David Macaulay Reflects on the SS United States

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

When individual memory fails, we need reminders to help maintain our connections with the past. When collective memory fails, which it seems to do more quickly than individual memory, we need more frequent reminders. And for a society that all too often seems to place little importance on the past, a few big reminders or perhaps just one very big reminder may be the best way of holding on to shared memory. The idea is not to cling to or mimic the past, but to mix it with the present, to make it part of our real and imagined landscape.

The sketch is an attempt to show in a single image just a few of the complexities the book will explore. These include the SS United States‘ steam turbine power plant, the subassembly construction method that helped get the ship built in approximately a year and a half, the range of spaces required to satisfy the needs of two thousand passengers and a crew of one thousand, radar system used to keep the ship safe in poor visibility, and a couple of anchors just in case.

The SS United States, the fastest ocean liner in the world, not only connected the new world with the old, but every aspect of her design, construction, and technology built on centuries of human ingenuity, countless examples of gradual improvement along with occasionally surprising innovation, and brought them all together. The result was the realization/fulfillment of one man’s obsession/dream in a three dimensional form that still stirs wonder at the first glimpse of her iconic streamlined funnels. The lesson she suggests by her very presence, is that anything is possible. We don’t have to have all the answers, we need only look back at the ingenuity of our ancestors for ideas and inspiration as we confront new problems and redefine the old ones.  Hard work and imagination will do the rest.

— David Macaulay