The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Encyclopedia Titanica

The excellent website Encyclopedia Titanica, was established by Oxford, UK based Philip Hind, who is involved in independent filmmaking, web design and book production.

The site is described as the "foremost repository of facts, opinion and media relating to RMS Titanic. Featuring Titanic survivor stories, comprehensive Titanic passenger list and biographies, detailed Titanic research articles, in depth discussions and rich media including Titanic pictures, archive recordings and the Titanic movie player."

Created in 1996, the website has rapidly become one of the foremost on Titanic, even used as a resource by director James Cameron when he was preparing his Titanic documentary Ghosts of the Abyss.

It is notably also an excellent source of research and updated information, as much of the content is submitted by Titanic researchers and enthusiasts the world over. It has thus seen an increasing number of 'revisionist theories' with many challenging what were commonly accepted factors in the disaster.

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Revisionist Theories

As new researchers tackle the many and varied factors involved in the Titanic disaster, it has been exciting to note the number of new theories that have arisen that may rethink many strongly held beliefs about her demise. For example Encyclopedia Titanica authors Nathan Robison and David G. Brown have posted articles such as "Hard a-Starboard, Reconsidering Titanic's Encounter with the Iceberg" and "The Last Log Of The Titanic" respectively which challenge factors involved specifically in the collision. And in many cases these directly involve First Officer William Murdoch. Most notably:

1. No "hard-a-starboard"
2. No "full astern"
3. No side-on collision
4. Post-collision restart of engines

Please note that the theories detailed here are without any discussion as to their validity or accuary and in some cases are being revised by the authors themselves. For more information please check the discussion forum and article debates on Encyclopedia Titanica.

1. No "hard-a-starboard"

According to Nathan Robison and his Encyclopedia Titanica article entitled Hard a-Starboard, Reconsidering Titanic's Encounter with the Iceberg, "the famous 'hard a-starboard' order, so much a part of the movies and myths, never happened."

An artist's impression from 1912 of the collision

To prove his point he reveals eyewitness evidence that "implies that while Murdoch did alter the liner's course to port prior to the collision, this was done in response to a large icefield blocking the ship's path, not the lookouts' warning of the lone deadly iceberg. In fact, this course change probably brought Titanic head-on with the fatal iceberg."

One such piece of evidence is a conversation between Lightoller and one of the look-out men aboard the Carpathia and related at the British inquiry: "Practically at the same moment he struck the bell he noticed that the ship's head commenced to swing showing that the helm had been altered probably a few moments before the bell, because the ship's head could not have commenced to swing at practically the same time he struck the bell unless the ice had been seen at the same moment or a few moments before he saw it."

Robison also explains that "there is good reason to believe that Murdoch would have seen ice before the lookouts. He had an advantage that the lookouts did not - binoculars....Though Murdoch had access to binoculars, his 1912 vintage glasses were not much better than the unaided eye at night. ... Murdoch might have misjudged the distance between the liner and the iceberg, or what was beyond."

Providing further evidence he refers to the haze spotted prior to the iceberg and states that "Murdoch would have perceived the 'haze' to be the massive icefield in the ship's path because he expected to encounter ice around this time. Considering the density of the ice, he certainly would have taken evasive action. ...To avoid the ice that was parallel to the ship's track, Murdoch would have most logically ordered a turn to port, taking the ship south around the icefield. ...Although parallax would dictate a sharper turn than was really necessary, Murdoch would not have issued a wide turn because he knew the actual angle to the berg was less than what he perceived. Too sharp a turn would have disturbed sleeping passengers. Thus, Murdoch's course change to port was not 'hard a-starboard' (a sharp left turn in 1912) but simply a slight course alteration intended to take the ship farther south. Most likely, he wished to clear the iceberg and the icefield beyond it to his starboard."

Additionally Robison calls upon the evidence of Quartermaster Olliver who made no mention of the "hard-a-starboard" command during his testimony. He also believes Hichen's testimony which laid the foundation for the hard-a-starboard story may have been because he "seized upon the original course change, which called for starboard helm to turn the ship to port, as a way to twist the story. It would look better for the White Star Line if their officer had given a hard over command in response to the iceberg instead of steadying his course directly at it."

