We all know about urban myths – the sort of things gullible friends pass on in e-mails believing they’re true. Opinions and fictions get quoted and requoted, exaggerated and elaborated, until accepted as fact.

I came across one when researching my play about the Titanic. Supposedly, someone had written a novel 14 years before the sinking, in which a giant British transatlantic liner, supposedly unsinkable, hit an iceberg and sank. The size and description of the ship was a close match for the real thing. What’s more, the ship was called … The Titan.

Obviously an unsubstantiated fiction, but I decided to check anyway. To my surprise, it wasn’t. An American writer of boys-own-style nautical adventures, Morgan Robertson, had indeed published Futility in 1898 (re-titled Futility or the Loss of the Titan for the 1912 reprint, to cash in on the Titanic disaster) – registered copies in the British Museum and Library of Congress confirm the date. To quote from the book, the fictional Titan had the latest technology including ‘nineteen water-tight compartments. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and as no known incident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable.’ This will sound familiar to Titanic enthusiasts. Also the fact that, because it was “unsinkable”,  it carried only enough lifeboats for 500 of its 3000 passengers, so most of them drowned.

Ultimately, I could find no evidence of hoax or fraud. It’s true that Robertson was known for his attention to detail, so could probably hazard a good guess as to how shipping might develop in the next 10 years or so. And Victorian ships were often named after classical heroes – there had been at least 3 Titanias, including one which sank after an iceberg collision in 1880 and might have influenced his choice of name. But putting it all together in one book is a decidedly eerie coincidence.

It doesn’t end there; in another story, Beyond the Spectrum, Robertson, who died in 1915, wrote of a future surprise attack by the Japanese on an U.S.Pacific island naval base, which led to a major war. A prominent weapon in this was a “sun bomb”, which gave out a blinding burning ultraviolet light ….

Category: Write Minded

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