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Vendredi, 30 Septembre 2011 12:00

Sept. 30, 1861: A Novelist With a Nose for Disaster

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titan1861: American novelist and short-story writer Morgan Robertson is born. His 1898 novel, Futility, eerily foretells one of the 20th century’s great man-made disasters: the sinking of the Titanic.

The similarities between Futility and subsequent actual events are startling, beginning with the names of the ships. Morgan Robertson called his liner Titan, which is just a little too close for comfort. Both ships founder on an April night in the North Atlantic, each after hitting an iceberg while going too fast.

They are roughly the same size: Titan is 800 feet long, while the Titanic was only 83 feet longer. Titan displaces 45,000 tons, Titanic 46,328. Both are filled with the cream of high society from either side of the Atlantic. Both carry too few lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board. And in each case, the loss of life is appalling.

For all the similarities, there were differences, too, although they seem trifling enough in retrospect. While the Titanic was making its maiden voyage when it sank, Robertson’s ship was on its third trip across the Atlantic. Titanic was bound from Southampton, England to New York; Titan was eastbound from New York to Liverpool.

Just over 700 survivors were plucked from the North Atlantic after the Titanic sank, while only 13 souls survived Robertson’s imagination. Probably the biggest difference, though, was that the Titanic sank slowly, taking over two hours to go down, while Titan capsized and slipped beneath the waves almost immediately.

Robertson demonstrated his knack for forecasting events elsewhere, too. A collection of short stories published in 1914 includes “Beyond the Spectrum,” which posits a future war between the United States and Japan. That in itself wasn’t so unusual — other authors had tackled the same subject owing to the geopolitical climate of the times — but Robertson’s story again comes closest to foretelling actual events. In “Beyond the Spectrum,” the war begins with a surprise attack by the Japanese (although it’s American shipping that’s targeted by Robertson, not Pearl Harbor).

He also wrote a novel, The Submarine Destroyer, that featured the first mention of a periscope in fiction. Robertson, in fact, claimed to be the inventor of the device (adding that he had been denied a patent for it), but that claim didn’t, umm, hold water. By the time The Submarine Destroyer appeared in 1905, the U.S. Navy had been equipping its subs with periscopes for three years.

But there is no getting around the astounding similarities between Titan and Titanic.

Whatever fame or notoriety accrued to Robertson for his prescient novel, which was republished in the wake of Titanic’s sinking in April 1912 (and retitled The Wreck of the Titan), it apparently wasn’t enough to overcome his inner torment. Robertson is believed to have committed suicide in an Atlantic City, New Jersey hotel room in 1915, although an accidental overdose of the dubious over-the-counter medication protiodide is occasionally given as the cause of death.

Source: Wikipedia, various

Image: The cover of this edition of The Wreck of the Titan illustrates the manner in which the Titanic sank.

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