Returning home after a day out in the heart of the city I got through a ritual familiar to many: I unpack my pockets.
I put my wallet and keys in their place, gather together the receipts that record where I spent my money that day, drop the change I find into a jar, and occasionally stop to wonder just what it is I’ve found.
Perhaps it’s a button, a piece of plastic, or a ticket stub. I’m sure it must’ve been important when I dropped it in my jacket pocket but now, at the end of the day or the end of the week, it’s hard to remember why I wanted to hang on to it at all.
I’m sure I am not the only one who finds these little things in their pockets, in their purse, or tucked away in the corner of an old suitcase. Indeed, I’m willing to bet it happens to almost everyone from time to time and that it is so unremarkable that we barely give it a second thought.
Yet these things that find their way into our pockets aren’t always so inconsequential – ask David Blair.
From Scotland to San Francisco
David Blair was born in Dundee, Scotland in November 1974. He always had a fascination with the sea and would even spend a significant time working off San Francisco for White Star Line shipping company. The San Francisco Call, a now-defunct newspaper that would merge with the San Francisco Examiner, reported that Blair was well liked in shipping industry on the west coast and had “established a reputation for conscientious attention to duty and loyalty to the interests of the White Star Line”.
Blair left San Francisco to return to England where his fiancée was awaiting his return so they could finally be married. A new life awaited him, but he remained loyal to White Star Lines and was eventually appointed Second Officer on a new ship being built by the company in Belfast.
Blair was part of the team that steered the new ship through its sea trials and prepared it for its first passenger cruise. However, at the last minute, Blair was replaced as Second Officer by Henry Wilde, the Second Officer on another White Star ship, who the company felt had more experience in helping to manage such a large vessel on its maiden voyage.
And so it was that David Blair did not depart from Southampton as planned on 10 April 1912 and, instead, watched as the RMS Titanic turned towards the horizon and the distant New York City.
David Blair’s Binoculars
In hindsight we might image that Blair would count himself lucky not to have been on board the Titanic – but for some David Blair is less lucky-to-be-alive and more in-part-responsible for the disaster that befell the ship.
You see when Blair was informed he would be replaced by Henry Wilde as the ship’s Second Officer he did the responsible thing: tidied his post, made sure all the resources Wilde would need were on hand, and locked expensive and fragile tools, such as the binoculars used to spot icebergs from the crow’s nest, in the Second Officer’s storage locker.
He then pocketed the key and forgot all about it.
It’s unclear when Blair realized that he had held on to the key from the storage locker, but an investigation of the sinking of the Titanic revealed that the ship’s lookouts had been told shortly after departure that the ship had no binoculars on board.
The binoculars, of course, would have come in more than a little handy in spotting the iceberg that sunk the ship early on the morning of 15 April 1912 in the north Atlantic Ocean.
By some reckonings, had Blair simply remembered to pass on the key to the storage locker to his replacement then the ship would not have sunk. As one of the lookouts would later testify to the US Congress, while he couldn’t be sure when the iceberg would’ve been spotted, he was sure it would have been early enough to enable to ship to avoid it. This to me is a memorable demonstration of how very small events or actions can have incredibly significant impacts – in this case, we can even say titanic impacts.
Though the voyage of the Titanic is most likely to be remembered today as a Leonardo DiCaprio movie rather than a historical event, it was first and foremost a business proposition. The Titanic didn’t set out for New York for no reason, it did so because White Star Lines knew there was money to be made in Atlantic crossings. Their business model might have seemed simple to an outsider – buy boat, sell tickets, transport passengers, profit – but it existed in a complex system of maritime investment, insurance, regulation, social trends, human resources, metal prices, weather patterns and, yes, iceberg calving.
Predicting the impact of any small event in such a complex system is impossible, but this does not mean that such systems cannot be modeled and predicted at all. Indeed, today we have the technology that can help businesses take their complex environments, understand the complexity inherent in them, and determine the very best decision to take in the context of that complexity.
From Titanic to Tesiro
The key that David Blair absentmindedly kept that, in part, contributed to the sinking of the Titanic a hundred years ago is today to be found in Nanjing, China.
The key was bought at auction for more than $150,000 by Shen Dongjun, the CEO of jewellery firm Tesiro, and the money Shen paid for the key was used to fund scholarships and bursaries in The Philippines in Blair’s name from the International Sailor’s Society. The money has helped the Society provide school transport for dozens of children, computers and internet access for three different schools, and even fund the purchase of school boats to ferry children to their lessons each day.
And so, from the crow’s nest of the Titanic to the showroom at Tesiro and onto the classrooms of The Philippines, David Blair’s key has had an impact on the lives, bank accounts, and schooling of people the world over for more than a century. With the interconnections between companies and individuals only growing deeper and more numerous in this global landscape, we can expect more stories like that of the David Blair key to emerge, and we must begin to embrace the technologies that already exist that will help us predict the next Titanic before that disaster happens.