Sometimes the best isn't good enough
The sinking of the Titanic was a drama that still stirs hearts and fills the box office today. And the question of how the accident could have happened is still not completely clear. A metallurgical examination of wreckage now shows that the steel of the ocean giant was brittle. More than 1,500 of the 2,227 passengers on board Titanic died when the luxury liner struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland at 11:40 a.m. on April 14, 1912 and sank at 2:20 a.m. the following day.
According to Professor H. P. Leighly of the University of Missouri-Rolla, while Titanic's steel was of inferior quality to today's steel, substandard steel was not the sole cause of the disaster. Other factors - such as flaws in the ship's construction, the negligence of the crew and a lack of lifeboats - also played an important role. "Ship designers can point the finger and say it was bad steel that caused Titanic to sink," says Leighly. "It's so easy to… say, 'Bad steel.' But it's very awkward to point at yourself and say, 'Bad design'.”
The metallurgist reports the results of his tests on a 100kg sample from the wreck in the January issue of the Journal of Metals. The material comes from the hull and bulkhead. It is the most detailed analysis of the steel to date. The only previous investigation had been commissioned by the Canadian government and was limited to a piece the size of a Frisbee. It resulted in the ship's hull bursting when it hit the iceberg.
The chemical and mechanical tests performed by Leighly and his co-workers showed that Titanic steel is about 10 times more brittle than modern steel at temperatures around the freezing point of water. In addition, the sample from the wreck contained relatively large amounts of sulfur, oxygen and phosphorus, which also affects stability. Finally, the amount of manganese - an element that makes steel more pliable and therefore less fragile - was very low.
But despite all the shortcomings: The steel on the Titanic was the best there was at the time.
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