‘The Most Famous Ship that Didn’t Sink’: The Legacy of William Francis Gibbs

By Michael Deets, Public History Center Fellow, Christopher Newport University, Class of 2017
Editor: Dr. Sheri M. Shuck Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director of the Public History Center, Christopher Newport University

William Francis Gibbs (1886 – 1967) was an American maritime genius, whose most substantial accomplishment was the design of the cutting-edge ocean liner, the SS United States. She has been dubbed, “The Most Famous Ship that Didn’t Sink,” yet many people have never heard of it.[1] The SS United States was the most significant and notable achievement of merchant marine construction America had put forward as of the 1950s, or perhaps ever. She was built for passenger trans-Atlantic service on the North Atlantic, but could be quickly converted to a troop ship if needed.  Gibbs’s forward thinking design used new shipbuilding techniques and materials to build America’s flagship in 1952.

The SS United States as it arrived in New York City on June 25, 1952, Courtesy of the Associated Press

Gibbs was fascinated by ships at an early age and began to informally design maritime vessels while he was a student at Harvard studying law in 1906, even though he never had any formal training in ship design or architecture. Gibbs eventually dropped out of Harvard, but he did finish his degree at Columbia University Law School. He never loved his profession and decided he needed to do something that he had passion for: designing ships. He never understood why the United States was not competing with the Europeans when it came to building big ships and so he began dreaming of making the world’s fastest ship.

Gibbs drew the concept of the SS United States back in 1914, some thirty-five years before it actually was built. The following year William Gibbs and his brother Frederic joined the International Mercantile Marine Company.  With the backing of financier J.P. Morgan and the U.S. Navy, Gibbs and his brother began developing plans for a pair of 1,000-foot ocean liners that would be capable of producing 180,000 horsepower. A model was developed, which included many characteristics of the future SS United States.  The model was even tested in the Navy’s Taylor model tank. Unfortunately, World War I erupted and put Gibbs’ plans for a grand superliner on hold, but the seeds for the SS United States had been planted.

Captain Hartley and William Francis Gibbs

As time went on, Gibbs continuously made small adjustments to his original design.  He recognized flaws from ships like the RMS Titanic, while also observing high-tech advancements in other vessels.  Independently, he started studying academic journals in naval architecture and engineering.

William Francis Gibbs on the cover of Time Magazine, September 28, 1942. Gibbs designed thousands of naval vessels for the United States during World War II.

During World War II, while he and his firm were busy designing three-fourths of U.S. naval vessels, he had a valid argument to build a ‘big ship’ for America after seeing the value that the Queen Mary had demonstrated for big, fast transports that could carry troops across the ocean. So after the war, he went back to designing his original ultimate ship.

In order to get help financing such a large project, William Gibbs believed it would be smart to partner with the United States government. The Gibbs brothers knew the best way to gain the government funding would be to design a ship that was capable of assisting in our national defense.  The U.S. government agreed with Gibbs and worked in conjunction with the U.S. Lines to develop a ‘super ship’ to be part Cold War weapon and part luxury ocean liner. One of the main differentiating features of the SS United States was that it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a troopship capable of carrying 15,000 men in under 48 hours.

In March 1946, U.S. Lines authorized Gibbs & Cox to make plans for the super-liner. Two years later in August 1948, three major shipyards bid for the new superliner: Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company, Bethlehem Steel Corp., and New York Shipbuilding Corp. The Newport News Shipbuilding bid was for $67,350,000 with a 1,218-day delivery. In 1949 Newport News Shipping & Drydock Co. was awarded the contract and began building the new ocean liner. It would be designed to break the transatlantic crossing speed record and yet be easily converted to a troop transport ship.

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Keel of the SS United States, Newport News, 1950, Courtesy of SS United States Conservancy

With new techniques and materials that Gibbs insisted on using, the shipbuilding process for the SS United States first required extensive research and testing. The SS United States was constructed to strict U.S. Naval standards and his own stringent guidelines in a large graving dock[2] at Newport News, Virginia.  He was extremely secretive, and the graving dock helped to hide all the innovative designs and materials being used.

