The White Star Line vessels Olympic and Titanic (left) under construction at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The White Star luxury liners Titanic (left) and Olympic under construction at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, Belfast.Universal History Archive/Getty Images
The White Star Line vessels Olympic and Titanic (left) under construction at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Captain of the RMS Titanic, Commander Edward J. Smith, who went down with the ship when it sank on April 15th, 1912.
The First Class Lounge on the RMS Titanic, photographed on January 4, 1912.
First Class passenger list from RMS Titanic, 1912
In a photograph taken by an Irish Jesuit, Father Francis Browne, aboard the Titanic, six-year-old Robert Douglas Spedden, plays with a spinning top while his father, Frederic, looks on.
Titanic SOS Telegram, 1912
Titanic survivors approaching the Carpathia, 1912
News of the Titanic disaster spreads in London on the day the ship went down, April 15, 1912.
Passengers aboard the Carpathia help survivors of the Titanic after plucking more than 700 out of lifeboats, April 1912.
A crowd awaits the return of survivors of the Titanic disaster, Southampton, England, April 29, 1912.
The White Star luxury liners Titanic (left) and Olympic under construction at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, Belfast.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
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Titanic: One Hundred Years Later

Feb 09, 2012

One hundred years ago, an ocean liner collided with an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. One thousand five hundred and seventeen lives were lost. Seven hundred and ten people survived.

Those are the bare, unadorned facts of the Titanic disaster. But, of course, describing that epic, endlessly fascinating and (let's face it) romantic catastrophe in such spare, soulless terms is a bit like calling Moby-Dick a tale about fishing: mere facts do not even come close to encompassing the scale of the tragedy, or explaining the astonishing hold the events of April 14-15, 1912, have long had on our collective imagination.

Titanic, LIFE BooksDiscussing why the Titanic saga still resonates today with millions of people around the globe, the editors of LIFE Books — in the new release, Titanic: The Tragedy that Shook the World: One Century Later — write of the disaster that long ago assumed the narrative lineaments of a modern myth:

"Various elements made this drama essential: Had the great ship sunk on her second or third Atlantic crossing rather than he maiden voyage, had she been just marginally less grand, had Margaret 'Molly' Brown or John Jacob Astor IV not been aboard, had the band not played as the frigid d waters rose, had the world been at war or otherwise distracted, well, the Titanic might be simply one more footnote in maritime lore. But as it is, the Titanic's is a legendary seafaring story to challenge Ahab and his Pequod.

"One hundred years later," the editors note, "we are all paying attention again. But then: We have never not paid attention."

Here, LIFE.com offers a selection of images from the book: pictures that remind us, poignantly, not only of the phenomenal, harrowing scope of the Titanic disaster, but of its human cost — a cost measured in the lives of individuals, and families, whose world was upended, forever, on a cold night in the North Atlantic one hundred years ago.

Buy the LIFE book, Titanic: The Tragedy That Shook the World: One Century Later.

Credit: Painting © 1974, Ken Marschall

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