Secret Library

The Forgotten Author Who Predicted the Sinking of the Titanic

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Morgan Robertson’s prophetic novel The Wreck of the Titan

What connects the invention of the periscope to the sinking of the Titanic? Nothing specifically technical or naval: it’s a literary link, of sorts. The man who claimed to have invented the periscope also wrote a short novel which uncannily predicted the sinking of the Titanic some fourteen years before that ship’s ill-fated voyage.

His name was Morgan Robertson (1861-1915), an American author and, fittingly enough, the son of a ship captain. In actual fact, his claim to have invented the periscope was exaggerated (by himself, no less): the invention had already been perfected in 1902, three years before Robertson penned a novel, The Submarine Destroyer, which described a contraption markedly similar to the one that had just been invented.

In the course of researching this interesting near miss, I discovered that, before it came to be applied to the piece of submarine technology, the word ‘periscope’ referred simply to ‘general or comprehensive study’ or ‘a survey, an overview’, and was then applied to photographic technology, before attaching itself to its now most familiar meaning.

Although he overstated his role in predicting periscopic technology, Morgan Robertson did have an uncanny ability to foresee something even more momentous in twentieth-century marine history. His 1898 novella The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility features a fictional ocean liner, the Titan, which strikes an iceberg while making an Atlantic crossing and sinks in the North Atlantic.

What’s more, in Robertson’s story the fictional sinking takes place in April (the Titanic, of course, sank on the morning of 15 April 1912). Some of those on board are rescued by a passing ship; others sink and drown because there are not enough lifeboats to save everyone on board. Here’s how Robertson begins The Wreck of the Titan:

She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession, and trade known to civilization. On her bridge were officers, who, besides being the pick of the Royal Navy, had passed rigid examinations in all studies that pertained to the winds, tides, currents, and geography of the sea; they were not only seamen, but scientists. The same professional standard applied to the personnel of the engine-room, and the steward’s department was equal to that of a first-class hotel.

Shortly after this, we learn that ‘the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable.’ It isn’t, of course. But there’s more: ‘Unsinkable – indestructible, she carried as few lifeboats as would satisfy the laws.’ Indeed, she contains just 24 – not quite enough to carry half of the nearly 3,000 souls on board. This, too, foreshadows the insufficient number of lifeboats on board the Titanic, which led to more than 1,500 people dying.

The Wreck of the Titan; or, Futility focuses on a naval officer and deckhand named John Rowland who survives the sinking of the Titan, finds God, and wins the love of his life back.

But this is not why people might read Robertson’s novella now: as a work of literature it has not lasted. But for its uncanny similarities with the real-life sinking of the Titanic, Robertson’s novella is well worth reading – indeed, can be read on the Internet Archive here.

Morgan Robertson died in 1915, just three years after the event he had eerily predicted took place. The Wreck of the Titan; or, Futility had been swiftly reprinted after the real-life event Robertson appeared to have prophesied (with a few changes to the size and weight of the ship in his novel).

Nearly 100 years after his now-forgotten novella The Wreck of the Titan was published, James Cameron created a fictional love story based around the real-life sinking of the Titanic – an event that fiction had already predicted.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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