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Thomas Fleming Day on Design, Simple Solutions, Leadership, and Responsibility

100 years ago, a man wrote passionately about the incompetency that led to a terrible tragedy. The freshness of his words struck me when I first discovered them in 2001. Today, on the 100th anniversary of that tragedy – the sinking of the Titanic, I thought the words of that man – Thomas Fleming Day – were worth repeating. The Open Library makes it possible to do so.

When I read this 1912 article in 2012, many questions come to mind. How are we designing today? How do we communicate simple safety procedures? How do we conduct training? How do we shoulder responsibility at all stages of a project? (As an uncomfortable parallel, read D.A. Winsor’s IEEE PCS article from 1988 called “Communication Failures Contributing to the Challenger Accident: An Example for Technical Communicators” (link opens PDF).) We are supposed to learn from past failures. Is that happening, or do we need to listen to a 100-year-old voice?

Background and Copyright Information

Thomas Fleming Day was the founder and editor of The Rudder, a magazine about boats. The contents of this post come from part of a regular section in The Rudder magazine called “Round the Clubhouse Fire”. The source for this post is a 1912 edition of The Rudder found at the Open Library.

In the edition from Volume XXVII, May 1912, Number 5, “Round the Clubhouse Fire” began on page 360. This particular version began with the commentary that I am sharing with you in this post. For reading convenience, I made headings that are from the first sentence of the following paragraph. In the printed version, these sections are merely marked by three asterisks. I made no other changes to the original text.

To ensure publication of this text without violating any copyright rules, I did some research. On the Internet Archive page for this magazine, it states “Possible copyright status: NOT_IN_COPYRIGHT”. I then found an explanation about NOT_IN_COPYRIGHT in the Internet Archive forum. I used a link in that thread to make sure there was no copyright listed for this magazine. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know in the comments, and I will make corrections accordingly.

Vol. XXVII, May 1912, No. 5 begins on page 331 in the PDF (scanned image) version on the Open Library (page 309 in the original bound volume). The article I reference is found on page 382 in the PDF (page 360 in the original bound volume).

(Do visit the Open Library on your next break. They provide a good home to many, many books, and they have high ambitions. Check them out!)

This post is like having a guest blogger, only my guest wrote his post 100 years ago. Thank you, Mr. Day.

Round the Clubhouse Fire – by Thomas Fleming Day

WHAT we have all expected and predicted would happen, has happened. Many a day I have stood on the bridge and watched one of the mailboats go rushing by at 20 or 25 knots, thick or clear, driving through so as to make her tide and land the mails and passengers on time. We watched her out of sight, and then said, “Some day one of those fellows will hit a berg or another ship and there will be a terrible killing,” I have talked with the men who drive those ships. They have shudderingly admitted the danger. “But what are we to do? We are put here to drive them, and drive them we must. If it is thick and there is ice ahead we will hit it.” For this disaster the American traveling public are wholly to blame; it is their mania for speed that has brought about the abnormal and dangerous development of the Western Ocean steamship. The American has no love for the sea, every day upon it is to him a day of torture. But then is he ever happy anywhere unless he is being rushed along at a speed dangerous to life and limb? Hear the constant’ cry on ocean steamers, “Captain, can’t you get us in to-morrow? Can’t we hurry and land to-night?” etc. “Get us over this ocean as soon as possible,” is the cry. “Never mind risking our lives, take the shortest route and rush your vessel through. Never mind the fog and ice or the other ships. Rush ! rush ! rush !” We have the same mania on land, trains running at 70 miles over tracks built for a speed of forty, and the passengers paying an extra fare for the privilege of risking a horrible death.

It is to play to this speed demon

It is to play to this speed demon that the mailboats have been taken across the cold water in Spring and Summer. To go South into the warm water meant a longer distance and more time at sea. If a line refused to let its ships take the risk, it lost the favor of the public. They transferred their patronage to the line that would send its ships over the shorter route, and take the chances of hitting ice or bashing another ship in the thick. The fact that none of these vessels carried sufficient boats to salve a full passenger and crew list was well known, and often commented on. But steamship men, like the rest of the world, grow indifferent to such conditions; the dangers are too remote; long relief from serious accident made boats an ornament and a nuisance, and the less carried the less work and bother. Not two months ago an officer of Olympic said, in response to a passenger’s remark that there were not boats enough, “Oh, we’ll never need them; just carry them to comply with the law.” Another theory that has sent many a ship to the bottom is the watertight bulkhead. No bulkhead with an opening through it is watertight. When you put a door through it, it becomes a menace not a safeguard. Bulkheads should have absolutely no opening of any kind through them, and should be carried up to the main deck intact. “That cannot be done,” cries the designer. “Impossible,” echoes the builder. Then, gentlemen, don’t call them watertight, and don’t tell people they will prevent ships sinking. I have known ships to be saved by their bulkheads, but they were solid partitions reaching from keel to deck.