Five Design Principles

Several innovative principles were incorporated into the design.  The ship needed to be fireproof and compartmentalized, contain dual engine rooms, travel long distances at a high speed without refueling, and transport troops in the shortest amount of time.  It was innovative and risky.  The design of the SS United States was so advanced that the details of her construction were kept top-secret.

under construction
Under construction, Newport News shipyard, 1951, Courtesy of SS United States Conservancy. While building the SS United States, Newport News shipbuilders used more than 1.2 million aluminum rivets while laying down more than 1,500 miles of weld metal, setting a new world record for welding in shipbuilding.

  1. Fireproof

After a fire disaster in 1934 that killed many passengers aboard the passenger liner Morro Castle, Gibbs realized that tougher fire safety rules needed to be implemented on ships. He testified before Congress and served on several committees set up by Congress to improve fire safety.  William Gibbs insisted that no wood would be used in the ship’s construction or fittings because of that disaster. He even insisted that the fabrics and textiles were specially treated to be non-flammable, including fire retardant paints. There was only one exception: the ship’s grand pianos were made from a rare fire-resistant mahogany. Gibbs also made sure that the electrical system was completely insulated from the hull to make it was safe against fires. Insulation ensured that the hull carried no current. Safety clearly was the top priority

  1. Floodproof and Compartmentalized

Not only did Gibbs want the ship to be fireproof, but he also wanted her to be flood proof.  The ship was to be compartmentalized to the point that it could withstand significant damage to the hull—such as from a collision or enemy torpedo strike—without sinking. The Gibbs brothers knew from first-hand experience how important compartmentalization could be to a ship.

In 1927 during the sea trials of one of their first ships that they designed, the Mololo, a freighter collided with her, resulting in a 15-foot gash in the hull. She did not sink despite taking on over 7,000 tons of water. The Mololo retained buoyancy because of the advanced compartmentalization design along with high standards of safety. Therefore, aboard the SS United States, Gibbs designed automatic doors and many compartments that sealed off water and potential damage. The locations of these features were kept a military secret.

  1. Advanced Materials: Aluminum

Another pioneering design feature of the SS United States was the use of aluminum for the ship’s entire superstructure. The use of so much aluminum contributed substantially to the light displacement of the ship and for the fire safety concerns. More aluminum was used in the SS United States than for any construction project in history. Large portions of the ship were constructed out of about 2,000 tons of lightweight aluminum rather than steel, which saved 8,000-10,000 tons of weight.

The aluminum replaced many of the wood features that were found in other ocean liners.  Aluminum was found in everything from the walls, doors, decks, ventilation ducts, propelling levers, to the rudders and the tillers on the lifeboats including the lifeboats themselves. Gibbs went as far as to have the legs of chairs and the cabin keys made of aluminum. As he was pioneering the way aluminum was being used to build a ship, he also had to come up with a way to safely fasten all this lightweight aluminum to the steel hull. Here Gibbs made a substantial contribution to the discovery of the use of stainless steel rivets to solve this problem.

  1. Speed

The innovative design of the SS United States not only included unique structural features for extra safety, but also for speed and performance. Due to the national defense specifications that were incorporated, the SS United States was built with two engine rooms so her propulsion capability would have a backup in case of a torpedo attack or any other disaster. Having two engine rooms was revolutionary, which allowed the ship to have high-speed, long-range cruising. At the time, the only other vessel with a similar power system was the battleship USS Iowa. But, unlike the Iowa, the SS United States could cruise at high speed continuously, which was a requirement of passenger service ships.

The SS United States could travel twelve days without refueling at a speed of 35 knots.  It was the lightweight, aluminum frame along with her propulsion capabilities from two engine rooms that allowed the SS United States to claim the prestigious Blue Riband award on her maiden voyage, a prize given to the ship that travelled across the Atlantic the fastest. The SS United States first set sail on July 3, 1952 and shattered the trans-Atlantic speed record in both directions. She still holds the record for fastest passenger liner to cross the Atlantic on her return trip from England to New York with a record speed of three days, ten hours and forty minutes.

