By Mark Chirnside

    Ventilating, heating and lighting are very great problems to be overcome in liners, not least in a vessel the size of the Olympic; they may also be inter-twined, as portholes and windows for example provide both lighting and ventilation. Olympic’s large gymnasium windows were admired in the Shipbuilder’s 1911 ‘special number,’ while the absence of the numerous traditional cowls on the new liner’s decks – rendered superfluous by the mechanical ventilation system – only added to her beautiful, sleek magnificent streamlined profile. Sixty-four fans were installed for ventilation of the accommodation, all ‘Siroccos’ manufactured by Messrs. Davidson & Co. Ltd. and driven by Allen motors to Harland & Wolff’s specification. (1)

    All windows forward of the boat deck main entrance, in the officers’ quarters, were of the usual White Star Line pattern, equipped with metal frames; while the officers’ mess windows had teak frames, being rounder. The officers’ quarters and Marconi suite were heated by steam, but the Captain enjoyed the luxury in his quarters of electric radiators. (2) In the boat deck entrance and gymnasium, the window frames were made of teak, about one-third made to open, which were fitted with a door hook in order to allow them to be kept partially open and an ordinary house window clip to keep them closed. These large windows were two feet four inches in width, the rectangular section being three feet eleven inches long, and the arched top fifteen inches high. The rectangular panes were fourteen inches in length and 7¾ inches in width, the astragals 1¼ inches wide and the outer frame generally 1¾ inches thick.

    On A-deck, Utley’s French windows were fitted to the staterooms on the foreside of the main entrance [deckhouse], having brass frames. The A-deck grand staircase entrances, lounge and smoke room corridors were all equipped with the same windows as those fitted on the boat deck grand staircase entrance and gymnasium. The reading and writing room, lounge, smoke room and veranda café windows were described as being ‘of special make.’ Outside staterooms situated in the deckhouse forward of the grand staircase were ventilated by windows; but the interior rooms had skylights for ventilation and lighting (seen at the foot of the officers’ quarters in boat deck photographs). The fore and aft corridors were heated by steam pipes running fore and aft on the boiler room casing, while the port and starboard corridors were ventilated by trunks and a port at the fore end; the windows on the forward deckhouse wall admitted light to the fore and aft corridors. Interior staterooms were lighted by two fixed oval coaming lights. The lounge and smoke room corridors were heated and ventilated by the Thermotank system.

    As described by an observer, the B-deck deckhouse windows were as follows:

    ‘All the staterooms at the fore end, and three rooms on each side at the fore end are fitted with Utley’s vertical sliding windows, thirty-two by nineteen inches – one window to each room. The remainder of the staterooms on B-deck are fitted with vertical upward sliding windows made of teak, similar to those fitted on the Mauretania, the Cunard Company – at the request of Mr. Bruce Ismay – having supplied to Messrs. Harland & Wolff the full size working drawings of the Mauretania’s windows on B-deck. Size of clear glass 25½ by 18¾ inches. A mahogany jalousie and a cathedral glass vertical sliding window are also fitted inside – two windows to each room.’ (3)

    The rooms at the forward end of B-deck were ventilated by the windows and ventilated on the Bibby principle, while the passageways were ventilated by trunks and the windows at the fore end. Ordinary staterooms forward on B-deck were heated by electric radiators and the passageways heated by a steam pipe on the boiler room casing, while the special en-suite B-deck rooms were ventilated by their own windows, the inner rooms ventilated by trunks. Abaft the forward grand staircase, the corridors were heated and ventilated by the Thermotank system.

    C-deck staterooms forward of the grand staircase – all on the Bibby principle – were fitted with Utley’s patent pivoted oval portholes, of twenty-four by nineteen inches, one for each cabin forward, but the special suite rooms aft of the forward grand staircase entrance enjoyed the luxury of two portholes. The forward staterooms enjoyed a twenty-four by eight inch trunk fitted along the ship’s side with louvers into the rooms near the beds. Special suite rooms were ventilated by the portholes, while being heated by electric radiators; but the inside rooms were ventilated by louvers in the air trunks, being ‘heated electronically.’ As on the deck above, the fore and aft corridors were heated and ventilated by the Thermotank system. (It is worth noting at this point that ‘nearly all the first class cabins throughout’ the ship had been fitted with fans.)

    Staterooms forward of the reception room on D-deck were fitted with the same portholes as on the deck above, as was the second class dining saloon; the rooms were ventilated by the ports, but also utilised trunks under the beds at the side as on C-deck, being heated by electric radiators.