The saddest thing to me in this terrible happening is that hundreds might have had a chance for their lives if only some one had been there with the brains to direct those inexperienced landsmen. I have spent hours thinking over what I would do in just such a crisis. I never go on a steamer but what my first duty is to look over the boats, to see what tackles they are fitted with, and how they are released. Then I look around and note what other stuff aboard can be used in an emergency. On Titanic there were probably four or five thousand mattresses, and yet no one seems to have thought of using them. How often have you looked over a ship side and seen a mattress, a sailor’s “donkey’s breakfast,” floating perhaps days after it was thrown over from some inbound packet. There were hundreds of wooden cabin doors; why were these not torn off and thrown overside? Because nobody was there who had been trained to think of these things. If you are ever caught on a sinking steamer remember this: Take two mattresses out of the bunks, place between them an empty suit-case, a cork life-preserver, or if you cannot get anything else two pillows or any bulky article that will float, take the bed sheets, twist them, and lash the mattresses together, sandwich-fashion, with the suit-case or life-preserver between. Here is float that you can lie full length on and that will keep your head and body above water. When in the water several of these can be brought together and lashed side by side and thus be prevented from capsizing. I know a man who saved himself by taking two water-jugs and stuffing their mouths with towels; he floated with a jug under each arm until picked up. He told me he thought of this method years before, and when the hour came it flashed back into his mind.

The loss of Titanic is a dreadful lesson

The loss of Titanic is a dreadful lesson, but, like all such that have from time to time been given to man, it will go unheeded. The same disregard of safety when safety is present will rule, and ships will speed merrily over the ocean, bearing crowds of passengers only too delighted if they break a record and get to port before the sunset gun closes quarantine.

There is one lesson that man never has learned and never will learn, and that is to put into power the competent, to choose for his governing masters the trained, experienced, and intelligent. Instead, he allows his governing masters to choose themselves, consequently we have men entirely ignorant controlling our affairs and dictating the laws and conditions under which we shall live and travel. As a specimen look at the British Board of Trade: a collection of incompetent civilians, acting under the advice of theoretical landsmen, making laws for navigating the seas. Was there anything more criminally imbecile than the late work of this body in raising the Winter load-line, a piece of folly that has sent dozens of ships and their crews to death. The Winter load-line should have been sent down, not up. Would these men have sent it up if they had spent a stormy night on the bridge of a deep-loaded vessel? No; but they are ignorant politicians who, afraid to offend the clamoring vessel owners, played politics, the stakes being the lives of men. Look at our Senate, sending three hayseed senators to investigate a shipping disaster; men who by their questions show they know nothing about the sea. What would the public say if we sent three ship captains to inquire into a mine explosion in Colorado? It is the same story: men designing and building vessels who never go to sea in them, men making sails who never set or trimmed one, men writing about the sea who never saw it.

There is only one knowledge that is of value

There is only one knowledge that is of value,—the knowledge gained by experience; all other is secondary and of questionable value. It is not so much what experience teaches but what it unteaches. You learn to unlearn, a most difficult lesson, the most difficult of all. Theoretical knowledge is piffle; it is the empirical that counts. All the speculations of all the philosophers were not worth the experience of Magellan; they with all their talk proved nothing, he by his voyage established a fact. It was this theoretical humbug, mathematical office work, that sent Titanic to sea an unsinkable ship. This monster was unsinkable because calculations proved she was so, calculations worked out by men with no seagoing experience. The Board of Trade man sits at his table and proves that with the Winter load-line where he wants to put it, the ship will have ample reserve buoyancy. Yes, certainly on his paper; but how about on a black stormy night at sea? O man, how long will you let yourself be governed by imbeciles and your affairs be regulated by blockheads?

Now I will give the world a piece of advice

Now I will give the world a piece of advice. It will not accept it, because it is a product of sense, and therefore at variance with all the accepted methods of regulating our earthly affairs. Choose three veteran captains of each of the maritime nations and form them into a Board with international powers, and give into their hands absolute control of the Western Ocean traffic. Let them plot and establish the routes, regulate the speed, specify the equipment, and make rules governing the lights, signals, and the use of the wireless telegraph. These men know what is wanted; you don’t, your Congress doesn’t, your Parliament doesn’t; the vessel owners do, but they won’t because they are after money first, last, and all the time. The members of such a board would safeguard your lives because they would be safeguarding the lives of men who have stood with them on the bridge, and they know what it means. These old skippers would be free from owners’ influence, and free from political influence, they would bring to the council table the experience of years. They would not have to call and question advisers and experts, they would be their own experts and advisers. You and I who have been down to the sea in ships will see the sense of this suggestion, but will our imbecile blockhead rulers? Never! There’s nothing in it for them.

