Well, the article in the Times today about the poor quality rivets that might have been responsible for the sinking of the Titanic was certainly an eye-opener, and certainly the most interesting article on metallurgy that I can remember reading. I guess like most people I presumed that the Titanic sank when an iceberg made a giant gash in the bow of the ship, and not, as evidently was the case, the impact of the iceberg loosed poor quality rivets from their welds, opening six separate pathways for the Atlantic to pour into the hold of the ship. It was also fascinating to learn that the original shipbuilder, Harland and Wolff of Belfast, is still in business, and they are still, somewhat understandably, defensive about their role in the world’s most famous naval disaster. (Are they still building ships in Belfast? Across the Irish Sea, in Glasgow, the industry is completely moribund, as I found out during a quick tour of Clydeside last summer.)
Almost since the day the Titanic sank, it has been the subject of endless moralizings in story and song; for provoking the heavy hand of providence by declaring the ship “unsinkable” or for the class divisions that emerged in the scramble for the inadequate provision of lifeboats. But there is another moral, evidently, and one that seems quite relevant, given the news this past weekend about the massive cancelation of flights of planes that had been, due to lax FAA supervision, allowed to fly with numerous fuselage cracks. That is; businesses will always cut corners, even in cases, such as the riveting of an ocean liner, when the failure to take due diligence can lead to unspeakable disaster. Unless private industry is carefully and comprehensively regulated, and those regulations are rigorously enforced, the public is at risk. As with the Titanic, airlines will much rather advertise the amount of legroom in business class than their compliance with seemingly minor safety regulations. The moral is clear, and one can also point to the news over the weekend about the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs; if you don’t want to go down with the ship listening to strains of “Near My God to Thee,” the government has to be free to protect its citizens from the rapacity of capitalism.