The Titanic foretold? Futility,or The Wreck of the Titan

The Titanic foretold? Futility,or The Wreck of the Titan

On April 14, 1912 (or “nineteen ten and two”, as an old song I used to sing had it), the “unsinkable” passenger ship Titanic struck an iceberg.

One hundred years later, books are still being written about the incident.

Interestingly, a book that was written in 1898 (fourteen years before the sinking of the Titanic) appears to eerily foretell the disaster.

I’d heard about

Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan

before, but had never read it.

Thanks to so many public domain e-books being free (pioneered by Michael Hart and Project Gutenberg), I was able to download it and see both how similar it was and if the book was any good.

I actually got it from Gutenberg…so I could use the free Droid Talker app and listen to it in the car on my Kindle Fire.

I could have downloaded it from Amazon at the link I gave to you above and listened to it in the car on my Kindle Touch, but I wanted to have my Fire with me and didn’t want to carry both.

Let me say that if you didn’t know this book had been written first, you would very likely think it was based on the Titanic. You might even call it a “rip off”, if you thought of it inspired by, say, the James Cameron movie.

Take a look at the opening:

“She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession, and trade known to civilization. On her bridge were officers, who, besides being the pick of the Royal Navy, had passed rigid examinations in all studies that pertained to the winds, tides, currents, and geography of the sea; they were not only seamen, but scientists. The same professional standard applied to the personnel of the engine-room, and the steward’s department was equal to that of a first-class hotel.

<Two brass bands, two orchestras, and a theatrical company entertained the passengers during waking hours; a corps of physicians attended to the temporal, and a corps of chaplains to the spiritual, welfare of all on board, while a well-drilled fire-company soothed the fears of nervous ones and added to the general entertainment by daily practice with their apparatus. From her lofty bridge ran hidden telegraph lines to the bow, stern engine-room, crow’s-nest on the foremast, and to all parts of the ship where work was done, each wire terminating in a marked dial with a movable indicator, containing in its scope every order and answer required in handling the massive hulk, either at the dock or at sea–which eliminated, to a great extent, the hoarse, nerve-racking shouts of officers and sailors. From the bridge, engine-room, and a dozen places on her deck the ninety-two doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and as no known accident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable. Built of steel throughout, and for passenger traffic only, she carried no combustible cargo to threaten her destruction by fire; and the immunity from the demand for cargo space had enabled her designers to discard the flat, kettle-bottom of cargo boats and give her the sharp dead-rise–or slant from the keel–of a steam yacht, and this improved her behavior in a seaway. She was eight hundred feet long, of seventy thousand tons’ displacement, seventy-five thousand horse-power, and on her trial trip had steamed at a rate of twenty-five knots an hour over the bottom, in the face of unconsidered winds, tides, and currents. In short, she was a floating city–containing within her steel walls all that tends to minimize the dangers and discomforts of the Atlantic voyage–all that makes life enjoyable. Unsinkable–indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws. These, twenty-four in number, were securely covered and lashed down to their chocks on the upper deck, and if launched would hold five hundred people. She carried no useless, cumbersome life-rafts; but–because the law required it–each of the three thousand berths in the passengers’, officers’, and crew’s quarters contained a cork jacket, while about twenty circular life-buoys were strewn along the rails.”

If you didn’t wade through all that, and can’t compare the statistics to the real ship, at least notice the name of the ship: the Titan.
What fate befalls the Titan? Just like the Titanic, she strikes an iceberg on her starboard side…in April.

That said, there is a story here…we are particularly focused on a few people. This is, arguably, science fiction…the Titan is a projection of current (1898) technology, and the book looks in part at the effect that has on people and society.
It’s a bit melodramatic, but I found it interesting that the book was particularly concerned with the idea of atheism…and not in an immediately dismissive way, as one might expect.

