The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
17. The Discovery of the Titanic

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
The Titanic, found on the ocean floor in 1985
Legend has it that when the Royal Mail Steamship Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 P.M. on 14 April 1912, passenger John Jacob Astor was ordering a drink and commented, "I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous."  Indeed, the sinking of the Titanic did seem ridiculous -- tragically so.  Built at the Harland & Wolf shipyards in Belfast, the 882-foot luxury liner boasted a double-bottomed hull and sixteen watertight compartments and was considered virtually unsinkable.  It also contained seven grand staircases, two immense glass and wrought iron skylights, a Turkish bath, a library, a squash court, a swimming pool, parlor suites with private promenades that cost $4,350, and twenty lifeboats.  Ar 46,328 gross tons, the Titanic was the largest ship afloat, the pride of the White Star Line.
On her maiden voyage from Southhampton to New York she carried 2,224 passengers, many of them members of prominent American and British families, including such notables as Astor and Isador Straus, who with his brother Nathan owned Macy's Department Store.  Also on board were the famous British journalist William Thomas Stead, and American legend Molly Brown.  Two and a half hours after striking the iceberg, which made a gash 300 feet long in the hull, the Titanic went down and 1,522 lives were lost.  But no one knew exactly where the wreckage lay, or at what depth.
Until September 1, 1985 that is, when a joint U.S.-French expedition located the remains of theTitanic 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland in 13,000 feet of water, at coordinates 41 degrees 46 minutes North by 50 degrees 14 minutes West.  For 73 years treasure hunters the world over had dreamed of locating the legendary ship. One of these was Texas oil millionaire Jack Grimm, who financed two previous search missions to the tune of $2 million.  These searches managed to produce only a photo image from a submersible camera showing something that vaguely resembled a ship's propeller.
In the summer of 1985, a team of experts from Massachusetts' Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, led by marine geologist Robert Ballard, set sail on the U.S. Navy research ship Knorr, and rendezvoused with a French vessel, the Suroit, carrying members of the Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER).  Using a high resolution sonar device and a submersible photographic sled called Argo, they searched the ocean floor two-and-a-half miles below the surface.  Argo was a U.S. Navy project, and Ballard had persuaded the military to test its worth by seeing if it could be of some use in the search for the Titanic.  Carrying strobe lights, sonar, and video cameras linked to the mother ship's computers by cable, Argo delivered the goods on September 1.  A second unmanned submersible, Angus, took still photos of the wreck.  Oddly enough, as Ballard pointed out at a Washington D.C. news conference a couple of weeks later, it was a vintage echo sounder and not all the new high-tech gear aboard the Knorr that finally pinpointed the location of the Titanic to the extent that the Argo could locate what it was sent down to find.
Immediately a debate raged concerning who owned the wreck and whether salvage operations should be undertaken.  Ballard adamantly opposed disturbing the Titanic's remains.  "I am opposed to the desecration of this memorial to 1,500 souls," he said.  John Hollis, spokesman for the Titanic Historical Society, expressed his opposition to salvage on the CBS Evening News of September 4. One of the Titanic's survivors, Mortimer Cobb, shared those sentiments on NBC the following day.  But John Pierce, who had raised the 418-ton Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in a New Zealand harbor using inflatable canvas bags, thought the Titanic could be raised using a similar procedure.  The British Salvage Association believed it was possible, too.  On the other hand, salvage expert Kendall McDonald shared oceanographer Jacques Cousteau's opinion that such an operation would not only be too expensive but also unlikely to succeed.
As to who owned the wreck, Britain's Commercial Union Insurance Company had some connection to the original insurers of the Titanic, but its spokesman was quoted as saying that the ship probably did not belong to anyone.  Many experts doubted that there was enough of value aboard the wreck to warrant the effort.  Nonetheless, IFREMER conducted a 54-day expedition in the summer of 1987 to remove items from the Titanic.  Though the U.S. Congress had passed legislation the previous year which made the wreck a maritime memorial off-limits to salvagers, the French did not feel they were bound by such a law since the ship lay in international waters.
Unlike the Woods Hole expedition, IFREMER was not government-supported.  It had counted on reaping some return on its investment in the 1985 discovery through the sale of photos and videotapes of the wreckage, but Woods Hole had made the images public at no charge.  The British-registered Ocean Research Exploration, Ltd. offered IFREMER $2 million to retrieve Titanic artifacts, and IFREMER agreed on condition that the salvaged items be exhibited, not sold at private auction.  The best Titanic memorial, according to IFREMER, would be the preservation of its artifacts in a museum. Using the three-man sub Nautile, the French retrieved a number of small items from the wreck, ignoring American complaints that they were desecrating the final resting place of 1,522 people lost in one of the world's most celebrated disasters.

The Search for the Titanic
Not long after the sinking of the Titanic, the Astor, Guggenheim and Widener families discussed plans to locate and raise the ship.  In spite of the fact that a Denver architect believed a submarine fitted with electromagnets could raise the wreck, experts deemed it an impossible task.  In 1966, an Englishman proposed locating the ship and surrounding it with plastic containers filled with water; running electricity through the containers would release gases that would in turn, he claimed, raise the ship.  Another Englishman suggested freezing the interior of the hull so that the ship would float to the surface like an ice cube.  Other plans included filling the ship with ping pong balls, or surrounding it with a nitrogen-filled net.  Since no one knew at the time where the wreck lay, none of these schemes could be put to the test.

The Titanic, shortly before she sank


Time, 16 September 1985, 23 September 1985, 3 August 1987

World Topics Year Book, 1986
Marilyn Trier, ed. (Lake Bluff, Ill: United educators, Inc., 1986)

"Titanic History"