Finally, Robison refers to when Boxhall, Smith and Murdoch rushed to the starboard side of the bridge where they peered into the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of the iceberg after the collision. He states that they would have been quite unable to see the iceberg if the only helm order had been "hard a-starboard." He writes: "If the helm had been 'hard a-starboard' as Hichens claimed, then Titanic's own stern would have hidden the berg from officers on the starboard side of the bridge. Captain Smith, Murdoch and Boxhall would have gone to the port bridge wing to view the berg if the only helm order was 'hard a-starboard.' "

Robison then concludes: "The famous 'hard a-starboard' order, so much a part of the movies and myths, never happened. By the time Fleet rang the bell, Titanic was apparently too close for any evasive maneuver to be successful. The evidence indicates that there were less than 15 seconds between the lookouts warning and the collision; Murdoch only had enough time to stop the engines and close the watertight doors. When the berg struck, Murdoch ordered "hard a-port," thereby preventing Titanic's entire bottom from being ripped apart. A few heartbeats later, it was all over."

Also adding to this is David Brown's The Last Log Of The Titanic, which he describes as "a serious attempt to unravel the events on Titanic's bridge and in its engine rooms that led to the accident and the ship's eventual foundering. To do that, I spent four years researching original sources--mostly the 1912 testimony of the crew who survived." Brown states that "a starboard bow sideswipe collision while turning left was impossible for a conventional ship in 1912." This is because a ship has a pivot point one third of its length aft of the bow. Even if the bow swings clear the stern will not clear. The ship rotates on this pivot point bringing the stern actually closer to the object being avoided. Brown reasons that if Murdoch had ordered only a starboard turn then the iceberg would have in fact damaged the entire length of the ship and breached all 16 of her watertight compartments. He writes: "The truth is, Titanic did not receive ice damage aft of Boiler Room #5 which was approximately below the bridge. This is proof the ship was turning to the right at the time of the accident, turning toward the iceberg."

Captain David Brown has written several
articles that rethink the Titanic collision.

He explains that Murdoch actually performed a "port around" or S-curve maneuver in which "the bow is first turned away from the object, then the helm is shifted (turned the other way) to clear the stern...(this) required the ship to be extremely close to the berg before initiating the second turn. As a result, the iceberg would have appeared to be off the starboard bow when Murdoch called for port helm to turn the ship to the right... The timing of such a maneuver was critical and unfortunately, he started his turn a bit too soon and the bow came a few yards too close to the berg. Actual damage received by the starboard bow during the accident is irrefutable proof that Titanic was under port helm and turning to the right (starboard) at the moment of impact. Murdoch did, in fact, 'port around' the portion of the berg above the water."

Interestingly, Brown indicates that Murdoch made a wise decision to turn left first. "Two of Titanic's propellers rotated to the right, giving the ship a slight tendency to swing its stern to the right (turning the bow to the left) when steaming forward. This meant the ship turned a bit faster to the left (starboard helm in 1912) than to the right. By ordering a left turn, Murdoch took advantage of the ship's natural tendency."

2. No "Full Astern" or "Crash Stop"

Brown questions Fourth Officer Boxhall's recollection of Murdoch ordering "full astern" because "reverse thrust from the propellers would have eliminated the ability of the single rudder to steer the ship. Murdoch knew this. Under full reverse power the ship could not have pivoted to the right, but would have begun a sideways slide into the iceberg."

The evidence he uses to prove the 'no crash stop' theory is based on two main points:

a/ Boiler Room order

An order was given in the boiler room "to close the dampers" just prior to impact when in reality "full reverse power would have required as much steam as possible from the boilers... to get maximum power out of the engines." In other words, "shutting the dampers would have been the worst possible thing to do during a crash stop."

b/ Physical effects

A crash stop would have caused a "rumbling shudder to convulse through the after third of the hull." This is based on an incident in 1951, when the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Tarawa performed a crash stop to avoid a collision with a passenger ferry. The result was that "the stern of the ship began jumping up and down...six feet or more" causing severe injury to crew and damage to china and the propellor shaft, something which reportedly did not happen aboard Titanic.