Advertisement for maiden voyage SS United States

Connections between the SS United States and Newport News, Virginia

There is still a strong connection between the SS United States and Newport News, Virginia. At the entrance wall to The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, one of the SS United States’ five-blade propellers is displayed.  The propeller still rests upon one of the ship’s original 63-foot long propeller shafts.  Carlton Abbott & Partners of Williamsburg, Virginia designed the wall entrance in 2008.  The Mariners’ Museum also holds a collection of smaller artifacts from the ship.

SS United States propeller on display at the entrance to The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA, Courtesy of Michael Deets

In addition to the SS United States artifacts at The Mariners’ Museum, Christopher Newport University in Newport News also houses an important artifact from the ship.  In 2014, the university completed a new Bell Tower that houses the bell from the SS United States.  The bell, along with other ship artifacts, was auctioned off in 1984.  Sarah Forbes bought the bell at auction and donated it to Christopher Newport University.  The bell was on display at the university’s library until the Bell Tower was completed.

Bell from the SS United States displayed in the Bell tower at Christopher Newport University, Courtesy of Michael Deets

The SS United States was the fastest, safest, and most technologically sophisticated ship of her day. Ironically, the first ship that William Francis Gibbs ever designed back in 1914 eventually became the SS United States. The design that Gibbs showed J.P. Morgan before the start of World War I was only a mere 131 inches longer and 54 inches wider than the final product. William Francis Gibbs truly built a masterpiece of American technology. It was built to last forever. For the first decade of service, the SS United States operated at ninety-percent occupancy rate. Throughout the 1950s, people from around the world traveled aboard the world’s fastest ship. Famous people of the day, including Bob Hope, Princess Grace of Monaco, Salvador Dali, Rita Hayworth, President Harry S. Truman, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Duke Ellington headlined the ship’s passenger lists.

Then in the early 1960s, U.S. Lines began to have financial trouble due to labor disputes, operating costs, and the evolution of the way people traveled. The airline industry changed travel habits, and cruise lines suffered. People preferred the speed and affordability of an airplane to the luxury and style of the ship. Unfortunately, the SS United States was only in service for seventeen years. William Francis Gibbs died on September 6, 1967, two years before the SS United States was withdrawn from service. The SS United States was kept as a reserve ship for the United States Navy until 1978, but she was never used. In July 1996, the SS United States was towed to Philadelphia. She has been docked at Pier 82 since December 1996 on the Delaware River.

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SS United States docked in Philadelphia since 1996, Courtesy of SS United States Conservancy

The SS United States was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. In July 2010, the SS United States Conservancy announced that it had received a grant from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. Lenfest that enabled them to purchase the ship as well as to upkeep her for 20 months. For the first time in the vessel’s history, a group whose primary concern is with the vessel’s historical significance and preservation was able to own her. While the Conservancy’s purchase of the SS United States saved her in the short run, she is not yet truly saved.  Funds are still needed to be raised for restoration and redevelopment of the SS United States. The Conservancy hopes that there can still be a future for the vessel.  They foresee the SS United States as a waterfront attraction, providing jobs and entertainment, while educating and inspiring future generations of innovators.

[1] Susan Gibbs, the executive director of the SS United States Conservancy, ssusc.org/letter-from-executive-director-susan-gibbs/

[2] Defined as “a large dock from which water can be pumped out, used for building ships or for repairing a ship below its waterline.” Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/graving+dock

Suggested Reading:

Braynard, Frank O.  By Their Works Ye shall Know Them. New York: Gibbs & Cox Co, 1968.

Braynard, Frank O.  The Big Ship: The Story of the SS United States. Nashville, TN: Turner Publishing Company, 2011.

Miller, William H. The Great Luxury Liners 1927-1954: A Photographic Record.

New York: Dover Publications, 1981.

Miller, William H.   S.S. United States, The Story of America’s Greatest Ocean Liner.

London: WW Norton/PSL Patrick Stephens, Ltd 1991.

Palmer, C. B. “The Building of the S.S. United States: The Nation’s Newest, Biggest and Fastest Liner is a Unique Maritime Contribution.” The New York Times.  March 30, 1952, SM14.

Ujifusa, Steven. A Man and His Ship. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

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