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Were Rivets to Blame for Titanic Sinking?



Arts & Humanities
--Language Arts
Social Studies
--Current Events


Grades 2-up

News Content

Some scientists are making the case that rivets caused the Titanic to sink.

Anticipation Guide

Before reading, ask students to answer the following questions about the famous ship, the Titanic. Encourage students to guess before you share the actual answer.

  • How many passengers were on board the Titanic when it sank? (about 2,500)
  • In which ocean did the Titanic sink? (the Atlantic Ocean)
  • How many pounds of meat were loaded on board the Titanic for its famous maiden voyage? (75,000 pounds)
  • How far beneath the sea was the wreck of the Titanic found in 1984? (2-1/2 to 3 miles)
  • Who was Colonel John Jacob Astor, and how is he connected to the Titanic? (He was the richest man in the United States at the time; he drowned when the Titanic sank.)

    Now that you have whet (wet?) students appetites for more Titanic lore, ask, What caused the Titanic to sink? Write students responses on a sheet of chart paper. Refer to them later, after they read about the latest news about causes of the Titanic disaster.

    News Words

    Write the word rivet on a board or chart. Invite students to identify the word and discuss its meaning. What is a rivet? What are rivets used for? (Students might suggest that rivets hold together sheets of metal used to build ships, buildings, trains, bridges, airplanes, and car chases. They might even share how rivets are used on some blue jeans and they are used to attach upholstery to pieces of furniture.) Rivets are still used today to hold together sheets of metal, but riveting was more common in years past. Today, much riveting -- especially riveting together of large sheets of metal in shipbuilding -- has been replaced by bolts or a technique known as welding.

    Next, introduce these words that appear in the News Word Box on the students printable page: decade, passenger, voyage, skilled, rivets, quality, rescued, and solid. Discuss the meanings of any of those words that might be unfamiliar. Then ask students to use one of those words to complete each of these sentences:

  • The 5 p.m. train was so full that it could not hold one more _____. (passenger)
  • Huge cranes are built from sheets of metal held together by _____. (rivets)
  • We cant skate on the pond until the ice is a _____ thickness of five inches. (solid)
  • Only highly _____ dancers are allowed to enter the competition. (skilled)
  • The cruise ship departed on its _____ on the 15th of the month. (voyage)
  • The _____ of the 1920s, noted for its fashionable clothes and lively music, is often referred to as the Roaring Twenties." (decade)
  • You get what you pay for," my grandfather said. If you pay low prices, you get low _____." (quality)
  • The Smiths new puppy was _____ from the dog pound. (rescued)

    Read the News

    Click for a printable version of this weeks news story Were Rivets to Blame for Titanic Sinking?.

    You might use a variety of approaches to reading the news:

    Read aloud the news story to students as they follow along.

    Students might first read the news story to themselves; then you might call on individual students to read sections of the news aloud for the class.

    Photocopy the news story onto a transparency and project it onto a screen. (Or use your classroom computer's projector to project the story.) Read the story aloud as a class, or ask students to take turns reading it.

    Arrange students into small groups. Each student in the group will read a paragraph of the story. As that student reads, others might underline important information or write notes in the margin of the story. After each student finishes reading, others in the group might say something -- a comment, a question, a clarification -- about the text.

    More Facts to Share

    You might share these additional facts with students after they have read this weeks news story.

  • New information that sheds light on the sinking of the Titanic is offered in What Really Sank the Titanic, by Jennifer Hooper McCarty and Timothy Foecke (Citadel Press, 2008). The authors research led them to discover that the company that built the ship -- Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland -- was stretched to its limits as it struggled to obtain high-quality rivets and experienced riveters. Ultimately, the authors say, the company settled for faulty materials and inexperienced labor that helped set up the ship for doom.
  • Each of three great ships under construction at the same time -- the Titanic and her sister ships, the Olympic and Britannic -- required 3 million rivets. The rivets acted like glue to hold everything together." But, according to the authors, company records indicate that meetings held at the time of construction frequently were contentious. Board members were under constant stress. Every meeting it was, Theres problems with the rivets and we need to hire more people," said McCarty. The lesser-quality rivets ended up popping their heads" when the Titanic struck an iceberg, the author added.
  • McCarty and Foeke, who are scientists (metallurgists) by training, studied rivets recovered from the Titanics final resting place beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. They compared metal from the Titanic with other metals from the same era. They say Harland and Wolffs troubles began when the company was forced to reach beyond its usual suppliers of rivet iron to smaller forges that tended to have less skill and experience. Records indicate that the company ordered No. 3 bar rivets, known as best," instead of No. 4, known as best-best." Most shipbuilders of that time used No. 4 iron for anchors, chains, and rivets. In addition, the best riveters of the time were people of great skill. Harland and Wolffs reliance on cheaper materials and less-skilled riveters, the authors say, is responsible for the nightmare that resulted.
  • Many of the Titanics rivets that scientists studied have been found to have high concentrations of slag, which is a glassy residue of smelting (melting iron or other metals) that can make rivets brittle and prone to fracture.
  • Some shipbuilders of the period were replacing iron rivets with rivets made of steel, because steel rivets were stronger. The scientists discovered that Harland and Wolff used steel rivets, but only on the Titanics central hull where stress was greatest. Iron rivets were used on the stern and bow. As fate would have it, the iceberg struck the Titanics bow. The damage to the ship ends close to where the rivets transition from iron to steel," noted Foecke. Better rivets would have kept the Titanic afloat longer, he argues.
  • Officials at Harland and Wolff dispute the case made in What Really Sank the Titanic. There was nothing wrong with the materials," said Joris Minne, a company spokesman. As proof, the Olympic, one of the Titanics sister ships, sailed without incident for its 24-year lifespan.
  • Another former Harland and Wolff official, David Livingstone, says the books main points are misleading. Big shipyards often had to scramble for materials and riveters. That is still the case today. Harland and Wolff had to look to Romania to find welders to complete a recent job.

