As the 105th anniversary of its sinking approaches, it’s clear that the Titanicshows no signs of fading from society’s collective memory. Over the past century, a great number of legends and stories about her and those aboard have been told and repeated. Some are true, and some are factually distorted and have become cemented in popular lore as a result. Here are ten common misconceptions about the Titanic and her terrible demise.
10. The First SOS
One of the most enduring Titanic myths still thrown at unsuspecting trivia fans to this day is the claim that Titanic was the first ship to use the “SOS” distress signal. Like most myths and legends, there’s a grain of truth that has been twisted and distorted into a more dramatic-sounding tidbit. It comes from the account of a conversation between Titanic‘s wireless operators, Harold Bride and Jack Phillips, after the collision with the iceberg. Bride jokingly suggested that Phillips take the opportunity to use the new “SOS” distress call, as it may be his last chance to send it.
In the years before Titanic‘s sinking, there was no specific, internationally recognized standard distress call for a ship in distress. At the time, British ships tended to use the call “CQD,” which stood for “SEEK YOU—DANGER/DISTRESS.” In 1906, a wireless communication conference attempted to put an end to the confusion and pick a standard call that everyone could recognize. They opted for “SOS,” which, contrary to popular belief, did not actually stand for anything at all. The letters were chosen because they were both easy to transmit and easy to recognize, due to their distinctive pattern. Even a novice operator could manage them if necessary.
However, as is often the case, many chose to stick with the familiar, and British ships generally continued to primarily use “CQD,” and the Titanic was no different. After the collision, Phillips initially transmitted “CQD,” prompting Bride’s suggestion to use “SOS,” too. While “SOS” was still relatively new, by 1912, it had already been in use for years (even if it wasn’t an operator’s first choice). Titanic‘s use of “SOS” did, however, mark a more major adoption of the signal by British ships, and “SOS” is still recognized as a visual distress signal today.
9. The Lookouts Didn’t See The Iceberg Because They Didn’t Have Binoculars
It’s long been known that Titanic‘s lookouts didn’t have any binoculars during their voyage across the Atlantic, and it’s often claimed that if they had, they would have spotted the iceberg in time. At the British inquiry into the sinking, Lookout Frederick Fleet, who had been on duty when Titanic struck the iceberg, said as much. Is that the case? And if so, why weren’t they provided any?
To begin with, Titanic‘s lookouts actually were provided with binoculars, or at least, that was the plan. There was even a special storage place for them in the crow’s nest. When a ship was in port, it was common for the lookout’s binoculars to be locked up safely. Once the voyage began, the lookouts would then receive them. When Titanic departed Belfast, it became clear that the lookouts’ binoculars were missing, so the second officer promptly lent his own pair to them. On arrival in Southampton, he asked for the binoculars to be returned and locked up in his cabin. Just before Titanic left Southampton, there was a last-minute officer reshuffle. When the lookouts asked the new second officer for some binoculars, they were told that there were no binoculars for them this time. The lookouts continued to ask for them after leaving Queenstown in the hope they had turned up, but of course, they hadn’t.
During the inquiries, testimony by captains, officers, and lookouts alike began to provide a clear picture that opinion on the subject of binoculars for lookouts was divided, and if anything, the White Star Line’s practice of providing them was more the exception than the rule. If they were provided, it was usually when the voyage faced bad weather (which was certainly not the case the night Titanic struck the iceberg). Many argued that a lookout’s use of binoculars was either unnecessary or even dangerous, pointing out that focusing on one small part of the horizon without any peripheral vision would be detrimental. Some lookouts said unequivocally that they would only ever use binoculars after spotting something on the horizon with their natural vision to gain further information about the object. Indeed, it was noted that a lookout’s job was not to identify what an object was, only to spot an obstacle and inform the officers on the bridge, who would then identify it themselves.
It’s understandable why Frederick Fleet, who was terrified of becoming a scapegoat for the disaster, would say that binoculars would have helped to avoid it. But in reality, it seems unlikely that they would have been helpful. If Fleet had spotted the iceberg and then used the binoculars to identify what it was, it would have taken even longer to warn the bridge. If he was looking through them continuously, whether or not he was looking at the exact right point on the horizon at the exact right time would have been up to sheer luck.