Why No Searchlights On Titanic?

Easily the greatest maritime tragedy that can be regarded as avoidable was the 1912 sinking of the brand new White Star liner RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage. Fitted to the most opulent standards of the time, no cost was spared to make her the safest and most luxurious ship afloat.

So, apart from the unheard-of luxury of the first class accommodation (it was a rather different affair in steerage), the whole structure of the ship was divided into 16 watertight compartments that could be sealed of by electrically actuated doors. Anyone who has seen the film or read the story needs no reminding of the somewhat insouciant attitude of Captain Miller, senior captain of the White Star Line and, as such, privileged to always take a new liner out on it first cruise.

He was provided with ice warnings, although in insufficient detail for him to appreciate that meteorological circumstances had combined to push a number of icebergs further south of the Grand Banks than they typically managed before melting into harmless slush. As with any such voyage, subtle pressure was exerted on him to not just make but better the scheduled crossing time.

With that to the fore in his mind, all 29 boilers were lit and Titanic’s three massive screws were churning its 46,000 tons through a glass calm, icy sea at her 23 knot best speed under clear and starry skies of a night with no moon.

Much has been made of how difficult it is to spot icebergs in a calm sea when there is so little light and no wave-break at their waterline. It has also been noted that Lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee had only their eyes to watch for hazards as the officer with the key to the binocular locker had gone ashore at Southampton. Given the speed of the ship, both these factors undoubtedly contributed to the best reaction the crew could achieve not being enough to avoid the iceberg when it was spotted at 23:39 on April 14th.

But, given the speed and relative blindness, why had the crew not used searchlights to illuminate the sea ahead? The easy answer is that they had none. Hard to believe, given that all navies had seen the advantage of developing strong, directed lights for night fighting and Norris, A. “Alternating Current on Shipboard.” in the Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers. Vol. 24, (1912) detailed a practical 7.5Kw searchlight and observed “All searchlights of the (US) Navy are operated on a power circuit requiring about 125 ampères at 60 volts.”

Given that no expense was spared on the Titanic, why were no searchlights shipped? Captain E.J. Smith and White Star Line’s Vice President Sanderson in charge of ship’s equipment would both have agreed that such new-fangled ideas interfered with the night vision of lookouts. Such skepticism had its basis. Human eyes have an ability to see peripherally in very low light but this requires up to 30 minutes to adjust and is ruined instantly by any bright light.

This meant that use of searchlights to navigate would have rendered not only all lookouts blind at night, except where the light was shining but also any lookout on a passing ship. It was considered essential to keep a 360 degree watch and, although naval units could be trusted to administer searchlight assistance only when required and under strict regulations, civilian mariners could not be so trusted and so the idea of any ship navigating by searchlight was considered hazardous to all.

Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller told the Senate subcommittee, “I think [a searchlight] would have assisted us, under those peculiar conditions, very probably. The light would have been reflected off the berg, probably.” Third Officer Herbert John Pitman added that, though he had seen them used by naval vessels, he had never seen a merchantman vessel with a searchlight. An experienced seaman, he believed that a light might have revealed the iceberg.

A prominent British scientist blamed the Royal Navy for the disaster. Henry Wilde, an English electrical engineer and Fellow of the British Royal Society, charged that the ultimate responsibility “rests upon the naval authorities at Whitehall through their blind policy of excluding searchlights from the mercantile marine.”

The Admiralty objected to widespread use of searchlights, arguing that they interfered with the navigation of other ships. While it is true that bright lights can complicate navigation, and an unshielded light at night in the pilothouse can ruin a watchkeeper’s night vision, this is a short term effect. In reality, the Admiralty’s position was more complex and based more on military than on navigational considerations.

The Admiralty’s effort was doomed to failure in the end. Applying the prohibition to British shipping did nothing to slow other nations use of arc lights. Worse, as Titanic showed, denying passenger ships the tools they needed for safe navigation put innocent civilians at risk, and today every ship that goes to sea carries several strong lights to illuminate the hazards of the deep.

If two searchlights had been fitted either to the for’ard mast where the lookout crow’s nest was located or an some other superstructure immediately above the bridge, the technology of the time would have allowed a path ahead and some 30° to either side to be illuminated, with a good chance of identifying icebergs of the scale that did for the Titanic around 5 miles away on a night like April 14th 1912.

Granted, the lookout’s night vision would have been impaired, as would any other ship in the vicinity. But there was no other ships in the vicinity, other than the Carpathia which took four hours to cover the sixty miles and the nearby California which was hove to because of the ice field and therefore not in need of lookouts (or, unfortunately radio telegraph operator who had gone to bed 15 minutes before Titanic hit).

But imagine the headlines that might have been: April 17, 1912, edition of the New York Herald:

(New York) “We learned today from passengers on her maiden voyage that the White Star liner, Titanic, nearly collided with an iceberg in the early morning of April 15th. Titanic, pinnacle of the modern shipbuilder’s art, was saved from damage by an electrical arc searchlight. The guardian beacon of light alerted the officers of Titanic in time to steer away from danger. The captain noted that a collision, though unlikely to have been serious, might have inconvenienced the great ship.”

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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