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Timothy Foecke

Author and University alum Timothy Foecke suggests that faulty rivets were key to the Titanic disaster.

A riveting tale of the Titanic

In an upcoming book, University alum Timothy Foecke suggests that faulty rivets played a role in the sinking

By Deane Morrison

From M, spring 2007; updated Dec. 27, 2007

April 15, 1912: It was a night plagued by human error, a disorderly rush to the lifeboats, and one nasty scrape with an iceberg. In the end, the Titanic took just two hours and 40 minutes to sink, snuffing out some 1,500 lives. Some have theorized that the ship's steel hull became brittle from cold and staved in on impact. But work by University of Minnesota alumnus Timothy Foecke suggested it was the rivets that were brittle and, perhaps, the key to the disaster. Foecke, a staff materials scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., tells the tale of the rivets in an upcoming book, What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries, with coauthor Jennifer Hooper McCarty of the Oregon Health and Science University. They conclude that the impact probably snapped rivets like buttons popping off a shirt, opening the seams between the steel plates of the bow. While not a "Titanic buff," Foecke says he was drawn to study the rivets' behavior because "it's an interesting historical mystery that can be addressed with scientific methods." Examining 28 rivets from the bow area, the authors found they had been made from substandard wrought iron. This usually tough material needs a little slag (a glassy byproduct) to fortify it, but too much makes it fragile. There is evidence that "the people who made [the wrought iron] were not the best guys," says Foecke, who holds a B.S. and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the University. The iron wasn't worked long enough, nor was it hot enough. But, he adds, the shipmaker, Harland & Wolf of Belfast, Northern Ireland, could not have known that what they were buying wasn't rivet quality.

More on the Titanic

The Titanic book is due for publication by Kensington Publishers Feb. 26, 2008. If you'd like further information about it or to order a copy, visit Tim Foecke's Web site.

When they came from the factory, the rivets consisted of a cylindrical shaft and a mushroom-shaped "head." At the shipyard, workers heated the rivets and inserted them through pre-cut holes in the hull plates. They then pounded the tail ends of the rivets to widen them and anchor the rivets in place. As the rivets cooled they contracted, pulling the plates even tighter together. In the case of the Titanic rivets, the substandard construction acted like a silent time bomb because there was no way to detect the weaknesses once the rivets had been put in place.

"There was a whole string of human errors. But if the rivets had been of better quality, those previous mistakes wouldn't perhaps have resulted in such a huge disaster."

"There was no quality control," Foecke says. The only test was to tap the cooled rivets with a hammer and listen to see if they "rang true." If so, they were judged OK. But if a rivet rattled instead of ringing, that meant it was loose. Rivets were generally good at holding hulls together under shear forces, which tug perpendicularly to the rivet shaft. But they were weaker when pulled along the shaft. And that's what happened to the Titanic. A combination of too much slag, insufficient mixing of iron and slag, and misoriented slag fibers had left the rivets prone to snapping under pressure. When the ship's starboard bow struck the iceberg, the ice pushed against the hull plates. As the plates moved inward, they pulled the rivets along their axis. The popping rivets opened up a seam that allowed a small but fatal flow of water into the bow. Apart from rivets, that night was brimming with decisions and happenstance that, had things gone the other way, might have prevented or mitigated the catastrophe. "They were moving at close to full speed, about 22 knots [about 25 mph]," says Foecke. "There were relatively few actions taken by the shipmasters to avoid problems. There was confusion about where the ice was. There was a whole string of human errors. "But if the rivets had been of better quality, those previous mistakes wouldn't perhaps have resulted in such a huge disaster. The hull damage would have been smaller, and she would have sunk more slowly or even reached port in Halifax." With the rescue ship Carpathia only two hours away, a mere delay in sinking could have saved many lives. "Then," Foecke says, "the word 'Titanic' in English would have meant 'really, really big' instead of 'really big avoidable disaster.'"