Brian Flinn Part of History Channel’s Titanic documentary

Research Associate Professor Brian Flinn used his expertise in materials testing and failure to help carry out the failed-rivet experiment in the History Channel’s Titanic documentary.









UW Today
April 13, 2012


History Channel’s Titanic documentary features UW engineers
By Hannah Hickey
UW News and Information


A hundred years ago this Sunday, a luxury ocean liner billed as “unsinkable” hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage. The Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic, leaving more than 1,500 passengers and crew dead. On this weekend’s centennial, many are revisiting the story of the disaster and trying to piece together how it happened.

Two University of Washington engineers play a key role in a documentary airing for the first time Sunday on the History Channel. The program sets out to test a leading theory about why the ship sank – that substandard rivets failed and caused the hull to rip open. The program follows a 2010 expedition by a group of researchers and naval historians to create the first complete map of the 15-square-mile wreck site. Experts studied the maps to come up with new theories about why the ship failed.

Last fall, naval historians traveled to Seattle with a camera crew to test the failed-rivet theory. Brian Flinn, a UW research associate professor of materials science and engineering, used his expertise in materials testing and failure to help carry out the experiment. The historians first obtained aged steel from a ship built in the same era as the Titanic that sank in Puget Sound.“If you just went and bought normal steel today, it wouldn't behave in the same way,” Flinn said. “The chemistry of steel has evolved quite a bit over time.”

Ballard Forge then replicated the joint geometry of that time to recreate a section of the hull, and created three samples about the size of a large door. “Some of the previous work had only tested relatively small mock samples, maybe 10 or 12 inches long, with a few rivets,” Flinn said. “What they wanted to do was a much bigger sample, with much more complex joint geometry.”

Testing took place in the UW’s Structural Research Laboratory. The lab’s three-story Baldwin machine can apply up to 2.4 million pounds of pressure to samples as tall as 25 feet. Vongsant “Vince” Chaijaroen, longtime manager of the structures lab, operated the machine, moved samples with a forklift and welded pieces to hold them in different geometries. The team tested three different geometries with different rivets, consulting between tests to refine their technique. Their results, while not rigorous enough for publication in a scientific journal, suggest that the rivet theory might not be the only explanation for why the Titanic sank.

“It was really fun to be able to test these materials that were made 100 years ago, and able to reform them and make these fairly accurate samples to represent how that material would behave,” Flinn said. The tests last year were done on the sly, and the conclusion of the show is under tight wraps. National reviewers were unable to view the last 15 minutes, and neither Flinn nor Chaijaroen has seen the whole program. The two UW engineers will join scores of other viewers Sunday night to see the results.
“Of course, I will be watching,” Chaijaroen said. “That's something that I'm not going to miss.”


For more information, contact Flinn at 206-616-9068 or and Chaijaroen at or 206-543-7433.

More information about the Titanic:

UW Today story on the Structural Research Lab

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