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No. 697:
The Queen Mary

Today, we celebrate the last of a wonderful old technology. 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.

Last night I walked the endless hallways of the largest ship I ever entered. Last night I supped in a dining room on the Queen Mary. Last night I fulfilled a childhood dream.

I was only three when the Queen Mary was launched. Her statistics played tag with the French Normandie. But she was the grandest thing in the water nevertheless. She was an icon of my childhood. The words Queen Mary meant size, elegance and beauty.

Her launching announced England's emergence from the depression. The poet, John Masefield, regarded that great mountain of iron with a keen sense of the engineer's heart. He wrote,

For ages you were rock, far below light,
Crushed, without shape, earth's unregarded bone. . . .
Then Man in all the marvel of his thought,
Smithied you into form of leap and curve;
And took you, so, and bent you to his vast,
Intense great world of passionate design.

So she came to life: 80,000 tons; almost as long as the Empire State Building; 2000 passengers served by a thousand crew members; sluicing ahead at 36 miles an hour. Masefield goes on:/p>

Parting the seas sunder in a surge,
Shredding a trackway like a mile of snow.

There were still problems, of course. She suffered a nasty rolling motion. That wasn't corrected until William Denny invented a special damping stabilizer in 1957.

During WW-II she converted to a troop ship. Instead of 2000 passengers she now carried almost 16,000 soldiers.

At first men died of heat exhaustion when her non-air-conditioned hull entered the Indian Ocean. Then, in 1942, that siren Queen lured 331 men to their deaths. Officers on the English escort cruiser Curaçao wanted to take pictures as the Queen ran her zig-zag submarine evasion pattern. The Curaçao got too close. Suddenly she was in front of the great liner. Queen Mary sliced her in two like a pat of butter.

Still, despite those horrors, the Queen Mary helped shorten a terrible war. Then, refitted as an ocean liner in 1947, she served another 20 years. She sailed four million miles and carried two million passengers.

But she couldn't compete with transatlantic jets. In 1967, she and another great technological dinosaur retired to a dock in Long Beach, California. She and Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose flying boat are both on display there. But the Queen Mary still functions. Now she's a grand floating hotel.

Last night I strolled the miles of art deco elegance. For a moment I knew what it might've been to be wealthy in 1935. For a few hours I savored the last hurrah of a technology that's still not quite ready to die.

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

(Theme music)

Hutchings, D.F., RMS Queen Mary: 50 Years of Splendour. Southampton: Kingfisher Publications, 1986.

The QUEEN MARY: A Book of Comparisons. (This is a reprinting of a brochure published by the Cunard White Star Line when the Queen Mary was still young. I obtained mine in the Queen Mary bookstore.)

The "Spruce Goose" was subsequently been moved to the Evergreen Aviation museum in McMinnville, Oregon.