The Titanic’s only voyage ended in tragedy on April 15, 1912. At the time of the disaster, it was the largest and most advanced ship ever constructed and that got us wondering about something. With over a century of advancement, how are today’s cruise ships different from those of Titanic’s day?
Sure, we all know they’re now required to carry more lifeboats, but that isn’t exactly what makes them the life of the party.
Let’s start with the size. Everyone knows that the Titanic was the largest ship of its time, but how big was it exactly? The Titanic stretch 882 ft from bow to stern and had a beam of 92 ft. The ship’s 9 decks rose to an impressive 175 ft, making it about the height of an 11-storey building.
Designed to carry more than 2,400 passengers and almost 900 crewmembers, the Titanic had certainly earned its name. Even had it managed to avoid the iceberg, the Titanic wouldn’t have held on to its title for very long. The SS Imperator would steal its crown a year later when it undertook its maiden voyage in 1913.
As the decades passed, ships only got bigger and bigger as countries and competed for the crown. As of 2021, the largest cruise ship in the world is the Symphony of the Seas, which is operated by the Royal Caribbean. The Symphony dwarfs Titanic in every way. 1184 ft and 215 ft wide, her 18 decks are double the Titanic’s height and provide spacious accommodations for well over 5000 passengers.
Since we are on the subject of accommodations, it might be time to talk about the different purposes these two ships were created for. The Symphony of the Seas is a cruise ship, not an ocean liner like the Titanic and Imperator. Think of it as a difference between a city bus and a tour bus. You board a cruise ship to have fun and an ocean liner when you need to get somewhere. Ocean liners filled the same role airlines perform today. As with airlines, the quality of the journey was heavily dependent on the amount of money passengers were willing to spend. First class passengers would enjoy a saltwater pool, spa, gymnasium, and multiple restaurants decorated in the styles of French cafes and swanky New York hotels. First class cabins were large and well-furnished containing multiple rooms such as lounges and private studies.
Second-class rooms were smaller and not as glamorous, but luxuriously furnished and the passengers still had access to a number of the ship’s amenities. The people staying in these rooms were mostly upper-middle-class professionals, and their tickets cost the equivalent of $1,800 in today’s money.
Third class, also known as steerage, wasn’t quite so luxurious, although the accommodations were still nicer than on many ships of the same era. Each small room featured four bunks, and the third-class passengers had access to communal bathrooms and dining areas. Most ships of the era didn’t even provide steerage passengers with running water or electricity. Titanic was also one of only a few ships that provide steerage passengers with food and allowed them access to the outdoor decks. Titanic’s cramped bunkrooms might not be the lap of luxury but were far better than a moldy cot in the ship’s hold.
Modern cruise ships don’t really have classes in the way as the Titanic or even modern airlines. People go on cruises for fun instead of transportation, so it wouldn’t do to cram their passengers into bunk beds. Even the least expensive room on a cruise ship is still going to be about the level of a modest hotel room. Instead of rigid classes, many modern cruise lines divvy up their rooms based on size and location, with interior rooms being the least expensive and large, and large balcony equipped suites on the other end of the spectrum. Some suites are of multiple floors, and many include private cinemas and game rooms.
In addition to TVs and in-room slides, there are many other amenities found on modern cruise ships that wouldn’t have been available in the early 20th Century. The Titanic may have had its own pool, but many modern cruise ships feature their own miniature water parks, complete with attractions such as slides and wave pools. Other features may include things like golf courses, performance venues, and complimentary childcare. Deluxe tickets may still come with exclusive perks not available to everyone, and some restaurants and shows will cost extra, but unlike aboard the Titanic, most amenities are open to all passengers.
Now, ships didn’t go from coal-powered steamers to towering oceanic resorts overnight. Shipbuilding had to come a long way before these immense mobile vacation spots became a reality. The Titanic was constructed in Belfast harbour on a special slipway built specifically to accommodate its unprecedented bulk. Above the drydock was a massive steel structure known as the Arrol gantry. This 228 ft-tall gantry utilized numerous cranes for lifting the large plates into a position where they could then be riveted into place.
The hull of the titanic was made up of thousands of these overlapping plates with the lower hull consisting of two layers. This was done to protect the Titanic caused from damage caused by scraping against the seabed. Unfortunately, the damage from the iceberg was just below the waterline, where there was only one layer of plating between the ocean and the ship’s interior.
Titanic’s primary safety feature was the sixteen watertight compartments making up the lower decks. The ship was designed to stay afloat with four of these compartments completely flooded. Again, unfortunately, the iceberg opened a long gash across five of them. The chambers also failed to extend all the way up to the top of the hull. Once the water reached the top of the five breached compartments, it quickly overflowed and spilled into the others, dragging the ship down at an even greater speed.
Ships of today are still made from steel, but advancements in smelting and metallurgy have resulted in hulls stronger and less brittle than were possible a hundred years ago. Aluminum is also widely used to reduce the ship’s weight. This allows the vessels to achieve their towering height while still maintaining a low center of gravity, thanks to the heavy engines and fuel tanks at the bottom of the hull. The reduced weight also means lower emissions. Speaking of the engines, modern cruise ships run primarily on either diesel, natural gas, or some combination of the two. The vessels that use both often employ diesel engines for propulsion and natural gas to drive the motors that produce electricity. This is a far cry from the ships of the Titanic’s era, which used coal furnaces to boil the water powering its steam engines. Modern ships may not be emission free, but it’s a lot better than belching clouds of ash and smoke.
Construction techniques have also changed over the years, although that’s no surprise considering how radically the ships themselves have transformed. Instead of having a only few large internal compartments, the internal structure of modern cruise ships is a vast network of steel webs radiating inward from the hull with every fourth web supporting a massive wall of steel. The girders are concealed within the walls of the ship and serve as the vessel’s primary loadbearing structure. However, the most unusual aspect of modern cruise construction is that they are not built hull to funnel as a single construction. Instead, the hulls and cabins are built as separate modules, then assembled in dry dock. Have you ever seen those giant cranes shaped a bit like boxy lower-case ‘n’? Those are called Goliath cranes, and now you know what they are for.
In addition to the ship being assembled like a giant Lego set, the larger hull pieces are constructed upside down. This is because the hull’s tapered shape makes it easier to weld the plates together from the top down. This might all sound monstrously complex, but the modular designs means that cruise ships can be constructed much more quickly than a building of the same size. The tradeoff is that not every port comes equipped for such a massive undertaking.
Here is an interesting video on this topic: