THE BRITISH LIBRARY

In through the outfield blog

01 December 2011

The sinking of the Titanic and patented inventions

Publicity is building up towards the centenary next April 15 of the sinking of the SS Titanic on her maiden voyage. This posting is about the patent applications made following her sinking.

Most patent systems number their patents as they are published, but British patents until 1915 were numbered as they were handed in at the Patent Office. Using data from the subject divisions of illustrated summaries (available on the open shelves of our Business & IP Centre), I compiled the following table showing how applications spiked for two classes in 1912:

Year of application

Class 77, Lifesaving

Class 113 (II), Ships

1910

18

71

1911

16

53

1912

38

112

1913

28

94

1914

30

87

Lifesaving included deck furniture that could be thrown into the sea as floats, while the Ships class included lifeboats and collapsible boats. April and May saw a surge in applications for these and related topics from around the world.

The 1912 annual report of the Patent Office states:

The loss of the "Titanic" in the early part of the year was followed by a remarkable number of inventions relating to the general problem of saving life at sea. Mechanical devices for effecting the speedy and safe lowering of boats from ships received considerable attention, as also did ship-fittings designed to be readily detached and used as rafts in case of emergency and bouyant fittings for personal wear. Means for preventing collisions at sea attracted many inventors, more particularly for detecting the near presence of ice at night or in a fog; while others devoted themselves to arrangements for enabling a wireless distress signal to be received even though the operator is off duty.

I carried out a full text search for 1912-13 to see if any published patents mentioned the Titanic. I only found two.

William Monroe White of Milwaukee with his American patent, filed the 22 April 1912, for a Life-saving device discussed the loss of life and attributed it to the lack of lifeboats. His solution, illustrated below, was to use detachable floating double-skinned funnels or stacks (the four on the Titanic, one in real life a dummy to look more impressive, are shown). He estimated that each could hold 700 people.

US patent 1061209

White mentions the "enormous loss of human life" in the disaster.

The other patent was by James Stevenson of Londonderry, engineer, who filed on the 17 May 1912 for his Improvements in or connected with ships or vessels. He spoke of the "terrible disaster".

Another example of a patent that was apparently inspired by the disaster is the delightful Improvements in life saving devices, applied for by John Schwab of Winnipeg, Canada, boilermaker, on the 8 June 1912. The illustration shown here speaks for itself.

British patent 191213481
Then there was another intriguing idea by two Danish applicants (one a manufacturer, the other a wholesale dealer), made on the 21 May 1912, the Improvements in or relating to ships or the like.

British patent 191212081

Illustrated above, the concept was that the stern would be designed to separate and float off -- the stern, as it was less likely to be involved in a collision, they said. It would carry a boat and would include  wireless, a post office, storerooms for provisions, and strong rooms for valuables.

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