As the world memorializes the one hundredth anniversary of the loss of the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic, let us take a moment to remember the man who memorialized the tragedy before it happened.
His name was Morgan Robertson. He was an author with a passion for the sea. In a 1905 review of his work, THE NEW YORK TIMES referred to Mr. Robertson admiringly as the “Kipling of the Sea,” meaning he did for the water what Rudyard Kipling did for the wilderness in THE JUNGLE BOOK.
In 1898, Mr. Robertson was an up-and-coming writer when he first published FUTILITY, a short novel about a giant ocean liner with a grim destiny. That vessel’s name? Titan. In Robertson’s story, published 14 years before the Titanic sank, the Titan also struck an iceberg on a fateful April night. Though the description of the shipwreck doesn’t amount to more than a couple pages, the similarities to the Titanic were striking, including the rough length of the ship, which was 800 feet vs. the Titanic’s 890 feet, as well as the passenger count of 3000.
Were the similarities purely coincidental? Or did the author claim to possess uncanny abilities?
Mr. Robertson himself explained his process best, and he did so quite eerily. In an interview published on September 11, 1904 in the NEW YORK TIMES, Mr. Robertson describes his creative process:
“Over night I think hard on a story. I go to bed full of it. In the morning I try to take as long a time as possible to wake up — to remain in a state half way between, neither truly sleeping nor really waking. In such an intermediate and indeterminate condition, what I take to be the same thing in me that the psychologists call ‘subliminal consciousness’ gets in touch with the matter of the story as my brain fully awake would never get in touch with it. I do not believe in haunting spirits, lingering ghosts of the dead, holding communication with the living, but I am convinced that in the particular state of mind I’m talking about I do somehow, by some sort of telepathic process, catch something from living non-present persons whose minds are busy with the same idea.”
Based on this description, it’s safe to assume Mr. Robertson deemed himself an accidental psychic, not a precognitive fortune teller with the ability to foretell events, but a “telepathic,” long-distance mind reader. With spiritualism as popular then as it is now, THE NEW YORK TIMES asked him if he was referring at all to a haunted realm of advisorial phantoms. He replied:
“I only say that my own experience of this curious subconscious, so-called telepathic source of information, or rather of feelings of which one has had no experience, extends only to what may well be credited to such as are our contemporaries of the flesh.”
Notably, when Mr. Robertson was writing FUTILITY in the late 1890s, the White Star Line had not yet begun construction on the Titanic. Nor were the ships even designed yet. As to whether or not ships’ designers were thinking of the ships yet, and hence providing Mr. Robertson with the “telepathic” foothold to predict a disaster, no one can know.
In 1912, the publisher hastily repackaged the book and retitled it “FUTILITY, OR THE WRECK OF THE TITAN.” In the wake of the real-life tragedy, the book was a sudden hit, and the biggest success of Mr. Robertson’s career. Mr. Robertson died just a few years later on March 24, 1915.