Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 941:
RAISING THE TITANIC

by John H. John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 941.

Today, a message in the wrong medium has much to tell us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I blink my eyes as I go from the I-MAX theater back into sunshine. I've just spent 40 minutes on the Atlantic floor with an unlikely crew of Russian, Canadian, and American divers, revisiting the sunken Titanic. Everything about it was odd: that strange alliance, forged in the late days of the cold war; the use of I-MAX in such claustrophobic closed space.

Of course I-MAX is a Canadian invention. And the Russians have provided a remarkable pair of Finnish-designed submarines, called Mir-1 and Mir-2. These submersibles can dive as deep as three miles. The word Mir means peace, and it recurs in Russian technology. The subs were designed to work in a buddy system, looking after each other at great depths.

Those inky depths are a poor place for the sweep of I-MAX. The brightest lights carry only a few dozen yards. Yet oceanographer Joseph MacInnis became obsessed with doing an I-MAX after he first dove into the Titanic in 1987. For lighting, an American team developed a powerful new kind of sub-sea mercury vapor lamp.

As the great four-story screen carries us down into the wreck, it keeps cutting back to an interview with 87-year-old Eva Hart. Eva was seven when she and her mother got into a Titanic lifeboat and left her father standing on deck. Now she tends roses, plays the organ in a small English church, and looks after a French bulldog -- like the one she'd once played with on the Titanic.

Back down below, the Mir subs collect soil and biological samples. Titanic, it seems, landed on very densely packed silt. Then the subs tiptoe into the Titanic engine room -- each looking to see that the other doesn't hang up on a loose cable or pipe. They do an eerie waltz about the largest steam engine ever built.

Finally, pilot Anatoly Sagalevitch confesses that he always wanted to stand on the Titanic's bridge. He jockeys his sub to a position where he seems to do so. This isn't really a movie about the Titanic or about a joint research venture. It's about dreams and nightmares: Anatoly's, Eva's, MacInnis's. There's also a Russian sailor applying paint to the research vessel on the surface.

By night he paints not ships, but pictures. He's working on an awful vision of the sinking Titanic carrying people to Heaven and to Hell. It looks like Hieronymus Bosch. He has no interest in diving into the wreck. He survived a shipwreck himself, years ago. He tells us, "I don't need to dig about in the mud to find the Titanic. The Titanic is here, inside my head."

That's what this strange movie was really about. It was about the broken ship within our minds. It was about the way we use our creative skill to heal our own wounds. It was about the inevitable moment when technology becomes metaphor.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


MacInnis, J., Titanic In a New Light, Charlottesville, VA: Thomasson-Grant, 1992.

For two other views of the sinking of the Titanic, see Episodes 81 and 747.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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