Now that all the hullabaloo surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is receding, the story of Morgan Robertson remains one of the more intriguing episodes connected to our enduring fascination with this epic tragedy.
Skeptics and mythbusters love to reduce coincidences to simple studies in mathematical probability. Many point out how any writer concocting a story about the largest ship on the seven seas would have likely used “Titan” or “Titanic” as the name of such a ship. Others point out how commonplace shipwrecks from submerged icebergs were in the North Atlantic shipping lanes prior to the development of radar technology. And with Morgan Robertson being a retired merchant seaman, it also increases the likelihood he might imagine a tragedy in which a mammoth ship touted as ‘unsinkable’ would elect to carry only the minimum number of lifeboats required by law – rather than a sufficient number to keep all of its passengers alive in the event of an unthinkable catastrophe.
But as Carl Jung posited in his writings on synchronicity, it’s not just a single coincidence but a string of them that tends to spark our innate curiosity. As we all learned in middle school mathematics, multiplying fractions results in an even lower fraction. If each coincidence in a string had, say, a 33% probability (i.e., Robertson had a 33% chance of calling his ship “Titan”, there was a 33% chance he would imagine the ship striking an iceberg, a 33% chance he would choose the impact to be on the forward starboard side, a 33% chance he would choose the month of April, at night, 400 miles from the coast of Greenland, and so on) – 33% – or 1/3 – multiplied just 7 times reduces the probability over a series of coincidences to 1/37, or 1 out of 2,187 chances that the elements in his story would take place in the real world 14 years after he wrote The Wreck of the Titan. In comparing Robertson’s 1898 novella to accounts of the real sinking of the Titanic, I count at least a dozen such coincidences.
But things get even more intriguing when you consider this wasn’t the only time in which Robertson appears to have presaged the future. For starters, in his 1905 novel The Submarine Destroyer he describes a submarine that uses a device called the periscope. For the rest of his life, Robertson claimed to have invented the device, insisting he had built a prototype but had been refused the patent. This smacks of being a rather dubious claim, however, considering Simon Lake and Harold Grubb perfected the periscope for the Navy in 1902 – 3 years before his novel was published.
However, strange as it seems there was yet another story written by Morgan Robertson published in 1914 that further extends this writer’s extraordinary string of fortune telling coincidences. In a short story entitled “Beyond the Spectrum” he envisioned a war in the future between the United States and Japan in which the Japanese, rather than openly declaring war, launch a surprise attack on San Francisco. Although it’s a stretch, some have also noted that he also describes an ultraviolet searchlight weapon used by the Japanese to blind enemy crews, the effects (intense heat, facial burns, blindness) being remarkably similar to those suffered by atomic blast victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While he may not have predicted the future, he certainly affected it with his novella Primordia | Three Laws and the Golden Rule, a story of shipwrecked children who grew up together and fell in love which clearly influenced Henry de Vere Stacpoole’s Blue Lagoon and even Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.
Whether or not Morgan Robertson possessed second sight, he is nonetheless a remarkably fascinating character, one who will forever be linked by strange association with the most captivating tragedy in history.