An artist's impression of the collision

He thus concludes that Murdoch "just closed the throttles to the engines to stop them from pushing the liner forward. In sailor terms, Titanic was 'shooting,' or coasting forward without power when it contacted the iceberg."

3. "Grounding" - not a "collision"

Brown argues that Titanic did not slam or slide against the iceberg as often portrayed. He bases his conclusion in the following five lines of reasoning:

a/ The likely physics of a side-on collision

Comparing it to the more dramatic and likely catastophic nature of a head-on collision, Brown states that the so-called 'glancing blow' would have caused the deck to jump "sideways relative to anything not rivetted to it. This 'rebound effect' should have been as disruptive to people living in the forward third of the ship as a major earthquake in a large hotel ashore: sleeping Third Class passengers tossed to the hard steel decks; personal items tumbled off shelves; people thrown down. There would have been fewer injuries and less spilled drinks than during a head-on collision, but some deaths and broken bones."

Responding to a theory that the iceberg made 'mulitple impacts' along the side of the ship, Brown discounts these by refering to the fact that such would "have whipped the deck sideways beneath the feet of passengers and crew". While "friction keeps the person's feet in place on the deck when it jerks sideways" the "victim's torso has inertia which resists sideways movement, with the result that...the person's center of gravity is suddenly and unexpectedly no longer supported in a straight line by the legs. A fall is almost inevitable."

b/ The comparative physics of a grounding

Brown describes the physics of a grounding as being "quite stately" since "speed often drops gradually, so gradually that the first moments of a grounding go unnoticed even by professional seamen."

c/ Survivor's accounts

"Survivors unanimously described the sound and vibration of a ship running aground. There was no sharp jolt of a ship slamming horizontally into an immovable object." To illustrate this Brown uses a quotation from Lawrence Beesley, who wrote:

"...there came what seemed to me nothing more than an extra heave of the engines and a more than usually obvious dancing motion of the mattress on which I sat. Nothing more than that--no sound of a crash or anything else: no sense of shock, no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another."

Seaman Edward J. Buley referred to hearing water rushing in "from the bottom of the ship" and that Titanic's "bottom was really ripped open altogether." Quartermaster Hitchens also reported that "during the time she was crushing the ice, we could hear a grinding noise along the ship's bottom."

In regard to Fireman Frederick Barrett's testimony about the "hole" he saw "two feet above the stokehold plate" in boiler rooms 5 and 6, Brown writes: "Barrett's observation confirms that the opening in the side was confined to the very lowest portion of the hull, no more than ten feet above the keel."

d/ Pattern of flooding

Titanic's keel ran straight for most of the ship's length except for a gentle curve beneath Hold number 1 and the forepeak. Brown explains that "this upward curve protected these first two compartments from the full force of the grounding on ice" corresponding with the British Inquiry report which found that ten minutes following the accident the forepeak was dry for more than an hour while hold number one was awash seven feet and holds number three and four quickly flooding.

An artist's impression of Titanic's collision with an iceberg.

e/ Movement of the lookout's nest

"The ship seemed to heel slightly over to port as she struck the berg," Lookout Lee testified. "Very slightly to port as she struck along the starboard side." Brown explains that "sliding across the underwater ice ram would have lifted the starboard side of the ship to a small extent. This lifting would have been virtually unnoticeable inside the hull on the lower passenger decks... The 90-foot height of the crow's nest would have magnified this small roll".

Thus, using the five line of reasoning above Brown concludes that rather than a side-on collision or impact with the iceberg "it spent those seven seconds grinding across the top of an underwater ice shelf." He adds to this that the physics involved would have caused the iceberg to tip towards the ship resulting in a " mini-avalanche of ice" on to Titanic's decks, as witnessed by several survivors.

4. Engines restarted -"Under Way For Halifax"

Brown belives that after the collision Titanic's engines were restarted: "Captain Smith was making for Halifax because it was the closest port for a large ship."

