Those (Coal Powered) Edwardian Oceanliners Accidents Waiting To Happen?

I was looking though yet ANOTHER book on the RMS Titanic disaster-one photo struck me as astounding. It was the stokers in the engine room-shoveling coal into the fireboxes. The main thing was, every inch of the compartment was coated with coal dust-the room was filthy with it. Coal dust is extremely dangerous-it can explode if a large enough static electric charge is present.
Now, most ships in 1912 were powered by coal (oil cam along a few years later). Were coal dust explosions common in that era? The sinking of the Lusitania (1916)-caused by a torpedo, was probably exacerbated by a coal dust explosion. Is there any evidence that a ship like the Titnic could have suffered hull failure , due to such an explosion?

I don’t recall any mentions of coal dust explosions as a factor; usually explosions on steamships were caused by boilers bursting. (The Luisitania, BTW, was carrying ammunition, which is a more likely cause for the second explosion). I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but by the time the Titanic was launched the cause of coal dust explosions were well known, and safety lamps had been used in mining for some time.

A few misconceptions here. First off, coal dust in and of itself is not explosive. I have worked at more than 500 coal-fired power plants around the world, as well as coal terminals, blending facilities, cleaning plants, mines, etc. Coal dust generally is non-explosive unless and until it is suspended in the air, and in the right proportions. When coal dust explosions occur, they are very often a secondary explosion. The first or primary explosion occurs from methane or CO or gasoline fumes, and the shock from this explosion kicks the coal dust on the floors, beams, equipment, etc. up into the air. At that point, what can happen is a burning piece of wreckage from the first explosion, or a hot spot, ignites the coal dust - and then you get the big explosion.

So no, a simple static charge will not cause a coal dust explosion unless there are other factors at play.

And the truth is, although some photos show incredibly dirty boiler rooms, there probably was not all that much coal dust at any given time. Housekeeping measures existed even in Victorian times, if for no other reason than the coal dust was a good source of energy, and was shoveled from its piles into the furnace as well.

For normal fires, there is the standard triangle (fuel, heat and oxidizer). For dust explosions there are two other factors making it a pentagon : dispersion of the dust in requisite amounts and a confined space. Read here

I believe the last two factors are not present in coal powered ships (especially the last one).

Another factor to consider is coal itself. There are different ranks of coal - Anthracite, Bituminous, Sub-Bituminous, Lignite (in order of decreasing rank). The higher the rank, the higher the heating value but the lower the reactivity. Typically ships would have used bituminous coal (anthracite is hard ) which is not so reactive. Sub-bituminous coal is higher in reactivity and contains inherent oxygen and is subject to spontaneous fires. Sub-bituminous coal requires more fire supression (spraying of water/fire retardant on conveyors, monitoring coal piles with IR cameras to spot hot spots, etc.).

mind you some ships did have a long burning coal fire, which could only be putting out by flooding the coal storage area.

There was an issue of bunker fires, but that was down to a different cause.

Back in the 1980s, maybe, one of the theories floated about the Lusitania was that the torpedo struck a coal bunker that was mostly empty, resulting in a ‘coal dust explosion.’ Robert Ballard thought that was a possiblity (at the time, anyway). Don’t remember the details, or whether anyone thinks that idea still holds water.

it did hold water.

Another thing is that even though the boiler rooms may have been dirty as hell, that coal dust was probably coarser than what would remain suspended in the air and possibly explode.

How much coal dust is really going to be suspended in the air by a bunch of guys with shovels anyway?

Nitpcik: the latter is true, the former not universally so on an as-received basis. I have Korean and Spanish anthracites here which are lower in heat content than PRB sub-bituminous coal. See the definitions in ASTM D388.

I also recall reading that those old time flour mills often were built with walls having big gaps-so that the explosive force could dissipate. Apparently flour will ignite and explode as well. The Lusitania did experience a secondary explosion, after the torpedo hit-there are several theories:
-a massive cola dust explosion. This is possible, as the bunkers were almost empty
-exploding ammunition (would lots of rifle cartridges do this?
In any case, the “black gang” (stokers) got black very quickly-there was a lot of coal dust floating around.

Something I remember the first time i saw Cameron’s Titanic, the scene of the ship first getting underway as they cut to all the different parts of the ship and the activity going on therein, when he showed the dozens of guys shoveling coal in the hellish boiler room I thought, “Oh yeah, those things were still using coal!” The image immediately struck me as sort of being akin to galley slaves rowing the ship. Even though A) I know Roman galleys weren’t rowed by slaves, and B) The Titanic stokers were of course paid employees, it still struck my the contrast of all this early 20[sup]th[/sup] modernity, in the end that huge ship was being powered ‘by hand’! It was nice foreshadowing of its ultimate, simple, ‘low-tech’ demise…

Nothing but the best for our Una, nee Anthracite!

Jeeze, what’s it been, ten years? My mind is truly packed with useless information. :frowning:

People still call me Anthracite. I don’t mind at all.

Smallarms ammunition will not do this.

Coal itself preserves five-eighths of the buoyancy of the bunker compartment, leaving only three-eighths to be removed from the (full) bunker by the seawater flooding into it.

It’s never been proven one way or another that the Lusitania was carrying actual illegal ammunition. The ammunition that WAS being carried was legal, and would not have caused an explosion, according to most experts. Both the coal dust explosion and the boiler explosion (heat meeting cold water), are more possible explanations.

Lusitania was known to be carrying a cargo of dangerous munitions, in contravention of the rules of war. However the published information limited this contraband to rifle/machine-gun ammunition, shrapnel artillery shells without powder charges and artillery fuses. Later sources have stated that the cargo also included 46 tons of aluminium powder, which was used in the manufacture of explosives and which was being shipped to the Woolwich Arsenal.[62][63] Some sources state that the Lusitania was also carrying a large quantity of nitrocellulose (gun cotton), although this was not listed as such on the cargo manifest either.[66][67] 200 tons of extra ammunition had allegedly been taken on from another merchant ship, the SS Queen Margaret, the night before the Lusitania departed from New York, which extra cargo was never entered onto the manifests.[68] The cargo manifest lists many tons of lard, butter and cheese, which were not stored in refrigerated spaces although the journey would take many days. These many tons of perishable products were destined for the Royal Navy’s Weapons Testing Establishment at Shoeburyness, Essex. Doubt has been raised about why such a facility would need so much butter and cheese, and why it was shipped specially to them, thus creating doubt that the materials were truthfully identified to begin with.

And the “sporting rifle” ammo that was on board, was for the .303 Enfield, which by some odd co-inidink was the same round used in the British battle rifle.:eek:

The article on the sinkingsounds more reliable. The portion you quoted sounds more speculative and sensationalist.

Bolding mine.

Our local library has Ballard’s book on the Lusitania. I think I’ll check it out the next time I’m there.

Legal under American shipping regulations maybe, but still contraband, and thus a lega target for a U- boot.