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The most outrageous schemes to raise the Titanic
Plans were afoot to find and raise the Titanic within months of the ship sinking on 15th April 1912. Despite several eyewitnesses saying they had seen the passenger liner break in half, many believed that the ship had sunk to the ocean floor fully intact and it was therefore possible to raise and refloat it.
Until the discovery of Titanic’s broken remains in 1985, several madcap schemes were dreamed up to bring her back to the surface. From filling the ship from bow to stern with Vaseline to encasing it in an iceberg, this is the story of how people dreamed of raising the Titanic.
The family consortium
The Titanic carried several wealthy passengers, many of whom died when she sank. Among them were John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in the world, the industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim and the streetcar magnate George Dunton Widener. Within months of the sinking, the families of Astor, Guggenheim and Widener formed a consortium and contracted the Merritt & Chapman Derrick & Wrecking Company to raise the ship and recover their relatives’ bodies and possessions.
However, the plan went nowhere because there was no way of reaching the wreck with the technology available at the time. Instead, it was suggested that dynamite be dropped on the wreck to blow it up and dislodge the bodies of the dead millionaires. Thankfully, this plan was abandoned when scientists suggested that the bodies had probably been pulverised by pressure - something that turned out not to be the case.
Electromagnets and balloons
In 1914, an architect from Denver proposed raising the Titanic with electromagnets. His idea was to trawl the area where the ship sank, and when the magnets were close to the wreck, they would be drawn to the Titanic’s steel hull and latch on. Further magnets could then be added until the ship could be winched up to the surface by a fleet of barges.
Another idea was to attach balloons to magnets to float the ship. Both schemes were judged too expensive and got no further than the planning stage.
The Titanic Salvage Company
In the 1960s, an underwear factory worker named Douglas Woolley came up with the idea of floating the Titanic to the surface using gas-filled balloons. Remarkably, Woolley was able to secure funding for his scheme and set up the Titanic Salvage Company with the aim of bringing the ship to Liverpool where it could be turned into a floating museum. The scheme was abandoned when nobody could work out how the balloons could be filled with gas at the bottom of the ocean.
Vaseline, ping pong balls and glass spheres
More hare-brained schemes were proposed in the 1970s, mostly involving filling the Titanic with various substances and objects to float it to the surface. Suggestions included either filling the ship with 180,000 tons of Vaseline, thousands of ping pong balls or pressure-resistant glass balls.
It was quite clearly ludicrous to try and fill the liner with Vaseline, so that went out of the window, as did the ping pong balls idea when it was pointed out that the balls would be crushed by deep sea pressure long before they reached the wreck. The glass balls suggestion was abandoned when somebody worked out that the number of balls required to float the ship would cost nearly $240 million.
An iceberg sank it. An iceberg can raise it!
This was the bizarre idea of an unemployed haulage contractor from the West Midlands called Arthur Hickey. He proposed encasing the Titanic in ice, floating it to the surface and then towing it to Newfoundland where the ice could be melted. After all, reasoned Hickey, if an iceberg could sink the Titanic, why couldn’t one un-sink it?
Sadly, Hickey’s idea hit a brick wall when it was calculated that he would need to pump half a million tonnes of liquid nitrogen down to the bottom of the Atlantic to freeze the water around the wreck, an operation that would cost considerably more money than the unemployed lorry driver had in the bank.
The oil baron and the monkey
Of course, before anyone could fill the Titanic with ping pong balls, Vaseline or balloons, it needed to be found first. Enter larger-than-life Texas oil baron Jack Grimm. Grimm, who had already headed unsuccessful expeditions to find Noah’s Ark, the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, decided he was just the man to have a crack at finding the ship.
After securing funding from a bunch of rich friends he played poker with, Grimm employed two highly-respected oceanographers as consultants and paid for a new deep ocean scanner to search for the wreck.
However, the oceanographers were in for a surprise when they were introduced to the third consultant Grimm had hired - a monkey called Titan who had been trained to point out the exact location of the wreck on a map. ‘It’s either us or the monkey,’ the scientists told Grimm. While he remained very keen on following the monkey, he eventually agreed to leave it behind.
Grimm made three attempts to find the Titanic and came within a whisker of finding it in 1983. That honour fell to Professor Robert Ballard two years later, and what he discovered brought an end to dreams of raising the Titanic forever.
The minute the Titanic was seen for the first time in more than 70 years, it was obvious that any attempt to raise her would be a futile endeavour. Far from being intact, the ship had been ripped in half, its contents spilled out over a debris field covering three miles of the ocean floor. The ship’s stern section was a battered, collapsed mess that looked like it had been the victim of an explosion; its bow section - while in better shape structurally - was buried 60 feet in the mud of the seabed. All the ping pong balls in the known universe weren’t going to raise the Titanic from the deep.
Since its discovery, there has been no more talk of raising the Titanic, and it is now protected by a UNESCO convention. The decaying ocean liner will be left to slowly disintegrate at the bottom of the Atlantic.
The best estimate is that the ship will last just 14 more years before its current form totally collapses. Then it will just be a matter of time before it is reduced to a rusty patch on the ocean floor, surrounded by the last remnants of its contents. The days when people thought they could raise the Titanic are over for good.
Wreck of the Titanic facts
- The wreck of Titanic is located 690 km south-southeast of the coast of Newfoundland at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, 13,000 feet below the surface, 34 km south of an area of the sea floor known as ‘Titanic Canyon’.
- Oceanographer Robert Ballard first tried to find Titanic in 1977 when he was working for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. His team was unable to locate the wreck.
- Ballard used an unmanned submersible developed by the US Navy called Argo to locate the wreck. While Argo was investigating debris on the ocean floor, it stumbled across one of Titanic’s gigantic boilers on 1st September 1985. After 73 years, the wreck had finally been located.
- Since its discovery, many artefacts from the debris field and the ship have been brought back to the surface including the bell from Titanic’s crow’s nest. The largest artefact recovered from the wreck is the ‘Big Piece’ - a 15-ton section of the hull recovered from the ship in 1998. It is now on display at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.