Oct. 30, 2006 — -- New research suggests the catastrophic sinking of one of the largest ships ever built was caused by a hidden flaw in its smallest piece as scientists further investigate the century-old mystery of the Titanic.
Scientists specializing in metallurgy say they've concluded the Titanic's fatal flaw was in its rivets.
"I think we can honestly say that this is probably the most comprehensive study that's ever been done that addresses the sinking theory," said Jennifer Hooper McCarty, a forensic metallurgist. "We're the only people that have ever looked at Titanic rivets."
Any school kid can tell you it was an iceberg that sank the Titanic, but what's baffled historians for nearly a century is why it sank so fast.
McCarty joined Tim Foecke of the National Institute of Standards and Technology for the project to determine what happened when the ship went down in April 1912.
Foecke's work in forensic metallurgy includes an investigation of how the World Trade Center collapsed, in a project that looked at the breakdown of metal beams under intense heat.
He put those tools to work on the Titanic after a 10-year investigation of historical documents and wreckage from the ocean floor kept turning up one key problem: The Titanic's rivets, which were used to keep the ship's hull together, seemed to have simply "popped" without even stretching first.
"When they're missing a head, you know they are not acting the way they're supposed to," McCarty said.
While most of the ship's 3 million rivets were made of steel, those used in the bow, the point of impact, were made of wrought iron. Here's where their investigation turns from historical to cutting edge -- call it CSI: Titanic. Under a powerful microscope, they discovered those iron rivets that were recovered from the wreckage shared a big problem -- they were riddled with weak points from substandard material.
"We had 48 actual Titanic rivets that I first examined under a microscope, and I took very small pictures of the inside and I looked at the structure," McCarty said. "From a scientific standpoint, they were flawed, because of the way they were made."
To prove their theory, they made replicas of the Titanic's rivets built with the very same materials -- even forged by blacksmiths in the same part of England.
The rivets were put to the test by simulating the amount of pressure the Titanic's hull would have been under after the collision. "These rivets should have been able to hold between 16,000 and 20,000 pounds of load," Foecke said. "What we found when we ran the tests of our simulated material is that it only held 9,000 pounds."
As the rivets snapped one at a time, the scientists believe, the Titanic's hull opened up like a zipper, flooding what was supposed to be an unsinkable ship far quicker than would be expected.
If not for this fatal flaw, the scientists suggest the Titanic would have stayed afloat much longer and possibly long enough for much of the crew to be rescued. McCarty and Foecke are publishing their research in a book and believe their conclusions have historical importance.
"We think this is the best forensic analysis that can be done short of completely excavating the ship, which is obviously not going to happen, but all of the evidence we've been able to pull together … plus what we've been able to get out of the three expeditions that we've been involved with, seems to point to this as a reason why she sank as quickly as she did," Foecke said.
Like many disasters involving a catastrophic failure of a ship or structure, Foecke said it's the small things that get you in trouble -- the weakest links.