If you are interested in the story of the Titanic, I’d recommend this book. The Titan part (the first of four stories in the book) could be sight-read fairly quickly: I think its about seventy pages in print. The free versions, I believe, contain all four stories.
If you were reading it just as a story…it had some interesting elements, but for me, the philosophy was a bit heavy-handed.
If you do read it, I’d be curious to hear what you think. :)

Oh, one last thing: some people claim this as evidence of a vision of the future, but it isn’t presented as fact. Predicting a large ship like this is a not illogical projection, and icebergs were a serious threat. As the book points out, what else afloat was a risk to a ship this large? As to the name…I’ve always sort of wondered if someone involved in naming the Titanic might have read the story in Collier’s…and subconsciously or not, suggested it.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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10 Responses to “The Titanic foretold? Futility,or The Wreck of the Titan”

  1. alan Says:

    perhaps the names of both ships had the same origin. seems more likely. the Greeks:http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_did_Titanic_get_it's_name
    several sites give the same answer.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, alan!

      Yes, certainly, “titanic” is an English word suggesting large size and/or great power deriving from the Greek titans. In that sense, they both have the same origin, and it certainly could be a coincidence.

      However, there are a lot of words that mean large and or powerful. What makes me curious about it is the precedent of the name Titan specifically for the largest and unsinkable ship in the world in fiction.

      Let’s say that a company develops a device that dematerialzes a person in one place, and rematerializes them in another place. If the company named the device a “transporter”, it would be possible that the person who named it had never heard of Star Trek…but it might also be possible that they were exposed to the Star Trek term.

      The difference here, of course, is that Star Trek is a much bigger cultural phenomenon. If you were building ocean liners, though, doesn’t that increase the chance you might have read ocean liner fiction?

      I’m not sure which seems more likely to me: a coincidence, or someone involved in a business having read fiction involving that business (even years earlier).

      Fun to think about!

      Edited to add: the idea that several websites giving the same answer makes the answer more likely is a great parallel. That doesn’t represent independent testing of the hypothesis, most often…they are copying from and/or inspired by the other sites, in many cases. Once one site has said something, it becomes more likely that other sites will say it, in my opinion…but that doesn’t make the answer more likely to be right. :)

  2. Jason Wingate Says:

    Dude… even if you were getting inspiration from the novel you wouldn’t deliberately crash into an iceberg and you certainly wouldn’t deliberately have a shortage of lifeboats as in the novel. You also wouldn’t arrange to hit that iceberg exactly 400 miles from Newfoundland, as in the novel.

    Of course it’s not presented as fact — even if it is a case of precognition, the author of the book didn’t realise that. He thought he was writing fiction. But the parallels go way beyond ‘big ship big name big iceberg’.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jason!

      Yes, that seems obvious…could you explain your point a bit more? I think you may be suggesting that it has to be precognition (with awareness of the author or not), but I’m not quite sure.

      Your use of “Dude” suggests to me that you think I’m missing something clearcut in my post…that might just be my interpretation, though.

      • Jason Wingate Says:

        All I meant was, the discussion in your last para about this being “evidence of a vision from the future”, and all the subsequent stuff about the names etc., doesn’t really touch on the interesting parallels that suggested the precognition theory.

        As to whether it ‘has to be’ or not — that’s an open question but an interesting one. I just think we can rule out the “someone involved in a business having read fiction involving that business” line of enquiry right away. :)

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Jason!

        I thought I’d been pretty careful to suggest that I was only referring to the “coincidence” of the name. I’ll have to re-read the paragraph.

        Yes, what I said was:

        “Oh, one last thing: some people claim this as evidence of a vision of the future, but it isn’t presented as fact. Predicting a large ship like this is a not illogical projection, and icebergs were a serious threat. As the book points out, what else afloat was a risk to a ship this large? As to the name…I’ve always sort of wondered if someone involved in naming the Titanic might have read the story in Collier’s…and subconsciously or not, suggested it.”

        I wasn’t suggesting that any of the other elements would have been deliberate or even subconscious imitations…worry if that wasn’t clear.

      • Jason Wingate Says:

        OK I’ll rephrase — neither the “designers read the book” idea, nor the “it was fiction” fact, nor the general idea of a big boat and the general threat of icebergs seem to get to the most interesting parallels.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Jason!

        That works. :)

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        By the way, Jason, have you read the book? I was surprised that one of the other stories was certainly science fiction by anybody’s definition…well, although you may know how “fen” (the fannish plural of “fan”) like to parse that stuff.

      • Jason Wingate Says:

        I didn’t read anything more than this… I can see from wikipedia the guy has a couple of other more minor claims to prescience too though… including one definite fail (the periscope which was patented three years before he predicted it ^_^) but some other interesting stuff too…

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