Automation Technology and Human Performance: Current Research and Trends

By Mark W. Scerbo | Go to book overview

The R.M.S. Titanic: A Siren of Technology

Mark W. Scerbo

Old Dominion University

The Third Conference on Automation Technology and Human Performance was held in Norfolk, Virginia, part of the greater Hampton Roads region. This area is home to one of the largest natural harbors in the world. It is no accident that Hampton Roads is the East Coast headquarters for the U.S. Navy.

Because of the importance of the maritime industry to this area, I thought it would be appropriate to open the meeting with the story of a ship. It is quite a magnificent ship. In fact, they recently made a movie about this ship. Of course, I am referring to the Titanic. The movie, of the same name won 11 academy awards including one for Best Picture. Moreover, the gross receipts for this film total over $500,000,000 making The Titanic the highest grossing movie in history.

What is it about this film that has brought people into theaters in record numbers? Well, it has many of the important elements of a successful film. It has spectacular special effects. It has a handsome and popular leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a beautiful leading woman, Kate Winslet. But most important, it has a great story. In true Hollywood fashion, it is a film that tells a story of love and one of seduction, but I am not referring to the affair between the two fictional characters nor am I necessarily referring to the ship itself.


PRELUDE TO A DISASTER

The R.M.S. Titanic was the grandest ship of her time. She was the second in a series of three sister ships envisioned by the White Star Line. She measured 882 ft 9 in from bow to stern and weighed 46,329 gross registered tons. In fact, the Titanic was the largest moving man-made object built at that point in history. She had as many as 9 decks, room for 885 crew and 2,435 passengers. She was built to compete with the ships of Cunard Line, not in terms of speed, but in luxury and safety, and she was the most luxurious ship of her time. She had Turkish baths, an indoor swimming pool, a regulation size squash court, a gymnasium with all the latest electronic exercise equipment, four electronic passenger elevators, and a specially-designed crane to load automobiles. Moreover, her interior was decorated to rival the finest European hotels. First class suites each had unique architectural designs ( Lynch & Marschall, 1992). The two largest suites measured 50 ft. in length and included a private veranda. Fares for first-class passage ranged from $2,000 to $40,000 in today's dollars. Perhaps her most distinguishing feature was the grand staircase of polished oak, covered by a wrought iron and glass dome to allowing the circular stairway to be illuminated with natural light.

Most everyone knows the fateful story of the Titanic. She struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. But those of us in the human factors profession are schooled in accident investigation and critical incident analysis. We understand that there are many precipitating factors that contribute to a disaster such as this. According to Reason ( 1990), human errors made in the system design process or in interactions with a system form "holes in planes of unsafe acts". Under most circumstances, one or several errors can occur without serious consequence. On rare occasions, however, when enough "holes" occur in the right sequence, relatively minor errors can produce catastrophic consequences. Some have argued that the sinking of the Titanic represents this very type of catastrophe. Although this is partly true, I contend that the real story behind the Titanic is one of seduction.

It is easy to see how people could succumb to her. The Titanic was the crowning technological achievement of the early 1900s. This was a period of the industrial revolution where rapid expansion in technology promised to solve all of life's problems. The Titanic was to be the most luxurious and safest liner in the world. She was "unsinkable". She had 15 traverse bulkheads that were "water tight." In an emergency,

-21-

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