Titanic's engines {Why did White Star use obsolete technology?}

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If Titanic was such a technological marvel, why did she have a relatively outmoded power plant? She was powered by 2 reciprocating engines for the outside screws and a steam turbine for the center screw. However, her two great rivals, Lusitania and Mauretania, were powered solely by steam turbines and had four screws to boot. They were also nearly 4 years older, too! So did Olympic's future rivals Imperator and Vaterland. The Royal Navy by that time was also using turbines (Dreadnaught). Why did H & W stick to the old reciprocating engines? Any ideas?

-- Jeff (JTrayner@pacbell.net), February 05, 1998


Regarding Theo's recent question:

Apparently, steam turbines use a separate turbine for slowing down and reversing. More info at this website.

tom -=W=-

-- Thomas Terashima (tom@nucleus.com), February 04, 2003.

Response to Titanic's engines

Jeff: That's a great question and one you might want to ask Harland and Wolfe as I am sure there must have been a good reason for it. The only thing I can think of is configuration for speed because that seemed to be the order of the day.

Regards, Peter

-- Peter Nivling (pcnivling@capecod.net), February 06, 1998.

Response to Titanic's engines


The Olympic class ships were built to provide good, but not great speed. The emphasis of Olympic and her sister ships was on size, luxury and comfort. I have Bob Ballard's book "Exploring the Lusitania," and in it, he says that that ship had a ***horrible*** problem with vibration from her turbine engines; so bad in fact that she flunked her builder's trials and had to go back to the shipyard for extensive refitting of her aft spaces to reduce the vibration. Use of the older-technology reciprocating engines meant a loss of speed, but it also reduced the vibration, which again enhanced the comfort of the passengers.

BTW, the notion that Titanic was trying to break a transatlantic speed record (as the film might seem to imply) is false. Ismay only wanted to Titanic to break Olympic's maiden crossing time to New York. Titanic could not possibly have challenged Lusitania and Mauritaina for the speed record.


-- Kip Henry (kip-henry@ouhsc.edu), February 06, 1998.

H&W was probably faced with a situation familiar to most computer users: which technology to buy into. I doubt that many of us are running Alpha/NT boxes, SGI's, G3 Macintoshes, quad-Pentium II's, or BeBoxes (or BeOS).

The triple-expansion steam engine, as used for Titanic's two outer screws, was a very "debugged" technology compared with the newer turbines.


-- Thomas M. Terashima (titanicshack@yahoo.com), February 10, 1998.

Up, down, up, down, up down, LOL, from what I read and heard H-W did not have enough time to install turbine engines, since at the time they were new to H-W so they opted for the more reliable powerplant: good ol' triple-expansion powerplants.

-- Tim (dude22cdn@yahoo.com), November 08, 2002.

I only read recently that the Parson's steam turbine was non- reversible, so they had to use piston engines which were reversible. This leads me to another question; if Lusitania and Mauritania had steam turbines only, did they have some way of reversing engines to stop?

-- theo kee (oarmaster1@hotmail.com), December 31, 2002.

the reason i tink the white star line used obsolete equipment is because there budget was so big and they could not afford new equipment

-- sean mancini (jmancini@rogers.com), January 06, 2003.

I think that they used the old engins instead of the turbines is because Ismay wanted to have a luxury boat and a speed record he knew he could do that with turbines but I bet he thought that if he did it with old engines he would be even more famous

cheers mark

-- mark whiehed (cheesecloth_78at1time@hotmail.com), February 08, 2003.

Interesting question. I have often wondered why this to be so until I checked the old notebook of my grandfather who was a naval architect for Cunard in Clydebank, Scotland during the 20s,30, 40s and even until the mid 60s! His notebook commented on the newer technologies being installed in the liners travelling to Canada and the States.

The previous answers all touched on the turbine installation problems encountered by Mauritania and Lusitania. Both violently shook and the Mauritania rattled enough to shake his fillings according to my grandad! (the Lucy had been torpedoed before he started working) - but I believe the problem was one of speed and transferrance to the hull. The German boats which predated the Imperator class ships were also all Triple expansion ships and vibrated so badly the plaster work and panelling on board cracked and creaked so much that constant repairs were required. So, it wasn't only the turbine v reciprocating engines - but SPEED that caused the problem. The Aquitania afterall, was really an improved Olympic class boat and she had turbines which did not cause vibrations - she was a slower non-speedster boat in the same mould as Titanic.

