crossing on time cover

Cover image of David Macaulay’s new book, Crossing on Time.


David Macaulay, co-creator of the international bestseller The Way Things Work, brings his signature curiosity and detailing to the story of the SS United States as the crowning culmination of the centuries-long pursuit of transatlantic travel. In this meticulously researched and stunningly illustrated book, SS United States Conservancy Advisory Council member Macaulay brings his unique artistic and storytelling abilities to the quest for the “perfect ship”.

Prior to the 1800s, ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean relied on the wind in their sails to make their journeys. But invention of steam power ushered in a new era of transportation that would change ocean travel forever: the steamship.

Award-winning author-illustrator David Macaulay guides readers through the fascinating history that culminated in the building of the most advanced—and last—of these steamships: the SS United States. This book artfully explores the design and construction of the ship and the life of its designer and engineer, William Francis Gibbs.

Framed around the author’s own experience steaming across the Atlantic on the very same SS United StatesCrossing on Time is a tour de force of the art of explanation and a touching and surprising childhood story.

The book can be purchased by visiting Macmillan Publisher’s website:


In this two-page spread, Macaulay examines the interaction between the propeller and the boiler.

Click image to enlarge.

Sketches showing how the propellers, turbines, and boilers worked together to generate power. Click image to enlarge.

Gibbs’ new ship would be driven by four screw propellers each turned by a pair of turbines producing 60,000 horsepower. High temperature, high pressure boilers would superheat the steam to around 900 degrees. This would spin the blades of a high pressure turbine at 5,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). That same steam would then be piped into a larger low pressure turbine, spinning its blades at 3,500 rpm. A set of double reduction gears would link both turbine shafts to a single propeller shaft creating a ideal speed of around 200 rpm. 

Under each low pressure turbine was a condenser containing several hundred closely-spaced tubes through which cold water from below the ship was channeled. When exhausted steam passed between the tubes, it was converted back into water, creating a vacuum that drew more steam into the condenser. Water was collected in a hot well below each condenser and then pumped through various tubes for cleaning and reheating on its way back to the boiler. 

He also compares the Big U’s engine to the Queen Mary’s.

Queen Mary was equipped with single reduction gears. Her engines produced just 40,000 horsepower, she was 30 feet longer, 17 feet wider, 6 feet taller, sat 8 feet deeper in the water, and was 30,000 tons heavier. This was never going to be a fair fight.


The restored SS United States as rendered by renowned author-illustrator David Macaulay. Macaulay continues to advise the Conservancy on curatorial issues, including its forthcoming digital exhibition.  The Norman Rockwell Museum has begun planning a special exhibition that will feature David Macaulay's fascinating explorations of the SS United States, beginning with his initial shipboard encounter as a ten-year-old transatlantic passenger.

The restored SS United States as rendered by renowned author-illustrator David Macaulay. Macaulay continues to advise the Conservancy on curatorial issues, including its forthcoming digital exhibition. The Norman Rockwell Museum has begun planning a special exhibition that will feature Macaulay’s fascinating explorations of the SS United States, beginning with his initial shipboard encounter as a ten-year-old transatlantic passenger.

For me the most important reason for developing the SS United States is simply to preserve its iconic form. In other words, it’s all about the view — the elegant lines, the breathtaking scale and the bold no-nonsense colors. But this is no trivial matter. Whether she travels the sea or rests at a city pier, this ship still has the power to transport those on board and particularly those who see and approach her from a distance.

Once the fastest ocean liner in the world, built to carry presidents, movie stars and ten-year-old kids like me, just the appearance of the SS United States remains a powerful reminder of American ingenuity, vision, and skill while at the same time sparking imagination and inspiring dreams yet to be realized.

In this sketch I returned to the simplicity of the ship’s exterior to hint at the juxtaposition of this “horizontal” skyscraper against a dynamic urban context and possible port of call.


Macaulay — Stern Image #1

Here are some sketches from the stern–the business end of the United States. In number 1, I’m just trying to get the scale of everything right as I show some of the key elements such as the propellers, bossings, and rudder. The bossing is the wing-like structure that supports the propeller shaft. Since there are two propellers on each side of the ship, there are also two bossings on each side. The structure is partly disassembled here to show some of the subassemblies that make up the structure around the rudder. The space between the steel plates, depending on exactly where they are, is filled either with seawater or fuel oil.


Macaulay first introduced us to the peak tank here. In the previous post, he investigated the tank’s construction.

In the final installment of Macaulay’s peak tank series, we see the final stage of constructing the peak tank and how it is lowered onto the keel blocks. Click to enlarge the image and read Macaulay’s notes.


In the previous post, Macaulay introduced us to a very important, though rarely seen portion of the ship: the peak tank. Read it HERE.

Here, Macaulay investigates the nitty-gritty details of the peak tank’s construction. The sketch on the bottom left demonstrates the scale of the tank, which could be described as a relatively “small” part of the ship. Click the image in enlarge and read Macaulay’s notes.


“There is nowhere on the SS United States that doesn’t reward careful study and includes the things you can’t actually see,” says author-illustrator David Macaulay.

In this post, Macaulay reveals the intricate construction methods of a part of the ship that is normally under the waterline and not visible: the peak tank. Click the image to enlarge and read Macaulay’s notes.


Laying the Keel

A ship is only as sound and strong as her hull. The SS United States‘s hull was still incredibly solid – a testament to her superb engineering and construction. Here, David Macaulay explains the steps involved in assembling the her keel and hull. Click the image to enlarge.


Engine Room

This is just one of four power plants that helped give the ship its’ speed. Two sets of turbines sit at the bottom of each engine room hatch (there are two) about 120 ft below the base of each funnel. We have cold air being drawn or forced (I don’t know yet) into the engine room through ducts that line the hatch. This ocean air is in the 50s so things are kept fairly reasonable in the engine room. The exhaust air travels up the open space in the center of the shaft. I made this sketch from lots of different pieces to see how it all fits together.


Into the Funnel

Macaulay atop funnelHere is a glimpse inside one of the SS United States‘ funnels. This looks not unlike some long lost mysterious tomb. But in fact it’s just a big empty shape used to cover a purely functional sheet metal chimney. You’d never know it from the dark and dust and hints of aluminum framework, but from the outside, this funnel and its partner once conveyed the very essence of unprecedented speed.


Boiler Room Sketch

20 BurnhamAt left is a photograph of the house I grew up in. The one we left in 1957. It is the same width and height (more or less) as one of the boilers on the ship (sketch above). ONE of the eight boilers. No wonder my mother was delighted when I offered to go out and play leaving my brother and sister at home with Mom.


David shares a working sketch for his upcoming book, Ingenuity: A Journey, and explains why he chose the SS United States to be the central focus of this project.

SS United States study


Dear SS United States Conservancy friends and supporters,

Macaulay BooksI am delighted to announce that eminent author and artist David Macaulay has joined the Conservancy’s advisory council and has pledged his support for our urgent SOS Campaign to save and repurpose the SS United States. Mr. Macaulay, who immigrated to this country on board the ship at the age of ten, will be advising the Conservancy on the development of the SS United States Center for Design and Discovery. He has also kindly consented to share his perspectives on the ship’s meaning and importance while working on his latest book: a history of technology centered on the design and construction of the SS United States. His book, with the working title of Ingenuity: A Journey will be published in 2015 by David Macaulay Studio, an imprint of Roaring Brook.