When it was completed in 1912, the Titanic became the largest ship in history. Was it also the fastest, and what was its top speed?
The Titanic’s top speed was 23 knots, equivalent to 42.5 kilometers per hour or 26.4 miles per hour. It was traveling near this speed when it struck the iceberg, which meant that there was not sufficient time to turn away and avoid the catastrophe.
For more on the Titanic’s top speed and how it might have contributed to the disaster, read on.
The RMS Titanic departed Southampton, England on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. At the time, it was the largest moveable manmade object in history, part of a battle between the major ocean lines that lasted for decades.
At 882 feet long and weighing 46,328 tons, the Titanic lived up to its name. It was a remarkable feat of engineering and a testament to the skills of its builders that it could move at all.
The ship’s apparent top speed was 23 knots, though its actual speed depended on the movement of the water that it passed through. This is the equivalent of about 42.5 kilometers per hour or 26.4 miles per hour.
An often-repeated myth about the Titanic was that its captain, Edward Smith, was determined to break the speed record for the fastest westbound trip between England and America.
In reality, this was not the case and the White Star Line, the Titanic’s owners, had previously abandoned any ambitions of holding the “Blue Riband”. Over the previous two decades, the company’s main rivals, the Cunard Line, as well as a number of German ships, had broken the speed record.
Luxury Over Speed
In September 1909, Cunard’s ship the RMS Mauretania had secured the Blue Riband by making the crossing in just four days, ten hours, and fifty-one minutes. The Mauretania had moved at an average of 26.06 knots, equivalent to 48.2 kilometers per hour.
Remarkably, the Mauretania would hold this record for twenty years until the German SS Bremen finally surpassed it. Cunard’s accomplishment had been helped by a sizeable loan from the British government, which allowed them to invest in improving their technology to create faster ships than ever before.
This only confirmed what White Star had already acknowledged. They could focus either on speed or luxury but could not excel equally in both. In the 1890s, they had decided that luxury was the more important quality in an ocean liner.
Their reasoning was that passengers would prefer to spend an extra day at sea if they could do so in a luxurious setting. After all, whether or not a ship was the fastest in history was something that mattered more to the companies than to the passengers themselves.
The Olympic Class ships would be among the most luxurious that White Star had ever operated. They were the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic (originally planned as the Gigantic but renamed due to the similarity with the lost Titanic).
While Captain Smith did not harbor any ambitions of securing the Blue Riband on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, the ship was moving near its top speed when it struck the iceberg. It was doing so despite being in an area of the North Atlantic Ocean that was notorious for large icebergs, something that an experienced captain such as Smith should have been fully aware of.
Smith’s final words to his bridge crew before retiring to his bed were to wake him in the event that any icebergs were spotted, a sign that he anticipated the possibility. It seems a pointless risk, given that there was no chance of setting the speed record.
Even if the Titanic couldn’t break the overall speed record, it’s possible that Smith had set his sights somewhat lower. Almost a year before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, Smith had made the same journey on another ship.
On June 14, 1911, Smith was the Captain on the RMS Olympic, the Titanic’s older sister ship. The ships were very similar, and it’s possible that Smith’s goal was to cross the Atlantic more quickly on the Titanic than he had on the Olympic.
In any case, the Titanic’s speed proved one of the main reasons that it was unable to completely avoid the iceberg. This proved fatal for the majority of its passengers and crew, including Captain Edward Smith himself.