The Book That Predicted the Sinking of the Titanic | Flashback | OZY
It was the biggest, grandest vessel to ever sail the ocean. A luxury liner dubbed “unsinkable” when it set sail early one April across the North Atlantic — until it struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and sank to the ocean floor.
But this was not the Titanic; it was the Titan, a fictional ship that sank in the pages of Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novella Futility (later retitled The Wreck of the Titan) — a book published more than a decade before the Titanic’s ill-fated 1912 voyage and almost a century before Kate and Leo embarked on theirs.
“She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men,” the book begins, describing a vessel bearing an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Titanic. In addition to their names and their manner of sinking, both ships were about the same size — the Titanic measuring just 80 feet longer (at 882.5 feet) — and capable of reaching speeds over 20 knots. They also had the same number of propellers (three) as well as similar numbers of watertight compartments (19 vs. 16) and a tragically inadequate supply of lifeboats (24 vs. 20).
When these similarities were unearthed in the wake of the Titanic disaster, the Titan’s creator was hailed as a clairvoyant. And although Robertson did dabble in the occult, the former sailor was quick to dismiss any paranormal origins to his story, claiming they grew solely from his knowledge of naval trends and shipbuilding. “No,” he responded to his fans. “I know what I’m writing about, that’s all.”
Robertson’s prescience is explained a lot by his biography and his naval background. “He certainly knew his stuff; his father was a sea captain, and he was born in Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario,” says George DeMass, historian for the town of Oswego and chaplain of the Titanic Historical Society. As a young man, Robertson accompanied his father on voyages and grew to love the sea, later spending a decade as a sailor in the Merchant Marine. Frustrated with the naval inaccuracies in the seafaring stories and novels he read, Robertson set out to be a writer.
Futility has a pulp fiction pace and little character development, but it would be hard to beat its detailed and vivid descriptions of ship construction and life aboard a large vessel. “In short, she was a floating city,” Robertson writes of the Titan, “containing within her steel walls … all that makes life enjoyable.”
Still, there were plenty of differences between the Titanic and the Titan, which hit an iceberg head-on while sailing toward England, leaving only 13 survivors, including the book’s hero, a recovering alcoholic naval officer who winds up fighting off a polar bear Revenant-style on the iceberg (seriously). And Futility was not the only story to prefigure a large-scale passenger ship disaster. For example, the British journalist W.T. Stead penned the even earlier story, “The Sinking of a Modern Liner” (1886), which also involves a New York–bound liner equipped with too few lifeboats that sinks after a collision. And in the most bizarre twist of all, Stead was aboard the actual Titanic and perished in the icy waters when it sank.
Alas, neither Futility nor Robertson was particularly popular at the time; a disaster novella did not suit an age in which Americans had grown fond of sexy, optimistic Jules Verne–esque aquatic adventures. Futility was out of print by the time of the Titanic disaster, when it was resurrected by opportunistic publishers, cashing in on its incredible foresight. But Robertson saw little of that money, and despite a prolific career consisting of over 200 short stories and 14 books, he ended up somewhat destitute. “I go to these libraries for books because I have not enough money to buy one,” the author lamented in an article in The Saturday Evening Post. “I am broke! I am the rolling stone that gathered no moss.”
Robertson was also an eccentric, one who claimed he had invented the periscope and who lived in a New York apartment resembling a sea cabin. But he had a keen intuition for social and technological trends. Like Futility, his story “Beyond the Spectrum,” published just before he died in 1915, tells another remarkably farsighted naval tale. The subject? A war between Japan and the United States sparked by a surprise Japanese attack on U.S. ships.