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The Designer of the Last Great Liner



Rob Hardy


Everyone knows that transportation is faster than ever. It used to be that it would take at least six weeks (and often much more) to sail from Britain to the United States. When the first steam-powered passenger ship joined the service, the time was cut to a reliable fifteen days. The technology for propulsion systems, streamlining, and propellers all got better, and there was intense competition for the Atlantic trade. By 1900, a ship could cross in six days. Famously, the Titanic was sacrificed to the speed gods. By 1930, a crossing took five days. A prize was devised for the ship with the fastest speed in regular transatlantic service, the Blue Riband, and the shipping line and the country that held the prize could claim prestige unlike anything we know today. British, Italian, and French lines were getting the prize in the early decades of the twentieth century, with the famous Queen Mary seeming to have an unbreakable hold on it. The United States was simply not in the competition, until the lifelong dream of William Francis Gibbs came to pass and the SS United States claimed the Blue Riband. There is no longer a race for the prize, and Gibbs's heroic story is firmly set in a sailing era that will never come again, but it is excitingly told in A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S. S. United States (Simon and Schuster) by historian Steven Ujifusa. Gibbs was a real character, an exemplary self-made man who knew in his youth that he wanted to build the grandest of ocean liners, and by the time he was in his sixties he had made it happen. 




Ujifusa's book is a biography of Gibbs, but it is also a tribute to the great, romantic days of the passenger ship. Sure, there are plenty of cruise ships today, but they are smaller and less glamorous. Even the Queen Mary 2, the closest thing we have to a descendant of the great luxury liners, looks like a blocky apartment building set atop a ship's hull. Gibbs lived through the greatest days of the liners, and ships were part of his life starting when he was eight years old. His father, "a crafty, aggressive financier who was said to sit on more boards of directors than any other man in America," brought Gibbs and his younger brother to see the launch of the beautiful St. Louis in Philadelphia in 1894. "That was my first view of a great ship and from that day forward I dedicated my life to ships," Gibbs was to recall. 




Ships were all he was interested in, but he had to take care of other things. He started Harvard, and was not good at math. A poor student, he mostly stayed in his room drawing ships. His father went broke, but, doubting that an engineer could ever amount to much, insisted that Gibbs go to Columbia Law School and begin practicing. Gibbs dutifully did so for the prescribed period of time, but as soon as it was over, he gave up the practice of law which he hated and returned to designing ships. He was still not good at math, and he was essentially self-taught in engineering and naval architecture. He had, however, an intuitive competency about design, and he read everything he could get about hull architecture, naval engines, and everything else connected to making ships. He seems to have had something close to a photographic memory. He was not social, and if you weren't going to engage him in talk about ships, you weren't going to get any conversation at all. In 1916, he designed a liner that would be the fastest and largest in the world, and was sure to wrest the Blue Riband from Cunard's Mauretania. He may have been introverted, but he was sure enough of this project that he got J. P. Morgan, Jr., to back it. World War One intervened, however, and that design never got built. Gibbs was to continue to dream of building the great American liner, but there was plenty else to keep him busy. 




Gibbs's firm, with his brother at the financial helm, was hired not to build a liner, but to convert one. The German ship Vaterland had been seized as war spoils, and Gibbs converted it to the Leviathan for United States Lines. It was his first entry into the transatlantic liner trade, and it showed his insistence on comfort, but more on efficiency, and especially on safety. His obsession with safety meant that his hulls had especially secure designs and that he shunned the use of wood or other flammable material for decoration. He saw no sin so great as cutting corners on safety to save money. He designed midsized liners including the Malolo, aboard which were he and his brother in 1926 for its sea trials. The Malolo was rammed by a freighter, causing a huge gash in the ship with water pouring into the boiler rooms. No ship had ever sustained such damage and stayed afloat, but Gibbs's design meant that she got back to port, got repaired, and got into a long career of service. 




Gibbs was to continue to design smaller ships with great success. In World War II, his firm was responsible for most of the ships built for the Navy, and Gibbs designed the Liberty Ships, cargo transport vessels which could be built quickly; their design and deployment was to be a hallmark of the war. He never gave up his dream of making an ocean liner, however. Ujifusa details the enormous, labyrinthine difficulties of financing such an enterprise, based largely upon government subsidies since the ship would be ready to join military service as troop transport. There are many details here of the engineering of the S.S. United States, launched in 1952; many of the details, like the shape of her hull, were secret because of her option to military service. Gibbs's devotion to safety produces an especially good story. Gibbs knew that a fire at sea was the most likely and most dangerous of hazards to a ship, and artists who worked on the interior of the United States had to do so without using such flammables as canvas or wood. The obsessive Gibbs even insisted that Steinway piano-makers had to make the pianos for the ship out of aluminum. Somehow, Steinway knew that their pianos were too compressed to be kindling, and invited Gibbs for a demonstration. They poured gasoline all over one of their baby grands and set it on fire. The gasoline burned away, the piano never ignited, and Gibbs relented. 




Gibbs was an obsessive, flinty, difficult man to work with. He was a bachelor until age 41, when he married a society woman, daughter of a powerful lawyer in New York. The marriage lasted until his death, and was supportive, although both he and his wife admitted that his efforts in shipbuilding, especially the United States, were his first love. He was a neglectful father to two sons. He was asked about his relationship with his wife, and impatiently said, "My wife is beautiful, intelligent, and considerate. We get along fine. She goes her way and I go mine, so we don't see much of each other - maybe that's why." He had the mariner's superstition about women on ships, disallowing any on board the United States before she was officially ready for service, even the woman on his engineering team that designed the ship's propulsion system. He was ready to accept women or anyone else who could do the job to his exacting standards, but what he said about Elaine Kaplan reveals much: "Mrs. Kaplan to me is a complete and perfect mystery. How anybody can look the way Mrs. Kaplan looks and come up and talk to you on a technical subject is beyond me. I am not over it yet." 




The ship was an enormous success with the sailing public. Of course the United States took the Blue Riband, by a greater margin than any other ship had ever gotten it. Gibbs died in 1967 while his great vessel was still in service, but it was retired two years later. What does it matter if a Blue Riband winner can cross the ocean in less than four days when an airplane can do it in hours? It seems that no other ship will ever take the trophy from her, even though now she is tied up and rusting in a dock in Philadelphia, with her insides stripped of décor and her future obscure. Still, it was a glorious run, and this is a brilliant and entertaining account of the man who made her his dream, and made the dream a reality. 




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