Lord’s book, “A Night to Remember.” It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination.

As I grew older, I began thinking of the tragedy in terms of the paroxysms in the processes, the “event cascade,” that led to its collision with the iceberg and, far worse in my opinion, the inability to save more of its passengers.

The event cascade is familiar to us. It’s the stream of decisions, actions, errors that, uninterrupted, results in very bad things. Think 9/11, Three Mile Island, the Union Carbide catastrophe in Bhopal, India, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez.

Yes, of course there are abject, interconnected lessons within the Titanic story that cost more than 1,500 people their lives: The hubris, lack of preparation, poor coordination of the evacuation, ignorance of repeated ice warnings, overt segregation of the classes, moonless night, flat sea, inaccessible binoculars in the crow’s nest, port-around/reversed engines that widened the ship’s turning radius, amount of slag in the rivets…

But , in my opinion, the single largest culprit…the sentinel breakdown that led to all those deaths…the Titanic’s Achilles keel…was communications.

It’s said that the Marconi wireless was more for the amusement of the rich than for securing assistance in potential crises. In its brief life at sea, Titanic’s wireless operators Harold Bride and Jack Phillips spent most of their time sending pointless messages on behalf of their wealthy passengers. When the ship’s fate was sealed, at least one ship’s captain and wireless operator, close enough to be of immediate aid, had tired of the drivel and gone to bed.

In fact, earlier in the day — when the telegraph operator of that ship, the Californian, sent the Titanic warnings of icebergs in its vicinity — the two men (frustrated that the Californian’s messages clogged the airways, preventing the distribution of their own messages), replied, “Shut up!”

Ouch. The Californian was within 10 miles of the Titanic as she foundered. It could have saved all or most of its passengers. But its crew were long disconnected — thanks, in part, to the scorn for their earlier assistance.

The Marconi Telegraph "communication chart" showing all the ships in the Titanic's vicinity on April 14, 1912.
(Source: Encyclopedia-Titanica.org)

I’m not of the mind that Bride and Phillips were wholly culpable in this tragedy. They weren’t. In fact, in many ways they became heroes — standing their post, desperately communicating with ships even as water poured into the wireless room and the power cut out. Their messages found the Carpathia which steamed through ice-laden seas to rescue surviving passengers.

But their earlier folly — doing what they were expected to do for four days preceding the accident — contributed to a flawed system that was doomed to fail.

Therein may lie poignant lessons for us all: What information are we sharing with the world? Is it meaningful? Or are we just bombarding humanity with myriad, pointless, self serving posts to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube?

Is what we’re saying relevant? Is it what we need to say? Or what we want to say?

As importantly, are we listening? Our customers, community, and employees are sharing important information.

Think about it. By our actions or indifference, we might be telling those who want to help to “shut up” so we can perpetuate our own agenda.

And that, my friends, is a Titanic error in judgement.