The novella that predicted the wreck of the Titanic

In early April, a luxury ocean liner set off across the Atlantic. The boat didn't carry enough lifeboats to hold its 3,000-odd passengers, but that didn't matter since the liner was deemed to be "unsinkable." One fateful night, the liner struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, causing the boat to sink and most of its passengers to perish. No, this wasn't the sinking of the Titanic. It's the plot of the novella Futility, which was published in 1898, 14 years before the Titanic sank.

Written by Morgan Robertson, a former sailor, Futility was a condemnation of humanity's hubris. The story centered around an allegedly unsinkable ocean liner, which ventures from the US to England on its maiden. Because the ship is deemed unsinkable, it carries as few lifeboats as the law permits and is permitted to go at full speed through even the worst fog and storms. Of course, when the boat, incidentally named Titan, strikes an iceberg, the ship goes down, killing all but a handful of passengers.

At the time of its publication, Futility was not a popular book. At a time when Americans were feeling optimistic about technology and Jules Verne and HG Wells were in vogue, technological pessimism found not the way to win critical or popular acclaim. In fact, despite a respectable career spinning sea yarns and proto-pulps, Robertson might be a largely forgotten author if not for the Titanic disaster. By the time the Titanic was in its design phases, Futility was already out of print. After the real "unsinkable" ship went down in 1912, folks started noticing some striking similarities between Robertson's fiction and the Titanic fact, even from the opening pages:

From the bridge, engine-room, and a dozen places on her deck the ninety-two doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and as no known accident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable.

Built of steel throughout, and for passenger traffic only, she carried no combustible cargo to threaten her destruction by fire; and the immunity from the demand for cargo space had enabled her designers to discard the flat, kettle-bottom of cargo boats and give her the sharp dead-rise-or slant from the keel-of a steam yacht, and this improved her behavior in a seaway. She was eight hundred feet long, of seventy thousand tons' displacement, seventy-five thousand horse-power, and on her trial trip had steamed at a rate of twenty-five knots an hour over the bottom, in the face of unconsidered winds, tides, and currents. In short, she was a floating city-containing within her steel walls all that tends to minimize the dangers and discomforts of the Atlantic voyage-all that makes life enjoyable.

There are plenty of differences between the Titan and the Titanic. The Titanic traveled from England to the US; the Titan went the other way. 705 people survived the wreck of the Titanic, only 13 the Titan. But the similarities are uncanny. Both boats were described as "unsinkable." Like the Titan, the Titanic carried less than half the lifeboats necessary to save the entire complement. The ships were even roughly the same size — 800 feet long for the Titan, 882 feet nine inches for the Titanic — and hit their icebergs at roughly the same speed on the starboard side.

After the disaster, a publisher reissued Futility, which was given the sexier name Wreck of the Titan. A few changes were made to the manuscript, but they were only to make the Titan faster and more powerful than the Titanic; the uncanny similarities were apparently present in the original manuscript. Robertson, however, never saw much money from his dubious fame, and died in 1915 of an overdose of protiodide.

For decades, Futility has been held up as proof of psychic abilities, with people insisting that these coincidences could only be explained by precognitive powers. And Robertson isn't the only one said to have had psychic warnings of the disaster. William T. Stead, an English journalist with a keen interest in spiritualism, also published some allegedly predictive writings about the Titanic, including an 1892 story about a ship that rescues passengers of a ship that collided with an iceberg. Stead was actually a passenger on the Titanic, and after his death in that disaster, numerous paranormal claims about the ship were connected to him.

But what did Robertson himself think about his prescient story? For all the times that Futility is referenced in books about the Titanic and anthologies of curious coincidences, remarkably little is written about Robertson. We can deduce, however, that he probably believed (or at the very least claimed to believe) that his book was the result of a psychic vision. In Morgan Robertson, the Man, a collection of essays about Robertson's life — essays that surprisingly do not reference Futility — acquaintance after acquaintance describes Robertson's intense belief in psychic phenomena. In fact, he did not believe that his writings were his own; he claimed that some "disincarnate spirit" was using him as its instrument, providing the inspirations for his works. It's quite likely that this man, who believed in telepathy and wondered about the parapsychological benefits of hypnosis, believed that his invisible muse had sent him a vision of the future.

Robertson is a rather curious figure. He (and many of his friends) claimed that he was the inventor of the periscope, even though the US Navy had periscopes in use for years before his alleged invention. His novella Primordial is thought to have been an influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs. And he may well be the only person who got into writing because he thought he could earn easy money at it.

Robertson may well have been prescient, but it's likely his prescience was mundane — and much more impressive — in nature. Robertson was the son of a ship captain, and Robertson himself was a sailor for 10 years. He was intensely familiar with the construction of ships. In fact, he got into the writing business after reading a short story by Rudyard Kipling, and was disappointed by Kipling's occasional errors in naming the parts of a ship. It's likely that Robertson, like the science fiction writers who followed him, simply followed current trends in the shipbuilding business and predicted that a luxury liner like the Titan was likely to come about someday. He might have also known that icebergs were a grossly underestimated hazard, and it may have well been his own sailing experiences that placed his deadly iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. Futility was a warning that even these grand achievements of human engineering were susceptible to disaster. That he was so right is a tribute to his foresight — and the lack of foresight regarding the Titanic.

While the Titanic was Robertson's most accurate science fictional prediction, it was not his only one. A 1914 edition of Wreck of the Titan included another Robertson story, "Beyond the Spectrum." This story centered on a war between the US and Japan (as were other speculative war stories), in which the Japanese were armed with a special ultraviolet searchlight, which had effects similar to those from atomic weapons. It seems likely that Robertson was actually a keen observer of technological trends, even though his name is more commonly linked with the paranormal.

Sources:

The Haunting of Twentieth-Century America, by William J. Birnes, Joel Martin
Titanic: The Death and Life of a Legend, by Michael Davie
Futility, Or the Wreck of the Titan, by Morgan Robertson
Morgan Robertson, the Man, by Morgan Robertson, et al.