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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Sinking of the RMS Lusitania

The Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania is sunk by German U-boat U-20 eleven miles off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7, 1915 during World War I.

On the morning of May 6, RMS Lusitania is 750 miles west of southern Ireland. By 5:00 AM on May 7 she reaches a point 120 miles west southwest of Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland, where she meets the patrolling boarding vessel Partridge. By 6:00 AM, heavy fog has arrived and extra lookouts are posted. As the ship comes closer to Ireland, Captain William Thomas Turner orders depth soundings to be made and at 8:00 AM for speed to be reduced to eighteen knots, then to 15 knots and for the foghorn to be sounded. Some of the passengers are disturbed that the ship appears to be advertising her presence. By 10:00 AM the fog begins to lift and by noon it has been replaced by bright sunshine over a clear smooth sea. The RMS Lusitania increases speed to 18 knots.

U-20 surfaces at 12:45 PM as visibility is now excellent. At 1:20 PM something is sighted and Kapitänleutnant  Walther Schwieger is summoned to the conning tower. At first it appears to be several ships because of the number of funnels and masts, but this resolves into one large steamer appearing over the horizon. At 1:25 PM the submarine submerges to periscope depth of 11 metres and sets a course to intercept the liner at her maximum submerged speed of 9 knots. When the ships have closed to 2 miles RMS Lusitania turns away. Schwieger fears he has lost his target, but she turns again, this time onto a near ideal course to bring her into position for an attack. At 2:10 PM with the target at 700m range he orders one gyroscopic torpedo to be fired, set to run at a depth of three metres.

The U-20‘s torpedo officer, Raimund Weisbach, views the destruction through the vessel’s periscope and feels the explosion is unusually severe. Within six minutes, RMS Lusitania‘s forecastle begins to submerge.

On board the RMS Lusitania, Leslie Morton, an eighteen-year-old lookout at the bow, spots thin lines of foam racing toward the ship. He shouts, “Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!” through a megaphone, thinking the bubbles come from two projectiles. The torpedo strikes RMS Lusitania under the bridge, sending a plume of debris, steel plating and water upward and knocking lifeboat number five off its davits. A second, more powerful explosion follows, sending a geyser of water, coal, dust, and debris high above the deck. Schwieger’s log entries attest that he had only launched one torpedo. Some doubt the validity of this claim, contending that the German government subsequently alters the published fair copy of Schwieger’s log, but accounts from other U-20 crew members corroborate it. The entries are also consistent with intercepted radio reports sent to Germany by U-20 once she has returned to the North Sea, before any possibility of an official coverup.

At 2:12 PM Captain Turner orders Quartermaster Johnston stationed at the ship’s wheel to steer “hard-a-starboard” towards the Irish coast, which Johnston confirms, but the ship can not be steadied on the course and rapidly ceases to respond to the wheel. Turner signals for the engines to be reversed to halt the ship, but although the signal is received in the engine room, nothing can be done. Steam pressure collapses from 195 PSI before the explosion, to 50 PSI and falling afterwards. RMS Lusitania‘s wireless operator sends out an immediate SOS, which is acknowledged by a coastal wireless station. Shortly afterward he transmits the ship’s position, 10 miles (16 km) south of the Old Head of Kinsale. At 2:14 PM electrical power fails, plunging the cavernous interior of the ship into darkness. Radio signals continue on emergency batteries, but electric lifts fail, trapping passengers and crew. Bulkhead doors closed as a precaution before the attack can not be reopened to release trapped men.

About one minute after the electrical power fails, Captain Turner gives the order to abandon ship. Water has flooded the ship’s starboard longitudinal compartments, causing a 15-degree list to starboard.

RMS Lusitania‘s severe starboard list complicates the launch of her lifeboats. Ten minutes after the torpedoing, when she has slowed enough to start putting boats in the water, the lifeboats on the starboard side swing out too far to step aboard safely. While it is still possible to board the lifeboats on the port side, lowering them presents a different problem. As is typical for the period, the hull plates of RMS Lusitania are riveted, and as the lifeboats are lowered they drag on the inch high rivets, which threatens to seriously damage the boats before they land in the water.

Many lifeboats overturn while loading or lowering, spilling passengers into the sea. Others are overturned by the ship’s motion when they hit the water. RMS Lusitania has 48 lifeboats, more than enough for all the crew and passengers, but only six are successfully lowered, all from the starboard side. A few of her collapsible lifeboats wash off her decks as she sinks and provides floatation for some survivors.

There is panic and disorder on the decks. Schwieger has been observing this through U-20‘s periscope, and by 2:25 PM, he drops the periscope and heads out to sea.

