WILLIAM FRANCIS GIBBS
The story of the SS United States is also the story of brilliant marine engineer and naval architect who brought her into being. To say that William Francis Gibbs had a long-running love affair with a ship would be, quite frankly, an understatement. Salty-tongued, superstitious, and with no formal training in the field, he quit his job in real-estate law in 1916 to devote himself to designing the world’s fastest ship. He passionately—and secretly—read the latest professional journals and observed the largest and fastest ships of the day. So secret were his plans, there were few people who believed he would succeed.
Fortunately, one exception proved to be J.P. Morgan, Jr., one of the directors of the International Mercantile Marine (IMM). After only one meeting with William Francis Gibbs and his brother Frederic, his business partner and collaborator, Morgan offered to finance the construction of their two liners. Within a year, however, the nation’s entry into World War One derailed their plans. IMM’s interest then waned as the company faced increasing financial difficulty due to the decrease in commercial shipping during these years. Gibbs, however, did not give up. When it was announced that the requisitioned German superliner Vaterland would remain in American hands and become the largest American-flagged liner on the Atlantic run, Gibbs was put in charge of assembling the plans for the ship’s renovation. In his final report, he sneakily included a clause within the 1,024 page document granting him full project oversight. All work would be completed to Gibbs’ exhaustive standards.
The 1920s were heady years for Gibbs, if not American shipping. The Vaterland, renamed Leviathan per the suggestion of President Woodrow Wilson, went on to a career with the new United States Lines. This was a mid-size company operating several small ships in addition to the reconditioned German vessel, which at the time, was the largest moving object in the world.
GIBBS & COX
Gibbs Brothers, renamed Gibbs & Cox in 1929, designed several small but highly original ships, culminating in the SS America, launched for the United States Lines on the same day Hitler invaded Poland. None of these ships were anything close to being the record-breaker of which Gibbs had long dreamed of building, but he continued keep abreast of the latest advances in marine engineering, often covertly. For example, when the French liner Normandie docked in New York for the first time, Gibbs took his assistant Norman Zippler on what was ostensibly a tour of the ship’s public spaces. At the first opportunity, they bolted for a crew door, and spent the next several hours alternately exploring the ship’s off-limits engine rooms and dodging her crew. Afterwards, Gibbs recited everything he remembered about the ship’s technological specifications to the note-taking Zippler – for three and a half hours straight. Even when his grand plans were once again delayed by another world war, building a record-breaking ship of his own was never far from his mind.
As it did for the entire nation, this new conflict proved the mettle of which Gibbs was made. Across the country, the war effort jumpstarted a second industrial revolution. Gibbs, naturally, made sure these advances reached the shipping industry. Even before the United States entered the conflict, Gibbs had been designing high-capacity cargo ships that could be built quickly for Great Britain. The U.S. Navy took note, and later asked him to design a similar type of vessel for American use, which became the “Liberty Ship” project. These vessels were the first mass-produced shipping in modern history. By using techniques employed by the automobile industry, and contracting for parts around the country, Gibbs achieved mass-production in marine engineering. Construction time for vessels in general was cut down from years to a matter of months: by the time the war ended, a Liberty Ship could be built, start to finish, in forty-two days!
KEEL LAYING TO GRAVING DOCK
With the end of the war, Gibbs’ plans for the “Big Ship” were revived. The economic, political and technological conditions were finally aligned. The United States Lines needed a running mate for the America, finally starting its intended career as a trans-Atlantic liner. The U.S. government also realized the value of having luxury liners that could be converted into troop ships, as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had done during the war. When the military conflict in Korea escalated in the late 1940s, the US government agreed to subsidize a large part of the new liner’s cost and operating expenses, with the understanding that it could be requisitioned for military purposes.
The ship’s keel was laid on February 8th, 1950 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, one of the most well respected shipyards on the East Coast, with a long history of contracts with the U.S. Navy. The ship that would become known as the SS United States became the first major liner to be built in a dry dock, which both simplified the construction process and facilitated William Francis Gibbs’ obsession with secrecy.
Dry dock construction was not Gibbs’ only introduction of new shipbuilding techniques for the United States. The design incorporated the most rigid U.S. Navy standards, including strict compartmentalization to combat flooding, and dual engine rooms to provide power in case one was immobilized. The low and graceful superstructure was built entirely in aluminum, which gave the ship a dead weight of 45,400 long tons, compared to the 77,000 long tons for the similarly sized Cunard Queens. Her lighter weight allowed her to take full advantage of the astonishing 247,785 horsepower produced by her turbines. Unusually, all of her engine spaces were complete on her launch, thanks both to being built in a dry dock and Gibbs’ introduction of modular construction, which cut down the construction time to sixteen months. Over 3,100 shipyard workers took the project from keel laying to delivery date in an astounding two years and three months.
NEXT: The Glory Years