I agree with an earlier reply which said that H&W did not have the technology for turbine production - but again the old notes say differently. It was the 'approved' technology of engine type which they simply preferred installing and actually White Star fully agreed. Fair enough - and the engines were very good examples (as proved by Olympic's good track record)


-- matthew scot (matthew_abz@hotmail.com), September 09, 2003.

I am not sure of this, but it may be something to consider, but the Titanic's triple-expansion plants were four-cyclinders each. It is well known that the four-cylinder triples give much smoother performance than the three-cylinder triples. It is certainly possible that the German ships used three-cylinder triples.

Also, the use of recipocating engines allowed the Titanic to utilize much lower steam preasures than in a turbine equiped vessel.

-- Wes K (kinsler1@hotmail.com), September 13, 2003.

There appears to be varying answers to the question, well here is mine.

I have sailed as a marine engineer (qualified) on a treble expansion steam engine & in my opinion this engine was very well balanced ( I worked on the bottom end bearings are various times and spent many hours making sure everything was right on reassembly). In fact I remember one night at sea when the sea was a millpond & the only sound that could be heard was the lapping of the water on the ships hull. Ship speed has little to do with the engine selection. As I understand the turbine was of Parsons manufacture & would have been a reaction turbine which was common in commercial shipping. The Royal Navy usually used impulse turbines with Yarrow boilers which could provide high superheat steam. I presume the Turbine was of the exhaust type which meant it used the exhaust steam from the last expansion chamber on the reciprocating engine. The reciprocating engine is tops for manuovering where as the steam turbine is not.
hope this helps

Ted Jones

-- Ted Jones (indspec@ozemail.com.au), November 19, 2003.

These Triples were not old engines technology. They continued to build thes engines until the 40's. Some are still in use today and are very reliable even with their age.

-- Joe (JKomjathy@stacharlevoix.uscg.mil), December 14, 2003.

were any of the components of the engines made by W H Allens of Bedford?....local wisdom suggests that they made at least part of the engines....but I cannot find anywhere that confirms that

-- maurice nicholson (mauricen@ntlworld.com), January 19, 2004.

Much of the following was found in a 1914 U.S. Navy reciprocating engine manual. Steam turbines offer greater medium and high speed efficiency, will utilize far higher steam pressures and take full advantage of superheating, are simpler to operate and have far fewer moving parts. That being said, early turbines suffered from considerable blade erosion and were could be very inefficient at low speeds. In order to get them efficient, they need to run at very high speeds, meaning massive reduction gears to get the prop rpm's where they need to be. However, reduction gears of the needed size and strength were in their infancy at the time. What all of this means is that while turbine powered ships had superior high speed fuel efficiency, it was not uncommon for recip. powered ships to be more efficient at slow cruising speeds.

Reliability was also a significant issue with them. Any significant failure required a visit to a shipyard to overhaul a turbine or reduction gears. A well designed, well constructed reciprocating engine was exceptionally reliable, if properly operated and maintained. Bearings were carefully monitored. Valve and piston rod temperatures, alignment and packing glands were also carefully watched. Except for crankshaft removal or engine bed repairs required a trip to the yard, but this was very rare. Pretty much every other part of a reciprocating engine can be replaced or repaired at sea, assuming that parts are available or can be fabricated on the ship.

Regarding reversing a turbine powered ship. Turbine engines cannot be reversed, nor is there such thing as reverse gears on the reduction gears. They simply have separate "reverse" turbines that will rotate the prop in reverse as needes.

-- T Scott (ctomscott@ev1.net), March 30, 2004.

In regards to reversing turbines, in most steam engine configurations, there are two turbines - a high pressure turbine that exhausts to a much larger low pressure turbine. The output shafts of both turbines drive pinions in the main reduction gear. Contained within the low pressure turbine is an astern element (usually impulse blading) that is used to reverse the direction of the low pressure turbine. The high pressure turbine "freewheels" in this case.

When the propeller shaft requires reversing, high pressure superheated steam is bypassed around the high pressure turbine, straight to the astern element of the low pressure turbine. Because of the temperatures and pressures, this "astern" turbine is of limited power, and can handle small duty cycles.

-- Kurt (kkeydel@earthlink.net), March 07, 2005.

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