    On a side note Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," an exhibit focused on the legendary ships compelling human stories, offers nearly 300 authentic artifacts. An officers megaphone, a leather shoe, a gentlemans spectacles, china etched with the logo of the elite White Star Line, the ships notorious whistles -- these and many other objects offer haunting, emotional connections to lives abruptly ended or forever altered. The exhibit includes a depiction of the ships construction as well as authentically re-created first and third class cabins. Click for exhibit schedule information.

    Comprehension Check

    Recalling Detail

  • In what year did the Titanic sink? (1912)
  • What do some scientists think caused the Titanic to sink? (They suggest that weak, poor-quality rivets might have let go" when the ship struck an iceberg.)
  • From what material were the Titanics rivets made? (iron; students might say some of the rivets were made of steel if you have shared the background information above)
  • How long did it take the Titanic to sink? (three hours)
  • What were the names of the Titanics sister ships (the Olympic and the Britannic)
  • How many rivets were used in the building of the Titanic? (three million)

    Think About the News
    Discuss the Think About the News question that appears on the students news page.

    Follow-Up Activities

    Language arts - vocabulary. Gather several dictionaries and have students look up and share the dictionaries definitions of the word titanic. Today, the word has taken on a different meaning than it did when the ship was named; when someone says that is a disaster of titanic proportions," they mean that it is one of the biggest disasters possible. But the word titanic was chosen to name the ship because, when the ship was being built, it was going to be the largest ship ever. Its size was to be matched by its lavishness and opulence. The Titanic included a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and libraries. Winding staircases and wood-paneled walls gave it a feeling of luxury. Appointments such as chandeliers and expensive furniture added to the sense that this ship was titanic in ways that went beyond its size.

    Reading read aloud. Share with students Polar, the Titanic Bear. Polar is the charming story that the American heiress Daisy Corning Stone Spedden wrote for her son the year after her family escaped the doomed Titanic. Told through the eyes of the young boy's teddy bear, the story includes an enthralling eyewitness account of the Titanic disaster.

    Critical thinking. A huge debate surrounds removing items from the wreck of the Titanic. "Taking things from the ship is like robbing a grave," some people say. "The Titanic should be left alone out of respect for those who died," they add. Others disagree. "This is history, and people should be able to see it," they say. "We need to save what we can before it's gone forever." Invite students to use this information and information in this weeks News for Kids article to inform a discussion of the question: Is it OK to remove items from the wreck of the Titanic? Students might point out that if rivets had not been removed from the wreck, we would not be fully informed about what might have caused this historic event.

    History. Share some of the images and artifacts that are part of Encyclopedia Britannicas online Titanic Exhibit.


    Use the Comprehension Check (above) as an assessment. Or have students work on their own (in their journals) or in their small groups to respond to the Think About the News question on the news story page or the Critical Thinking question in the Follow-Up Activities section above.

    Lesson Plan Source

    Education World

    National Standards

    National Standards

    LANGUAGE ARTS: English
    GRADES K - 12
    NL-ENG.K-12.2 Reading for Understanding
    NL-ENG.K-12.3 Evaluation Strategies
    NL-ENG.K-12.8 Developing Research Skills
    NL-ENG.K-12.12 Applying Language Skills

    SOCIAL SCIENCES: World History
    GRADES 5 - 12
    NSS-WH.5-12.8 The 20th Century

    See recent news stories in Education Worlds News Story of the Week Archive.

    Article by Ellen Delisio and Gary Hopkins
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2008 Education World