CSI: Was it the rivets?

Forensic studies point to a new cause for the Titanic’s sinking

Tim Foecke, a materials scientist with Minnesota connections, and his research partner, Jennifer Hooper McCarty, used modern technology to analyze pieces of the Titanic in search of better information about why the ship sank in the Atlantic nearly 100 years ago. (They’re the authors of New Forensic Discoveries: What Really Sank the Titanic.) Using forensic science coupled with metallurgy principles, Foecke and McCarty have come up with an interesting new explanation.

The duo’s research pinpoints inadequate rivets as a major factor causing the Titanic to lose structural integrity after striking the iceberg. They found varying amounts of slag—metal impurities—in rivet samples. Lab tests done on rivets with the same composition have shown that the heads of the rivets pop off under extreme pressure. If Titanic’s rivets failed in this way, the metal plates of the ship’s sides would have come apart, allowing water to rush into its inner chambers. Foecke and McCarty’s research team conducted lab-controlled tests to show how that happens.

Rivets
Rivets
Courtesy SMM

More details and photos of their research can be found by clicking here. The photos include electron microscope photos of severed rivet heads.

A few details about the Titanic’s construction support Foecke and McCarty’s theory. First, the immense size of the ship required a lot of rivets. Suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand and had to cut some corners. Second, a labor shortage in the shipyard where Titanic was built led to the hiring of young workers—some as young as 14—who could have installed rivets improperly. And finally, most of the critical points of the ship were double riveted. Triple riveting in those areas could have kept the ship floating for a few more hours, very likely saving many more lives.