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For Efforts To Live-Tweet the Titanic Sinking 100 Years Later, Questions About When to Begin

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, April 16 2012

Several Twitter accounts this weekend attempted to tweet, in real-time, the sinking of the Titanic on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. But translating an event that happened at the advent of the telegraph into the era of the tweet is — for the detail-minded, anyway — harder than it may seem.

Many details about the Titanic disaster come with a known date and time: the ship hit an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. ship's time on April 14, and sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912. But the process of translating that ship's time to the standard times used then and now in New York and the U.K. proved to be confusing on Twitter. The account @TitanicIceberg, which was following all the accounts, posted on Saturday night: "@RMS_Titanic_Inc @TitanicRealTime @RealTimeTitanic . How many of you are there, and how many more times are you going to hit me? #titanic"

One account, @TitanicRealTime, run by the British publisher History Press, live-tweeted the collision and sinking on early Saturday evening Eastern Time — as, in England, it was later on and closer to the time of night that the Titanic began to sink. @RMS_Titanic_Inc, run by an organization with the same name that puts on Titanic-related exhibitions, simply adopted U.S. Eastern Time for the events. But other accounts, attempting to adjust for the ship's passage through time zones between the ones occupied by New York and Greenwich, England, posted their chronologies between about 9:40 p.m. and 12:50 a.m. Eastern Time this Saturday night. Their tweets are likely closer to the actual time the disaster occurred.

Well, probably. Not even Titanic researchers are sure exactly when the ship began to sink.

According to The Titanic Project, a citizen-led effort to digitize transcripts of all of the U.S. Senate and British inquiries into the disaster, the U.S. inquiry into the tragedy at the time settled on a difference of one hour and 33 minutes between ship's time and New York time. Based on the testimony it heard, that inquiry determined that Titanic struck the iceberg at around 10:10 p.m. New York time, and then sank around 12:47 a.m. That is the time cited by Associated Press articles this weekend and what was used by the History Channel's Twitter account.

However, the British inquiry seemed to settle on a difference of one hour and 50 minutes, and that was the difference used by the independently run @RealTimeTitanic, meaning the collision occured around 9:50 p.m ET, with the sinking at about 12:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, many researchers, based on other testimony at both inquiries and other analysis, now believe the ship's time was in fact more like 2 hours and 2 minutes ahead of New York Time. Harold Bride, the surviving junior wireless operator, testified at the American Inquiry that "There was about 2 hours difference between the two [clocks]" on the ship showing ship's time and New York Time, and at the British inquiry he testified that a message sent at 5:20 New York Time would be about 7:20 ship's time.

The repeated Twitter iceberg collisions created a bit of a parallax effect for @TitanicIceberg Saturday evening, as each version of the Titanic reached its moment of fatal collision.

"Think I'm going to get out of the area," @TitanicIceberg's owners wrote, "before I hit another time vortex and get hit by another Titanic."

The tragedy still seemed to lend itself to this Twitter-powered retelling. As the New York Times wrote in an editorial about the tragedy in general, also noting the influence of the new wireless technology at the time:

Even now, there is something surprisingly contemporary about that calamity. It is as if it were just now striking that iceberg, just now listing and sinking, if only because we can so readily imagine ourselves on board, even without the assistance of James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

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