1898: Futility and the Titanic

Deep in the night of April 14, 1912, the oceanliner RMS Titanic, described by the press as 'unsinkable', struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and sank two hours later with a horrendous loss of life due to having too few lifeboats for the number of passengers aboard... an event that was apparently predicted in a fictional tale published fourteen years earlier.

Ad for FutilityAdvertisement for reprint of Robertson's story [Picture sources here]

        In 1898, author Morgan Robertson published a book called Futility, which contained four short stories. One of these stories was The Wreck of the Titan which centered around a gigantic oceanliner that was described as 'unsinkable;' The fictional ship struck an iceberg on an April night and went down in the North Atlantic; and it had an appalling loss of life due to too few lifeboats for the number of passengers aboard. Further similarities between the book and the RMS Titanic disaster are said to include:

  • Size: the Titan was 800ft/244m and the Titanic was 882ft/269m
  • Speed: Titan was at 22.5 knots and Titanic was at 25 knots
  • Both described as triple-screw propellers
  • Number of lifeboats: Titan had 24, and Titanic had 20
  • Both ships were 400 nautical miles away from Newfoundland when struck by icebergs
  • Titan carried 2500 passengers, and the Titanic had 2200... in both cases more than half died in the sinking

All of which is astounding... depending on one possible problem that is being ignored.

Published in 1898... or Maybe 1912

        So here's one of those dirty little details that people sidestep in relation to this incident... while Futility was published in 1898 fourteen years before the Titanic sank, it was also re-published in 1912 as The Wreck of the Titan; or Futility ... after the Titanic sank. Less than a month after the disaster, newspapers were running The Wreck of the Titan as a weekly serial, as the advertisement above shows. The book was re-issued a little later in 1912 by Morgan Robertson himself, not by the original publisher; and if it was re-issued with an eye to capitalize on the disasterous current event, then Robertson clearly had both a chance and a motivation to alter details in his story to match the actual disaster as closely as possible. Therefore what's needed is a comparison of the Titanic sinking to the original 1898 copy of the story, which is exactly the version of the story that can't be found easily at all [a copy of this first edition sold at auction for over $7,000 in 2015!].

        This opens up the possiblity that the name of the ship and all details regarding it's size, time of disaster, and passengers could have been altered before the second publication... however, a cover of the book Futility from 1898 does show a large ship hitting an iceberg, so the core coincidence of the story being about a large ship sunk by an iceberg appears to be true. The real question is whether or not all the other details existed previously, or if Robertson altered his story greatly to match the Titanic disaster after the fact.

        I will continue to look for a copy of the original 1898 version of the story at a facility I can reach; until then, there is more of a question mark over this event than is generally implied.


        Irregardless of whether or not Morgan Robertson changed details in his story when he reprinted it in 1912, it's certain that many authors repeating the tale of the coincidence now often change details to make the match more startling... so here's a list of comparisons drawn from the 1912 copy of Futility and the known details of the RMS Titanic, based on the lists commonly printed now, to show their claimed similarities and dis-similarities on these points.

Stats for the Titan from the 1912 book:

  • 19 watertight compartments (pg. 2)
  • 800 feet long (pg. 2)
  • 70,000 tons displacement (pg. 2)
  • 24 lifeboats, "as few boats as would satisfy the laws." - would hold five-hundred people (pg. 2)
  • 3 propellers - number of blades not specified (pg. 4)
  • 2,000 passengers (pg. 3,9)
  • traveling fifty feet per second when striking iceberg -  this is equivalent to about 31 knots (pg. 26)
  • disaster occurred in April (pg. 4)

Stats for the RMS Titanic:

  • 16 watertight compartments
  • 882 feet long
  • 52,310 tons displacement
  • 20 lifeboats (good for 1,178 people) - the least legally allowed
  • 3 propellers, two 3-bladed and one 4-bladed
  • 2,224 passengers
  • traveling 24 knots at collision, her maximum speed
  • disaster occurred in April

The coincidence in the number of lifeboats, at least, is easy to explain. The reason the Titanic had so few was that when the minimum amounts were established no one had imagined boats would ever be as big as the Titanic... so the Titanic's builders took advantage of the letter of the law, but not the intent. This was the same crime implied of the builders of the Titan in Robertson's story; likely, 20 lifeboats was the maximum expected limit in 1898 when the story was written. As a sailing man, Robertson would have known this... and it probably also informed his guess that someone would take advantage of that fact someday.

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