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.
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
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
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
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
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