He uses five lines of reasoning for this conclusion:

a/ Survivors accounts

Fireman Thomas "Paddy" Dillon reported instructions from the engine room "keep up the steam" despite obvious flooding and recalled the engines re-starting and then running for several minutes. Greaser Scott remembered the engines rolling again at AHEAD SLOW for at least ten minutes. Quartermaster Olliver saw orders to re-start the engines sent down by the telegraphs from the bridge. He testified at the U.S. Senate hearing that "the Titanic went half speed ahead. The Captain telegraphed half speed ahead".

Additionally, Quartmaster Hitchens was "kept at the wheel for more than 40 minutes after the accident, a job which would have accomplished nothing if the ship had not been moving...The only logical reason Hitchens remained at the wheel was to steer the ship after it resumed making way following the accident."

b/ Halifax was a logical destination

It was closer than New York and "was a major port with facilities that could be stretched to handle the sudden influx of people from the crippled liner. Rail connections would make it possible to get passengers to their final destinations. Also, Halifax was not a major city with a sophisticated network of reporters and wire services. In Halifax it would be much easier to control the flow of news about the ship than in the media center of New York."

c/ Captain Smith's wireless report

Explaining that it is most unusual for any captain to leave command simply to alert radio operators to a possible eventuality (being a trivial errand that could have been accomplished by other crew) Brown states that Smith's hasty visit to the wireless room was possibly to personally "dictate a message to the White Star office in New York." He writes:

"It appears he wirelessed that Titanic had struck an iceberg; that everyone was safe; and they were steaming for Halifax. (All of this was true at 11:53 pm.) Another ship from the Allen Line (probably Virginian) reportedly transcribed just such a message and forwarded it to ...the company's New York office."

d/ Bruce Ismay's evidence

Visiting Chief Engineer Bell in the engine rooms, Bruce Ismay testified at the U.S. Senate Hearings that he "asked if he [Bell] thought the ship was seriously damaged, and he said he thought she was. But [he] was satisfied the pumps would keep her afloat."

Brown describes this recollection as Ismay's recollection as possibly "the single most important piece of testimony given" since it answers the unbelievable decision to restart the engines: as late as 11:54 Smith and Ismay were both under the impression that Titanic was not sinking.

e/ Increased rate of flooding

Brown writes that "prior to steaming again at 11:50 pm, Titanic's pumps and bulkheads were doing a good job of controlling the flooding" but that "ten minutes after the ship started for Halifax, the pumps were being overwhelmed in Boiler Room #6" He concludes that "there must have been an increase in the rate of flooding" and that such was caused by the pumps being "swamped by massive amounts of water pushed into the ship by its own forward motion."

Samuel S. Hemming reported a "hissing noise" due to "air escaping out of the exhaust of the (forepeak) tank" at 12:05 am. Seaman Frederick Clench also saw a "tarpaulin belly out as if there was a lot of wind under it" and "heard the rush of water coming through." Brown confesses that while "such eyewitness accounts are not absolute proof that the ship scooped up water as it steamed forward... what the two men described seems to be more than quiet flooding through relatively small holes in the bottom. Both descriptions give the impression of rapid flooding under pressure."

Maritime artist Ken Marschall's impression of Titanic
after the collision

Brown believes that Titanic was under steam for "approximately 20 minutes" after the collision, creating "enormous hydraulic force on the underside of the tank top deck." In summary, Brown pinpoints this factor as the primary reason for the sinking: "Titanic appears to have steamed itself into a watery North Atlantic grave... Titanic failed to be its own lifeboat because of the foolish decision to make way again."

In regard to this, First Officer Murdoch remained as officer of the watch while Titanic apparantly steamed toward Halifax. Browns writes of Murdoch:

"He had one remaining job to do before attending to his lifeboat duties. It fell to him to issue the last navigation order given on Titanic. "That will do at the wheel," he told Quartermaster Hitchens, "it's time to get the boats out." Their dying ship was almost dead in the water. The world's largest liner was as near to its intended destination as it will ever get."