For a decade, metallurgists studying the hulk of the Titanic have argued that the storied ocean liner went down quickly after hitting an iceberg because the ship's builder used substandard rivets that popped their heads and let tons of icy seawater rush in. More than 1,500 people died.
Now a team of scientists has moved into deeper waters, uncovering evidence in the builder's own archives of a deadly mix of great ambition and use of low-quality iron that doomed the ship, which sank 96 years ago Tuesday.
The scientists found that the ship's builder, Harland and Wolff, in Belfast, struggled for years to obtain adequate supplies of rivets and riveters to build the world's three biggest ships at once: the Titanic and two sisters, Olympic and Britannic.
Each required three million rivets, and shortages peaked during Titanic's construction.
"The board was in crisis mode," said Jennifer Hooper McCarty, a member of the team that studied the company's archive and other evidence. "It was constant stress. Every meeting it was, 'There's problems with the rivets, and we need to hire more people.' "
The team collected other clues from 48 Titanic rivets, using modern tests, computer simulations, comparisons to century-old metals and careful documentation of what engineers and shipbuilders of the era considered state of the art.
The scientists say the troubles began when the colossal plans forced Harland and Wolff to reach beyond its usual suppliers of rivet iron and include smaller forges, as disclosed in company and British government papers. Small forges tended to have less skill and experience.
Adding to the threat, the company, in buying iron for Titanic's rivets, ordered No. 3 bar, known as "best," not No. 4, known as "best-best," the scientists found. They also discovered that shipbuilders of the day typically used No. 4 iron for anchors, chains and rivets.
So the liner, whose name was meant to be synonymous with opulence, in at least one instance relied on cheap materials.