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Morgan Andrew Robertson
September 30, 1861 - March 24, 1915

 

Born in Oswego, New York, to Andrew and Ruth Amelia (Glassford) Robertson. His father was a ship captain on the Great Lakes. Morgan went to sea in the Merchant Marine Service, 1877--1886, attaining the rank of First Mate. He studied the jeweler's trade at Cooper Union in New York, and opened a small shop specializing in diamond setting.   Robertson married Alice M. Doyle on May 27, 1894. Two years later impaired eyesight forced him to give up the jeweler's trade and he was soon financially embarrassed. A newspaper reporter suggested that since he, Robertson, had been a sailor, that he might be interested in a story about the sea by Rudyard Kipling. He then gave Robertson a copy of the suggested story. Robertson noted, "...in one or two instances were the author had made slight mistakes in naming certain parts of a ship's rigging. But that story inspired me." ("Gathering No Moss, an Autobiography," by Morgan Robertson, THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, March 28, 1914)

And inspire it did. "I did not begin to write until I was thirty-six years old...." ("Gathering No Moss") His first story, "Destruction of the Unfit," he wrote on the backs of fliers he had been paid to distribute, using a stub of a pencil to write with and covered washtubs as a desk. The story was accepted for publication within two months after he wrote it, and Robertson received $25.00 in payment. But it convinced him that he could make a living as a writer. Robertson wrote over two hundred short stories and published fourteen books between 1896 and 1915.

Morgan Robertson has been in the news recently with the release of James Cameron's, TITANIC. Robertson is credited by some as having predicted the Titanic disaster of 1912 in a short story he wrote in 1898, some fourteen years before Titanic. The story in question is FUTILITY, republished in 1912 under the title, THE WRECK OF THE TITAN, or FUTILITY. "She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession and trade known to civilization." (FUTILITY, 1898)  This story has become one of the most discussed and criticized, if not prophetic, in the Twentieth Century. Did Morgan Robertson, unbeknownst to himself, actually predict the sinking of the Titanic? Or was he, like so many in the writing profession, simply writing a story with which to put food on the table?

The original version of FUTILITY told a wild tale of the fictitious ship, TITAN, that collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The casualty rate was high, survivors few in number. The Titan, like Titanic, carried too few lifeboats for her passengers and crew. Other similarities include the size of the Titan: "She was eight hundred feet long, of forty-five thousand tons displacement, and on her trial trip had steamed at the rate of twenty-five knots an hour...." (FUTILITY, 1898 version) The Titanic was 882.5 feet in length, her registered tonnage was forty-five thousand; BUT, her actual displacement was in excess of sixty-six thousand tons.

Titan boasted nineteen water-tight compartments, and could remain afloat if nine of them were flooded. The Titanic had fifteen water-tight compartments and supposedly could remain afloat if five of them filled with water. Both Titan and Titanic were believed to be "practically unsinkable." The similarities between both ships continue for the first four of five pages of the story.

After the sinking of Titanic, Robertson, or a publisher, rewrote FUTILITY and it was republished as, THE WRECK OF THE TITAN, or FUTILITY. Was Robertson trying to capitalize on the Titanic disaster?

Someone surely was. Consider the differences between the 1898 and 1912 versions of the Titan:

1898: Weight: 45,000 tons Horsepower: 40,000
1912: Weight: 70,000 tons Horsepower: 75,000

The Titanic was on her maiden voyage to the United States from Southampton. Titan was on her third RETURN trip from the United States back to Southampton. Titanic hit a "glancing blow" on the iceberg.  Titan hit it straight on and went up on the iceberg, rolling on her starboard side. The 1898 version has a dark ending which leaves our hero as the villain of the story. The 1912 version added two paragraphs to the ending and effectively makes a hero out of the hero.  Subtle differences, to say the least. But, why did Robertson make the changes? Was it to make the Titan seem even more incredibly like the Titanic? Only Robertson himself can answer those questions.   Certainly, no one can fault the man for trying to put food on the table. But, consider also Robertson's own autobiography, "Gather No Moss." In this four page article in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, Robertson spends a lot of time "tooting his own horn," if you will. He elaborates on his participation in the invention and development of the periscope. He speaks some of his own ineptitude and shortcomings.

But, nowhere in that piece of work does he mention FUTILITY, or its republication after Titanic, and that story's prediction of an actual disaster.

Robertson never made over $5,000.00 a year as a writer. That was average income in 1912. But, when you compare that to other writers, such as Zane Grey, who, in 1912 published his fifth novel, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, and garnered that author more than $50,000.00 that same year. Grey never made less than that figure, per year, for the rest of his life.

Robertson wrote volumes, most of which are available only on microfilm today. Some companies are republishing the 1912 version of THE WRECK OF THE TITAN, or FUTILITY, and are readily available at bookstores around the globe. "Beyond the Spectrum," another of Robertson's short stories, is in that anthology, and is well worth the read, as much as FUTILITY. "Beyond the Spectrum" reads like an history of events leading up to World War II, even staging war between the United States and Japan.

Joseph Conrad, classic writer and author of "The Heart of Darkness," once wrote to Robertson and told him, "Indeed, my dear sir, you are a first rate seaman--one can see that with half-an-eye." Noted author of THE GENTLEMAN FROM INDIANA, Booth Tarkington, wrote of Robertson, "His stories are bully, his sea is foamy, and his men have hair on their chests." (MCCLURES MAGAZINE, October, 1915)

Though some have rumored that Morgan Robertson committed suicide, the official cause of death was "heart disease." He had no children and was survived only by his wife and one brother.  "Some relations of the future," Morgan wrote, "...may be kind enough to point to my works with a slight feeling of pride. That is all I can hope for." Though I am no relation to Morgan Robertson, I, indeed, point to his work with pride; from one writer to another, thank you, Morgan, for the legacy you have left us.

E.D. Howard, M.A.

 

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