It is odd that the centenaries of two very different British national tragedies occur within just over a fortnight of each other. Spring 1912 must have seemed like a time of sadness to many – even if, looking back, we know now that it was the calm before a storm that would bring tragedy on a far greater scale.
Last week marked the centenary of the deaths of Captain Scott and his party on their return from the South Pole. Next week sees the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic with the loss of 1,514 lives.
At first glance, these two famous events seem to have little in common apart from their timing. The Scott expedition is traditionally seen as a classic example of brave men giving their lives in a dangerous endeavour, while the Titanic disaster is usually portrayed as a case study in arrogance and stupidity. What they have in common is that they both illustrate two great contradictory truths that apply to all enterprises – including businesses.
The first great lesson is that one can never be too prepared. Contrary to recent attempts at revisionism, Scott was meticulous in his preparations, but if he had stocked his supply depots below the Beardmore Glacier with just a bit more food and oil – evaporation was worse than anyone had foreseen – he would probably have survived. If the Titanic had more lifeboats, her sinking might have led to little loss of life, because it was a calm night and those in the lifeboats were picked up safely soon after. Perhaps she might not have hit the iceberg in the first place if someone had known where the binoculars for the lookouts were kept – they were in fact in the locker of an officer who had left the ship. Some dispute whether the binoculars would have made that much difference, but the point is still valid that the difference between triumph and disaster can come down to tiny details like that.
Yet, no matter how prepared one may be, and no matter how detailed those preparations, there will always be factors one cannot foresee or control. This is the second great truth. One can and should minimise risk, but one can never eliminate it completely. Scott was not to know that 1912 was a year of unusually harsh weather conditions in the Antarctic: almost any other year and his calculations would have been vindicated. At the same time, Captain Smith of the Titanic was a victim of the opposite effect on the other side of the world, as a relatively mild Arctic winter melted the ice and brought more big bergs than usual south into the main shipping lanes.
People who miss the point might still criticise Smith for going too fast and Scott for risking his men on such knife-edge calculations. Ocean liners are built to go fast and polar exploration is, by its very nature, a dangerous activity. If their critics had their way, both Captains would have stayed safely at home – and their homes would have been caves, because there would have been no human progress without men prepared to take risks.