The plans for building the Titanic began years before the ship sailed. At a London dinner party in 1907, two men decided to create three huge ocean liners. The men were J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line of passenger ships, and Lord Pirrie, the chairman of Harland and Wolff shipbuilders. As more people crossed the Atlantic—some for the experience, others to start a new life in America—The White Star Line had to compete with other lines to attract passengers. The ships Pirrie and Ismay built offered lower prices for third class tickets and luxury accommodations for wealthy passengers. That evening, they sketched out plans for three ships, Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic. They enlisted Pirrie’s nephew Thomas Andrews to design the Titanic.
Work on the Titanic began on March 31, 1909, in the Belfast, Ireland shipyards of Harland and Wolff. The keel, the bottom center part of the ship, was built first, followed by the frame of the hull, which was made of overlapping steel plates and fastened by over 3 million rivets put in by hand. To do the work, men stood on scaffolding that stood hundreds of feet high. After the keel and hull were finished, the Titanic was moved into the water for its “fitting out.” Fitting out meant putting the finishing touches on the ship, including adding propellers and installing the engines. On April 10, 1912, passengers boarded the ship. At the time, the Titanic was the largest ship in the world, as long as four city blocks and as tall as an eleven-story building.
Obviously, many laborers were needed to build such an impressive ship. Over four thousand men worked on the Titanic, putting in such long hours that they had to pack both breakfast and lunch before they left home. Shipbuilding in the early 1900s was dangerous. Eight people died while working on the Titanic, some from falls, others from equipment collapsing on top of them. Shipbuilders received slightly better than average salaries for the time period ($10 a week), but the pay wasn’t always consistent. Dick Sweeney’s relatives worked on the Titanic as riveters. Sweeney explained how riveters were paid: “They’d do about 200 rivets a day in the Titanic time, provided it didn’t rain. If it did, the wet horn would sound and they all had to go home. For the time they had to be at home, they didn’t get paid, they were paid from horn to horn by the number of rivets they put in.”
Ironically, working on the Titanic proved to be safer than traveling as a passenger or crewmember in the supposedly unsinkable ship. The Titanic struck an iceberg at night on April 14, 1912 and sank early the following morning. Out of 2,200 people onboard, only 705 survived.