Captain Turner is on the deck near the bridge clutching the ship’s logbook and charts when a wave sweeps upward towards the bridge and the rest of the ship’s forward superstructure, knocking him overboard into the sea. He manages to swim and find a chair floating in the water which he clings to. He survives, having been pulled unconscious from the water after spending three hours there. RMS Lusitania‘s bow slams into the bottom about 330 feet below at a shallow angle because of her forward momentum as she sinks. Along the way, some boilers explode, including one that causes the third funnel to collapse. The remaining funnels collapse soon after. The ship travels about two miles from the time of the torpedoing to her final resting place, leaving a trail of debris and people behind. After her bow sinks completely, RMS Lusitania‘s stern rises out of the water, enough for her propellers to be visible, and then goes under.

RMS Lusitania sinks in only 18 minutes. It takes several hours for help to arrive from the Irish coast and by that time many in the 52° F water have succumbed to the cold. By the days’ end, 764 passengers and crew from the RMS Lusitania are rescued and land at Queenstown. Eventually, the final death toll for the disaster comes to a catastrophic number. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard RMS Lusitania at the time of her sinking, 1,195 have been lost.

In the days following the disaster, the Cunard line offers local fishermen and sea merchants a cash reward for the bodies floating all throughout the Irish Sea, some floating as far away as the Welsh coast. In all, only 289 bodies are recovered, 65 of which are never identified. The bodies of many of the victims are buried at either Queenstown, where 148 bodies are interred in the Old Church Cemetery, or the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The bodies of the remaining 885 victims are never recovered.

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Death of Robert Mallet, the Father of Seismology

robert-malletRobert Mallet, geophysicist, civil engineer, and inventor who distinguishes himself in research on earthquakes and is sometimes called the Father of Seismology, dies on November 5, 1881.

Mallet is born in Dublin on June 3, 1810, the son of factory owner John Mallet. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin, entering it at the age of 16 and graduating in science and mathematics in 1830 at the age of 20.

Following his graduation, he joins his father’s iron foundry business and helps build the firm into one of the most important engineering works in Ireland, supplying ironwork for railway companies, the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, and a swing bridge over the River Shannon at Athlone. He also helps manufacture the characteristic iron railings that surround Trinity College and which bear his family name at the base.

Mallet is elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1832 at the early age of 22. He also enrolls in the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1835 which helps finance much of his research in seismology.

In 1838 he becomes a life member of the Royal Geological Society of Ireland, and serves as its President from 1846–1848. From 1848–1849 he constructs the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, southwest of Cape Clear.

On February 9, 1846 he presents to the Royal Irish Academy his paper On the Dynamics of Earthquakes, which is considered to be one of the foundations of modern seismology. He is also credited with coining the word “seismology” and other related words which he uses in his research. He also coins the term epicentre.

From 1852 to 1858, he is engaged in the preparation of his work, The Earthquake Catalogue of the British Association (1858), and carries out blasting experiments to determine the speed of seismic propagation in sand and solid rock.

On December 16, 1857, the area around Padula, Italy is devastated by the Great Neapolitan earthquake which causes 11,000 deaths. At the time it is the third largest known earthquake in the world and has been estimated to have been of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter Scale. Mallet, with letters of support from Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, petitions the Royal Society of London and receives a grant of £150 to go to Padula and record at first hand the devastation. The resulting report is presented to the Royal Society as the Report on the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857. It is a major scientific work and makes great use of the then new research tool of photography to record the devastation caused by the earthquake. In 1862, he publishes the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology in two volumes. He brings forward evidence to show that the depth below the Earth’s surface, from where the impulse of the Neapolitan earthquake originated, is about 8–9 geographical miles.

One of Mallet’s papers is Volcanic Energy: an Attempt to develop its True Origin and Cosmical Relations, in which he seeks to show that volcanic heat may be attributed to the effects of crushing, contortion, and other disturbances in the crust of the earth. The disturbances leading to the formation of lines of fracture, more or less vertical, down which water would find its way, and if the temperature generated be sufficient volcanic eruptions of steam or lava would follow.

Mallet is elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1854, and in 1861 moves to London, where he becomes a consulting engineer and edits The Practical Mechanic’s Journal. He is awarded the Telford Medal by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1859, followed by the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy for his research into the theory of earthquakes in 1862, and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1877, the Geological Society’s highest award.

Blind for the last seven years of his life, Robert Mallet dies at Stockwell, London, on November 5, 1881 and is buried at West Norwood Cemetery.