Safety at sea is the product of constant vigilance

Safety at sea is the product of constant vigilance. Never allow this vigilance to sleep in yourself nor in others, if you can possibly help it. It is not only necessary that you should be constantly on the lookout, but those under you should be trained to be eternally on the alert. Nothing is too small to notice and care for, if it concerns the safety of your vessel.

The majority of ship officers I have been with have shown an interest in their duties, especially when on the bridge, and the same with lookouts; but there is one fault that is too common, and one that there is no question has often led to disaster, and that is, what a watch officer cannot see or does not see a lookout cannot have seen. I make it a practice never to ignore or deny a lookout’s report until it is proven groundless. It is better to believe he has seen the thing or something until you are absolutely sure he has not. Once while running in for the Hook in a thick fog, the lookout reported a buoy; the officer on watch laughed at him, as we were supposed to be ten miles offshore. I saw the buoy at the same time and told the Captain so. He stopped the ship and took a cast of the lead; we had about three feet under the keel, and in two minutes more would have been aground. No doubt Titanic’s bridge was warned of ice by the lookout; but the officer on watch did not see it, so nobody saw it. Orders were to push her through, make a record, land the passengers early, big advertisement for the line. Everybody delighted. Skipper congratulated, chief thanked. Same old story, the office on shore running the ship at sea.

The truth of what I have preached to you for years

You people will now realize the truth of what I have preached to you for years—that safety at sea has nothing to do with size, and that because a ship is big she is not necessarily seaworthy. As I have told you, small vessels are safer than large, providing they are properly designed, strongly built, thoroughly equipped and skilfully manned. The risk of being overcome by a storm or being destroyed through what seamen call stress of weather, is only one of the dangers of the sea; there are others to which all vessels are liable and which are more likely to wreck large than small craft. Of these collision is the most to be dreaded, and from a collision a small vessel runs scant risk. Huge steamers cannot go slow, because they will not answer their helms at small speeds, and it takes a long time to turn them on their helms; whereas a small vessel moves slowly and answers her helm quickly. A long straight keel vessel, like a steamer, pivots on her bow, so that when the helm is put over it is her stern that turns, not the bow, and she continues to approach the object she is helming to avoid until she swings round.

The greater danger on large vessels

But the greater danger on large vessels arises from the enormous increase of the attractive force. The attractive force between two large steamships, or a steamer and a berg, is enormous, and unless worked against will bring them rapidly together. It is this and not suction that draws vessels together; there is no suction between vessels in deep water.
This attraction is what causes collisions in fogs and strandings especially on high coasts. It is dangerous because it not only affects the vessel but affects the minds of the men on the vessel. It pulls every particle of matter, even the brain matter of the crew. In thick weather or a dark night, if left without the guidance of a compass, a man will invariably direct his vessel towards the land or towards another vessel if close to it. I have tried it time and time again. Your eminent office philosophers will probably deny this and assert that suction, and currents, and waves of one kind or another are the cause of these collisions and strandings, but try it for yourself with two small pieces of match stick in a glass of water. The laws of nature operate in the same manner in a glass of water as they do in the ocean, you will admit, even if you are an expert.

I never remember any disaster affecting me as this one did

I never remember any disaster affecting me as this one did. It made me fairly sick. Even now it seems like a dream, as though it could never have happened, that monster sinking as she did in less than three hours after receiving the thrust. The calm water made the thinking of it worse, for with no sea on nearly all could have been saved if the boats had been there. But, thank God, the officers and crew did their duty like sailors.

No fireman shirked his duty, and no seaman left his place,
For the honor of the calling and the glory of the race.
For the very pride of nations—the pride that lifts them high—
Is the strength to do their duty when the straw is drawn to die;
And in this the Anglo-Saxon—I say it not in boast—
Has gained the heart to perish like that Roman at his post.
For the first thought in our danger, the last before we pray,
Is our ancient grace for battle—And what will England say?
O Life, we cannot shame her, for all that thou canst give,
When brave men stop to perish and weak men flee to live!
For her glory’s in our keeping, and her face shows grandly when
They bring the log and tell her that we lost the ship like men.

Nothing man can write or can utter can add to the glory of those who died, passenger or crew. But perhaps some day such a time for us will come, then let the example of these men and the example of others who have gone as bravely to an ocean death be with us, and help us to meet our fate as they met it that calm Sunday morning in fifty West.