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No. 421:
Steamer, United States

Today, we meet a faded beauty, born 30 years too late. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Normandie and the Queen Mary were the great ships of my child-dreams -- the grandest whales in the sea. Then the steamer United States outstripped them. The United States now sits at a dock in Norfolk -- a sorry sight, idle and rusted. She is a great glory of a boat, built too late in human history.

Her designer, William Gibbs, worked on the great ships of the 1930s. He designed the steamship America in 1938. It was then our largest liner -- a turbine-driven ship, with many new features. Then, as WW-II wound down, he conceived the greatest liner of them all. The United States was to be 990 feet long. That was still a hair shorter than the Queen Mary, but length was far from the whole story.

When the United States went into production in 1946, Gibbs poured an arsenal of new ideas into it. Aluminum had become much easier to get, and he used 2200 tons of it. He also used new high-strength steels. Older ships had teak floors, but teak weighed ten pounds a sqare foot. Gibbs got rid of it. He also got rid of most of the wood. He created a really fire-proof ship.

The United States was light. Add to that a superb hull design and a quarter-million horsepower drive, and you had the fastest liner on the seas. The ratio of horsepower to displaced tonnage was two for the Queen Mary. Gibbs beefed that up to more than five for the United States.

On her maiden voyage from New York to England in 1952, she cut ten hours off the best time for the trip. She averaged 41 miles per hour. She ushered in a new era in passenger service. But airplanes were already humming overhead. In the end, she was the last and most beautiful of the dinosaurs.

So journalist Edward Crews walks her silent, decaying decks at her Norfolk mooring. He writes with real anguish, "her furnishings ... gone ... paint peeling ... [It is] a trip into a disheveled time capsule."

The crew posted signs now and again during the Atlantic crossing: "Clocks will be advanced 60 minutes tonight." And so she gentled her passengers through the time lag. Now we cross the sea in ten hours, packed like sardines in a fast airplane. We hurry toward two days of disorientation in a strange land.

Gibbs was a great designer, but he was blind to the air above him. We've heard this story before. The best machines are often made by people whose vision is fixed on their machine. All too often the best of a technology arrives after its day is done.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Crews, E.R., The Big Ship. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring/Summer 1990, pp. 34-41.