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Metallurgical Analysis of Titanic Available in Online JOM Article

Posted on: 04/11/2012
April 15 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Since then, countless films, documentaries, books, and even a Broadway musical have explored the public grief and personal tragedies of one of history’s most famous shipwrecks.

In 1998, JOM made its own contribution to the body of Titanic scholarship with the article, “The Royal Mail Ship Titanic: Did a Metallurgical Failure Cause a Night to Remember?” In it, authors K. Felkins, H.P. Leighly, Jr., and A. Jankovic shared the findings of their metallurgical analysis of steel plate from the Titanic’s hull.

They concluded that the steel definitely played a role, because it was not as impact-resistant as modern steel. However, it was also probably the best plain carbon ship plate available at the time.

The team’s quest to unravel this particular mystery of the Titanic began when Leighly, a now deceased professor emeritus of metallurgical engineering at Missouri University of Science & Technology (S&T), received three wooden crates containing more than 400 pounds of three-quarter-inch steel plate from the Titanic’s hull. In the months that followed, Leighly and other S&T researchers tested the material and confirmed that it was inferior to steel used in shipbuilding today, determining that the quality of that steel was a factor in the catastrophe.

In the early 1900s, manufacturers in the United Kingdom commonly produced steel in open-hearth furnaces. The process results in “semi-killed” steel, which has relatively high concentrations of phosphorus, oxygen, and sulfur, and a low concentration of nitrogen and silicon. The S&T tests on the Titanic steel back in 1996 and 1997 revealed that the materials matched that semi-killed profile, making it more brittle at low temperatures than modern steel.

The article detailing these results is available online, along with reproductions of the micrographs, tables, and figures generated by the analysis. The piece is also enriched with links to video clips, as well as sidebar features on the salvaging operations, the fates of the vessel’s sister ships, and the mythology that has grown up around the Titanic since that frigid night in the North Atlantic a hundred years ago.

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