The era of coal fueling ships was quite brief, lasting only from 1871 to 1914. However, it was a crucial period for shipping, and the most famous ship of all, the Titanic, ran on coal.
The Titanic used a massive amount of coal, amounting to roughly 825 tons of it daily. To facilitate this consumption, the ship could store 6,611 tons of coal in its bowels.
Coal is an inefficient form of energy and it was therefore replaced by petroleum not long after the Titanic sank. The volatility of coal may have played a role in its infamous demise.
Massive Amounts of Coal
When the Titanic was launched in May 1911, it was the largest mode of human-made transportation ever made.
The ship was an incredible 882 feet long, with a breadth of over 90 feet. It stood over 100 feet tall and weighed 46,328 tons.
When sailing the seven seas, the Titanic displaced over 52 thousand tons of water.
Not surprisingly, it required an ungodly amount of coal to operate. After all, its three engines, operated at over 30,000 horsepower, while its steam turbine unleashed 16,000 horsepower.
176 men worked ceaselessly shoveling coal into the furnaces. The conditions were so terrible and dangerous, that many of the workers down below committed suicide.
A Volatile Substance
The Titanic was massive and necessitated a great deal of power and energy to move. Operating in an era of transition between the sail-powered ships of the past and the petroleum-fueled ones of the future, coal ships experienced some serious problems as a result of their dependence on coal.
Coal is an incredibly inefficient source of energy. It was dirty, unsafe, and rendered refueling incredibly difficult.
It is also, of course, highly flammable. That is the point in harnessing a combustible energy source.
However, coal was flammable unpredictably and dangerously. Indeed, steamships often experienced spontaneous fires.
Coal fires are so persistent, that some continue to burn for years.
In 1962, an underground coal fire broke out in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It was fueled by so much coal in such a confined space, that it continues to burn almost 60 years later.
Fire in the Hull
As literally everyone knows, the Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. However, there may be more to the story than just that.
However, the sinking of a ship of that magnitude so quickly has raised some suspicions. One theory is that the iceberg hit a spot of the hull which had been weakened by an internal coal fire.
The Titanic had only one hull (most ships today have two) and coal was stored right next to it.
Photographs suggest that a fire ignited in the hull area a mere three weeks before the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic. They reveal a thirty-foot dark mark on the exact spot where the iceberg hit.
One of the coal stokers reported that there was a fire while the ship was in the dock at Southampton. The fire raged in stokeholes 9 and 10, causing damage to the ship and its hull.
Some fires also raged in the ship after it set sail from Southampton. Members of the crew were constantly putting out renewed fires with the firehoses installed in the ship, and by removing coal and feeding it to the furnace.
Did Coal Sink the Titanic?
With only one vulnerable hull, weakened by these fires, the ship was highly susceptible to accidents. The incredible difficulty involved in putting out coal fires meant that the fire may have caused significant damage before it was put out.
The official inquiry into the sinking of the ship received reports from several survivors that coal fires played a major role in the sinking of the ship. Yet, this element was kept out of the official report out of fear that it would be embarrassing to Britain’s maritime reputation.
At the time Britain was engaged in a naval arms race with Germany and did not want to concede any inadequacies regarding its shipping industry for political reasons.
A Dangerous Substance
The iceberg hit by the Titanic on April 12, 1912, was the main cause of its sinking.
However, if it hadn’t been reliant on exorbitant amounts of volatile and flammable coal, it may not have sunk at all. The combination of a ship of that massive unwieldy size, powered entirely by coal, was always going to be unstable.