William Francis Gibbs's lifelong ambition was to build the biggest, fastest, safest liner ever. In A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States, Steven Ujifusa takes us back to a time when ocean liners captured the spirit and imagination of the world and Gibbs's greatest creation came to fruition. PW talked with Ujifusa about the extents of Gibbs's obsession and what made his boat such a significant achievement.
What made the SS United States so special?
Designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs, the SS United States was America’s ship of state: the fastest, safest, and most beautiful transatlantic liner ever built. Completed in 1952, she had a top speed almost 44 land miles per hour. Imagine a structure as long as the Chrysler Building is tall traveling at that speed. Boasting top-secret design features, this “anti-Titanic” could be rapidly transformed into a troopship, able to carry an entire Army division on a round trip from San Francisco to Asia without refueling. Remarkably, the SS United States is still afloat, moored at a pier in Philadelphia, a testament to the ingenuity of the men and women who built this ship to last the ages.
Specifically, what was it about transatlantic occean liners that so captured our imagination? How did they connect with the spirit of the times?
During the first half of the twentieth century, transatlantic liners were floating symbols of the nations whose flags they flew, with first class interiors rivaling or even surpassing the décor of hotels on land. Liners were the backdrop for pivotal moments in people’s lives: soldiers coming home from the front, immigrants leaving for America, loved ones parting ways (perhaps for a few months, perhaps forever). One of my grandmother’s earliest memories is seeing her older sister off at a sailing of the Cunard liner Mauretania in the 1920s, watching crowds waving and cheering as the big ship blew her whistles backed into the Hudson.
Tell us about the Blue Riband and its significance.
The Blue Riband was a symbolic award given to the ship with the fastest average crossing speed between Europe and America, and it possessed great international prestige. From 1850 to 1950, crossing times was reduced from two weeks to five days, and speeds increased from 8 knots (about 10 miles per hour) to 30 knots (35 miles per hour). It was a competition dominated by European nations until the end of World War II, when the federal government granted a generous subsidy to the United States Lines to build a high-speed record breaker that could be converted into a troopship in the event of another war: the SS United States.
What did William Francis Gibbs have in common with John Roebling and Frank Lloyd Wright?
John A. Roebling declared that his proposed Brooklyn Bridge would be, “the greatest engineering work of this continent, and of the age.” William Francis Gibbs felt similarly about the SS United States, asserting that the men and women who designed and built her “knew trying for the greatest ship in the world, and that they were doing it as trustees for the citizens of the United States.” Like Frank Lloyd Wright, William Francis Gibbs received some rudimentary formal training at the college level, but mostly learned the craft of naval architecture by personal study and hands-on experience. When someone once suggested that Gibbs loved the SS United States more than his wife, the naval architect responded flatly, “You’re one thousand percent correct!”
Researching and writing the book, did you begin to feel a personal connection to Gibbs and his dream?
As a child, I shared Gibbs’s fascination with things mechanical, and loved building ship models. Yet also like him, I was no great shakes in math! What I found so inspirational about William Francis Gibbs was how he remained dedicated to realizing a beautiful dream for over forty years. To achieve his vision, Gibbs transformed himself from a nerdy introvert into a dynamic leader, confidently striding through the corridors of power, interacting with some of the leading figures in American business, government, and the arts.