    The first class dining saloon and galley portholes were as follows: one 17½ inch glass hinged (opening) port directly above a lower nineteen inch clear glass fixed porthole. As the smaller porthole is the opening port, there are the following advantages: higher above the waterline, spray is less likely to reach it; being a smaller port, less spray would be admitted in any case; and, situated higher in the dining saloon, warmer air from the saloon rising is exuded in a greater quantity. It is interesting to note that following Olympic’s maiden voyage, two fans were installed over the gratings in the ceiling, ‘in a position about midway between the boiler [room] casings and some sixteen feet out from the middle line.’ Additional fans were placed in the middle of the saloon, in order to further assist the ventilation. Despite the porthole configuration, the saloon’s single-story design was admittedly not perfect for ventilation. Then again, on earlier liners – such as the over-gilded, turn-of-the-century lavish German speedsters of Norddeutscher Lloyd – which had vast open wells any culinary aromas were perceptible on every deck level. The porthole arrangement allowed additional lighting into the saloon, although the portholes were hidden by special glass inboard. Made of ‘Luxfer’ prismatic panes, placed in various positions, the inner part of the windows was leaded glass; when the windows were closed, the outline of the portholes was impossible to discern, their light being diffused well over the ‘whole surface of the inner glass.’ Inside the interior windows, on each side of the frame, there was a strip of ‘Linolite’ fitted, which proved very effective at night time.

    Portholes in the first and second class staterooms, as well as those in the crew quarters, on E-deck were eighteen inches in diameter; although it is interesting that the portholes were slightly smaller in diameter at the bow and stern, where they were most exposed to damage from the sea. In order to get a good circulation of air in the starboard first class amidships corridor on this deck, a door made of wire netting was fitted to get a current of air from the third class stairway; however, this proved a mixed blessing, one first class passenger noting that the noise of third class passengers swearing was obtained, rather than fresh air.

    F-deck portholes were fifteen-inch Utley’s ventilating ports in the engineers’ quarters abreast the engine room, while twelve-inch portholes – some of them Utley’s ventilating ports – serviced the remainder of the deck.

    On G-deck, the deck closest to the waterline, twelve-inch ports were fitted, a small percentage of those which serviced the third class areas being ventilating portholes.

    Throughout the ship, the air from the lavatories, galleys and pantries was exhausted by powerful fans, the inlet of fresh air being the entrances and side ports, where fitted. It is interesting that the crew galley flue on the port forecastle allowed the smell of cooking to be perceptible on the forward first class promenade, which may be a reason why it was subsequently reconfigured. All first, second and third class public rooms, second and third class accommodation and crew quarters were heated and ventilated by the Thermotank system. It is interesting, however, that apparently the Thermotank Company had nothing to do with the installation; Harland & Wolff had imitated it.

    Despite the extent of the ventilation system, it became apparent on Olympic shortly after she entered service that in places of the ship ventilation was inadequate; for example, some of the interior cabins on C and B decks – although equipped with louvers – were some distance from the fans inside and thus did not have optimum airflow. There was no trouble experienced with the working of the fans, but it was recommended that additional fans were required. (4) Many of the first class staterooms experienced uncomfortably warm air in summer. Neither could it have helped that the B-deck corridors in first class were generally tightly sealed, which may explain partly – in addition to the extra B-deck staterooms on Titanic – why the second ship’s forward B-deck wall had two doors opening onto the corridors. However, the present author is not aware of any passenger complaints regarding the ventilation subsequent to Olympic’s maiden voyage. Changes were made to the ventilation during Olympic’s 1913 refit to rectify any problems, while it is known Britannic’s systems differed significantly; but those are another story, beyond the scope of this brief article.


    • (1) ‘Olympic & Titanic: Ocean Liners of the Past,’ Epilogue by John Maxtone-Graham, Amereon House, 1995; page 106.
    • (2) Five-hundred-and-twenty electric radiators were installed throughout Olympic, all ‘of the Promotheus type’ and taking a collective current of more than five thousand amperes. (Op. cit.: ‘Olympic & Titanic…’ page 112.)

    • (3) Naval Architect Leonard Peskett’s observation, August 1911.

    • (4) Chief Engineer Joseph Bell, June 24th 1911 recommendation to Superintendent Engineer Blake, forwarded to Messrs. Ismay, Imrie & Co., 30 James Street, Liverpool.

    About the author: Mark Chirnside is an A/As-levels Student in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England. He has been interested in the Titanic since 1993 and since then conducted much research into the ‘Olympic’ class liners, amongst other things writing articles for the British Titanic Society’s ‘Atlantic Daily Bulletin’ and the Encyclopedia Titanica website.

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